Between 8 and 9 (Chengdu Teahouse Project)

My mind is readily animated by both geometric composition and experimental assemblage. I delight in work that leaps in unexpected directions, that reinterprets instruments, that performs with disciplined passion. The work of Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey, and of Chamber Made Opera, consistently astounds me to my core. Its rigour, its generosity and its deep commitment to an honest, collaborative development of practice is vital to the Australian arts.

Between 8 and 9 (Chengdu Teahouse Project) has pushed these commitments to their furthest ever point, introducing the complexity of a group of Chinese opera singers and musicians reinterpreting traditional instruments, voice and hospitality. Evocative cards in striking colours bearing suggestive epigrams guided us to our seats, eight to a table, a perfectly round setting dominated by a rectangular form in Golden Section, curiously marked with unexplained geometries. A series of objects would be set and reset on this rotating stage: Fibonacci sticks floating inert on hidden magnetic ballasts; circular metal plates, one with a small section fold, now a moon, now a landscape; heavy wooden blocks, pyramid and cube, now a house, now a landscape; tiny leaf-trees swaying as the Golden Section stage rotates, a small landscape on a circular plane.

One by one, performers seated at our tables with us took up their instrument, or raised their voice, at first alone, but soon in harmony, in dissonance, in call and in response. At times, the source of the sound was clear. At times, a sound seemed to travel across the space, or an echo emerged as if from nowhere. There were moments where the playing of the sheng by Wang Zheng-Ting, or the voice of Kang Yang-Long or Zhu Hui-Qian, carried the entirety of the performance as though holding each of us on a kite-string, pulling us aloft, focusing our bodies at the core on this uplifting sensation.

With each movement, the objects were reset. Night fell. A mosquito buzzed. Narrative collapsed, geometries emerged.

At the operatic culmination, and with another act to follow, tea was served with humble hospitality: a hot buckwheat brew in white china, served from a plastic jug on a welcoming tray. The plastic seats we sat on evoked a suburban vernacular of affordable comforts, like drinking tea with your Chinese grandparents. Against the formality of the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon and its perfect acoustic, these were cosy touches, a hospitality presenting itself to us as anything but abstract.

The Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Section are related, best illustrated in the Fibonacci spiral that loops successive quarter-circles of radius diminishing by half, to be contained ultimately within the rectangle whose proportions have dominated architecture both classic and modern. As the geometric detail of the sequence increases, the geometric complexity of its container decreases. It forms a shape, a disciplined beauty, an instrument to reinterpret.

We find geometries less and less in nature – unless, like Euler, we know where to look – and more and more in the built environment, clamouring for our attention. We don’t expect to find evocative abstractions at teahouses, and yet in the midst of an experimental work, sitting at a table beset by angular lines apparently colour-coded, we look for meaning, for patterns, for direction. Ultimately, the colour-coding meant as little, or as much, as the suggestive cards that had led us to our place at the table: colours and lines for individual people who would be unknown to the performers, and yet whose composition around that table would form the container for the performance.

A brilliant work of experimental art creates a space that nobody wants to leave. Between 8 and 9 created a space of intense resonance disguised by crisp clarity. The intense animation of my mind has not waned, hours later, and even as I introduce words to sound and line, I set only tentative objects of interpretation onto the screen, ready to be reset when my thoughts are recast by the geometries of the coming day.

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Between 8 and 9 (Chengdu Teahouse Project)
Presented at Castlemaine State Festival and Melbourne Recital Centre as part of Asia TOPA, March/April 2017

Production credits: This work is created by all artists involved in a collaborative process led by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. Collaborating performing artists: Carolyn Connors (vocalist/accordion/winds), Madeleine Flynn (pedal organ/toy piano/vintage electronics), Guo Si-Cen (erhu), Tim Humphrey (brass/electronics), Kang Yan-Long (vocalist), Wang Shuai (percussion), Wang Zheng-Ting (sheng/winds) and Zhu Hui-Qian (vocalist). Collaborating artists: Jim Atkins (acoustic facilitation), Ching Ching Ho (dramaturgy), Ben ‘Bosco’ Shaw (lighting) and Anna Tregloan (installation and costume). Production collaborators: Kellie Jayne Chambers (production & stage management), Minglu Chen (production assistance), Emilie Collyer (text consultation), Professor Gan Shao-Cheng (Chengdu project liaison), Dr Wang Zheng-Ting (Melbourne project liaison), Tim Stitz (creative producer) and Adrian Tien (academic consultation).

All photographs by Esther Anatolitis.