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Review + Live Photos: Portalfest 2019 – Wellington

Review + Live Photos: Portalfest 2019 – Wellington

Review by Stevie Kaye / Photography by Callum Mallett / Monday 4th February, 2019 3:27PM

With their first concert only six months or so ago, Wellington new-music initiative Portals swung for the fences with the last two weekends' Portalfest, seeking spontaneity in their choice of intimate venues far removed from concert halls to showcase local and international art music.

This focus on the experiential and site-specific was perhaps best encapsulated by Elliot Vaughan's Fish In Pink Gelatine, which used the Adam Art Gallery's dizzying architecture to firstly let the audience mill around the installation with live performances happening in nooks and crannies (a cellist in the window; a bassoonist on a balcony interpolating her material with aquatic books ranging from marine science to Dr Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; a giant gong filled with marbles and carried down the sprawling staircase). The blending and mingling of sounds from the performance and the chatter of the crowds phased between the cacophonic and the contemplative as you navigated this benthic buffet; halfway through, we were led to the lowest level for a performance of swarms of tiny pieces, with striking use of lights, silhouettes, swinging tapedecks / viola / cello, and bassoonist-as-anglerfish.

If Fish In Pink Gelatine fused contemporary classical with gallery-based practice, Zurich-based group Kolletkiv International Totem (KIT)'s KIT FIT, at Potocki Paterson, melded the former with experimental theatre. Another two-parter, we were first equipped with headphones and receivers and led in a loop down Leeds St around to Cuba, being given instructions by a seeming fitness instructor that were intercut with drones and the like (and ambush by flautists). You certainly take on a new appreciation for the environment when unexpectedly and publicly taken out of your comfort zone in this fashion, and the friction between the Dadaist European game-playing of KIT and the audience's mandatory NZ casualness added to the unreality of the affair. Once back at Potocki Paterson, the performance included John Cage's percussive Living Room Music, YouTube autocomplete messages to the audience, excerpts of composers' speeches, and, er, "Putting the 'Well' In Wellington".

The Pyramid Club hosted a solo recital from Melbourne-based cellist David Moran, a neat continuity with their hosting of STROMA's Essential Experimental last November. New works by Wellington's Reuben Jelleyman and Auckland's Louisa Nicklin (the latter's I:Re a highlight) were joined by Kaija Saariaho's Sept Papillons and, to quote Moran, "the final piece is Kottos by [Iannis] Xenakis - it's a real banger." I'm still blown away that in the past year I've gotten to hear the legendary (and legendarily difficult) Greek composer's works performed in Wellington on three different occasions, another one of which (STROMA's Iconic Sonics) also had work from Saariaho!

Pegasus Books' regular Fiction Room series hosted two tie-in events, both reflecting on their location in the fiction room of a second-hand bookstore - the first with the inimitable Gerard Crewdson, resplendent in a mustard jacket, performing Pure Fiction ("actually about 5% fact"), an instalment of his Cinema of the Poor project that combined hand-drawn illustrations, narration and musical / SFX accompaniment from Erika Grant (Orchestra of Spheres and many others). There was something Margaret Mahy-ish about the dreamlike shaggy-dog story that encompassed lighthouse keepers, trapeze artists, magicians levitating cats and a brass instrument factory in Elkhart, Indiana. The second had local composer Antonia Barnett-McIntosh (whose work I'd last seen at both Essential Experimental and Vox Fem concerts) perform a solo piece drawing on her work with instructions / chance / cut-ups, and on the deep dive into Kiwi vocal and linguistic inflections that her time in England had illuminated. Her glossolalic, logorrheic web of seemingly every single aphorism or proverbial phrase produced in this country both dredged up half-remembered from great-aunts-and-uncles in Golden Bay ("rattle your dags" / "thumb up your bum") and those I'd never heard ("sick o'lick" for six o'clock?). Plus, her readings of random books in the room included what appeared to be a guinea pig Pride & Prejudice.

My experience of Portalfest closed with escaping from a sultry Wellington day into the cool, dark embrace of the Adam Concert Room at the New Zealand School of Music, where Jack Woodbury's interactive audio installation A Tree Falls stood guard in the middle of the room. Four speakers surrounding a sensor array, the compositions - lambent, liquid ambient with what seemed to be forest/bird sounds, splitting the difference between Deep Forest and Dhomont's Forêt Profonde - were impacted by audience proximity and movements, churning up a stormy wash of static and glitch or sending the piece scudding in a different direction. I was happy enough taking refuge in the room, but would have loved to have seen and heard it at a busier time.

Martyn Pepperell, reviewing last year's similarly-spirited Aotearoa Audio Arts Festival for The Wire, spoke of "the euphoria of art that prizes the moment," and there was a crackle in the air over the two weekends – a sense of both community-building and teasing out the continuities between different art forms but also between the barriers between the new-music / classical worlds with not only the experimental / sonic art worlds but even indie / folk (I'd last seen Fish In Pink Gelatine cellist Olivia Wilding play alongside carb on carb at Upoko Alpine Resort, and composer Louisa Nicklin supporting Oscar Dowling at the Wine Cellar. Apparently Portals mastermind Reuben Jelleyman is leaving Wellington for Vienna before too long – this was a hell of a send-off.

Click on the images below by Portalfest photographer Callum Mallett to view a selection of images from the festival...

Portalfest 2019
Tree Falls – Portalfest 2019
Tree Falls – Portalfest 2019
Tree Falls – Portalfest 2019
KIT – Portalfest 2019
KIT – Portalfest 2019

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