Fringe World Perth 2013

Classical vs Jazz

0 Comments 28 January 2013


The musician and songwriter Joanna Newsom once described her harp as an artificial limb, speaking what the rest of her found to be beyond words. Confirmed by an epilogue of quotes from Hans Christian Andersen, Claude Debussy and Primal Scream, this performance by classical harpist Catherine Ashley and jazz harpist Michelle Smith is an unconventional exploration of music as language. It would be straightforward to placate the audience’s desire to see an elegant, passive mermaid be derailed by a creature from Hades. Yet despite a name that suggests a fight and an abundance of red fairy lights, the performance does not descend into a cliché of heavenly and diabolical drama.

Ashley and Smith each perform solo pieces that comment on their personal relationships with the harp, while the pieces they perform together draw attention to their stylistic differences. They apportion the pieces asymmetrically, chasing each other like shadows but always complementing each other perfectly to the point of implied telepathy.

There is a striking visual dichotomy created between Smith’s black harp and Ashley’s ethereal presence, sometimes only visible to the audience as a pair of luminous hands through gossamer strings. As playful rivalry ensues during a rendition of the Bond theme and Ashley takes hold of the underlying chords, the visual metaphor is carefully extended by the artists to include the music.

Ashley and Smith have taken the whimsy of mythology and fairy tale that surrounds the harp and provided dark and interesting commentary on the unstable notion of how a human speaks. Not a word is spoken through lips but the artists remain far from Andersen’s voiceless little mermaid. The audience is left begging for the story to be told for even longer, and one should hope this piece returns in an elaborated form.

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