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March 05, 2020

Adelaide Festival – Eight

Eight
by Michael van der Aa.
Featuring Kate Miller-Heidke, Livia van den Bercken,
Vakil Eelman
Hetzel Lecture Theatre, Institute Building
State Library of South Australia.
February 27. Until March 15.

When we talk about immersive experience increasingly we mean Virtual Reality. VR is not only the newest frontier, it the most mind-bending kingdom of them all. Netherlands composer and director, Michael van der Aa has gained prominence for his progress in merging music and visual experience to create art works that go beyond tentative gimmickry.

Eight, his fifteen minute VR composition, featuring Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke, premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July last year. Van der Aa describes the work as “An audiovisual poem- The life of a woman, a stream of memories, a journey through time.” It has music specifically composed for the VR format and is a collaboration with VR set designer Theun Mosk and, pioneers of the format, The Virtual Dutch Men.

The Hetzel Lecture Theatre, in the heritage Institute Building of the State Library, is an unlikely place to find futuristic music technology. But at the desk a person is waiting to usher me into the mysteries of VR. The starting times are staggered so we enter the event one person at a time.

There are safety questions about health conditions – cardiac, hearing issues, epilepsy, for instance. And phobias. Claustrophobia and vertigo. I nod and try to look sanguine, then sit and wait a while.

The next stage is through the dark curtain to the waiting room. It is quiet and dimly lit. Another person is standing in front of a console. I am given a laminated sheet with song lyrics on it. I read it several times but not much of it sinks in. Maybe I am still wondering about the safety questions. The words – “I sigh/ I hear time falling/ my breathing happens/- it’s not mine” – linger. As does – “the silence of the house touches infinity.”

After what seems quite a long de-compression time. I am called to be fitted with stereo headphones and VR headset. I move the set so the vision is clear – the word Eight, like a dagger, appears before my eyes.

My instructions are to follow instructions. Do as the woman guiding me indicates. And, if I have any problems or concerns, raise both hands above my head and someone will come and attend to me.

As I step to the edge of the white path, it is all go. On each side of me is white elasticised curtaining but already my whole vision is taken over with an image, a hologram of Kate Miller-Heidke who is beckoning me to follow. Already my headphones are filled with sepulchral music. It is Kate’s bell-like mezzo-soprano voice.

The song is Mirrors at Night with choral harmonies from The Netherlands Chamber Choir and minimal instrumentation – so appealing that I later went straight to iTunes to buy the album, Time Falling, which has only just been released.

But at the time I am too busy concentrating on staying in spatial relation with my guide. Several times I turn and seem to move straight through her arm. I don’t feel entirely steady and I know I can’t lean against the soft walls of this cocoon I’m in.

The corridor we are moving along seems all fine and the music is starting to register. “There’s something flowing/ that I can’t grasp/ A man on a terrace/ accidentally falls.” I have no idea what the relation between these words and the sudden changing of the VR landscape is, but it is definitely a portent .

Then I step out into a vast open space. It is like stepping into all of Finland. Or a trippy version of Yellowstone National Park. There are huge dark trees, rocky outcrops, and, as I look out, I realise that I am looking into a canyon. I’ve lost track of my guide. There is a safety rail ahead of me but it melts in my hand. The path I’m on looks like the size of a bath mat. I am standing with my arms wrapped around myself trying not to topple. It is an amazing vista and impressively real, but all I can think about is not being that man on the terrace – accidentally falling.

I feel like Wile E Coyote on a mesa, a thousand metres above the ground, with a rope and an Acme anvil under my arm and any minute the Road Runner is going to honk me and gravity will take me down to that inevitable puff of dust and disintegration.

As I recall (no reviewer’s notes are possible in VR) the images then change to huge rolling asteroids and a yawning chasm of even more intergalactic proportions. That too fades and I am being beckoned by Kate again – and moved into an area which, at least, seems like it has a sensible-sized floor.

There is a table with a cloth over it like a curtain. Under the table is a young girl signalling me to sit with her while she sings another Time Falling song – Identical Hands. It’s good to lower my centre of gravity but my level of apprehension is too high to stay in the moment.

The next audiovisual torment is a blizzard of red stars which expands into another vertiginous revelation. There is another sheer drop and the swirling red particles seem to be inviting me straight over the edge. I think about raising my arms in the air and then decide not to. I probably stood stock still for less than a minute but it seems like infinity. Frozen to the spot, not moving a muscle, not even a chromosone. So I don’t fall a thousand metres into the Earth’s core in the Hetzel Lecture Theatre.

From there, Kate returns one last time – and then an actual human tells me to come to the end of the lit path and my apparatus will be removed. I hand back my headphones and VR set and try very hard not to kiss the ground.

The final lines of the song I have just heard are loaded with irony when I read them again days later. “Turn backward/ turn backward/ From the silence, the hollow, the untrue/ once again/ We are in no particular point in time.”

Eight is an extraordinary experience, visually and musically, but for me an unnerving one. The components of the narrative – the woman moving back from age to childhood – are lost in sheer alarm at falling into the VR abyss. I should have paid closer attention to the fine print. Extreme vertigo. I think that’s me.

Eight – FOUR stars

Your Correspondent- No Stars whatsoever.

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