William Barton and his performance of the Australian String Quartet Square circles in the sand of the red desert, for voice, didjeridoo and string quartet, has delighted audiences since its premiere in 2017. This compelling work has been literally illuminated with the addition of a three-dimensional visual representation that uses virtual reality technology to accompany a recording of the music.
Before the abrupt but necessary blockade of Adelaide induced by COVID and the consequent cancellation of many of the events of the Illuminate Adelaide festival, VR square circles, co-created by Jumpgate Virtual Reality and Go Patterson Films, was shown at half-hour intervals in small groups inside a several-meter-wide temporary dome erected at the Queen’s Theater. Instead of being projected inside the dome, as planned, the video is presented with virtual reality glasses along with headphones. Members of the public soon find themselves transported to a magical universe.
When the video begins, we find ourselves inside a virtual dome that reproduces the physical dome we had introduced. Then the dome transforms into crystalline shapes like gems, and we soon come out of it and start floating in space, disembodied, physically separated from anything around us and we don’t see anyone else. We are soon levitating off the ground and into the sky. Turning our heads left and right, we see that we leave the Australian continent dry, gliding away from Earth, passing through the cratered moon and into space through swirling clouds of cosmic dust. We turn around the sun and head back to earth and then become aware of the colorful lines that meander with us, suggesting a rainbow of fellow sprits. We then enter the rain clouds and become drops of water, which fall like raindrops on the ground and sink into a huge underground cavern before rising again as new life. A flock of colorful spots, suggested by bird spirits, flies before our eyes above the glorious Australian landscape. The images suggest the cyclical journey of the sprites that inhabit the earth and all its life forms, leaving the planet and returning to it again.
As the video progresses, we listen to the recording of William Barton and the ASQ Square circles in the sand of the red desert, and music complements our visual experiences. We first hear Barton’s voice as he sings, as if calling to us, and then the strings of the ASQ combine with Barton’s legendary didjeridoo game to evoke the spiritual world of his land of Kalkadunga. Barton’s complex and powerful composition skillfully combines the sound of the quartet and their own play into a fascinating sound experience that becomes even more fascinating when accompanied by images.
When creating Square circles under the sand, Barton and the ASQ unite indigenous and Western cultural traditions to generate symbolically powerful music and translate the work into visual language provides a higher level of appreciation of the idea of a spirit on a journey. Virtual reality technology allows the viewer to be immersed in a more powerful way than a conventional show and two-dimensional projection. History no longer seems like an abstraction, but something tangible and accessible to everyone, regardless of their origin.
Barton and the scheduled performance of the ASQ live Square circles in the sand of the red desert and other works had to be canceled and, ideally, he would have attended as well VR square circles. The cancellation of many of Illuminate Adelaide’s promising events has been very disappointing and it is to be hoped that they can be presented in the future.