Last January I briefly exchanged the (mild) British winter for summer in Sydney. I never got round to writing about my Oz adventures, but as the European festivals are in full swing, now feels like the appropriate time to write about my time at Sydney Festival 2014. And about how I met my music hero Mike Patton… Yes, I will be dropping quite some names in this post. Please try not to hate me 😉
Sydney Festival 2014
From 9 till 26 January 2014 the 38th edition of the Sydney Festival took place, featuring 144 events in 32 different venues all around the city. I was in Sydney for a week as my husband, sonic artist and composer Scanner, was invited to perform daily for a week at the festival as the pre-show for the opera Dido & Aeneas, which was choreographed by Sasha Waltz and based on the music composition by Henry Purcell (first performed in 1688). We had the chance to go to the dress rehearsals of the opera. Some people loved it, other people hated it, my opinion is somewhere on that spectrum. The only thing I want to say about it is that I thought it was rather misleading that the piece was advertised everywhere (website, posters, papers etc) as an opera spectacularly performed under water. It was under water, yes… for the first 15-20 minutes during which the actors constantly jumped in and out of a giant fishtank and awkwardly changed outfits onstage.
For his performances, Scanner reinvented the works of classical composers adding his unique voice of contemporary electronics. The performances took place on the roof terrace of The Star hotel, overlooking Darling harbour.
A Touch of Dutch
The Sydney Festival took place in events not only in the city centre, but also in the suburbs of Sydney which was quite interesting as it took me to areas I probably wouldn’t have travelled to. One of those areas was Redfern, which to me looked like a film set for cowboy films.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Redfern train station is the impressive venue Carriageworks. This building was originally built at the end of the 19th century as a railway workshop. Since 2007 it’s in use as a contemporary multi-arts centre. I really loved the building as it’s spacious, industrial and gritty looking and made me think of the massive old warehouses I love so much back home in East London.
On arrival I saw a poster for a theatre piece I had just missed by a few days, the Dutch production La Voix Humaine featuring Dutch actress Halina Reijn. I was quite curious to have seen this show and observe the audience’s response to this one-woman monologue in Dutch (with English surtitles).
Later that week I got the chance to talk to festival director Lieven Bertels about this and I expressed my surprise of an entirely Dutch-spoken theatre piece at a festival of such scale at the other side of the world. Lieven explained to me (in Dutch as he’s originally from Belgium) that Sydney Festival and Holland Festival often collaborate and have co-commissions.
While I missed Halina’s great performance at Carriageworks I did see the free installation Chance by French artist Christian Boltanski there. In his works Boltanski explores the concepts of memory, loss, birth and death. His installation Chance displayed on a board in green the number of births taking place in real-life all over the world while a board on the other side of the hall showed in red the number of deaths taking place around the globe at that moment. Between these boards was the second element of the installation, a 40-metre scaffolding piece in which a series of photos of babies rolled through. The majestic hall of Carriageworks was the perfect location for this impressive installation, which does make you think about the temporality of life.
After this serious moment it was time for some lighter entertainment and we decided to see Bullet Catch, an engaging theatre piece by British writer, co-director and performer Rob Drummond. For 75 minutes Drummond prepares himself and, most of all, his audience for the execution of the ultimate magic stunt ‘so dangerous that even Houdini himself didn’t dare to do this’: to catch a bullet between his teeth. During his preparations Drummond takes you through the life of magician William Wonder, a famed magician who died 100 years ago undertaking that very same trick onstage. Drummond is a charismatic host and has well-deservedly won prizes for this theatre piece that combines storytelling, magic tricks, mindreading, levitation and most of all humour. If you get the chance, do go see this show!
On the set of a film noir production
Almost half of the events during the Sydney Festival were for free, including the installation by Boltanksi mentioned above. Another installation that could be visited for free was The Very Near Future by Alex Davies up in Artspace gallery. This was my favourite installation of the festival. I had seen good exhibitions in that gallery before and think it’s a great space and definitely worth going to if you’re in Sydney. It’s just a short walk from the city centre and to get there, you simply walk through the beautiful botanic gardens (and try to find the cockatoos in the trees!). Artspace is located near Cowper Wharf Roadway where you will find many nice restaurants overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay.
Davies’ clever installation leads you through the production studio of a staged film noir production. You pass along several rooms that are in fact different film sets and even get to have a look behind the scenes as you see an editing suite and even end up in the props cupboard. I thought the installation was fun, fascinating and also a bit scary as you can open many doors in the space and I kept expecting to find actors hiding away behind those doors.
Rock and roll lunch
After all that excitement, it was time to fill our tummies and we indeed choose to go to one of the restaurants by the bay on Cowper Wharf Roadway. They always say that you can’t take appetising photos of food, but I think that this photo of my black and white pasta with scampi’s came out just perfect.
We had lunch at OTTO ristorante, an Italian restaurant. Bit fancy, but fantastic food! Prices are reasonable, considering that food is shockingly expensive in Sydney anyway. (People who complain about London being expensive will get a heart attack in Sydney!) Although my pasta was exquisite, this was not the only highlight of our lunch. I had the honour to meet Lee Ranaldo, the guitarist and co-founder of the famous band Sonic Youth! Lee was performing at the Sydney Festival, more about that below. Here’s Dutch Girl in a rock and roll sandwich between Lee Ranaldo and Scanner.
After lunch we hitched back into town with Lee on a Sydney Festival car. While we walked to the car the driver pointed towards the bay and said:
A while ago I had to drop off Elvis Costello here at Russell Crowe’s house.”
Lee Ranaldo: Hurricane Transcriptions
Just a few hours after our lunch it was time for a very special music night consisting of two different pieces that were both previously performed at the Holland Festival.
The first piece of the evening was Hurricane Transcriptions (Last Night on Earth) performed by Lee Ranaldo, Ensemble Offspring XL and conducted by Roland Peelman.
As I looked around me I saw many artists who were also performing at the Sydney Festival including John Grant who was sitting just behind me and was actually performing later that night at another venue. Back to the music… The inspiration for this piece came from a catastrophic event: Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane hit New York City in the fall of 2012, Lee went out in the streets with his recorder and recorded the sounds of the ominous wind just a couple hours before the storm would be in full force. Afterwards he transcribed these recordings at home by candlelight on his acoustic guitar. As the storm, also the music piece started with a gentle breeze, after which the string players would pick the strings on their instruments as a warning for the storm to come, followed by percussions as the storm grew bigger and came closer. To me the most beautiful moment was when Lee and the ensemble played harmoniously together. At that moment the music allowed me to envision the whirling hurricane ravaging the land, or as Lee wrote in the programme notes: how ‘the city became a massive Aelian wind harp’.
Mike Patton: Laborintus II
The second piece of the night was Laborintus II. This piece was again performed by Ensemble Offspring XL and conducted by Roland Peelman. On vocals this time Mike Patton, not only my absolute music hero, but judging by the applause as he came on, the hero of everybody in the room! It was funny to see so many people in the foyer before the show wearing their Faith no More shirts as Laborintus II had absolutely nothing to do with any rock or any roll.
I remember when Laborintus II was first performed with Mike Patton in Amsterdam for the Holland Festival in 2010. I so wanted to go there (for obvious reasons), but couldn’t persuade any of my friends to come along with me, although some of them are serious hardcore Mike Patton fans! I think that my friends were better prepared than the FnM fans who attended the Sydney show though (or that annoying blonde girl who kept tapping her floor really loudly at quiet moments and kept yelling ‘That’s hot!’) as it’s an opera by Luciano Berio, written in celebration of poet Dante Alighieri that ‘incorporates avant garde jazz, eerie arrangements and chaotic noise’. The piece was entirely narrated in Italian by Mike (which sounded like perfect Italian to my ears. Mike told me later that he had lived in Italy, more about this later) and I wish I could have understood the entire story as the piece incorporated excerpts from Dante, including his Divina Commedia (my favourite piece of literature I studied at uni), T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the Bible and Dante scholar Eduardo Sanguineti and the Bible.
I’m not going to be pretentious and say that I absolutely loved this piece. The music was at times too avant-garde for my taste, but I could have known that based on the composer’s other works of course. I genuinely enjoyed many parts of the music, thought that the abstract visuals by Visual Kitchen worked really well with the music, and obviously loved Mike Patton’s appearance in it: his powerful voice speaking in Italian was just hypnotic as I didn’t understand any of it 😉 When he reached out for his handheld loudspeaker and sent his mad screams into the audience, his fans just went nuts and cheered and applauded like crazy. This probably was what I enjoyed most of all from the concert, the fact that there was audience participation in an opera. Whereas in traditional theatre and opera the audience politely waits till the very end to applaud the performers, this was not the case this evening in the Sydney City Recital Hall. Also the fact that ‘the greatest voice in rock’ (Mike Patton was recently voted as the singer with the biggest vocal range in rock) managed to get a new, young audience interested in more experimental classical music is something worth praising. Or as Mike said, for him it was a ‘Victory’.
In a private car with a Knight and a Rockstar
Before I set off to Sydney, festival director Lieven Bertels agreed to do an interview for my blog. When he invited me to drive with him in the festival car to take Mike Patton to the airport the following day so we could to do the interview on the way, I had to pinch myself and thought it was all too good to be true. I immediately started to think of intelligent and original questions for Mike Patton relating to Laborintus II and some other of his more obscure projects so I could interview him too.
Unfortunately, at that point I was clearly not ready yet to be a pop journalist and to interview my hero. Instead of confidently taking the opportunity to announce that I have a blog and wanted to ask him a few questions for a little interview, I just sat next to him in the back of the car for about 30 minutes where we had a ‘casual’ talk about his new glasses, the friends he has in common with my husband, flamenco, how painful it can get to work on filmscores and that his aim for this year was to try to settle down more and do less travelling, while all the time I was wondering if this was really happening.
We did talk about something interesting regarding to Laborintus II. I remembered that during the concert the night before I was sitting behind the technicians who had a massive manuscript in between them. Lieven and Mike explained to me that that gigantic book was actually the score for that piece. Lieven: ‘The mystery about that piece is that it looks completely wild and improvised, but in fact everything is scripted.’ However, while everything is all so scripted, the narration is completely free. Mike: ‘I just have to now when to start and when to shut up.’
When I asked Mike if it was really different to perform with an ensemble than with a band, Mike replied that it’s just a different vibe and he has to be more focussed. Because with so many people playing one piece, you have to stay focussed and keep up with where everybody is in the score at that moment, even when you’re not playing.
Obviously I also asked Mike about his trips to the Netherlands in the past and if he had had some time to explore some places before. Of course he mentioned Amsterdam and Eindhoven, but I was very surprised when he started to talk about some crazy skinhead club in Nijmegen which turned out to be the pop venue Doornroosje (Dutch for Sleeping Beauty). They had experienced some major skinhead issues there in the past which really surprised me as I had never heard about that before.
Lieven and Mike have known each other for a long time. They met in Italy through a mutual friend who runs a festival in Modena (near Bologna) in Italy when Mike lived in Bologna for a while. Also Lieven used to be the artistic director for Holland Festival where Laborintus II had been performed in 2010).
I asked Lieven how he managed to become the festival director all the way in Sydney after having been artistic director of Holland Festival in Amsterdam. He told me that one day he expressed to someone his wish to work in Melbourne some point in the future. Word must have spread, because then he got invited by Sydney Festival to apply for the job. It was a bit of a tricky situation for him he explained to me as he had a secure job at Holland Festival at that moment. The first interviews were done over Skype, but as the talks got more serious and it got to the point that he had to fly out to Sydney to meet the people on the board, he could not do that discreetly of course. In the end it all worked out well and Lieven has been appointed festival director till 2016. On top of that he has been awarded the civilian honour of Knight in the Order of the Crown to Belgian national.
So this is in a nutshell my story of my car trip with a knight and a rockstar 🙂
Dutch duck & magic
After all these rock and roll adventures, I needed some silly down-to-earth fun again. So, it was off to Parramatta to find the big yellow rubber duck that had already been swimming around the world for a long time. I had missed the duck right here in London when he was happily swimming around in the Thames during the Olympics so therefore a rendezvous with this cute duckie by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman was right at the top of my ‘Sydney wish list’.
It was easy to find this enormous mutant rubber duck as you just simply had to follow one of the many trails of its giant yellow footprints around the area. It’s a funny moment when you come nearer to the duck as all you see around are happy faces. I mean, how could you feel angry or upset when you’re near such a cutie? When we left the park where the duck was squatting the pond, a family came up to us to ask if we knew ‘where to find the big yellow duck’. This was one of my favourite moments of the week!
I was disappointed though to hear from Lieven the truth about the duck… It’s not just one duck travelling the world all by itself, facing the hardships of life on the water. No, there are many more out there! This specific one had actually been commissioned by Sydney Festival for their 2013 edition. Afterwards it was deflated and kept in storage for a year to be released in the wild again early 2014.
Lieven also spoke about the emotional meaning of the duck to some people which was really interesting. In 2013 every day a girl would pose with the duck and put the photo up on social media. On every photo she very clearly held a Starbucks cup in her hand. After a certain period of time and many photos later, the festival organisation felt they should stop this girl posting these advertising pics, but then discovered that the girl was in a wheelchair and every day went on her date to the duck with her friend after they had been to Starbucks. It’s heartwarming to realise what emotions this funny ducky actually instigates.
At a theatre near the duck was a big magic show performed by Band of Magicians. As Mr Dutch Girl is a huge Houdini fan, he was thrilled to get the chance to go see two magic shows during our Sydney trip. It was interesting to see two shows based on illusion, audience manipulation and deception in such completely different settings. While Bullet Catch was more like a theatre piece that heavily relied on narration, Band of Magicians offered a glamourous spectacle of fast-moving magic tricks and illusions performed by a band of four young all-star magicians. A very entertaining show that incorporated social media and audience participation, and again that one magic ingredient that always works for me: humour.
Hanging from a window
Another much anticipated photo opportunity for me was the free installation Merchants Store by Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich. Again, this installation had already travelled to London and I had missed it there before, so was happy to get another chance to see it. It took me a while to climb along the building, but all in the name of my blog!
Writing my name in an artwork
Another free installation I visited was Roman Ondák’s triptych of works Project 28 consisting of: Measuring the Universe, Swap and Terrace of which the first two ones were my favourite. Swap features one person sitting at a desk in an empty white room. Exchange an item for whatever this person has to offer you, the souvenir of the visitor who came through the installation before you. Engage in a conversation and find out the story of the item held in front of you. While you leave, you will hear the story of the item you left behind unfolded to the next visitor.
Remember when you were young and you would have drawn your height on the wall with the date next to it? That’s exactly what took place in the second room. Measuring the Universe was set in a big empty space with three white walls filled with people’s height measurements, dates and names. See if you can find mine here below. (Hint: my name is Zarina and I was there on 19January 2014.)
Spirituality (bouncing on Stonehenge)
After this busy week with many thrilling meetings, exciting events and jetlag for for the first days, I could use some moments of spirituality.
Jumping around on a bouncy Stonehenge helped a lot! Sacrilege was made by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. Adults laughed because it was a funny sight to see young and old people jump around on a replica of such a historical and religious site. Children laughed because it’s just great fun to jump around on a bouncy castle!
Finally, the last event we went to see was a curious combination of Indian dance and Japanese drums called Chi Udaka. I had special interest in this show as I used to watch Bollywood films with my family, but most of all because of my hobby: flamenco dancing. Learning to dance flamenco has made me familiar with curious and complicated drum rhythms. Also I recognise many elements of traditional Indian dance in flamenco. One of the theories (and most adopted one) on the roots of flamenco is that it has been brought to Europe by gypsies from India. I certainly enjoyed the show. The loud and rhythmic Japanese drums were exhilarating. All players, even the one small lady in the group, had massive muscular arms and impressive shoulders. The combination with Indian singing, music and dancing worked really well. It brought back memories from childhood for me and I couldn’t stop looking at the pretty girls dancing. I was only thinking that I wished I looked so confident and professional in my performances!
Invention of the century!
I travelled by train twice from Sydney Town Hall to suburban areas Redfern and Parramatta. It was very easy to buy tickets on the machine and the train system was very straightforward.
On both trips I saw something incredible on the train which I had never seen before in my life (and I have travelled on quite some trains in different countries): manually convertible train seats! This system allows you to change the seating arrangement in a matter of seconds with just one hand movement! While my fellow train travellers looked at me in bewilderment, I was demonstrating this system so I could share it with you here online. Here is how it works:
Regular readers of my blog know that street art is a recurring topic here. It was difficult to find some in Sydney. They are probably hidden away in areas far away from the centre. Here is a nice piece by Kaff-eine I found in Redfern. Click on the image to see the street art in Sydney set on my Flickr page.
Travelling to Sydney? Here are some of my tips!
I travelled from London Heathrow to Sydney with British Airways. The trip took a total of 23 hours, including a short stopover in Singapore. In plane terms: the trip took me three films and three meals.
Tip for Singapore airport: when you board the plane, you have to go through security right at the gate again. Empty your water bottle before you go through and take the empty bottle with you through security. Once through, you can fill up the bottle at the fresh water taps provided in the waiting area.
Also try to leg/foot massage machines in the departure hall. They are for free and within minutes your legs will feel refreshed again (and a bit sore as the massage is not gentle!).
We stayed at the luxurious hotel The Star. A bit out of the city centre, but it was right next to the theatre where Dido & Aeneas was performed every night so in that sense convenient for work. The Star hotel consists of several different parts and also offers serviced apartments.
Main attraction of the hotel is the massive casino on the first floor. Casinos seem to be quite a big thing in Sydney as I was told they are popping up all over the city.
The casino is also accessible if you’re not staying in the hotel. Just make sure to take your ID with you as I had to go through there at least once a day (to access the roof terrace for Scanner’s performances) and had to prove that I was over 18 years old. Which is flattering and funny for the first two days, but then gets annoying, especially when it’s the same grumpy security guys every time. You might want to check the upcoming events at the hotel as there are frequent concerts by famous singers and bands there! I have never been to Las Vegas, but this Sydney Hotel felt like being in a small-scale Vegas hotel.
Super yummy food here and quite cheap!
Level 1, Casino at The Star
80 Pyrmont Street
Pyrmont NSW 2009
18+! (take ID)
Other things to do
Museum of Contemporary Art
Visit the MCA collection for free. I’ve discovered a few great artists here who aren’t that well-known in Europe, for example.
Entrance fee for special exhibitions.
The museum is located right next to Sydney harbour. Visit the museum and talk a walk along Sydney’s city icon: the Sydney Opera House.
Red Eye Records
Fantastic independent record shop with a great collection of CDs, vinyl records, DVDs and more. A must-go for music lovers!
This gem is hidden away in a shopping centre. It’s a true haven for booklovers. You will also find stationery here, cute presents and materials for crafts.