- "There seemed to be a lot of ecstasy in the building, but not in the chemical sense," said Claire Spencer, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne, regarding the inaugural Supersense Festival. Dubbed the "Festival Of The Ecstatic," the weekend-long event called on a wide range of musics to explore this theme, eschewing the obvious thrills of club-centric electronic music. There was ritual trance from Indonesia and experimental dance from China, along with Lydia Lunch, Oren Ambarchi, indigenous Australian gospel from Gurrumul and The Jon Spencer Explosion's lumpen rock.
When you consider this diversity, the "ecstatic" thread starts to look pretty flimsy. But Supersense's success had less to do with the pleasures of individual performance than the festival's overall curation and concept. Developed by Sophia Brous in collaboration with the Asian Performing Arts Program, the centrality of non-western music was particularly welcome (even if it was US rock that pulled the big crowds). Also, many of the events were staged in the hitherto off-limits bowels of the building, a labyrinth of corridors and rehearsal studios.
Friday evening began with Indonesian artist Kuda Lumping's hypnotic trance. A number of male and female performers twirled on a large, white square of floor, leaping and somersaulting in graceful yet enigmatic sequences. Great sheets were suspended above them, alternating between shades of pink, blue, green and red. At one end, a small group of gamelan musicians performed on tuned gongs, drums and flutes, their tones rising and falling in time with the dancers. Figures collapsed and writhed on the ground, while others cracked whips and munched on fluorescent light tubes. Directed by Gideon Obarzanek, it felt like an ancient performance brought boldly into the present.
In the Theatre Rehearsal Room, Makino Takashi's Phantom Nebula had the whole audience awestruck by his abstract cinema. Introducing the work with typical Japanese humility, no one was prepared for what was to follow. The hour-long film lived up to its cosmic title, pairing cinematic footage distorted to indistinct washes of mono-coloured haze with a soundtrack of thick, low-end drone and flickering high pitched streams. The elusive beauty of the sound and visuals evoked Wolfgang Voigt's work as GAS, Takashi bringing Voigt's cover art to life via images of dappled light glimpsed through a forest.
After all that, Manuel Göttsching's standard stage setting seemed humdrum. He took no time in captivating the sizeable crowd, though, setting up sharp percussion loops with his laptop and ambling away with pithy, charming melodies. Each song offered a different take on his motoric groove, so that by the time his seminal "E2-E4" finally burst through it felt slightly anticlimactic, but not in a bad way.
Göttsching returned on Saturday afternoon under the Ash Ra Tempel banner, joined by Ariel Pink, who apparently had been severely heckled the night before. Instead, I opted for the solo guitar of Marc Ribot. The American was celebrating the work of Haitian composer (and his former guitar teacher) Franz Casseus. Ribot had previously recorded Casseus's work in 1993, so he's uniquely placed to provide a glimpse into his world. The Haitian's limber Latin shimmies and frequent angular detours were rendered severe and modern by Ribot's sensitive yet unromantic reading.
After a convincing piano warm-up by The Necks' Chris Abrahams in the Rehearsal Room, it was time for the Sydney jazz trio to tackle Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. Subtitled "Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas," the Strategies are a set of cards developed by Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975, containing aphorisms designed to inspire artists and performers. The piece was centered around Eno's seminal album Discreet Music, and The Necks were joined onstage by Leo Abrahams, David Coulter, Matthew Brown and chamber group Golden Fur. Messages from the cards were projected onto a screen, causing changes in the music. Lines like "Breathe more deeply" felt aimed at the crowd as much as the performers. As the dying notes trickled out, a final card appeared: "How would you have done it?" With regards to Supersense, I wouldn't have changed a thing.