Winter is frostily foreboding itself here in Melbourne, yet the converted warehouse venue in Brunswick known as Tempo Rubato was warmly buzzing with a sold-out crowd last Friday.

Billed as a “contemporary electric violin recital”, this concert was a chance for the evening’s feature artist Xani Kolac to road-test a showcase solo performance in her hometown, before boarding a flight to Berlin the following Monday, selected to perform at the highly-regarded Classical:NEXT music conference.

The stage at Tempo Rubato had been transformed for the show. The venue’s architectural, yet somewhat stark overhead lighting was unusually dimmed, and the ornate Stuart & Sons grand piano that usually dominates the cooly minimalist performance space had been hidden by an arc of upright effect lighting strips, encircling a foot pedal rack displaying enough blinking lights to create an art installation of its own.

With the space full, the room lights dimmed to black, choreographed stage lights began spinning hypnotic patterns on the roof, and Kolac entered the arc, picking up a five-string electric violin to start layering propulsive minimalist-style semiquavers over atmospheric synthesiser pads. This clearly wasn’t a regular violin recital.

Xani Kolac. Photo © Michelle Grace Hunder

Chatting with the audience between her self-created works, the endearingly open, yet undeniably charismatic Kolac explained that despite being a solo violinist, she didn’t particularly identify as a classical musician herself, and was more interested in exploring everything outside the violin’s classical identity.

Playing an instrument so deeply associated with, even iconically representing the classical tradition, this is easier said than done, particularly while also avoiding kitsch and cliché. Thankfully, she achieved her mission in riveting style.

The sheer kaleidoscope of colours Xani elicited from her violin throughout the show was a marvel, and a consistent joy to experience.

From layering rhythmic folk bow “chops” with effects to sound like a DJ scratching a vinyl record, to beautifully incorporating and even highlighting stutters and unexpected bow lifts a more classical player might just consider an “accident”, and finishing with flawless fingered pizzicato à la acoustic guitar while singing a slinky love song, she consistently demonstrated unexpected, inventive and truly unique ways of using the instrument.

Her rhythmic skill was even more impressive. I kept searching for an in-ear click, or visual metronome, sure that she couldn’t possibly be consistently layering close to ten complex loops without everything collapsing. She modestly quelled my curiosity following the show: no click, no metronome, just a lot of practice.

However, the music, technique and overall concept on display was so excellent that sound production was notably lacking in comparison.

The front of house speakers were simply not of a quality level befitting this show. There were a number of points throughout the evening where mixing was noticeably an issue. The live violin wasn’t loud enough, or everything else was too quiet. Certain loops faded too far into the background, or levels suddenly changed as new layers were added.

I suspect remedying some of these issues will involve trial and error with onstage technology and performance workflow. However, a more active and experienced sound engineer would have significantly improved show as a whole.

The engineer on this show was at multiple disadvantages: they were concurrently running the whole lightshow, and were also mixing from a far corner of the room, which would have made it very challenging to effectively balance the quadrophonic (four speaker surround) setup. For any show involving electronics of this complexity, the sound engineer has to be treated as an equally important collaborative artist.

Without sufficient consultation and resources, sound issues are bound to happen, and the ensuing blame is almost always allocated to the sound person, despite the cause being largely outside of their control. We owe fellow artists better than that. However, there is the distinct combined possibility this engineer was also in over their head.

Sound production aside, the hour-and-a-half concert was a gripping, emotional, sonically diverse journey. Xani has courageously carved out a genuinely unique space as an artist. She combines diverse appeal with musical ingenuity, undeniable talent and charisma, and is truly worth experiencing and supporting.

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