Gold alluvial HCR32

Louise Devenish and Stuart James
Alluvial Gold
Louise Devenish (percussion), Stuart James (electronics and sound design)
rec. 2021/22, Monash University, Melbourne; Institute for Contemporary Arts, Perth, Australia
Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR32 [49]

The music department at the University of Huddersfield has forged long established links with professional colleagues in Australia. For many years Liza Lim was a pioneering force in West Yorkshire; several of her cutting edge pieces have turned up on the HCR label (an imprint of NMC) and here we have an equally trailblazing, ecologically inspired collaboration between the Australian percussionist Louise Devenish and sound designer Stuart James. Alluvial Gold addresses the mostly unwanted human influences affecting the urban river ecosystem in Australian cities, in particular the Derbari Yerrigan River (its Nyungar name, it’s perhaps better known as the Swan River) which flows through Perth in Western Australia.

Given its location it is hardly surprising that Australian artists of all types have been inspired by environmental concerns at both local and global levels; back in 2021 I reviewed Medusa Dreaming, a vivid and kaleidoscopic live performance by Devenish and James’ compatriot, the sound artist Ros Bandt who blended an improbably exotic instrumentarium with field recordings sampled from across the planet and most crucially the unforgettable water-based noise of the Yerebatan Sarnici, an enormous ancient cistern located beneath the city of Istanbul. Lest the reader imagine this was some new-agey mindfulness soundtrack, the whole proved to be a remarkably coherent and thought provoking work of sonic art.

And I’m pleased to say that although their fascinating synthesis of percussion, electronics and water music in Alluvial Gold sounds substantially different, Devenish and James’ collaboration proves to be equally satisfying, credible and exciting from both sensory and aesthetic perspectives. The impulse behind this work is the continual flux of life and matter under the surface of urban rivers. Louise Devenish’s booklet note refers to the shellfish reefs which were removed from the Derbari Yerrigan during the initial settlement of European communities, the residual material being ground up and used for road building and related construction projects. Alluvial Gold’s specific focus also incorporates the subsequent presence of heavy metals within the water. Amongst the exotic sounds which feature are percussion sculpted from casts of dolphin bones damaged by lead, sine waves, ceramic and metal bowls as well as hydrophonically-derived reverberations from the riverbed involving the movements of algae and even crustaceans! However it’s Louise Devenish’s vibraphone and tuned metal percussion which ultimately dominate the texture – she is evidently an incredibly deft and resourceful musician – visual snapshots of her performance feature in the booklet.

The work itself encompasses eleven sections and weighs in at under 50 minutes; it absolutely flies by. Most sections have evocative names which vary in terms of the obviousness of their association to what one hears. The relatively arid title of the introductory Material – Source – Object panel offers little if any hint of the beautifully haloed sounds which arise; amplified water droplets in a cavernous space, echoey collisions of pebbles and bone, metallic tinklings, whooshing subterranean rumbles, emissions of steam which effervesce into shimmering cymbals and gentle tam-tam. These diffuse elements have been seamlessly woven together by Stuart James into something alluring yet simultaneously disarming. Nor does the heading Confluence do justice to the breathtaking collage of isolated vibraphone textures and twinkling tintinnabuli which follows and duly heralds the innocent burblings of a babbling brook whose volume gradually rises to a menacing roar.

Devenish’s vibraphone bears most of the weight of the music (one can by now use that word with confidence) which follows: small bells (antique cymbals?) and vibes as gamelan sounds against a rattling Reichian backcloth release both rainfall and a sinewave drone in

The Cascades; the sinewaves become more prominent (as does the glockenspiel) in Alluvial Fans and Meanders; the waves crescendo toward a ravishingly clear tone at 3:00. Chimes and various resonances tumble within and without the two linked sections entitled Spiritual Water in the Mouth of the River. In the first of these the gentle tollings seem to be randomly juxtaposed, but they float arrhythmically above an immersive continuo of what sound like bowed glasses. The second part’s crackles and oscillations are weirdly disorienting, trippy and psychedelic.

After a tiny interlude of various bell like motifs the eighth part, Crystalline Water in the Mouth of the River is essentially an exquisitely controlled vibraphone cadenza which resolves in limpid gamelan repetitions. The mood and tone of the work then seems to shift decisively during the most extended movement, Death in the Mouth of the River. Devenish’s increasingly flailing vibraphone now seems to be consumed by a tide of threatening metallics which gradually dissipate into ondes-like textures. Humanisation is suggested by something that resembles a distant (albeit synthetic) choir atop an ominously clangourous undertow. Hyperbass rumblings (which sound terrific through the speakers) seem to be pre-empting some kind of cataclysmic event – they contract and withdraw briefly before a piercing electronic ‘cry’ at 5:58 triggers their return; they regroup and build to an overwhelming roar which swiftly subsides. Yet the climax of the entire work only arrives in the penultimate section, The Place of the Eagle. The drama, colour and sheer grandeur of this movement defy description. Suffice to say the visceral power accumulated and released by Devenish and James is both appealing and completely immersive. All that remains is the final resolution; the title Engulfment-Emancipation represents an apt characterisation of these sounds of scattered estuarine debris – what seem like thousands of shells being tossed about hopelessly by enormous waves accompanied by an implacable electroacoustic halo. Is this debris being displaced? Or liberated?

Alluvial Gold proves to be a 50 minute event which not only bears repetition but gains in stature from it. The brilliance of its execution is frequently jaw-dropping but its pacing and design impress even more. Stephanie Reisch (from the Australian organisation ArtsHub) has provided an elegant and succinct precis of the work which is reproduced on the back of the booklet; I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting it in full:

Alluvial Gold is a challenging and sonically complex exploration into an alternate underwater existence. It prompts us to step back and consider how our own reality and actions frequently intersect and affect countless other worlds in the process.”

If my attempts to convey what Alluvial Gold actually sounds like are ultimately clumsy and approximate, Ms Reisch at least has been able to condense the purpose of Louise Devenish’s and Stuart James’ bold vision into a pair of brief sentences. Her comments seal an exciting and eminently recommendable disc.

Richard Hanlon

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