Last week I covered the Vivid Sydney festival for inthemix and its sister website, FasterLouder. Vivid is billed as a festival of “light, music and ideas.” It’s most obvious component is visual: a number of buildings in the waterfront area of the city around Circular Quay, including the Sydney Opera House, are lit up each night during the festival with often spectacular colored lights and projections. But it also features some truly adventurous live music programming over eight days, all of the gigs taking place in the various rooms of the Opera House. (This aspect of the event is known as Vivid LIVE.) I reviewed five shows in six nights. It was demanding but fun. I’ve gathered all five reviews here into one post.

Saturday 26 May: Efterklang with Sydney Symphony

Approaching the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Saturday night, I get my first look at the light show that will grace its iconic “sails” throughout Vivid – the illusory spectacle of a gigantic woman lying on the roof, restlessly rolling all over it and idly knocking about its famous tiles. It’s strangely alluring. The projection is more elaborate than I remember from previous editions – a fitting harbinger for the elaborate music I encounter inside.

The Danish band Efterklang are in town for a performance specially commissioned by Vivid LIVE. Acclaimed for their lush, complex “indie chamber pop,” the group were invited to world-premiere songs from their unreleased fourth album, Piramida, at the Opera Theatre with the Sydney Symphony.

The Piramida Concert, as it’s called, is an excellent way to kick off a week of Vivid gigs, which tend toward the arty, the adventurous and – inevitably, because it’s the Opera House – the orchestral. It’s easy to make fun of the overweening ambition that can lead a pop performer to take on a posse of string players, but it’s actually produced some of the most memorable live music of recent years, from Portishead to Björk to Sufjan Stevens (who performs here later this week).

As the theatre hushes and the half dozen guys in Efterklang take the stage with the 30-plus members of the Symphony, the swirling sound that begins to reverberate in the room (indeed, the band’s name means “reverberation”) is suitably impressive, ethereal and autumnal – somehow crisp and delicate at once. The band’s stuff is a bit like Sufjan crossed with Arcade Fire – playing the flighty experimentalism of the former off the earthiness of the latter, with the moodiness of both – but the orchestra takes the material and shapes it into something effortlessly large and profound and timeless. A chorus of three female singers adds a subtly angelic touch; the sound is enhanced by electronic keyboards and effects, a welcome contrast to the classical instruments that seems perfectly natural. (The further we go into the future, the more electronica devours every other kind of music, but that’s another story.) Geometric shapes projected behind them (the album’s title means “pyramid”) add to the atmosphere.

Competing with conductor Matthew Coorey for space on the crowded stage, dressed in a salmon-coloured dinner jacket and jeans, lanky lead singer Casper Clausen is an impossibly twee but surprisingly charismatic frontman. His mincing steps, comic gestures and infectious energy (comparisons to David Byrne are unavoidable) provide an effective balance with the earnestness of the intricate music. His voice is powerful for such a skinny frame, reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. He and bassist Rasmus Stolberg both sport bowties and possibly un-ironic moustaches, and occasionally sip something out of mysterious metal bottles that rest on the stage. “They’re so Danish,” my friend says. And proud: at one point Clausen reminds us that Jørn Utzon, legendary designer of the place, was Danish too. This fact is also highlighted in the press material, so it’s clearly an important touchstone for them, and a reminder that the Opera House is one of the world’s great buildings.

The performance sags around the middle, some of the songs becoming unsatisfyingly thin and middle-of-the-road. On the one hand ,the more successful numbers come across like orchestral or experimental constructions with pop elements woven in. These seem to be the ones arranged by collaborator Karsten Fundal, who is sitting in the audience (and eventually gets a bouquet of flowers chucked at him by the playful Clausen). The less successful ones reverse that formula, feeling like pop with an orchestra added, and get bogged down with overly cute choruses or melodies that don’t quite click.

I can’t help but be more interested in the Symphony. I’m not exactly qualified to critique them, but the overall effect of the sound is naturally hypnotic. The highlight of the concert is a two-part piece called “Vælv,” written by Fundal alone rather than the band. During the second part, the band leaves the stage entirely and the Symphony launches into a powerful extended movement that swoops and soars and flutters in layered lines of melody like something by beloved 20th- century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (An instinctive comparison, but it sort of makes sense, as Vaughan Williams innovated the practice of adapting folk tunes for large symphonies). The piece is ravishing, and earns the biggest applause of the night.

The closing number, “Monument,” is pretty good too, and features some terrific film projections – black-and-white footage of an expedition in some icy northern sea that suggests a narrative tying in with the music. It would have been nice to see more of this during the rest of the concert. As the performance winds down, the crowd is rapturous, demanding a couple of encores and eventually lavishing a standing ovation on the Danish dudes and the Symphony alike. The Piramida Concert did not hit every mark for me, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening, and it’s impossible not to admire it as a musical achievement. Good on Vivid for making it happen as an exclusive one-off right here in Sydney.

Sunday 27 May: Seekae

Day three of Vivid, and I’m again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building façades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.

There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The band have built up quite a following in the past couple of years among fans of thoughtful electronica; it’s their first hometown gig in a while, and it’s reputed they’ve put together an extra-special show to match the upmarket setting.

As Seekae are joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I recall the Efterklang/Sydney Symphony concert last night, and I marvel at all the energy and ambition put into all the Vivid gigs this week. I do wonder if I’ll be seeing Seekae in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking (if you will) elusive magic.

Not that Seekae play it safe anyway – the music is adventurous as word of mouth has advertised, offering a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop à la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together.

There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming. The string ensemble add an impressive dimension, but as I noted at the Efterklang concert, I am easy to please when it comes to orchestral manoeuvres. Despite the complex feel to the sound, there’s a buoyant sense of fun to the proceedings. I could do without the dubsteppy stuff, but hey.

One thing: the band are dressed as casually as if they were playing in a garage, with rumpled jeans and sneakers. Nothing wrong with that; you gotta admire their unpretentiousness, but come on – if you were booked to play at Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t you want to dress it up a little just for fun? Maybe put on a funky vest, a cowboy tie, some mascara – or all of the above?

The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twentysomethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However as the night goes on, it’s a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such). Rather than being dull or restrained, there’s something cozy about it. The music envelopes the room completely – the acoustics are perfect, of course, and aren’t too loud. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.

That clarity is both good and bad; it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.

The performance has its ups and downs too. The string players abruptly get up leave the stage about halfway through the show without taking a bow. It’s awkward, and disappointing at first, as it seems to derail the whole idea of the special theatrical gig. But in fact, having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them – and they come up with some of their best moments afterwards. The baby grand piano at stage left figures prominently in the quietly beautiful songs at the show’s heart.

Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals accompanied by haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Apparently vocals are new to the Seekae game, but I was impressed. As things wind down, the show picks up with fan favourites from acclaimed albums The Sound of Trees Falling on People and +Dome that are more funky and tuneful. The reception from the crowd is warm. The guys in the band have said that this is their biggest gig ever, and they deserve kudos for having the guts to try out some new sounds on such a stage.

What Seekae sometimes lack in melody, they eventually make up for with atmosphere; and their verve, confidence and willingness to take chances are all the more impressive given their unassuming demeanour. This show did not blow me away, but the key thing is they may have made a new fan. These are some extremely talented, genuine young dudes and they’re going places. During a week when we’ll be checking out plenty of world-class talent at the Opera House, Sydney should be glad to claim them as their own.

Tuesday 29 May: Imogen Heap

UK singer/songwriter and “digital diva” Imogen Heap was invited to perform an informal sunset recital for Vivid in the North Foyer of the Opera House. Heap is known for incorporating a spectrum of organic and digital sounds into her performances via a high-tech setup, including a pair of custom-made gloves wired to let her control the music with Wii-like gestures. But here she’s limited to a baby grand piano and it’s all about the songs – specifically six songs from her latest project, Heapsongs, which she created with input from fans around the world who sent her “song seeds” in the form of words, images and recorded sounds.

At first, the session is hit or miss. It’s too cold in the foyer. The bar right behind us is disappointingly closed, but for some reason the bartender stands there for the entire show anyway. And strangely, given Heap’s trademark technophilia, there are glitches in the matrix. She’s meant to perform the songs accompanied by their video clips on three monitors behind her; it’s as cumbersome as it sounds – she has to synch with a click track in her headset, and simply starts over when she messes up a couple of times. The video feed is straight from her laptop; between songs we see her fiddling with her software onscreen.

Heap talks a lot, explaining each song, and explaining it some more. It’s more like a TED talk than a show (no stretch as Heap is a TED veteran). Her piano interpretations of these intricate digital constructions have a bizarre once-removed feeling; she describes how she sampled a classroom full of kids; we see the kids in the video, but hear only her. As she admits, we’re experiencing the songs “as they were never meant to be heard.”

But I’m soon taken in. Heap’s spacey rambling, which reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s, is funny and charming, at times highly emotional. Her stories about her creative processes are pretty cool; she based one song on a fan’s recording of an unborn child’s heartbeat; another was a sonic collaboration with the citizens of Hangzhou, China.

In the end, the unplugged vibe actually works. Heap treats the piano like just another machine, and there’s something interesting about imagining about all of these sounds and contributors (Bollywood singers, birds, Slinkys) while Heap paints aural pictures to interpret them. The songs themselves are heartfelt, sometimes twee, filled with fantastic lyrical imagery that could be from Tolkien or Miyazaki. People transform into trees. Machines feel emotion. A crumbling wall speaks.

Heap’s boundless desire to share her music and herself with fans and ordinary people, coupled with her ingenious ways of going about it, are ultimately infectious. She concludes by inviting us to participate in her latest collaborative experiment. The Listening Chair, unveiled at the Opera House this week, is an egg-shaped retro-futuristic lounge chair outfitted with recording devices to gather information from whomever sits in it about what songs they think are missing from the world. It’s an idea as weird and wonderful as its creator.

Wednesday, 30 May: Karen O in Stop the Virgens

From the word-of-mouth buzz, Stop the Virgens was clearly one of the hot tickets of Vivid. The brainchild of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and K.K. Barrett, visionary production designer for films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, the show debuted in Brooklyn last fall before coming to Sydney Opera House. It’s billed as a “psycho opera” – a musical fantasia featuring outlandish costumes and sets, a hard-edged score and O’s famous banshee pipes. The band/orchestra includes fellow Yeahs Nick Zinner (one of the music directors) and Brian Chase, along with keyboard legend Money Mark.

Note: you can’t say “There’s not a bad seat in the house” about the Opera Theatre; the view from the balcony is awful. You have to lean over the rail to see anything at all. Before the show I look down: Virgens move about the house with trancelike motions, oblivious to the patrons as they take their seats. Onstage a Sentinel glares at folks the front row. Clearly there’s some scary interactive shit in store for us tonight.

The show kicks in with an ominous whoosh. Where to begin describing things? There’s a gaggle of Virgens and an entire chorus of Virgen Acolytes, with shimmering white toga-like costumes and platinum wigs. Sentinels in flowing purplish robes, resembling the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, flank the stage, which is transformed into a numinous fantasy realm with elemental motifs of trees, snow, water and blood. O is the witchlike Narrator. They interact with ritualistic flair. Symbolic violence is constantly threatened.

The costumes are what get the attention. Karen O has already joined the ranks of meta-fashion plates like Björk, M.I.A and a certain other annoying superstar who doesn’t need any free publicity from me; this show ups the ante. The costumes are crazy enough. O flaunts many variations on the fairy-tale diva/goddess/gangster moll and sings into a bejewelled animal’s horn. The show’s visual and thematic touchstones are Maurice Sendak (obviously), Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Rocky Horror, Wagner and I’m guessing various other actual operas, although I’m less educated on that score.

So what’s the story about? Beats me. The visual scheme and choreography suggest rites of passage, primal emotion and pain, universal forces like death and menstruation – but nothing adds up. Like a music video, it doesn’t really have to be about anything I guess. But it dances a bit too close to camp for my taste. There’s only so many ways a chorus of Virgen Acolytes can gesticulate wildly and writhe around onstage before it gets silly. At times the whole thing seems nothing more than an elaborate ode to the joys of fabric: the costumes, the curtains, the swathes and swatches and bundles of many-coloured fabric that are constantly wrapped around the characters and danced with and chucked all over the place.

On its own terms, Stop the Virgens delivers the goods. It’s dynamic, it’s fabulous, it’s a feast for the senses. If you’re into spectacle, noise and fabric, this is your thing. Did I mention the costumes?

But it’s lacking depth, to say the least. As theatre or opera it doesn’t work without narrative; the music kicks ass but keeps getting upstaged. The raucous curtain call at the end gets the crowd pumped, but spoils the otherworldy atmosphere and goes on for way too long. The one real, undeniable thing is Karen O’s explosive voice. The rest seems frivolous and disposable. How did the Yeahs get to the rock-opera stage already? In simpler times they unleashed a transcendent cyclone of sound with just two instruments and that voice. There’s more power and fantasy in that voice alone than in all the costume changes you can dream of.

Friday 1 June: Future Classic Studio Party with Isolée, Jacques Renault and Flume

When I get into the Studio for the Future Classic Studio Party, the place is packed and the dancefloor is lively. Sydney up-and-comer Flume is mid-set, rocking Biggie Smalls over an electro-breakbeat track mash-up style, and it’s a bit overmixed and noisy. More breaks follow, on a tangent somewhere between dubstep and G-funk. The crowd is pumped. The tracks are not bad, although some of them sound a bit like commercial R&B, but the kid doesn’t seem to want to mix tonight – relying instead on echoes and effects between tracks. And I could really do without him doing the hands-in-the-air thing like he was headlining a festival, and getting on the mic. Call me a purist.

While the Future Classic DJs mix things up between sets, I head out to grab a drink and check out the DJs in the lounge. They’re playing some choice classics of the ’80s garage and electro-disco variety. Wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more of that inside, honestly.But when I head back into the studio, Isolée (otherwise known as Rajko Müller) is on and things have turned around. The agenda is deep as expected. He’s playing his own material, which he has years’ worth to draw on, and it’s scintillating stuff. The nice thing is the crowd is really into it – people say minimal or deep stuff is over, but get someone who knows how to rock it and see how it moves people. The interesting thing is, here on the dancefloor this stuff doesn’t actually sound very “minimal” or “micro” at all. It’s chock-a-block with gorgeous strings, playful synths and keys, tribal drums and haunting soulful vocals. It just sounds like really beautiful and well-done house with a tech edge. And thankfully he’s one of those producers who knows how to play a live set like a proper DJ – the set is smooth as butter, with terrific buildups and breakdowns that stretch out the vibe expertly.

Jacques Renault comes billed as Mr. Disco, but during the 90 minutes or so I catch of his set it’s not really disco, garage nor even old-school house he’s rocking. Instead it’s an interesting simulacrum of the bright, bold big-club house of the ’90s, the stuff we heard at Twilo or the Tunnel in a bygone era. We’re talking hard-hitting drum sounds with huge kicks and dry, untreated high-hats; power keyboard riffs and strings; predictable but totally effective buildups and breakdowns that ooze drama; sexy diva vocal samples. These days it’s hard to tell if DJs are playing this kind of stuff ironically – you know, with air quotes – or if they mean it. The reason it’s OK either way is because it’s exactly a million times more real and soulful than the horrible progressive stuff that a majority of jocks hammer; and when a party is packed at peak time, sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed. It’s a proven formula and a hell of a lot of fun.

The downside? Same as back then: the predictability, the dry sounds – after a couple of hours, it starts to sound too much like commercial club music; and makes you pine for the sinister magic of old-school and deep house. Which is why the “minimal” sound of Isolée and his ilk was so revolutionary when it first hit in the late ’90s. (Actually, now that I think about it, the dynamic between the two schools just shows the typically clever and thoughtful programming of the Future Classic guys).

But give Renault credit: he’s a really good mixer – not only smooth on the fader but making good narrative choices, alternating the diva-y stuff with (good) progressive or tech (even working in some breakbeats). He builds the vibe section by section, knowing exactly when to tease the crowd with a bit of EQ action and when to just let ’er rip. And I’m sure this was just a taste of his repertoire – would love to catch him on the next go round and hear him dig in the crates.