Heart, Mind and Neptune’s Basket

Outwitted by moths. Attracted to an idea. A bug-catcher. A single note. I don’t read music. An insect flies upwards in the church air. 1996.  Music for the Heart and Mind.

They wrote and performed original music on classical instruments. I’m not sure what genre to call it. At times experimental, at others lyrical and melodious, they were a loose group of composer/performers who arranged their own compilation nights at various venues, including the South Brisbane Sailing Club and St Mary’s Church West End, a church built in the late 1800’s on Brisbane’s south side, later the site of a bit of minor Catholic controversy

Photo ChurchBut these nights were secular. Artistic. These guys, including Robert Davidson and others performed sets of their own compositions along side Nyman, Glass, Adams and Sculthorpe. They charged at the door and got a lot of people there, me included.  They put out their own cassettes. I bought one and loved it.

I got to know a couple of them, Tom Adeney and Lynette Pratten (now Lancini). They were good people. Quirky. Absorbed by music.

I was asked to perform ‘something’ at one of the nights. Listening to a rehearsal recording of the pieces they were going to perform (and I had to listen, because I can’t read music) I came up with an idea of what to do.

It was one of Lynette’s pieces (“Prelude/Lude/Postlude”: a title that tickled me). One of them sounded ‘fluttery’ at the end. So the concept was this: I would sit alongside the musicians, with a music stand and score, but no instrument. At a given moment, I would produce a bug-catcher, open it, and moths would fly out into the cathedral. Then I would resume my seat and the piece would play to its conclusion.


a moth, yesterday

I liked Gilbert and George,  but this was more fluxus I guess. I just thought it would be a nice gesture. Serious. Silly. Sublime.

Lynette thought that the moth business would be fine. So I had to buy a bug-catcher and catch me some moths. Easier said than done. I left the light on and stood by quietly, heart a-flutter. Moth-herding. If I was a contemporary video artist I’d have filmed this activity and I’d have my own room at a gallery of Modern Art. But I’m not. Rather than audition, I took all comers. These moths were talented. Standing on a chair in my flat beneath a bare bulb I was outwitted by many moths, but ended up capturing a few and gently tended to them until the night of the concert.

I took my seat, lost in the music as it swam in its sea of attention around the church.

The music begins. It’s gorgeous to sit beside. Within.

And I’m thinking.

After coming up with the moth performance concept, I’d been distracted and hadn’t really thought about anything other than advanced moth capture techniques, so I hadn’t considered the attitude I would take as a (non-playing) ‘member of the musical ensemble’. I had the ‘music’ to look at, but it was a score I’d written myself,  consisting of a single note,  with nothing before it,  or after it. A detail so small it would have been lost on the crowd.

sheet music stand

a music stand, several months ago

To be seen to be ‘doing nothing’ onstage is harder than it might seem. ‘Acting’ is  the last thing you’d be wanting to do. The performance wasn’t about me or my performance art gesture. The music was the focus. I realized, sitting there,  that this was a deliberately visual gesture in a night of performance with audio at its heart. You have no choice but to ‘be in the moment’.

The music had been carefully composed. Laboured over. This was the first moment it would vibrate in public air. My moths and I were there to honour that moment, so my clear intention was to underplay the gesture.

But what was I underplaying?

If you’re a musician. About to play, or have just played something, you’ll have the sheet music and your instrument to be absorbed in. Practical stuff to do. You’ll look at other members of the ensemble. You might surreptitiously peek at the audience. Perhaps to make sure they’re still there. Amazingly,  this audience know not to clap between movements, even in a premiere performance. Ah. They have a hand-typed and photocopied brochure. They have a script too.

I’m sitting with people who’ve trained exclusively in music. Dots on paper. Their instruments and how their bodies interact with them to make sound.

It’s quite beautiful to be near. Fascinating to watch if you’re in the right headspace. Or perhaps heart-space.

bugcatcherAs the music played I really wished I’d thought more about my performance than those moths. Maybe as my mind wandered I’d accidentally have assumed the look of concentrated seriousness that might have done the trick. Anyway, what I thought was my cue was approaching. I took my bug-catcher out from under my chair and sat it in my lap. I loosened its green plastic lid. Of course, I hadn’t rehearsed the moment of moth-release, because then I’d have lost the little critters and had to catch them again. I only had four.

The music brightened and fluttered. I stood. I lifted the lid. They did not come out. I gave it a little shake. One, sitting near the lid, half fell, half flew to the ground near my feet. Two hunkered down in the neck of the bottle. But one flew heavenwards,  or rather,  flood-light-wards. I watched its flight until I could see him no more (…and it was a him. I called him Ian) and resumed my seat. I packed away my ‘instrument’ and just went back into the music. Sitting still. Behaving myself. Behaving as myself.

The music ends. applause reverberates in the holy space.

Lynette is flushed with the first performance of her composition,and seemed to think the moths were alright. I was happy enough at the time just to be involved. The moths were not available for comment.

I listened to the cassette of live recordings I was given, and completely fell in love with another piece of Tom Adeney’s called ‘Farewell la Clemenzia del Tito’ Soaring violin. Tom himself on guitar. Cars driving by outside.

Anthony and I had made our first short film ‘Neptune’s Basket’ on Super-8. It was about a seafood restaurant that was situated in the sea. It was silent. It needed music. I suggested Tom’s piece as we were playing with options in the editing room. Anthony launched the Hi-8 machine. I pressed play on the cassette. Hi-tech stuff.

And it was a magic moment. This piece of music could have been written for our film. There were moments where it ‘matched’ action but there were more where the music, pulsing with its own life, seemed to ‘converse’ with the onscreen action, creating something that was more than the sum of its parts.

Something beautiful. Anthony and I smiled at each other, lit by the screen-glow. But the music ended. Damn. It’s too short. But the cassette rolled on. It played through. The next movement worked as well. Amazing. A match made in heaven.

I sought Tom’s permission and we synced his gorgeous music to our strange little film. I even like how the traffic noise from the live recording sounds in a film set at the beach. It has implications for the ‘space’ of the story.

We went on to make several more films, including one that involved me trying to catch flies (as if I hadn’t had enough of that caper), and the one that went to Cannes, but Neptune’s Basket is my favourite. It’s the music. An unexpected encounter. Having a conversation with, not enslaved to the story.

Music recorded 8 Nov 1996 Music for Heart and Mind concert premiere, St Mary’s South Brisbane.  First violin Warwick Adeney.

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