The fundamental premise of the Dots+Loops brand will likely always be infinitely simpler in principle than it will likely ever be in execution.
Currently in its fifth year as a concept, Dots+Loops frames itself a post-genre event series devoted to bridging the many divides between the indie pop music scene (‘pop’ in this context meaning populist music forms, rather than any specific sound) and contemporary art & chamber music.
And, in terms of musical performances, Dots+Loops events have rarely faltered. Conviction, one of the brand’s major events for 2019, extends their winning streak, in that regard. It comprises, at the very least, two blinding performances and two that range from ‘interesting’ to ‘outstanding’. More generous observers might offer even favourable assessments.
The largely uncontested standout is Lotte Betts-Dean’s renditions of Hildegard von Bingen’s solo vocal works. Performing above a bar behind Suncorp Stadium in an unadorned office space, Betts-Dean’s immaculate vocal work and (extremely) subtle use of electronics combine with the aesthetics of the venue for a truly unique and transformative performance experience.
It’s hypnotic, beautiful and, in a strangely weightless way, gripping. The kind of performance that could easily open the minds of more populistly inclined audiences to the brilliance of opera and medieval art music. Which, when considered as a feat independent of the specific performance context, feels almost miraculous.
The other major triumph is Courtenay Clear’s performance of David Lang’s Mystery Sonatas. Both before and after the actual performance, chief curator (and general Dots+Loops honcho) Kieran Welch speaks effusively about the sheer technical impossibility of accurately rendering Lang’s latest work (none of which has been previously performed in Australia).
There is some debate to be had as to how much of that technicality and artistry translates to an outside audience. At times, the work seems abstract and gorgeous. At others, it simply seems obtuse and inscrutable. But, in terms of actual performance, Cleary unquestionably delivers something colossal in her renditions.
The remaining performances are as much a victim of context as anything within the respective performers’ professional skillsets. The live visual improvisations and orchestrations of multimedia trio Team Animal Spirits, presented alongside Cleary’s performance, are consistently beautiful and confounding. It’s beauty that baffles and stupefies in the most entrancing of ways.
Similarly, Tilman Robinson’s set – delivered as an ‘ambient’ backdrop for attendees and comprising live remixes of the very performances presented by Cleary and Betts-Dean – is, even when wandering into uninteresting noisy areas, a pretty brilliant and intriguing concept. In terms of an experience, it feels mostly bloodless.
And, that’s a large variable, when discussing Dots+Loops ‘success’, in terms of Conviction.
The performances? Largely exceptional, frequently tremendous.
But, that’s not really what Dots+Loops is trying to do. Not exclusively, anyway.
If a band delivers an amazing performance but the mix of their instruments is terrible or the acoustics of a venue damning, then it’s not considered a successful concert. By the same token, Conviction’s surfeit of remarkable performers doesn’t necessarily mean Conviction should be considered proportionately remarkable as an event.
Again, we return to that complicated reality of Dots+Loops fundamental preoccupation being much more difficult to execute than it is to simply intellectually define. Audiences engage with music in a myriad of different ways and a multitude of different contexts, depending on an exceptionally wide variety of mitigating factors.
As such, simply placing good performers with good material next to each other is never going to guarantee a good concert experience. In terms of Dots+Loops’ Conviction, the performances are good and the material is good but the experience of watching them is frequently uncomfortable, boring and confusing.
Case in point: Betts-Dean’s performance. For the most part, both without peer and without fault. But, sitting in chairs in a concrete office space in silence without conversation or visual titillation is not a typical (or comfortable) experience for a listener of populist music. Rather than bringing art music into a populist world (or vice versa), it brings everyone memories of school assemblies.
While that sounds like an inherently negative characterisation, it isn’t. Many audience members were both comfortable and engaged by the experience. But, does that experience align with the apparent intentions of Dots+Loops as a brand? No. And, this misalignment characterises Conviction as a whole. Each performance is marred by some conceptual or contextual awkwardness.
Having Team Animal Spirits and Courtenay Cleary perform simultaneously, for example, doesn’t really serve any particular purpose. There’s no tangible link between the visuals of one and the music of the other except that they are happening at the same time. It’s tempting to simply roll with the prettiness of both but, really, the lack of unity means both performances are fighting for focus.
Tilman Robinson’s set, meanwhile, consists of a premise that invites close examination, but is delivered in a format that encourages casual disinterest. While it’s intriguing to have a performer remix performances the audience has just seen into something new, the audience really would only be vaguely aware that such a thing was happening if they weren’t explicitly told.
If you’re told someone is about to do something tremendously difficult or artful, but you’re also told not to pay too much attention, what do you do? What is your recollection of that experience? It’s not the electricity of live performance. More likely, it’s a vague memory of something tricky happening at the same place where you just happened to be once.
In crafting Conviction, Dots+Loops have invested a great deal in content – but seemingly little in terms of context. Repeatedly, performances seem to deviate from the ostensible criteria on which the Dots+Loops brand is premised. And, by the end of the event, one cannot help but wonder: do Dots+Loops know what that criteria is?
Who is Conviction for? As a post-genre exercise, the obvious answer is ‘everyone’. But, Conviction is most definitely not an event for everyone. It is not presented in such a way that uninitiated audiences could wander in and be rewarded for their curiosity. The music is, for the most part, incredibly challenging and the presentation is such that it can only be engaged with in specific ways.
Those unaffiliated with chamber music, for example, may not be aware that it is considered bad form to clap after a single movement of a composition. One saves the clapping until the end of the composition. Dots+Loops very much expects its audience to adhere to that convention. The performers certainly don’t wait for applause and attempts to applaud early are discouraged.
But, those ‘rules of engagement’ are (seemingly) never explained.
So, clearly, Conviction very much isn’t for everyone. So, once again, who is it for? Presently, it seems like it’s for a very specific subset of Brisbane chamber music fans. Anyone who doesn’t exist within that world is likely to be quite challenged by proceedings on several fronts. Which is genuinely fine. But, not at all in line with the supposed purpose of Dots+Loops.
Ultimately, the reason why the execution of Dots+Loops is profoundly more difficult than the theoretical articulation of its premise is because the latter is about crafting an idea – and the former is about shaping an experience. With Conviction, Dots+Loops have stayed focused on the idea. In future, they need to focus on the experience.
MJ O’Neill saw Dots+Loops Conviction at Newstead Brewing Co. in Milton on Friday 28 Jun.
Dots+Loops Conviction featured:
Courtenay Cleary & Team Animal Spirits presenting David Lang’s Mystery Sonatas (Aus Premiere) .
Lotte Betts-Dean performing Hildegard von Bingen.
Tilman Robinson & Team Animal Spirits presenting Dots+Loops Conviction Remixed.
Photos by Daniel Lopez