Song, from Australian company Ranters Theatre, is more of an environmental sound meditation than narrative. Conceived by artists Adriano Cortese, Laura Lima, and James Tyson, dynamic sound design creates a 360-degree experience of the natural world inside a theater. As you gaze at a setting sun and a rising moon, you hear lapping water, barking dogs, birdsong, and insects buzzing. But interspersed between these moments from nature are episodes of live folk music which make the overall experience decidedly more earthbound than ethereal.
Kicking off PS122’s 2016 COIL festival, Song offers a cuddlier space than your usual festival show. Giving pillows and blankets to audience members, they can lie on the floor in quiet reflection as the sounds of nature burst forth from all corners of the room. Song is best experienced with eyes closed and bladder emptied (plinking water drops and rain abound) and treated like a relaxed installation to just chill out in. The ebb and flow of the natural environment changes over time so there is a modicum of momentum but not a specific journey. The room darkens and allows for personal contemplation. The show has already begun when you walk in.
The soundscape (designed by David Franzke) is highly directional. Insects zoom past you. A boat engine approaches and retreats. A bird flaps its wings and launches itself across the room. Footsteps can be traced around the perimeter of the space as they walk on gravel. Echo-y drips of water plummet in a cave. Whether it is beach or bayou, creaky porch or isolated glade, each place and moment is distinct. Sometimes it is nature alone and sometimes humanity creeps into the outdoors with cars on pavement, mopeds, and a clicking bicycle gear. Sounds you think you can distinguish start to morph over time with repetition and become remarkably unrecognizable.
However, at an hour long it can try your patience a bit and the aggregation of the experience does not necessarily provide emotional or experiential depth, just more sound.
There is also perfume design (by George Kara) to go along with the sound, but as someone with the most sensitive nose on the planet™ I did not smell anything but the soy sauce the woman next to me must have eaten or bathed in. Or was this salty umami bayou provided by the production? One friend in my group of four said she smelled something floral, but as TMSNOTP I refuse to believe her nose is better than mine.
Olfactory missteps aside, the overall design approach of this piece seems delicately structured which is why the sudden addition of a folk song plunked down in the middle of this carefully delineated space, seemingly without attention to placement, is disappointing. The songs (performed “offstage” by Patrick Moffatt and Tyson) emerge from an amorphous location in the middle of the room. The guitar and piano driven tunes by composer Tyson get woven in unevenly to the natural soundtrack. The lyrics are concrete and observational rather than evocative which tends to throw you out of the dream-like world you were nestled in. The tunes are simple and unassuming but they pale next to the rich, varied cacophony of nature. I longed for something less specific with the music and more environmental—aiding the sense of meditation and keeping things more abstract. Rather than add an additional layer to the show or work in dialogue with the aural cocoon created, the songs seemed to pull attention. I was quite enjoying that cleansing rainstorm without all that singing in the middle of it.