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Archaeopteryx | Nonsemble

Giant extinct birds, violins, and electronica collide.

Anywhere Festival – Archaeopteryx

Wander through the Lost Creatures exhibit of the Queensland Museum during normal opening hours and you will inevitably find yourself dodging groups of giggling high schoolers, adults standing three-abreast staring at displays, and kids running around shrieking like pterodactyls.

On Friday night, the exhibit underwent a transformation. Audiophiles and dinosaur lovers alike gathered together in comparative quiet to soak in the surprising cosiness of the museum after dark with music group Nonsemble. Tables dotted the museum landscape between fossils and informative displays, with little lights on each table adding to the warm and intimate ambience.

Photo: Monique Sheldrake

Archaeopteryx had an ambitious goal – to compose five pieces of music for string quartet and live electronics inspired by prehistoric birds – particularly the titular Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird. Prior to Archaeopteryx, I had never had the pleasure of attending a musical performance that so perfectly captured the essence of what I would expect from its source material (unless you count Brisbane Arts Theatre’s Jurassic Park: The Musical).

Three violins, a cello, and what I can only assume was an incredibly expensive synth music deck and keyboard attached to an Apple laptop filled the museum with deep, thrumming bass notes, beautifully sharp, heart-racing crescendos and an overwhelming sense of size and earth-shaking, cloud-surfing power. Thunderous, powerful music completely filled the room, only once or twice teetering just on the edge of being too loud to enjoy. Each movement of the performance was named after a species – Pelagornis, a seabird with a six metre wingspan, the three 3 metre tall flightless ‘terror bird’, Phorusrhacos, the aforementioned Archaeopteryx, and others. I know this from reading the blog post on Nonsemble’s website about the event, as regrettably the acoustics did not work in favour of any of the performers speaking to the crowd from their stage high above the exhibit.

Photo: Monique Sheldrake

When I was able to hear their electronic music player Chris Perren as he addressed the crowd, it was abundantly clear that he and the others were very passionate about the Archaeopteryx project. The performers were memorably funny and engaging and very willing to provide respect and credit to their sound technician, the museum staff, and the assisting research professionals. Nonsemble could not stop smiling and moving in time to the music as they played, which is something that always increases my personal enjoyment of any live performance. One can easily discern the amount of blood, sweat and tears that went into perfecting these pieces and their delivery. Nonsemble have a masterful understanding of creating atmosphere and depth in music and each member should be commended for the skill with which they play their respective instruments.

Photo: Monique Sheldrake

While the electronic music component was absolutely integral to the overall mood and storytelling of the performance, I felt that it often overshadowed the work of the violinists and cellist, both in terms of sheer volume blocking out the sound of the strings, as well as length sections where string music was not present at all. The former may have been a sound tech issue, which I cannot otherwise fault as I’m certain that optimising sound for an awkwardly-shaped, relatively open area such as a museum exhibit would be a Herculean effort which should not go unappreciated.

In addition to Queensland Museum’s normal array of fun and ever-changing projections and videos that were on display across the walls of the Lost Creatures exhibit, attendees were treated to a projected digital video directly below the stage which changed to match the music. The video presentation provided eye-catching neon silhouettes and animated outlines of dinosaurs in flight, along with warping and changing geometric shapes and patterns. I enjoyed letting my eyes wander from Nonsemble to the displays (particularly the giant centrepiece dinosaur fossil I was standing beside for the duration of the performance), to the video and then back to the performance.

Photo: Monique Sheldrake

I thoroughly enjoyed my time enjoying the work of Nonsemble and hearing and feeling the deep and rumbling music of Archaeopteryx deep in my cells. With a few tweaks in terms of sound balance to let the strings players really have a chance to shine, I would happily see this performance again or attend any future Nonsemble performances. I look forward to seeing more from this group in the future, as well as the use of the Queensland Museum as venue for live music and performance.