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Lepidopters: one hell of a mothful or The Moths Of Invention

Lepidopters was a fantastic night of music, at its best sublime, at its worst confounding but in a fun way. The press release was daunting: a choir, an Indonesian prog-metal band, a virtuoso pianist, a gamelan machine, a narrator, a Space Opera based on a comic strip derived from a sci-fi story, influenced by another visual artist … and that’s not all of it. What were we to make of this cross-genre, cross-cultural avalanche? Music and theatre, unlike literature and the visual arts, are experienced temporally; they moves through time and wait for no one. Witnessing Lepidopters might be like a speed Lego building competition, but we are assembling meaning on the fly, from disparate elements.

The program told us the story was about moths invading Indonesia in order to cross-breed with the human race. Rendered as a comic strip, excerpts were sketchily animated, creating a visual backdrop for the music. Trying to follow the story was a distraction; at times, I felt I’d have had more fun making my own meaning from the ‘mash-up’, than attempting to map the music to the story or the story to the music.

The narrative, rendered in fragments, was in no way programmatically or operatically explicated by the music. If anything, the music bounced off the narrative. At first blush I could make no connection between Robert Schumann’s God Is The Orient, God is the Occident and the tediously pulsating animated cocoons on the screen. The Astra Choir was sublime but the dissonance between the cartoon imagery and heavenly music reminded me of what I liked about Take On Me by A-Ha; the image and music kinda went together.

In fact the best music came from the superb Astra Choir. The broad, eclectic repertoire ranged from 17th century liturgical music to contemporary compositions, including excellent work by conveners of the project, the Slave Pianos. The collaboration is clearly very fruitful. The choir struck eerie and transcendent sonorities; drones, note clusters and evocative voicings that skirted and subverted Western harmony were performed with exhilarating precision and a lightness of touch. I loved it when the choir walked around, adding a dynamic spatial dimension to the sound (but these great singers might benefit from some physical performance work).

Set up at the other end of the room were Javanese prog-metal rockers Punkasila. Their custom built just-intonated guitars not only lit up,  but one had two necks – wow! They were super entertaining, totally confounding and sadly let down by a sound system that seemed to pack it in. Their first extended piece, We Are The Lepidopters, showed their turn-on-a-rupiah expertise in the ferocious formal leaps required by prog. A later piece, Larvae of The Atom Bomb, (reminiscent of mid-70s King Crimson’s restrained pointillist improvisations), seemed to lack intent and was less successful. It didn’t work when they tried to get funky either. Overall Punkasila were skilled and great fun; I’d love to see them perform at the Hi-Fi bar.

I couldn’t make sense of Michael Kieran Harvey’s Deaths-Head Mandala within this story. Following Punksila’s prog flourishes, its floridness sounded like Keith Emerson on a sugar binge; perhaps the idea was to articulate a musical bridge between cultures and time periods. Guitarist Rudy ‘Atjeh’ Dharmawan joined Harvey at the end of this piece in an orgy of noodling. At this point the music was ‘talking’ to the music. I wondered what happened to the story.

Richard Piper’s ‘narration’, interspersed between the pieces, didn’t elucidate the narrative, but provided another fragmented element; as a musical piece subsided, he portentously erupted with statements including “A splendiferous night explosion!” and “Moths, moths, moths!” Its weighty anglophile tone reminded me of David Hemmings narrating Rick Wakeman’s ‘70s prog rock folly Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, but instead of connecting the dots, it just made more dots.  At one stage Piper interjected with “What’s next?”,  and a chunk of wood fell from the automated gamelan.

The mighty gamelan, a machine and sculpture beautifully crafted from wood and metal, dominated the middle of the room. It played pulses and ostinati over the Slave Pianos’ finely rendered electronic drones. These, combined with Astra’s choral clusters, comprised some of the most interesting and immersive textures.

It all came together in the final piece – the only true mash-up of the evening. The entire ensemble created a deftly restrained, hushed dronal sonority; the music came at us from everywhere and we were truly immersed. At this point Lepidopters was one of the most successful examples of blending live electronic, reinforced and acoustic sound I’ve heard, because it wasn’t afraid to turn the volume down and collaborate with the space.

This work was an enormous collaboration by over 40 people. It had a huge heart and – a saving grace in any opaque work of art – a great sense of humour. It was solemn and serene, explosive and wacky. In my opinion, however, the term ‘Space Opera’ was over-reaching. A fine night of music was unnecessarily overlaid with the ‘fact’ of the story. Perhaps slicing up a story works better if it’s one we already know (even a classic), so that it draws on established associations. Maybe I paid too much attention to the story. Or maybe the story drew too much attention to itself. Lepidopters’ various musical pieces spoke eloquently with each other; they didn’t need a story getting in the way. I’d have preferred less specificity of meaning. When the work is so full of skill, heart and humour, you can put the Lego blocks down and they will assemble themselves.

The Lepidopters: A Space Opera played at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall on 12 and 13 April.

Featured image by Selia Ou.

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