Part of the AAO’s Meeting Point Series bringing together musical styles from around the world, Of Deities and Demons features composer/drummer Suraweera, two dancers – brothers Susantha and Prasanna Rupathilaka – and Reuben Derrick on bass clarinet, together with members of the orchestra. In previous incarnations of Baliphonics, the dancers’ father performed with them; he was an astrologer and was able to read the stars to determine what kind of ritual was required.
Born in Sri Lanka and raised in New Zealand, Suraweera studied the rituals for his doctorate before returning to Sri Lanka a decade ago. Dismayed at the lack of music in the Sri Lankan school curriculum, with its emphasis on exams and strict, formulaic teaching, he set up the Music Matters foundation, giving children the chance to improvise and play in an ensemble from an early age. He also stages gigs at night, showcasing jazz and other forms of improvisational music.
The term “Bali”, he explains, has nothing to do with the country. “It literally means offering … It’s an offering for the deities associated with astrology – just as there are nine planets, there are nine deities associated with them. In a practical sense, for most Sinhalese, horoscope is quite a big thing. In my generation maybe less and less so, but up to the previous generation it was big.
“It gets written when you are born and can be consulted at any point, especially at the important moments in your life. When you’re going through a rough patch, if mainstream help doesn’t work, you might consult the horoscope.”
People would consult an astrologist to see if any of the planetary deities were in a bad place; during the ritual they would invoke these deities and make an offering, he says.
Peter Knight, artistic director of the Australian Art Orchestra, met Suraweera in Sri Lanka last year when he and his son, a keen drummer, visited. The show, he says, “has moments of melodic beauty but also moments of frenetic drumming, and singing over the top, which is beautiful and strange, and the dance is amazing. Beyond that, it’s new, so Sum and his group have never worked with such a large ensemble before.”
Working separately in Sri Lanka and Australia posed no challenge; Suraweera has created a “map” of sorts for all the musicians, which details the composition. But it is not to be followed religiously.
“The nice thing about the map is that you can leave that track for a bit, and go your own way and then come back to it and there are cues,” Knight says. “So there’s this nice sense of something holding the whole thing together and a freedom for us to work our way through it.”
Along with Knight playing trumpet and electronics, the show includes fellow Art Orchestra members Reuben Lewis ( trumpet and electronics), Carl Dewhurst (guitar) and Mary Rapp (cello). Some of the orchestra worked with Suraweera when he came to their annual workshop in Tasmania in September, but the idea was not to rehearse endlessly.
“When we get a bit closer, we’ll all be listening to it and then we’ll meet in Sydney and we’ve got two days to pull it all together,” Knight says. “There is a sense of slight danger, a bit of creative risk there. I like that feeling where you haven’t dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts, there’s a bit of room.”
It’s been a busy few months for Knight and his fellow orchestra members. Ten members of AAO recently returned from Europe and China. After a week-long tour in China, they headed to the Berlin Jazz Festival, where they spent a week as ensemble in residence, playing to big crowds.
“There’s a real audience for more esoteric musical work in Europe; when I take my music there or when we go there with the Art Orchestra, people get it straight away,” Knight says.
Even so, he argues there are things we do in Australia in quite a sophisticated way; the Meeting Point Series is an example of what can be achieved through cross-cultural collaborations.
“It’s about creating meeting points between different musical ideas and particularly different cultures. We most recently did a concert with a Korean taegum [Korean flute] soloist from Seoul. All of us are improvisers. Improvisation is also a key aspect of a lot of non-Western musical traditions, and so we think of improvisation as … an inter lingua, that’s beyond language … also, in terms of hierarchy, it’s pretty equal, it’s not one person telling another what to do, [it’s] having a conversation and seeing what rises.
“I’m all about opening up conversations – get people together, get them to play, you don’t have to do much – you just have to create a space.”
Of Deities and Demons is at Annandale Creative Arts Centre, Sydney, December 7; and The Pavilion, Arts Centre Melbourne, December 8.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald