The Australian JUNE 16, 2009 - by Iain Shedden


Pure Scenius. Luminous Festival. Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 14.

For almost three weeks Brian Eno has served up what he calls his "chemical experiment", throwing together seemingly disparate forms of music under the Luminous Festival umbrella, just to see what happens. On Sunday, the last night of the festival, it was the curator's turn to be the focus of attention.

He was not alone. Scenius, a word invented by Eno, the English musician, producer and innovator, is about cumulative intelligence. On the stage of the Opera House Concert Hall this meant Eno being joined by likeminded performers - including Underworld vocalist Karl Hyde, Australia's improvising outfit The Necks, guitarist Leo Abrahams and electronic composer Jon Hopkins - for three concerts spread over six hours, each different, but tied together by loose musical themes.

Adding a visual component to proceedings were three large screens hanging above the stage, with real-time imagery being projected on to them by another member of Underworld, Toby Vogel.

Improvisation was at the heart of the three performances, although the first differed from the other two in that it was more tightly structured, with no room for breaks in the music. Eno sat at his laptop, with a microphone nearby to make the occasional pronouncement ("music should be like theatre"), and guided his accomplices with simple hand and finger gestures to signal the next movement.

Adding curiosity to the audience's anticipation were a sofa, chairs and a table laden with drinks at the front of the stage. These, it transpired, were for the musos who weren't involved at any particular moment to sit down and relax with a cup of tea. It didn't seem comfortable for the participants or the viewers but perhaps contributed to the chemistry Eno was after.

The first show began with a faint trickle of water. Slowly - extremely slowly - synth pulses and textures floated into the stream until, about twelve minutes in, a rhythm developed. Here The Necks - drummer Tony Buck, upright bassist Lloyd Swanton and pianist Chris Abrahams - entered the fray,albeit in minimalist mode, with the merest brushes on their instruments buildinga base for the more bombastic moments that followed.

It has to be said that without The Necks, and Buck in particular, most of the pieces would have a lot less scope. They often provided the dynamics, with Buck's original use of brushes, sticks, bells and unidentified bits of machinery creating at times a mesmerising tension.

In direct contrast to this was the centrepiece to all three performances, a simple face-off between Chris Abrahams and Hopkins on the two grand pianos. Each playing the barest melodies, the pair sparred in this minimalist setting for as much as five minutes, creating an almost unbearable tension each time. If, like theatre, music is about taking you into a zone, then this was an instant and intensely beautiful transportation.

Less successful was Hyde's contribution, although not through any fault in his vocal style or spoken-word delivery.

While most of the soundscapes Eno and his collaborators, including Hyde, conjured up were engaging, the mere inclusion of lyrics, no matter how profound, abstract, witty or poetic, often detracted rather than added to the whole. Only when he was using his voice as a rhythm instrument, almost as a rapper, did it sit more rewardingly in the mix.

In the second and third shows it was clear the musicians and their leader were becoming more relaxed with the brief. While there were still quizzical looks towards Eno, a confidence and greater interplay ensued.

Leo Abrahams is a master of understatement on guitar, but the longer he played, the more his rhythmic motifs became the foundation for what was going on around him.

Eno apologised after the first two performances for having to ask the audience to leave, but had he taken a closer look from behind his cup of tea on the sofa he would have noticed that many of the faces in front of him were there all night.

It's unlikely those fans will ever get an opportunity to see Eno's creative genius/scenius in such a setting again. They got more than their money's worth this time.