Synergy Percussion and Noreum Machi: Earth Cry 15/8/2015


Last Saturday evening I spent a little over an hour watching two percussion ensembles perform at Sydney’s City Recital Hall. It was the culmination of a couple of years of joint study and development between Sydney’s Synergy Percussion and Korea’s Noreum Machi. This show was the last of the tour, with the Korean trio set to fly out the next morning, so I was interested to see how the two would come together.

The show was largely a collaborative effort, and struck me as more of an illustration of where the groups were in their interaction than a fully-fledged ‘show’. The pieces were largely inspired by other works, born out of jam sessions, or else were traditional shamanic pieces (or arrangements of same). The playing was tight, as expected, and there was an air of relaxation about the show. I did notice members of Noreum Machi looking for cues pretty regularly though, more than once with a very quizzical expression, so it’d be interesting to know how much of it was by-the-seat-of-the-pants playing. (Though the onstage foley work accompanying a song was great, and provided plenty of room for chance.)

The show’s title, Earth Cry, had probably set me up for something I didn’t feel was conveyed particularly well. Sculthorpe was mentioned as an influence, an inspiration, yet aside from the totemic country present in Samuel James‘s video accompaniment, I couldn’t feel it. I had thought there might be something by the composer on the program – I suppose that’s the risk of naming the project after one of his most well-known works, and I do admit this is more down to my interpretation of pre-show material than anything else. The first piece spoke a similar language, however, and when it mined this area I felt it more successful than elsewhere. Certainly, when muted gongs provided the underbelly to pieces, the effectiveness was deepened.

There was a clever shout-out to Sculthorpe, though, in the inclusion of some Bach. In Sanjo Marimba, part of JS Bach’s Partita 2 for Violin (BWV 1004) was transcribed for marimba, with drum accompaniment. It brought to mind the way Sculthorpe’s Port Essington goes from wildness to mannered, little-piece-of-Europe-in-the-settlement restraint. I don’t know if recalling this piece was the intent, or whether it just seemed to be a cool thing the performers wanted to do, but amid the obviously shamanic music of the evening, it was a great counterpoint. I wonder how many of the audience were aware of the reference, though, assuming that’s what it was.

This was an undersold performance. The upper level of the Recital Hall was mostly empty, and there were many guests’ tickets unclaimed at the hospitality table. The main floor wasn’t full, and while there was no doubt to the dedication of the performers, there didn’t seem to be much snap to the audience response. Sure, there’s the standard response Synergy engenders – they’ve been around for forty years and no doubt some of the applause is what results when you see a long-standing ensemble perform when the audience has a percentage of people who’d go see them regardless. But it seemed to me there were places in the show where Noreum Machi, at least, expected a bit more audience interaction.

I felt people were confused by what the show offered. It was great to see both ensembles perform, but it felt that by joining together at every opportunity – rather than trading blows in their respective genres – something was muddied rather than made clear. Perhaps the performance would have benefited by having more moments of single-group performance? Certainly, the overhand-drummed gig-standard Noreum Machi performed alone was received especially well, but it was an odd fit; when everything else in a show is performed jointly, one or two solo pieces feel fitted in – with this, as with a pretty excellent whirling-hat dance, I felt it was a standard show-stopper for the Korean ensemble, and so was pushed into the show even though the rest of the gig was about communal playing.

(I wasn’t able to find a program until after the show had finished. It illuminated some of the structure of pieces – there was some clever structural stuff going on with one of the pieces which didn’t come across without this knowledge. I wonder how different my interpretation would’ve been with this in hand before the gig. I also wonder how different this joint show is from earlier performances which appeared to be more about trading pieces than about performing together.)

I don’t know what the future holds for Synergy. But I’ve seen fewer people at recent shows than at some points of the past. I wonder how much of this is the reality of arts culture now – money’s tight, the internet is plentiful and so there’s a temptation for companies to be all things to all people rather than to pursue a strict goal. Growth is important, and the group’s discourse with other percussive practitioners is crucial, but it feels a little as if the show were built around the availability of organisation funds to further this education whereas previously, maybe, the exchange would have been private and eventually manifested itself in new, longer, unified work.

I guess the problem I had with this evening’s work is that it didn’t have a feeling of danger, of risk which is something I’ve come to associate with Synergy. It was honest, but it seemed thrown-together, which is odd given the background of exchange. It’s a work in progress that could use some more progression, as at the moment I there’s not a solid message or arc. I wanted to enjoy it much more than I did, and part of me felt this was my fault. The performers were dedicated, and their enjoyment genuine – but it just didn’t resonate with me. (Other than as a deep gong.)

Some of Synergy’s best work has been with spiky, truculent pieces. I hope that’s where their focus remains, at least in the main. I like that they push the envelope, it just seemed to me that this evening’s fusion wasn’t their best work.

(This piece arose from my 750words practice. It’s probably sloppier than a review review.)

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