Lennox Theatre, August 10
The rolling undulations of the waves were so palpable that those with imaginations livelier than their stomachs are robust could well have felt quite queasy. This was one of many passages of startlingly effective programmatic music in Chris Cody’s 70-minute Astrolabe – Suite for La Perouse, a music-and-text retelling of the journey that brought the great Frenchman to the shores of Botany Bay, just after the First Fleet had landed in Port Jackson.
Cody, a gifted Sydney jazz pianist and composer who spent two decades living in France, was drawn by his own journey to the story of this man, who – the eponymous suburb apart – goes all but ignored in our Anglo-centric history. Commanding two ships including the Astrolabe, La Perouse made an epic voyage of discovery – one with no motive of colonisation – which ended with his death. Just as he made myriad decisions about personnel, sustenance, tradable goods and routes, so Cody had to chart a compositional course, decide upon the make-up of his ensemble, and select which parts of La Perouse’s journal would frame the musical events.
Among his key decisions was to eschew a drum-kit, instead having Fabian Hevia’s array of percussion evoke exotic places and cultures, while making the ensemble less dense and more buoyant. In fact one of Cody’s notable successes was scoring translucency into music often depicting idyllic Pacific waters. Meanwhile brief, absorbing extracts from La Perouse’s journal were ably delivered by Simon Wilton, the word pictures complemented by Danny Tait’s video projections.
The work’s flaw was that Cody let homogeneity predominate over conveying the massive distances, diversity of destinations and sheer wonder of the new. Commendably cohesive, the suite could have benefitted from more varied energy levels, tempos and density. As it was it still provided enthralling listening, and gave ample scope to the improvising talents of Cody, Hevia, Doretta Balkizas (violin), James Greening (trombone, didgeridoo), Tom Avgenicos (trumpet, flugelhorn), Matt Ottignon (reeds), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and, providing the concert’s most compelling solo, Emily Rose Sarkova (accordion).