Sydney Festival: Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground

Sydney Festival Films Afloat saw a sizable crowd migrate to Darling Harbour to hear the haunting drumming of  Ben Walsh, a Newton icon and one of Sydney’s best, most progressive ands experimental percussionists. The live score composed by Walsh involved a plethora of instruments from accordion to Sitar to strings, cymbals, a full horn section, live Indian vocals, a Dj on decks and synthesizers complementing the dulcet tones of Bosnian gypsy opera. The floating screen housed an eclectic collection of Sydney’s best musicians giving it their all, with each instrument was perfectly synchronized to create the exact ambience needed. Imagine the Bird, Hermitude, The Crusty Suitcase Band, Ponyclub Massacre all produced an illegitimate offspring: this gig would be it. A seamless blend of composition, live music, animation, percussion and film. And free!

The 1973 Cannes French animation, La Planete Sauvage.  evoked trippy, Dali-esque landscapes, bare and yet blooming with life, strange, distorted and not as we know it, blended with a futuristic yet somehow ancient take on Where the Wild things are. At times confronting, at times uplifting; psychedelic, philosophical, nonsensical landscapes were drawn in tones of dull ochre, burnt orange and crimson.

Walsh has flawlessly distilled the essence of a sound manifested perfectly through the instrument, whether it is evocative piano melodies, the bending wail of the soprano sax, the outer worldliness of the Sitar player. Bobby Singh on Tabla, an extraordinary percussive musician in any context, is used to great effect, with the bobbing, bouncing and insistently tribal Tabla sound echoing the sound of a cascade of bouncy balls. The piano seemed an apocalyptic accompaniment to what is perhaps a study on our civilization, or the possibilities for civilization. Synthesizers used to great effect to thicken the sound of the animation (not just as objects to aid mass produced mainstream shit where songs, loops and effects are created for the producer with the minimum talent or thought required by the actual artists), but blending sound to create effect.

There is a repeating image in this film in which the symbolism is hard to penetrate, an Avant-garde psychedelic 70’s animation about aliens in a world we do not recognize, using at times a language we don ‘t speak. It is a world where aliens are suspended in floating bubbles, their eyes a glowing red except for during sleep when they blank then turn a placid blue. It is surreal, unfamiliar world where there are forces infinitely bigger than you. An eerie recurring theme that struck me was having the sense of something larger than you literally bending to examine you, to pick you up as you measure less the length of the unfamiliar thumb, and ultimately, being extinguished by this greater force should they chose to stamp on you. The bug sized characters have human form, while the aliens, although similarly shaped, are the omnipotent giant force to be reckoned with. In this distorted world, Meditation is the step towards ‘intellectual evolution’…but this gig showed that Walsh and his ilk are getting pretty close.

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