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An immersive festival of ‘ecstatic’ music and performance is taking over Arts Centre Melbourne

Written by
Dee Jefferson

Supersense, the festival of ‘ecstatic’ music and performance, returns to the Arts Centre in August to give the building a three-day pre-spring clean – or “turn the place on its head”, as curator, vocalist and performer Sophia Brous puts it.

Forget formal seating and prosceniums – Supersense wants to take the audience into places within the Arts Centre that they’ve never been before; and places they have been in – but give them a totally different experience.

The goal? An “ecstatic” state. Brous, who masterminded the inaugural event in 2015, describes the festival as a “confluence of ritual and communion” designed to take audiences to “spaces of heightened perspective.”

“Where in the past people sought out spaces of revelation in the presence of divinity, increasingly we are seeking these things out in spaces of collective artistic expression. I wanted to create a festival that explores these interrelated states of ecstatic perspective – within a contained environment.”

Anyone who missed the first festival is likely to be enticed by this year’s big names – Russian revolutionaries Pussy Riot; UK space-rockers Spiritualized; New York art-rockers Blonde Redhead – but ‘headliners’ are not really the point of the festival. Rather, it’s designed as a three-day immersive “journey”, from Friday night to Sunday night. The whole should be more than the sum of its parts.

“The seed was a conversation, back in 2011 or 2012, with David Anderson [then head of music programming at the Arts Centre, now program manager for performing arts],” says Brous. “I realised that the common through-line of the things that I and many of the musicians and artists I know are passionate about is ‘the ecstatic’; things like situational heightening and extremity; spaces of transformation and revelation – whether it be through devotional music, Indian raga, free improvisation, or stroboscopic expanded cinema.”

The Master Musicians of Jajouka
Photograph: Cherie Nutting

The line-up for Supersense 2017 brings together artists from across Australia and the world in a program of music that ranges from Norwegian pastoral folk music (Ánde Somby, a master ‘yoiker’) to Sufi trance (the Master Musicians of Jajouka, from Morocco) to free improvised jazz (The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda), psychedelic rock (Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.) and doom metal (supergroup Nazoranai, featuring Japanese performer Keiji Haino, Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi). Contemporary classical also gets a look in, with a performance by London-based cellist, composer and producer Oliver Coates (a collaborator with Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood).

Performance works include Pussy Riot Theatre, performing their new work Riot Days (which Brous describes as “an industrial punk opera”), and a specially commissioned work by Laurence Pike (PVT) and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco (titled Memory Field). 

Brous splits her time between New York and Melbourne, and the line-up unabashedly draws on her New York connections: harpist Zeena Parkins (best known outside downtown New York for her collaborations with Björk); Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington (half of electronic duo DARKSIDE with Nicolas Jaar); and eclectic composer JG Thirlwell (Foetus).

Rather than pulling from the list of artists and works that were in Australia at the time as part of other events, festivals or tours, Brous sought out artists who were simpatico with the idea and environment, and invited them to propose contributions for Supersense. Consequently, the festival has 14 Australian exclusives, 13 Australian premieres, and 4 world premieres.

Five works in the festival are entirely new, commissioned by Brous and Arts Centre Melbourne.

And what about Brous herself? She’ll present the world premiere of her theatrical song cycle Lullaby Movement (featuring lullabies from around the world, and sung in 20 different languages) with Leo Abrahams and David Coulter; and her ensemble project EXO-TECH, featuring Kimbra.

EXO-TECH at National Sawdust (Brooklyn) March 2, 2016
Photograph: Nathan West

“We started EXO-TECH year ago in New York – it’s like a large multi-headed ensemble, and we create these large improvised shows in the round, where the audience surround us. It’s essentially musician friends coming together to improvise song jams.” Past shows have featured members of Cibo Matto, Chairlift, TV On The Radio and DARKSIDE. 

Talking about the journey of the festival, Brous breaks it down into three stages:

Friday night: “This is all about dizzying percussion, rhythm, and a confluence of ritual.”

Saturday: “This middle day is all about extremity and amplification and heightening, as a means of transformation and [reaching] the ecstatic. This day contains more of the loud, rock’n’roll, raucous, extreme, Shamanic performance spaces.” 

Sunday: “The festival closes with a day about community and communion, centring around a mini festival called Overground, that I created back when I was director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. It features performers from all around Australia, and is sort of like a survey of underground contemporary music practice in Australia. They’ll be collaborating and interacting – with the international artists – all around the Arts Centre.” 

Supersense runs from August 18-20 at Arts Centre Melbourne. Single day tickets start at $90.

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