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Louise Devenish takes a Sonic Journey into the Derbarl Yerrigan

Alluvial Gold is ready to wow audiences at PICA next week, and I spoke to creative director and percussionist Louise Devenish about playing on dolphin bones, free diving, and creating a piece that brings together sculpture, video, percussion instruments, and electronics.

The performance installation has had a long incubation period since its soft opening in 2021, and has developed even further with a new set and more lighting. It takes the history of Perth’s Derbarl Yerrigan as its point of departure, exploring the stories between the surface and of human interactions on the river. The show combines multiple artistic disciplines, lending itself to fans of all areas.

“There’s this live performance show, which is one way of experiencing the work. Another way of experiencing it is the short film, which is called the Alluvium, which is also showing at PICA during the performance season. Another way is as a visual art exhibition, where the sculptures and the drawings are the focus, and the music is there supporting that. There are different ways of engaging with the material, which we thought was maybe an interesting, collaborative thing for us to do because it’s an unusual team of creatives in that we have a visual artist, a composer, a sound designer, and a performer.”

This team of creatives who join Louise (the performer) are visual artist Erin Coates, composer Stuart James, and new additions since the 2021 show, set designer Bruce McKinven and lighting designer Peter Young. The move from Goolugatup Heathcote Gallery to PICA’s performance space has allowed for the expanded set and new lighting design to make the show even more visually spectacular.

It sounds like a lot is going on, and there is, but Louise explained that the instrumental setup has two stations. One is around a base drum, and the other is around a vibraphone, which has had its “sound world expanded by the addition of sculptural instruments modelled on dolphin bones.” Cast from a real dolphin skeleton using bronze and porcelain, they exist somewhere between sculpture and instrument, a collaboration between artist Erin and percussionist Louise to make a performance loaded with meaning.

“In the making process we did a lot of tests, thinking about the shape of the dolphin bones that follow a kind of curve, where would we drill a hole to be able to suspend it so that it is at its most resonant. We can therefore hang them up next to the vibraphone and use them to add to the resonant metallic sound world of the vibraphone. These sculptural instruments are partly for their visual power, which is very rich, but sonically they’re used to expand and extend the sound world of more familiar instruments.”

Alluvial Gold, Tura. Photo by Emma Fishwick 

As a percussionist who has performed internationally and teaches at Monash University, Louise is in the perfect (and possibly only) position to learn how to play dolphin bones as an actual instrument. Her academic explanation of this skill is “technique transferal,” where percussionists don’t learn their skills specific to one instrument, instead developing techniques that they then transfer and apply to other materials. “For example, we develop a technique on the snare drum. Then we will take that technique and we will apply it to ceramic bowls, to woodblocks, to found materials, to dolphin bones, to whatever we like. That’s the nature of our instrument. Basically any physical object that can be sounded can be a percussion instrument, if it is approached with a percussive technique and a percussive sensibility.” The instrumental range of the percussionist is forever expanding, and why shouldn’t that include dolphin bones in a performance commenting on the disruption of the river and its ecosystem?

This message of conservation is crucial to Louise, and the work started with the Derbarl Yerrigan that we all live or work around. The river is present in all of our lives but Louise and the team behind Alluvial Gold feel that very few of us know what’s going on beneath the surface of the river. We know little about the stories of how Perth was settled and the impacts of European colonization on the estuarine ecology, and on every aspect of the river. Louise feels called upon to tell this untold story, as “any form of art has got a responsibility, but also a bit of power in terms of our ability to tell stories, and offer perspectives on the world around us. And those kinds of stories are important to reflect on.”

Alluvial Gold, Tura. Photo by Emma Fishwick 

The video footage in the projection design and some of the sound recordings are from artist Erin Coates’ free dives into the river. Louise hasn’t taken the plunge herself but during the show she will be immersed in the sounds and sights of the river as they are incorporated into her performance.

Louise told me she is excited to be back doing live performances after the last two years of lockdowns and cancellations, she says the live element is crucial and the most dynamic way to experience the work, bringing all the elements together. Interdisciplinary work is “a natural friend of the percussive practice” and an exciting way to tell new and old stories. The Alluvial Gold team are even running a workshop on collaborative creativity across visual art and music as part of the season, hosted at PICA on the Tuesday of their performance run.

I asked what Louise is most excited for audiences to see in Alluvial Gold, and she reiterated the unique quality of the work in its interdisciplinarity. “It does sit equally in music, as in performance, as in visual art. I think there’s something really interesting in that, and I’m excited to share it with audiences. I hope that some people might come for the music, but be really into the visual aspect. And others might come for the visual aspects, but be really into the sonic aspects.”

Alluvial Gold has something for everyone, and an important message about our impact on the landmarks we love. It is showing at PICA from 20-22 June.