Review: Of Deities and Demons – Australian Art Orchestra and Baliphonics, in ecstatic trance

Of Deities and Demons

Australian Art Orchestra, featuring Sumudi Suraweera and Baliphonics

Arts Centre Melbourne, 8 December 2019

When preparing to write up my notes about Of Deities and Demons, the second concert in the Australian Art Orchestra’s series ‘Meeting Points’, I was surprised to learn, while poking about on the web, that I’d somehow missed the inaugural Meeting Points season back in 2018-19. Given its ambitiousness – the stated aim of the series is to bring together musical styles from around the globe, producing new works that emphasize cross-cultural collaboration – I was left in the dark as to why I hadn’t twigged to it earlier. Because, lets face it, these sorts of high-wire acts, in this case balancing a classical western ethos against non-European rhythmic approaches, are right up my alley. For this occasion, it meant the AAO going head to head with the percussion-fuelled Baliphonics, a trio versed in the art of Sri Lankan music, dance and song.

Of Deities and Demons grew directly out of AAO Artistic Director Peter Knight’s meeting with drummer and Baliphonics’ leader Samudi Suraweera during a visit Knight made to Sri Lanka. The conversations and the friendship that grew between these two musicians led to the idea of meshing the experimental inclinations of the AAO with the yak bera (demon drum), and other traditional instruments of Sri Lanka.

The Australian Art Orchestra and Baliphonics | Photo: Damian Vincenzi

While AAO performances have never shied away from incorporating theatrical elements – an earlier project, Water Pushes Sand,being a case in point – the focus on ritual music in Of Deities and Demons, drawing heavily on traditional song and dance, took this to a new level. From the outset, Susantha Rupathilaka’s ritualistic singing and dancing, accompanied by chimes and bells, was front and centre. After an extended prologue, he was joined by other instrumental voices: Prasanna Rupathilaka’s strident percussion, the earthy and woody tones of Ruben Derrick’s bass clarinet, and the electro-acoustic soundscapes engineered by Peter Knight and Reuben Lewis. Layered patterns emerged throughout, with Mary Rapp’s cello providing a solid bedrock, intense and electrified, and Carl Dewhurst’s guitar furnishing ambient textures.

Unlike previous large-scale projects, Of Deities and Demons saw a stripped-back AAO – comprising just five musicians – melding its sound palette with the percussive energy of the Baliphonics. While the resultant music initially came across as cacophonous, almost discordant, it wasn’t long before the two ensembles began to mesh, finding common rhythmic ground. Susantha’s traditional dancing throughout was mesmerising, his footfalls timed to each drumbeat. At one point, he was joined in dance by Prasanna, their bodies closely mirroring one another, as if engaged in physical and rhythmic dialogue.

Susantha Rupathilaka | Photo: Damian Vincenzi

As the performance progressed, the music and dancing increasingly assumed ecstatic qualities. Derrick’s clarinet whirled with Middle-Eastern tonalities; Baliphonics leader Sumudi Suraweera, playing a traditional drum kit, was unflagging in his attack; and the twin trumpets of Lewis and Knight effectively ratcheted up the intensity, all-the-while driven by electronic beats. While I couldn’t profess to fully comprehend the symbolic elements of the deities and demons being invoked and exorcised, it in no way impacted on the sheer excitement of the moment.

Building incrementally, the music literally swirled and eddied around us. As it reached a crescendo, Susantha leapt from the stage, as if possessed, and ran around the darkened auditorium, stopping at various points to ritually exorcise demons from the space.

At that moment, it was as if we, as audience, had entered into the ecstatic heart of this music. Fuelled by nature, rhythmic energy and ritual, we had journeyed through a welter of states, emerging exhausted and cleansed.

Susantha Rupathilaka and Sumudi Suraweera | Photo: Damian Vincenzi

Of Deities and Demons was composed by Baliphonics’ leader Samuda Suraweera. Over the course of its sixty-minute duration, it transitioned effortlessly from percussion and song to ethereal winds to free jazz blow-out. In its totality, it revealed itself as a single arc flow, with each constituent sound coalescing, intent on heightening the ecstatic experience. In this, Of Deities and Demons was an entirely successful venture, a performance in which difference was embraced, and the healing properties of music enacted.

The Australian Art Orchestra and Baliphonics | Photo: Damian Vincenzi

The Australian Art Orchestra’s Meeting Points series continues with Hand to Earth, featuring Sunny Kim, Daniel Wilfred, on 23 February 2020, and the AAO’s collaboration with trumpeter, santur player, vocalist and composer Emil El Saffar on 31 May 2020.