REVIEW: Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea (WASO) by Sam Gillies

Reviewed by Sam Gillies
on the 21st March (concert on the 1st March)
for Limelight Magazine
Finale of Perth International Arts Festival saw WASO in fine form in video game soundtracks and Machover’s A Symphony for Perth

The Perth International Arts Festival came to a close on Saturday night with the premiere of new work A Symphony for Perth composed by ‘America’s most wired composer’, Tod Machover. Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea sought to create a sonic portrait of Perth, but offered us more than a mere reflection of our city. Machover, a Pulitzer Prize nominated composer, acts as a conduit to harness the notable sonic aspects of Perth and presents us with a work that is not only shaped by the composer but by his interactions with the people of the city.

The premiere was preceded by the performance of the soundtracks from several video games, examples of a composition for digital, fictionalised spaces. These works for digital environments ranged from the one-dimensional adventure soundtrack of Uncharted (2 & 3), to the cheeky noir of Lucasarts’s Grim Fandango. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra were in fine form, energetically conducted by Carolyn Kuan, but were ultimately limited by the works themselves, most of which were comprised of derivative and banal faux-orchestra motives and ideas. Their collective talents were rewarded, however, as they knowingly coaxed out the crafted subtlety and musical nuance from the soundtrack excerpts of the Bioshock series, realising the haunting soundscapes to the Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian settings.

After hearing works for fictional spaces, it was time for Machover’s A Symphony for Perth. Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea utilised a refined version of the same creative model, originally conceived of for 2013’s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. This model allowed Machover a framework with which to engage with a city through its people, uniting sound samples submitted by residents with the composer’s original orchestra composition. Machover bring an outsider’s perspective to Perth, and as such is able to highlight the elements of our soundscape that excite him as a visitor. Machover’s vision is crafted with enough care and consideration that it rises above the superficial. Sounds are chosen not just for their meaning but also for their sonic and musical properties. In one glorious section of the first movement, a recording of speech delivered in the distinctive ‘softened ocker’ accent of West Australia blends beautifully with Machover’s orchestral composition, so that only the sharper, ‘bluer’ words gravitate to the audience’s attention. It is this wonderful division of sonic importance that defines the symphony.

The second movement highlights this community engagement more directly, wherein Machover has organised and layered numerous scores contributed by various primary and high school students. These scores are composed with the aid of the MIT Hyperscore program, a program designed to allow anyone to compose music, even those without musical training. It is in this second movement that

Machover moves from being merely a curator and interpreter, and shifts to being an enabler of communication. The youth of Perth are given a forum with which to realise their own musical voices, and interpret their city thusly. With individual sections given charmingly esoteric (to the outsider) names such as ‘Mitchell Freeway at 4pm’ and ‘Hyde Park’, the movement remains modern in its sound, detached from conventional harmonies but retaining the beautiful consonance of Perth’s uncluttered public space throughout.

The symphony retains this character – it is at once modern and yet dispenses of any angular dissonance that one might expect from an American professor. This interaction between orchestra and environmental samples is reprised in the slower, meditative third movement, which introduces sound samples of the city to the work, resulting in a distinctive change to the sonic palette. The final movement (and brief coda) do away with the electronics, leaving Machover’s music interpretation of Perth stark and exposed, his vision of what a Perth symphony entails open for the audience to appreciate, vocalised by the state’s Symphony Orchestra.

Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea doesn’t really pose any questions to the audience; it is not a work of provocation, rather it invites us to reflect on Perth through the kaleidoscope of sonic elements that shape our collective consciousness. The result is a work that fuses an outsider’s interpretation of our city with an open engagement with what we as its citizens associate our city with. This ultimately allows the work to resonate on a deep level of significance. It does not claim to speak for all West Australians, but it does speak for some, and this must surely be of value to us.