Originally published at ABC Arts Online, October 2013
Despite such things as spectacular pyrotechnics, projections, elaborate costume changes, theatrical melodrama and even gargantuan puppetry, the art of live performance today, rather than symbolising human artistic and technological advancement, actually represents something primitive: a basic compulsion that goes deep into cultural history and anthropology.
So says Drones frontman and solo artist Gareth Liddiard, anyway.
“Live performance is very natural and is something human beings have always done, there’s a ceremony to it,” he says. “It’s like owning a dog – it kind of makes sense and is something people have done for millennia.”
Liddiard was one of 20 musicians who took part in Jasmin Tarasin’s much-lauded LIVE project, a series of films of artists performing directly into a single, stationary camera leaving a stark, yet quite stunning, impression. Tarasin attracted such global names as Jarvis Cocker, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Feist and Peaches with Liddiard joined by fellow Australians including folkie Laura Jean, idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Dan Kelly (nephew of Paul) and Spiderbait drummer and solo performer Mark ‘Kram’ Maher. With Sarah Blasko, all five performed at the opening of LIVE as a video installation as part of the Sydney Festival in 2011.
These videos are confronting for both artist and viewer, in their unflinching insistence on what performance is when all decoration, theatre and even personality is stripped away. Tarasin’s films are psychological incisions, and a brave kind of self-portrait on the part of the participants. Maher describes the project as “miniaturising everything” and “like looking into a window of someone.”
And naturally, Liddiard, Jean, Kelly and Maher found the experience thrilling and enlightening in its ‘back to basics’ approach, in contrast to the over-rehearsed extravaganzas that some of the world’s biggest artists rely on. Maher, for example, bemoans a Green Day concert he attended that left him bored with its precision choreography.
Tarasin’s work, like much art, is grasping at something if not quite on the brink of being lost, then certainly generally too profound and intimate for a popular music culture that often plays to the galley through bombast, populism and ego, that can only separate performer from audience. “Live performance originated in trying to embrace people, not push them away,” says Liddiard.
For these four artists, it seems the key to that is giving an audience the unadulterated present moment, in all its intensity, ugliness and imperfection.
“Whenever I get on stage I have a moment and look around, and just be there,” says Melbourne-based Jean. “I find when I am in the moment like that it’s much easier to work with what’s in the room and make a connection.”
To deliver an appropriate intensity, and indeed to establish the frisson of a connection between artist and audience, each of these performers admits a degree of ‘letting go’ is required.
“I tend to allow for the fact I can’t control a situation at all,” says Jean. “I can’t control my performance to a certain extent and I can’t control the audience’s perceptions. So all I can do is try and be in the moment with the song.”
For Liddiard, the process of letting go comes as a result of the mechanical side of things – co-ordination and “muscle memory” – becoming second nature, resulting in what could be described as an altered state.
“It’s sort of a trance, and you just fall into the song and it’s strange. It’s like that feeling when you’re coasting down the runway on an aeroplane just as the wheels leave the ground – that’s what a good show feels like. After the gig you try to remember parts of it, but you can’t because you were just in another zone.”
With this devotion to delivering ‘the moment’ comes a certain honesty – quite beautifully captured by Tarasin in LIVE. For Dan Kelly, however, known for dressing up, playing multiple characters and spoken-word narratives, live performance has been a means of disguise, which made participation in LIVE all the more of an exposure. Even when performing this simply, he wore a turban, sunglasses and used a drum machine and samples.
“I’ve often had a barrier up,” says Kelly. “My stuff is quite dense, with a lot of double meaning and maybe a bit cynical and smart-arse. I don’t know why, it’s just what I’ve always done, it’s a way of hiding.”
Tarasin’s films ask the question of live performance’s role in contemporary music, and by association the importance of live performance for each of these artists in the context of their own careers. When asked if playing live represents the purest form in which their music can be presented, each offer compelling answers. For Liddiard, playing live is “a lot more straight up” than recording, which he refers to in terms of “manipulation” and the capacity to “really mess with the whole theatre of it.”
For Jean, it is the process of songwriting that is the essence of her art, with performing just the communication of that initial creativity. Kelly believes his art lies in storytelling, which infuses all of writing, recording and performing, with the notion of a single pure form being disingenuous to him.
Finally, Maher says: “I think all parts are just as pure. Every songwriter I know enjoys both processes [performing and recording], they’re just very different.
“I love the spontaneity of playing live, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, and you really don’t want to know.”