The Australian MAY 15, 2009 - by Lynden Barber


One of the most exciting pieces of local music news this year was that the US composer-musician Jon Hassell would be playing in Australia in June for the first time. The innovative trumpet player will be here for Luminous, a new annual festival of music, art installations and talks organised by the Sydney Opera House and curated this year by Hassell's sometime collaborator, the producer and artist Brian Eno. This in turn is part of Vivid, a confusing umbrella festival of "music, light and ideas", backed by Events NSW, the corporate body set up by the state Government.

Though no household name, Hassell is a heavyweight of the contemporary music world, his collaborators and former employers including such luminaries as minimalist composer Terry Riley, guitarist Ry Cooder and Talking Heads. He's best known however for his series of "fourth world music" recordings: a consistently innovative demolition of the boundaries between world music, rock, jazz, ambient, serious music and the avant-garde.

NSW has been much criticised by the arts community for lagging behind other states in the funding of major arts events. Vivid certainly indicates that the state is trying to lift its game. The coup is bringing Eno to Sydney. The revered Brit would be on the wish list for many rival international arts events, given his reputation as a rock producer (U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads), a pioneer of ambient music, and creator of visual art-and-sound installations.

As well as selecting international and local artists to perform at the Opera House - they include Hassell, Ladytron, Karl Hyde, Seun Kuti, Laraaji, Rachid Taha, Damien Dempsey, Lee Perry and the Necks - Eno will play live with other musicians in a series of three concerts, appear in a public discussion with Hassell, and has designed a lighting display to project on to the Opera House sails at night. Sydney Opera House performing arts director Rachel Healy says Eno's illuminations have the potential to attract world attention, and adds that "it opens up all kinds of possibilities into the future about other artists we might workwith".

Luminous is an Sydney Opera House initiative that is part of its growing role as a producer of performing arts. In the past nine years the venue's management has moved away from being simply a venue for hire, and developed its own programming agenda.

Events NSW, the corporate body launched less than two years ago as part of the Iemma government's major-events policy, is backing and co-ordinating the Vivid initiatives, which include Smart Light Sydney (various lighting events, with a focus on Sydney Harbour), Creative Sydney (a talks program) and Fire Water (promoted as "three nights of flame, food and spectacle" in the city's historic precinct, the Rocks).

The thinking: Sydney has a major summer arts festival and an autumn literary festival, but too little to attract visitors and engage locals in the winter but for the Sydney Film Festival, and the Biennale. Vivid is aimed at filling the gap.

Events NSW chief executive Geoff Parmenter is the first to admit that NSW had been years behind other states when it came to fully supporting and helping to create large-scale, attention-grabbing occasions. Victoria's equivalent was set up eighteen years beforehand, he points out. Parmenter says Sydney dropped the ball after the 2000 Olympics. There was a feeling that the city already had a fantastic harbour and beaches; just add the Games and that would be enough to attract visitors. Eventually the penny dropped. The new view is that "Sydney has to be a lot more proactive in promoting itself".

Part of the Events NSW brief is to develop a year-round events calendar, support existing events and help to create and attract new ones. A sports fixture such as a grand prix is off the table because it is too easily swiped by competitors. The aim is to help develop "large, signature events" unique to Sydney that could help attract tourists. Lighting installations that utilise the harbour foreshore may help achieve this, although Sydney is not the only international metropolis set near water, and a major global city has already put in a bid for Vivid's creative team to organise a similar event, says Parmenter.

The first piece of the jigsaw to fall in place was Smart Light Sydney, a separate organisation that had already approached Eno about displaying his video-and-sound installation, 77 Million Paintings (appearing in Vivid). It also had ideas for lighting events around the harbour. These "ticked a lot of our boxes", says Parmenter, citing their freshness, sustainability and use of some of the city's strengths.

Not long afterwards, Sydney Opera House chief executive Richard Evans and associate director Philip Rolfe approached Events NSW with the concept of an annual music festival curated by a different high-profile creative arts figure every year. Their inspiration came from Paul Simon's curated concerts at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008, and Meltdown at London's Southbank Centre, curated this year by jazz legend Ornette Coleman. "We thought that by putting these together you might just make one plus one make three," Parmenter says.

The Creative Sydney part of the equation is intended to showcase Sydney's creative industries, which artistic director Jess Scully says includes such diverse fields as fashion, gaming, film, advertising, object and graphic design, arts and publishing, "all these things that aren't normally grouped together with fine arts". Its series of free talks and live events will take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art daily (with some at Parramatta in Sydney's west). One evening has a self-explanatory title, "The Future of Art and Technology", while another is called "What is Sydney to You?" The description - "our leading lights and biggest stirrers share their vision of the city through sound, vision and storytelling" - gives little idea of what to expect. The marketing problems start to pile up when an outsider tries to disentangle the branding mess that is Vivid and its various tentacles. A general arts festival is relatively easy to conceptualise; ditto film, literature and dance festivals. Not so a series of new events themed around "music, light and ideas", particularly when they have competing and unfamiliar brand names.

Behind the issue is the way Vivid has been created from the nailing together of separate events, at least two of which - Luminous and Smart Light Sydney - were conceived independently. Reflecting this is the head-scratching experience offered by its associated websites. Go to the home-page for the Sydney Opera House and you find a link for Luminous, but nothing for Vivid, for example.

"I'm fully in support of Vivid and it clearly has informed our choice of Brian Eno to curate Luminous, but we are not responsible for Vivid as a brand, and in fact Luminous can exist with or without the brand," Healy says. "I think Vivid is a brilliant initiative, but it isn't being controlled or owned or run out of the Opera House."

Creative Sydney's Scully agrees that "the message hasn't been presented as clearly as it could be", adding that the new concept is difficult to market in its first year, and there are different institutions involved.

The budget for the inaugural Vivid is about seven million dollars, of which roughly twenty-five per cent is coming from Events NSW, according to Parmenter. Rolfe says advance tickets sales for Luminous, the main ticketed program, are on target, with concerts by some of the more popular acts expected to sell out by next week.

Vivid Sydney is at various venues, May 26 to June 14.