Rhian Sheehan – Stories From Elsewhere – State Opera House 2 October 2013

Live with the Wellington Orchestra

Live with the Wellington Orchestra

The Earth is in its Menopausal state, I am reminded by Loop Records’ manager, it seems the planet is going through a midlife crisis, suffocated by air pollution, drained of it’s natural resources and over populated. This is the clear and simple message composer Rhian Sheehan wants to get across tonight. His work is lingering, contemplative and cinematic. Drawing heavily from his new album Stories from Elsewhere he begins the show with “Silo”, track one, Side one’ and follows through the album, with one or two excursions into the previous album, “Standing in Silence”. Both deal with climate change and resource depletion on a grand, universal scale. The show has the force of Sigur Ros with the sometimes delicate treatments of Philip Glass.

However, I’m getting ahead of my self. The show opens with a question from Andy Hummel, one half of warm up act Rosie Tin Tea Caddy, “Is there an obstetrician in the house?” He’s gesturing to his musical partner who stands, heavily pregnant behind an ironing board of electronic trickery. Dressed as they were “Billy Earl”, in heavy beard and settler styled waistcoat and “Betty Grey” in an enormous white maternity dress you could well imagine them turning up back stage on a donkey, turned away because all the (dressing) rooms were full. Aside from “Geography” I don’t recognise any of their materia. It’s been a while since this duo have been out and about, but it seems they have an excuse! Their stuff is folky based with guitar and voice, punctuated by absorbing atmospheric digital landscapes. My companion in the seat next to me comments that their lyrics are poignant, thoughtful, and slightly twee but also very clever. Who else, she gesticulates could so deliciously croon “You’re sickly sweet like candy floss because, my dear, beauty comes at a cost”?

After the interval Sheehan and his nine piece band take the stage. Beginning with a music box, “Silo” slowly creeps in. Sheehan’s guitar is gently strumming away but the accompaniment of long-standing key collaborator, guitarist Jeff Boyle (Jakob) and a band comprised of Steve Bremner (The Adults), Mailee Matthews (Charlie Ash) Ryan Prebble (The Nudge), Andy Hummel (The Woolshed Sessions), Ed Zuccollo (Harbour City Electric), Jane Pierard and Sheehan’s wife, Raashi Malik (Rhombus) on piano builds and swells like the rising tide. The orchestra, behind periodically provides waves of strings and tinkling xylophone keys. Meanwhile, Gareth Moon’s storm of drifting autumn leaves fills the stage. The effect of projections on the front-of-stage gauze creates an effective 3 dimensional aspect which virtually smothers the musicians in the opening tune. Progressive tracks are accompanied by stunning time-lapse photography from Aucklander Joseph Michael of landscapes, star-scapes and other scenes. One of the most impressive is the most simple – a time-lapse of moments in a railway station, presumably somewhere in India. The bright colours and tension of domestic urgency and mundane chores is so real you can taste it. Whether intentional or not the piece blends the crowd scene with the crowded stage of musicians, producing an effect of claustrophobia. Yet another is a lust approximation of a Kraftwork road movie, covering tarmac, dwellings and people with a personal intimate treatment. An ongoing scene emerges early with sinister articulated trucks speeding towards a serries of burning oil wells like the concluding scenes of an action movie, the unwritten messages about irresponsible pollution hammering home their intent to the audience.
This is Sheehan’s second Opera House outing, the last featured music from “Standing in Silence” last year. With his day job as a composed for NASA and the National Space Centre Sheehan’s productions of this scale are real, personal labours of love. The investment of time and effort certainly shows on the stage. The Dominion Post referred to his as effort as “Spine tingling… a tsunami of sound.” That’s a pretty good approximation of tonight as well. The live and animated treatment certainly lifts these pensive, often playful ambient sketches. Sheehan’s original vision of a kind of magical innocence and wonder may be reinterpreted memories of the Grimms Brothers on vinyl but on stage with their visual accompaniment they become cautionary tales as the earth feels the full weight of humanity’s dominance and destruction.

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