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Friday, June 8, 2018

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Dark Mofo: Hobart's winter festival kicks off with performance of Messiaen's Quartet For The End of Time

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Dark Mofo: Hobart's winter festival kicks off with performance of Messiaen's Quartet For The End of Time

Dark Mofo is no slouch when it comes to controversy; it started in the first year, 2013, with the nude solstice swim, and it climaxed in 2017 with Hermann Nitsch's sacrificial slaughter of a bull. This year, Christians are concerned about the inverted crosses.


You wouldn't know it from this year's opening event: an understated, intimate performance of a canonical work of contemporary classical music — by a devout Christian, no less: Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
On Thursday night, no more than 200 people fit into the Separate Prison at Port Arthur for the two performances of the piece, having driven 90 minutes for the pleasure. Among the music-lovers were a man in an Ulver hoodie (the Norwegian prog-metal band who played Dark Mofo in 2017), and an older woman who was hard of hearing.

Inspired by birdsong and God, Quartet for the End of Time was first performed in 1941 at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp where Messiaen was interned.
Myth has accreted around that occasion, giving performances of the piece an added lustre — but the performance of it in a prison historically dedicated to both silence and spiritual reformation, in the chill of winter, proved irresistible to punters.
And to a small bird, who spent much of the evening's first performance flitting madly about the makeshift auditorium. It was a moment of money-can't-buy poetry, and also irony: Messiaen's piece conjures nightingales and blackbirds from its clarinet and violin parts, an antidote to the experience of being incarcerated.

A theme of incarceration

Not for nothing is Messiaen's Quartet the first event of this year's Dark Mofo, says creative director Leigh Carmichael. "Conceptually, it is the heart and soul of this year's theme."
"As we program the festival … it is something that we think about experiencing along a timeline, so the first gesture, or moment, is pretty important. You want to start with the right tone."
The idea of performing Messiaen's piece came from Rainer Jozeps, formerly managing director of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and behind the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra program Silence at last year's Dark Mofo. He describes Quartet as, "one of the most important, and beautiful, compositions of the 20th Century".
But it was Carmichael who chose Port Arthur as the location for the concert.
Speaking ahead of the performance, he said: "I didn't want to do it in the concert hall, in the comfort and the warm. Where we're doing it is a pretty cold spot, and the walls [of the Separate Prison] almost reek of torment, history, isolation, pain, and I think doing it there will make it a more intense experience than otherwise.
"I think I'll be spending some time thinking about what Messiaen and [those musicians] were going through during that time being incarcerated. You can never really know unless you're in those circumstances, but you can kind of imagine yearning for the beauty of freedom and being outside the cement walls."
The opening night concert "sets the scene" for a festival that has a strong sub-theme of works investigating 'incarceration', including the exhibition A Journey to Freedom, at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and Mike Parr's claustrophobic 72-hour performance piece Underneath The Bitumen The Artist, in which he will be interned in a purpose-built chamber beneath Hobart's Macquarie Street.
"That history of being a penal colony resonates very deeply with us here," says Carmichael. "It's deep within our psyche and it's part of our identity, and those themes certainly resonate with me."
He grew up in the Huon Valley. "You know, the island sometimes feels like a prison when you're young," he jokes.

Journey to Freedom looks at physical incarceration but also the everyday prisons of the mind. Another exhibition, The Pink Palace, commissioned four Tasmanian artists to make video works on the theme of "time" in collaboration with inmates of Risdon Prison, once dubbed the "Pink Palace" by local paper The Mercury because of the colour of its interior walls.
As part of the "prelude" weekend, Perth artist Tanya Lee is presenting her participatory performance work Landing, in which the distance between Manus Island and Australia will be collectively swum as a pool relay.

Sixth and largest Dark Mofo in 2018

This year's Dark Mofo is the biggest yet, with an expanded music and art program, and an additional "prelude" week centring on a new program called Dark and Dangerous Thoughts (DDT), featuring a series of panels themed around "death and f***ing".
Headliners across the 18 days include American auteur Laurie Anderson, alt-pop heroine St Vincent, Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin, British doom metal merchants Electric Wizard, and German industrial outfit Einsturzende Neubauten.

"I keep saying every year, and I really mean it, that we don't need to get any bigger and we don't intend to," says Carmichael. "But the audiences keep [coming] — we've already exceeded the box office [from last year], we've sold 60 to 70 per cent more tickets than last year I think."
Attendances last year hit 427,000 across the 10-day period.

Carmichael says the success of the festival is largely down to its programming team, and a burgeoning Tasmanian arts scene that has risen to the occasion.
"It's so exciting — the organisations that we're partnering with are really stepping up their game. The project that was run through the uni art school last year, Panopticon — the feedback that we got was that it was a highlight of the festival. It was a show that we were only loosely connected with, and we support it, but it's really their thing and they were driving it."
"There's a really well-curated art offering right through the city. The art content is really at a much higher level than it has been in the past, in my opinion."
"I also think this time of year is really beautiful and mysterious and cold and dark, and I think that's alluring in and of itself, and the festival has just brought that to life and brought people out to experience it."
Dark Mofo runs until June 24 in Hobart.
The journalist stayed in Hobart as a guest of the festival.



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