Water Pushes Sand

Kristian Pithie

Australian Art Orchestra's latest offering at this year's Melbourne Festival
Water Pushes Sand

The Australian Art Orchestra's latest work, Water Pushes Sand, premiered ​as part of the Melbourne Festival. It was billed as being like a big band with an avant-garde, blues/roots feel. Fifteen years in the making, the work was a series of pieces that were rich in style and whose delivery was punchy and raucous. This hour long performance was operatic at times and jazzy at others. Folky and melodic to urbane and chaotic, it was a delightful and rewarding experience for the rapturous audience.

If anything, Water Pushes Sand exposed the limitations of Western instruments. The saxophone by Tim O’Dwyer, and Peter Knight’s trumpet whilst virtuosic, couldn’t compete with the complexity of micro-tones the Sichuan instruments could deliver. It was only the vibrant percussion by Vanessa Tomlinson (energetic and octopus-like in her ability to swap between instruments) and Samuel Pankhurst on the double bass that could match the sharpness of some of the pieces.

Erik Griswold’s compositions made sure there were some sublime smooth jazz piano moments, which slipped in softly and felt like a comfortable armchair, before bouncing off and taking us back to more complex and difficult places. Zhou Tao Tao provided some stunning colour on the Guzheng (Chinese string instrument).

A major criticism was the staging. The orchestra were bookended by two towering columns of beautiful Chinese lanterns, and upstage hung a white screen. The images on the screen whilst evocative at times would have been better projected onto the lanterns as an abstraction, as they were not of sufficiently high quality and ended up being more of a distraction than anything else.

The highlight of the night was the very last piece, which involved Zheng Sheng Li, a Cheng Du dancer, moving through a series of striking poses and elegant gestures. He is listed in the notes as a Sichuan Opera Face Changing dancer and this description lived up to all expectations. His masks changed (no less than 14 times) before our very eyes like pure magic. The audience were spellbound, spontaneously bursting into applause with each change, looking to each other as if to say ‘Did you just see that?’ He wandered through the audience who hadn’t clue how it was happening; the closer he got the more mystifying it was.

Water Pushes Sand was an ambitious undertaking. For the most part it paid off. In the theatre we know so little about China except for its size, its glorious food and the country’s appetite for wealth. This was a fine example of all that is possible when art and those who practice it are given the great gift of time to develop deep and generous relationships.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Water Pushes Sand
Australian Art Orchestra and Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Melbourne Festival
Composition and Piano: Erik Griswold
Trumpet, Artistic Director: Peter Knight
Drums and Percussion: Vanessa Tomlinson
Saxophone: Tim O'Dwyer​

With Zheng Sheng Li, Shi Lei, Zhou Yu, Zhou Taotao and Zhong Kaizhi

Melbourne Festival
8-25 October

About the author

Kristian Pithie is a writer on the arts. You can follow him @kristianpithie.