Thirst… is a place video

Uploaded to YouTube the 30 minute video made by Luhsun Tan of Thirst… is a place written by Christopher Barnett and devised and performed by Splinters Theatre Company. Performed at the National Exhibition Centre, Canberra ACT in September 1993, directed by Nico Lathouris and Renald Navilly. This video was commissioned by the Art, Not Apart Festival 2015 to accompany the screening of the documentary These Heathen Dreams on Barnett, by Anne Tsoulis.

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Netherlands research trip

I am mighty pleased to be heading off on Monday to Utrecht to present at the Play / Perform / Participate conference 2015, the biannual gathering of the International Society for Intermedial Studies. Following this I have the honour to be spending 4 weeks as scholar in residence at Utrecht University and working with key members of the legendary theatre group Dogtroep, helping them to organise their archive of film and video. We will give a joint seminar at Het Huis in Utrecht in 12 May.

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These Heathen Dreams screening in Canberra 14 March

Mighty pleased to announce that These Heathen Dreams, the documentary on Christoper Barnett made by Anne Tsoulis, will be screened in Canberra on Saturday 14 March at Palace Cinema, for the Art, Not Apart Festival. The festival has also provided some funds to commission Luhsun Tan to make a 30 minute edit of the work Christopher wrote for Splinters in 1993, Thirst… is a place, from video in the Splinters archive.

These Heathen Dreams web

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Research update November 2014

It’s now 16 months since moving to ANU and my fourth month of full time study. As I am about to head off on some long awaited holidays, just a few quick notes on developments. Most of the last year and a bit has been taken up with meeting the ANU’s PhD coursework requirements. These included Interdisciplinary Research Methods, Research Design and Ethics (including successful submission of a research ethics clearance to the University), Situating the Thesis (aka the literature review, in my case a re-review) and an elective. I chose to do a Masters unit given by by supervisor Kath Bode, “Digital Humanities: Theories and Projects”, which was very useful to me for catching up on the latest DH research issues. I am also very pleased to have a new supervisor added to my panel, theatre studies expert Dr Kate Flaherty.

As a result, my output in papers and this research blog has slowed to a trickle, as has work on the actual archive itself. This is not a bad thing as the new edition of the ANU’s OCCAMS content management system has been released, and some additional features I need are now under development such as being able to embed into WordPress. This will likely be my last post until the new year as I spend the next 6 weeks relaxing with my partner Victoria, and friends and family in Cambodia, Thailand and Western Australia.

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Splinters Exhibition slideshow

The Canberra Museum and Gallery has posted a short slideshow of last year’s exhibition here.

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Happy 80th, Larry Sitsky!

Judith Crispin just posted on Facebook a reminder that this week was the 80th birthday of Professor Emeritus Larry Sitsky, who wrote the score for Faust: the Heat of Knowledge by Splinters, comissioned for the Australian National University’s 50th Anniversary. She wrote this tribute to him for the Australian Music Centre. Still going strong and composing: happy birthday, Maestro!

Larry Sitsky at 80

Larry Sitsky’s birthday is in the next few days. His friends, students and colleagues, no doubt, suspect that one of his exotic Chinese cabinets must hide a much older portrait of him. After all, his piano performances and musicological research have hardly slowed in recent years and the composition, if anything, has increased. At 80, Sitsky remains one of Australia’s most prolific composers having produced well over 200 pieces to date.

Given Sitsky’s high profile as concert pianist, composer, musicologist and teacher, one might assume the motivating force behind his career has been personal ambition. Certainly this is true for many musicians, and why not? But I am convinced, after twenty years in Sitsky’s circle, that his entire creative and intellectual oeuvre has been driven by one thing alone, and that is the idea of service– service to his tradition, to music itself, and to those higher mystical truths that music has always accessed. This simple fact is the key to understanding why Sitsky at 80 still makes composers half his age look as though they’re not trying.

Sitsky’s creative and mystical lives began simultaneously as a child in China. A prodigy of the Russian school of pianism, he began ruling staves opposite the printed music for the 12th Rhapsody of Liszt and attempting his own compositions. Lured by the sound of chanting, a young Sitsky visited Buddhist temples and discussed religion with monks. Hence a lifelong interest in Asian mysticism was born which, later, sparked mature compositions about Tibetan mysticism, Kundalini and related philosophies. For seven decades, the twin streams of music and mysticism permeated all of Sitsky’s musical life.

From 1958-61 Sitsky studied in San Francisco with virtuoso Egon Petri, a devotee of the Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Discovering Sitsky’s interest in composition, Petri brought him a copy of Busoni’s Magnum Opus Doktor Faust and together they read through the whole score, Petri playing the orchestral part,
and Sitsky the singers’ melodies. Doktor Faust was the unifying element Sitsky had been searching for, the perfect synthesis of music and mysticism. Later studies of the Faust tradition led Sitsky to Kabbalah and ceremonial magic, ideas that underpin numerous of his works including The Golem, Twenty-two Paths of the Tarot, Tetragrammaton and others.

Music, for Sitsky, became the Axis Mundi, the point at which matter intersected with divine light. And if this was true, then surely musicians themselves were the torch-bearers of the Axis Mundi itself. To Sitsky, it seemed these torch-bearers, spread out across all history, were connected by oral tradition and a shared purpose. No nobler task could exist for Sitsky than to serve this tradition– and he resolved to do exactly that.

Returning to Australia in the early 60s, Sitsky paid homage to musicians from his own lineage. performing concerts of Busoni, Bartok, Scriabin and others. He wrote books and articles on Rubinstein, Busoni, Alkan, the Russian Avant Gardists and devoted himself to teaching future generations of torch-bearers. In 1965 he joined the newly founded Canberra School of Music, at one time the premiere music school in this country, as Head of Keyboard, then Head of Composition and Academic Studies. In 2005 he became emeritus Professor at the same institution.

But traditions move from the past to the future– and Sitsky’s dedication to younger generations has matched his dedication to the past. In 1975 he cofounded with James Penberthy the Composers’ Guild of Australia and, in 1976, the Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble with Don Banks and Keith Humble. This ensemble recorded and performed new works by Australian composers as well as the music of Webern, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky and other artists little known at that time. Sitsky championed his peers in his book ‘Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century’ and taught three generations of young composers and performers. Many of Sitsky’s instrumental works have been composed for these students, many young enough to be his great-grandchildren.

At one time Sitsky thought he would become a poet – a little known fact – and, indeed, his earliest published song is a setting of his own poetry. His love of poetry has resulted in a huge body of vocal work – operas, music dramas and song cycles, some of which use his own translations of Alexander Blok. It was also a love of poetry that brought Sitsky into contact with Australian poet Gwen Harwood in 1963, sparking a 30 year artistic friendship. Together they created six operas including the Kabbalistic opera seria The Golem in 1980. A libretto for a seventh opera was half finished when Harwood passed away – it was never completed and Sitsky has refused to write more operas since. After their first meeting, Harwood wrote a poem about Sitsky, demonstrating penetrating insights into his nature. Nothing in this world will change, she observes:

Unless, wakeful with questioning,
some mind beats on necessity,
and being unanswered learns to bear
emptiness like a wound that no
word but its own can mend; and finds
a new imperative to summon
a world out of unmeasured darkness
pierced by a brilliant nerve of sound.
(Harwood, New Music)

Here, in black and white, was the articulation of Sitsky’s vision of the composer–priest, torch-bearer of lux vivens, the living light – music, the Axis Mundi through which any person has access to universal truth. And this audible documenting of his own mystical journey will be Sitsky’s real legacy, a trail of lights left on the path for those who follow: musicians, poets ot mystics, anyone looking for a door.

Sitsky’s 80th birthday won’t involve the kind of national celebrations devoted to composers like Boulez, the fireworks and hype reserved for rock stars. Sitsky’s profile has always been quieter than that. But a program of concerts and receptions will begin this week in Hobart attended, no doubt, by generations of grateful musicians – myself included. Had I not met Larry Sitsky in my early 20s, my life would have taken a completely different path. I’d not have found the deep mystery of concert music, or the penetrating truths of poetry. In fact, I’d probably have become a lawyer. So if you love music, wherever you are on the 10th of September, why not lift a glass and toast Australia’s last great modernist – happy birthday Larry Sitsky.

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A potted history of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle

Speech delivered by Patrick Troy, co-founder and co-director of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle, at the opening of the exhibition Massive Love of Risk: the Arts of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle (1985-98) at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, Friday 27 September 2013. This version including links contained was originally published by Splinters member Sarah Moss on the ABC Open site.

At its best Splinters Theatre of Spectacle was a forum for ideas, for experiments, and artworks working primarily in performance and the theatre arts where there were many avenues for exploration.

Splinters focussed on visual arts through sets and props and through promotional material; in music, costume, in dance, video art, and pyrotechnics and in performance which Splinters extended out to Puppetry, to outdoor performance, sculptural installation and also through audience interaction or ‘Crowd Theory’. 

This Crowd Theory was a name used for the process of moving the audience through spaces, of asking them to crawl through tunnels, look through slits, wear headsets, ride on ferries, etc. This interest originated, for Splinters, when in the first venue an audience observing one scene in front was then turned around for the next scene behind. It created an interesting tension between the audience and the performers.

In the performance stream Splinters continued a practice of professional development and conducted classes to further develop the skills of the ensemble, finding experts from fields as diverse as Martial Arts & Fencing, through Gymnastics and Commedia del Arte, to Harmonic Chanting. 

Some of the teachers engaged were Renald Navarro, Cheryl Heazlewood, Stephen Champion, Nico Lathouris, and Nigel Kellaway. Some of these teachers also entered into a deeper relationship with Splinters, actually working on shows and designing the works. 

Additionally a number of the artists that joined in Splinters’ shows interstate travelled back to Canberra to make work. These were often sophisticated and experienced performance artists : Victoria Spence, Jai McHenry, Tod Smart, Mar Bucknell, Khalil Juredini and Sarah Glezer to name a few. 

Because of the often isolated nature of Canberra artistic life this injection of interesting performers and tutors was instrumental to the continued growth of a company like Splinters.

I say isolated but the 1980s in Canberra was a stimulating time, bands and shows were regular: The Cock and Bull Bar at the Civic Hotel, The ANU Bar and Refectory, Café Boom Boom, The Performing Arts Café, the various theatres at Gorman House, indeed the grounds of Gorman House itself often seemed be a very stimulating place, also with Human Veins Dance Company, Meryl Tankard Company, Café Jax, The Pits, etc. etc were all venues of interesting performance.

In 1985 a small group got together to discuss the potential for performance and some ideas we wanted to express. After deciding to “put on a show” we found a venue – the Downer Community Centre, where we could also rehearse weekly, chose a name and looked around for participants. Several students from the Canberra Art School were interested and brainstorming sessions commenced.

A $500 grant from the International Youth Year fund paid for the space and scrounging for set, prop, costume materials started. This scrounging was to become an integral part of the methodology of Splinters and it is only because David Branson is not here that I can say that he was not alone in being arrested late at night on a building site scavenging for junk.

The next couple of years saw Splinters grow in confidence and scope with tours to Newcastle, Melbourne, and Perth bringing the resulting shows back to Canberra to a partisan audience. Those early shows were largely reflective of young adults concerns; self-conscious, carefree, yet serious. They infused music, dance, comedy and theatre into a heady, fun brew.

With some bureaucratic help Splinters managed to secure the largely disused Old Canberra Brickworks as a venue for the 1989 processional show “Whirled on a Fatal Floor” It was at the Brickworks that Splinters took up a more permanent storage and workshop space. Along with an office at Gorman House the group prepared to organise more serious tours and the following five or six years saw an extraordinary output of work. I think if any of the participants look back on the sheer volume of the work they can find something to be proud of. In those shows and the people involved in making them. Literally hundreds of terrific people.

A handful of my memories of those times include getting an exceptionally good sleep in the maximum security cells of the disused Old Adelaide Gaol; of writing scripts while camping down the coast; of travelling to Lismore to cut down a semi-trailer load of bamboo for a show on Springbank Island. 

Of hanging Steven Howard by his ankles nude from a tree outside a Sydney Gallery; of crossing the Nullabor with my mates; of the Sydney Opera House Spectacular (ICON) ; the forecourt of the ANU spectacular; and an explosive event in Canberra’s Civic Square …. too many to mention.

Among our many supporters in Canberra Peter Haynes was an invaluable advocate, and Helen Musa provided valuable critical feedback of Splinters’ work. But ultimately, as many collectives had found previously, a group of artists trying to form families and relationships, and build lives under conditions of zero wages is too taxing. Also many of the artistic and social experiments did not work. 

It would be remiss not to touch on some of the unsavoury aspects of any collective ideal. The ego and arrogance, theft and embezzlement, the drug abuse, violence, poverty and moral infamy that bedevils many groups of young adults all contributed to the demise of Splinters.

Somewhere around 1998 the collective of idealist artists had completely dissolved. Yet many good ripples spread out and several Splinter groups split off. 

Groups like ODD Productions, Triclops, and Temple State made impressive installations and Fire Sculptures for Big Day Out, and dance parties across the country. 

Snuff Puppets focussed their energies and expanded on the puppet methods started in Garema Place and still tour them around the world. 

The Village” still creates environments for communities and artists to gather and display ideas and performances.

Individual artists are currently achieving and creating in many sectors of the arts, through television, mainstage and experimental theatre, music, photography, visual arts, the internet, and so on. The list goes on and on.

I’ll finish with one of the questions that I think was somewhere near the heart of the reason for the work we did. And the work that many artists do. A questing for answers to the unknown. A question that obviously remains.

Here it is found in a quote from Lord of the Flies:
“What are we going to do about the Beastie?”


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