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The Ambient Pilgrimage: Miles Brown, J.P. Shilo and the Unconscious Collective Live at ‘Crossing’

A convergence of some of the greatest sound artists, lighting designers and performers in Australia (and perhaps the world) was announced on the Dark MOFO line up as an event called ‘Crossing’ a few months ago. But what exactly was it? Names mentioned included the Melbourne-based theremin/synth genius Miles Brown. As well as two groups of artists (the House of Vnholy and the Unconscious Collective), and a list of venues: five churches spread across the state. The first performance in Launceston later boasted the international namesakes of Alexander Hacke; bassist for German industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten, and his wife and collaborator Danielle de Picciotto. But things (as they do) clashed quite annoyingly and I missed the Launceston performance. Thus, when the time came, my friends and I were as eager as ever to venture along to the Kempton leg of ‘Crossing’ and bear witness to whatever was going to go on there.

Piled into the back of a car, yawning and relishing in how tired we all were, we rolled into the township of Kempton (population of around 350, as my cousin later informed me) to an old wooden church full of people,doused in a green lighting installation. Inside, things were already getting underway; we sat on the floor and listened to the opening performance of the evening. Hobart based sound/installation artist Matt Warren played a hypnotic floor tom while another performer wandered up and down the aisle, pouring bark and tree leaves onto the floor.

When we were on our way to Kempton, a member of the car ride (while trying to locate the church on Google Maps) discovered a ream of controversial remarks about ‘Crossing’. On an online information page about the event, church and community members had decried their belief that the acts and performances of ‘Crossing’ were in some way related to the occult. A lady had written on the church website, pleading that the Kempton Church board cancel the event as it would send “the wrong message” about the church’s ‘interests’. Later, I stumbled upon a similar plea in relation to the performance in Oatlands…

After Miles Brown and co. had finished playing in Kempton, a man dressed as a pirate told me that somebody had been circulating a video that claimed Miles Brown was a known and practicing Satanist. While these claims were as false as they could get, when we stumbled upon the church in Kempton I realized how ignorance and first-glance assumptions could have led to such an assessment. Covered in eerie green, the church felt particularly Southern gothic-esque: helped by piles of wavering sticks and bark tied to the platform at the front of the church’s pulpit. When Warren concluded, Miles Brown, seven feet tall, dubbed in a black robe, entered wearing a tribal headpiece looking spooky enough for everybody to reach for their phone’s camera. Following closely behind came on of Australia’s greatest composers/musicians, the much shorter but perhaps more mysterious J.P. Shilo (of the Hungry Ghosts, Blackeyed Susans and more). Atop the pulpit where Brown stood was his theremin, perched like a bird.. Shilo disappeared to Browns left and took up a position at the antique pump church organ. For the next forty minutes, the two men performed several tunes and soundscaped backings with the help of a programmed drum beat. Brown, the leader of the show, displayed a spectral but thoroughly enjoyable theremin and occasionally synth performance: think a crossover between the soundtrack to a horror film, and a kind of Fripp influenced, medieval synthpop album. His offsider Shilo played tightly as the backing structure of the music: the organ keeping rhythmic backdrop to the theremin’s solo outcries. Together they sounded hauntingly beautiful and the church proved an equally fantastic venue: intimate and tense.

We had soup and stood outside as the crowd washed away into the Kempton night. By the time we found an open fire to crowd around, one of the lighting designers (who looked like a modern day Sinbad) begun to tell us of his experience helping out on ‘Crossing’. Whether he realized it or not, his recollection was one of journey; from one church to the next, from one crowd to another, this journey influenced the mood and the performance at each stop along the map.

The following evening, Crossings’ party of artists arrived weary, like a gothic circus troupe, into the large Scots-Memorial Uniting Church in the middle of Hobart. Crammed to the brim with confused onlookers, my friends and I watched again as Brown and Shilo (this time assisted by Warren on cymbals) performed various reinterpreted sketches from the night before. It was interesting all over, but something was different about the larger church and much bigger crowd. Afterwards, we thanked Shilo for the performance and told him we had witnessed it all in Kempton the night before. In response, he smiled, saying, ‘I think I liked that one more, much more intimate’.

For us, ‘Crossing’ was the end of Dark MOFO (none of us fancied going for a naked swim), and after Shilo whisked away and the towering Miles Brown had shaken hands abound, we bid farewell to the nameless Jack Sparrow-looking lighting designer, who in the corner of his eye seemed stressed and tired at the thought of dismantling all the gear he had so carefully set up. But his eyes shone with a tired relief and a thankful manner that he had been a part of the whole journey, and we turned and ventured back into the city.

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