Once Was Dust

A scene from ‘In Clouds’ (Photo: Laura Sheeran)

Once Was Dust

Exploring scientific theory, natural phenomena and human behaviour, 'In Clouds' is a new collaborative performance directed by composer Peter Power. Commissioned by Cork Midsummer Festival and Triskel Arts Centre to mark 40 years of the venue, the work was performed on 15 June. Don O'Mahony reviews.

Conceived and directed by Cork-based composer Peter Power and co-composed by Michael Gallen, In Clouds is a collaborative and cross-disciplinary production that features Dublin choir Tonnta directed by Robbie Blake, dancer and choreographer Stephanie Dufresne, a text by novelist Sara Baume, and the audio-visual work of David Mathúna.

It’s an adventurous mix of disparate talent. Power and Gallen have their own voices as composers and together they achieve a comfortable accommodation. Here, both play a variety of analogue synths and keyboards but Gallen spends most of the performance seated at a piano. Upon entering the historic Triskel ChristChurch space, we are greeted by the sight of the Dublin composer hunched over the keys, repeating a simple motif as we observe proceedings from the balcony. At that point Power joins in, creating some atmospherics, but the first of the evening’s surprising moments comes in the disembodied sound of Tonnta singing a sad refrain, unseen from their position beneath the balcony.

With In Clouds, Power proposed to deal with lofty ideas such as scientific theory, natural phenomena and human behaviour, but he has also spoken of the value of an event not being fully understood and yet felt. Tonnta was the prime vessel for Baume’s words, yet the matter of her text remained elusive. Nowhere approaching a libretto, the text, said to be over 5,000 words long and concerned with notions of perception, was hacked down and rendered abstract. If there was meaning it was up to the viewer and listener to find it.

Distressed piano
One moment of pure theatre delivered the space to intuit understanding. Led downstairs by Dufresne, holding a glowing stone to light the way, the audience found themselves in a pen-like side channel of the church. As the ominous clanging beats conjured by Power segued into the sampled sound of the choir looping off into the infinite distance we found ourselves met by the six-strong vocal ensemble standing amid scraps of wood and beams. Behind them stood a thoroughly distressed upright piano.

Gradually, they proceeded to emit vocal sounds, beginning with sibilance and stuttering and evolving to gibbering. One of them plucked at the exposed strings of the instrument before they moved slowly amongst the crowd. Each, in their own time, began to form extended but fragmentary phrases, which they repeated, and acted out individual gestures. It was a powerfully intimate moment of connection. Returning to the piano they brandished the wooden clubs and beat it, evoking an image of brutishness, raw beauty and evolution.

Once was dust
The music created its own sense of odyssey as it ebbed and flowed like a tide between quiet contemplative moments and harsh reverberating electronic ones. At one point Gallen, lit by a suspended miniature red lampshade, delivered a melancholy song, where he ruminated: ‘Everything that now glimmers once was dust.’   

This evolved into a passage of rhythmic electronic beats and bleeps, its rave-like ambience emphasised by the frantic, locked repetition of Dufresne’s choreography. 

Power has been an enthusiastic advocate of music theatre, as opposed to musical theatre. Where scientific theory was evident in In Clouds it is hard to guess, and Power’s suggestion that it’s okay not to understand, although comforting, could also be regarded as something of a get-out clause. While In Clouds made for a dynamic musical experience, the theatrical and conceptual framework – such as the visuals and the choreography – felt merely decorative, if not nebulous.

The Cork Midsummer Festival runs until 24 June. See more on the music highlights here, or visit www.corkmidsummer.com.

Published on 21 June 2018

Don O'Mahony is a freelance arts journalist based in Cork.

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