Adelaide Festival review: Music for Other Worlds

Alex Frayne and Paul Grabowsky present an innovative approach to art exhibition through the meeting of improvisational music and visual art.

Mar 17, 2023, updated Mar 17, 2023
Paul Grabowsky gives musical voice to Alex Frayne's projected landscapes in 'Music for Other Worlds'. Photo: Tony Lewis

Paul Grabowsky gives musical voice to Alex Frayne's projected landscapes in 'Music for Other Worlds'. Photo: Tony Lewis

There is something electric about knowing Music for Other Worlds is an unrepeatable performance and that we are about to witness the conception of music by an accomplished musician. This is improvisational jazz in a different dimension from Australia’s respected master of the art, Paul Grabowsky, as he soundtracks photo artist Alex Frayne’s images.

The performance features seven movements for each of Frayne’s seven sets of photographs.

Against the backdrop of the Adelaide Town Hall’s splendid pipe organ, a lone Steinway & Sons grand piano sits underneath three projection screens. Frayne’s images are spread across the three projection panels, with many of them slowly revealing themselves. In place of sheets of music, Grabowsky looks to the screens above and around him for inspiration.

The first photographs feature a grey and black multi-layered forest-scape. Grabowsky begins slowly with a soft, contemplative approach to his improvisation.

Vignettes of South Australian churches, in particular a church in Claypans, inspire Grabowsky to emulate hymn-like chord movements and cadences. However, he adds his own jazz flavour. The melodies he plays are sweet, but underneath them darker sounds emerge, hinting at deeper reflections of the complex relationships many people have with churches and their nostalgia. As the improvisation builds, he begins to lean into gospel and its soulful feel.

The Australian summer is on display through images of the hot sun and blazing dirt and dust in a haze of yellow orange. Grabowsky mirrors the barrenness of country Australia in the summer. A sense of excitement runs across the audience as he reaches inside the piano to play it from within. His fingers run across the inner strings while he plays sparse and unsettling dissonant chords on the keys.

Next comes a singular image of a faraway galaxy. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the photos is a meditation on the threat climate change poses to Earth’s precious ecology.

A black and white photograph of a Victorian building, perhaps a home, appears. Interestingly, it takes time for the entire image to emerge. Initially, the building is the focus, but as it pans around and away, a young girl on a tyre swing is revealed. As she comes more into focus, Grabowsky becomes more playful.

It feels as if the performance shifts gears as images of Australian open country roads appear. The audience is transported to a road trip through Australia with pictures of roadkill, seedy motels, and rundown petrol stations accompanying the changing landscapes. It is at this point that Grabowsky’s jazz roots are most on show. The driving rhythms of this movement, and his mock kick drum stomping, are a welcome contrast to the slower and more gentle approach he takes with much of the preceding images. Adelaide Town Hall’s natural acoustics are on show here.

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Similar sounds to those heard at the beginning of the program return alongside pictures of majestic gum trees and rivers in Adelaide Hills’ Heysen country.

Piano sparkles mirror sparkles off the ocean on a sunny day alongside photographs of beaches and swimmers. Underneath the bright sounds are darker layers, reflecting the dichotomy of the beauty and dangers of the ocean’s depths.

Unlike an art gallery exhibition, where one walks through and appraises each piece of artwork at leisure, this mode of presentation directs our focus to the artwork in a much different way. Longer time is spent on each photograph, while Grabowsky’s improvisations suggest emotions or stories that allow us to ponder the intention of each image in a deeper way.

At times, the ability to peruse artwork at one’s own pace is desired, with some photographs slow to change. Perhaps, though, those are images that hold more importance for Frayne.

As two experts in their artforms, Frayne and Grabowsky’s skills are on full display in this unconventional meeting of craftsmanship, resulting in a unique, never-before-seen immersive experience.

Music for Other Worlds was performed at the Adelaide Town Hall for one night only on March 15 as part of the Adelaide Festival.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

Shannon Pearce is the third recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. She is working with experienced writers Graham Strahle and Samela Harris to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

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