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Review: Exquisite Corpse

Adelaide Festival

It’s a rare privilege to share in the world premiere of an exciting and innovative new work.  Even more so when it is devised, produced and performed by an Adelaide company.

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Exquisite Corpse is a 60-minute work initiated by the Zephyr Quartet and composed over eight months by 12 composers.

The sequential collaboration meant each composer took the ending of the previous piece and continued the work before passing it on to the next in line.  This spanned the globe, from Australia to the United States, creating a unique musical version of the old parlour game known as “Exquisite Corpse”.

In the parlour game, each player adds a word or a line to a story or rhyme, famously resulting in the phrase “the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”.

These short musical elements are played as a continuous composition.  There are a few momentary pauses, shorter than even the usual break between movements, and it takes an accomplished ear to discern where one piece ends and the next begins.  The musical influences are clear in some sections – a little jazz, some blues, a few Asian intonations and lots of psychedelia, as well as the classical canon.

The traditional string quartet instruments – two violins, a viola and a cello – are amplified and even distorted with special effects.  And they are played in all manner of styles, from the traditional orchestral manner to being held and strummed banjo-style or used percussively.

But Exquisite Corpse isn’t just about the music.  This is a much more experiential composition, with animations by Luku Kukuku and Jo Kerlogue projected behind the players and a giant illuminated octopus spreading its tentacles across the floor.  The animations are an artwork in themselves, evoking street art, tattoos come to life, and the manic offspring of Maurice Sendak’s beautiful children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.

All of this was revealed to the capacity audience once the ethereal pall of swirling smoke had cleared.  (It’s always a nice atmospheric, but this was perhaps a little too enthusiastic.  I saw more than one person reaching for an inhaler!)

I would need to hear Exquisite Corpse a few more times to decide if I really love the music, but the performance experience was very special.  The Zephyr Quartet won a Ruby Award last year for innovation – they might just have to win it again this year!

Exquisite Corpse is being performed over two nights at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre, but tonight’s final show has sold out.

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