Hugely popular as author of The Sandman graphic novels and the acclaimed animated film Coraline, based on his novella, Neil Gaiman filled Hamer Hall for an almost three hour excursion into his darkly imaginative world. As he had promised, we did “laugh and cry and shudder” as we immersed ourselves in his genre-bending collaboration with FourPlay String Quartet.
There was no printed program available for purchase, only a book featuring illustrations in black and white and orange, and a recording presented in CD and vinyl formats. Both were of much greater value than some glossy souvenir program with limited pertinent information. The book, What You Need to be Warm,features a short poem by Gaiman based on people’s memories of being warm, with short sections illustrated by twelve artists from different countries. In addition to raising awareness of the plight of refugees, Gaiman gifted his poem to the United Nations Refugee Agency for fund raising.
The high production values of the Signs of Life album show a similar commitment to creating connections. Introductory notes and lyrics are provided within a beautifully illustrated booklet – particularly for the vinyl version – a giant skull overlayed with images of people cultivating beauty. In the midst of death is life, and vice versa – very much a Gaiman juxtaposition. The concert was essentially a “CD launch” with these original songs presented on stage alongside inventively re-imagined standards. My CD even included signatures of all five performers: Gaiman himself and the four classically trained Sydney string players he has worked with since 2010: founding brothers Tim Hollo (violin and viola) and Peter Hollo (cello), Lara Goodridge (violin and vocals) and Shenzo Gregorio (viola).
The concert opened with the Quartet, lights down almost to black with a scattering of orange glowing from the sides. Much of FourPlay’s musical idiom leans towards a minimalism reminiscent of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, with acknowledged inspiration from Kronos Quartet evident. Repetitive chords shifted beneath an affecting solo melody, Gregorio’s instrument attached to substantial electronic paraphernalia via an orange umbilical cord. The use of amplification, looping and a backing track added to the complexity and musical interest of this piece and so much of what was to come.
Then the “guest artist” joined FourPlay for Clock with its insistent 60 bpm metronomic ticking as Gaiman read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 – “When I do count the clock that tells the time”. It is the first of a suite of twelve works constructed around the concept of the zodiac. Through a process of improvisation, FourPlay had developed the instrumental component, while Gaiman later chose the sonnet to accompany it.
Interspersed among works from the Signs album, Gaiman spoke to the audience, making sure that he gave Melbourne its due. We might have missed out on the version of Bloody Sunday with a guest singer and xylophone given at the Sydney Opera House, but we were given our own special surprise star (big cheer from the audience at that announcement) in the form of the glamorous Lady Rizo. From the disconsolate title words to a furious “I want to blow up my computer”, she sang Gaiman’s version of a torch song I Google You with alluring style. Not that Lara Goodridge’s performance Bloody Sunday seemed in any way a consolation prize; her depiction of what FourPlay described as a “lovelorn, pining vampiress” was riveting. Her many vocal contributions were consistently outstanding – pure in tone, expressive and musical. Goodridge has a vibrant personality that added that extra zing and sense of involvement to the evening.
Gaiman himself was no slouch as a vocalist, albeit often in the vein of Rex Harrison’s brand of semi-spoken singing. Although he made effective vocal contributions to pieces such as Clock, he seemed to enjoy sharing one reviewer’s “he sings like a novelist” assessment of his abilities. He went on to share a less self-deprecating anecdote from a fan, who told him that he has a speaking voice that would make reading a dictionary sound interesting. With that, he proceeded to read a lengthy entry from Ware’s Victorian era dictionary of slang, specifically, the words related to what comes after the alternative spoken version of FourPlay. There are an awful lot of them, only some familiar and many hilarious. Gaiman’s mellifluous, seductive timbre was well suited to this surprisingly wide-ranging assemblage of English usage. His later rendition of the Donaldson and Kahn song Makin’ Whoopee was a nice segue.
For story-telling Gaiman’s voice is a powerful instrument for drawing you in. Using his singular talent for beguiling intimacy, he opened the second half of the program with Click-Clack the Rattlebag, a tale of unexpected treachery. We certainly experienced a shudder as he led us up the dark staircase hand in hand with that creepy boy.
Anecdotes, such as his obsession with Batman, intrigued and delighted. Stories were also woven into looping, floating songs such as Möbius Strip. “My grandfather took a strip of paper. Do you want to see something magic, he asked. I nodded.”
Suffering is given dramatic voice in The Wreckers, with the fate of ships lured onto the Cornish coast acting as a prelude to the intense pain of losing a child. FourPlay’s setting of Gaiman’s moving poem, which attempts to offer consolation to a grieving friend, combines harmony with occasional atonal clashes.
One of the earliest works performed was one of the most powerful and seemed to resonate with the times. “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea, because ideas are invisible and contagious and they move fast” is the opening statement of Credo. Although it is arguable that freedom of expression is more harmful than Gaiman might optimistically believe, his words are persuasive in their detail and unpretentious directness – “You probably think some of my ideas are pretty vile, too.” There is a passion for freedom and moral justice evident that also finds expression in his United Nations book. As a supremely eloquent wordsmith, Gaiman makes a plea for moral justice without sounding sanctimonious. His leavening of humour coupled with a sense of deep compassion helps. Fourplay’s sensitive setting – “a sombre, steady melody, long notes at equal measures that were at once meditative and ominous …. one long crescendo and diminuendo” gave the work considerable gravitas.
As we approach what has become a divisive scheduling of Australia Day, the performance of Gaiman’s “Poem first read on January 26th at the Sydney Opera House” took on extra significance. FourPlay provided sound effects, with Peter Hollo’s cello acting as a remarkably convincing didgeridoo (perhaps the aural equivalent of blackface though?) while Gaiman conjured up a series of vivid images as he described the conquest and extinction of Australian megafauna and people.
Lighting played a major role in creating atmosphere and visual interest, the eight spots directed on the back curtain changing with each segment. But the most spectacular moment came with the final pre-encore song, In Transit, as the myriad stalactite ceiling lights bathed the hall in muted blue. This ethereal transformation was a fitting context for Gaiman’s poem about the wonders of stargazing and the theory of relativity.
The Problem with Saints, a humorous song with a marching beat about an intrusively annoying Joan of Arc returned from the dead, was the second of two encores and perhaps a curious way to end the concert. Insistent concluding lines of “The British will no longer rule the world” sounded a little odd coming from an Englishman. But that’s Neil Gaiman for you – always coming up with something to throw at us from left field in the most unexpectedly original way.
Heather Leviston reviewed Neil Gaiman and FourPlay String Quartet’s “Signs of Life”, presented at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on January 18, 2024.