Melbourne Music Week (MMW) has a history of taking over and reinventing the least likely yet ultimately ideal spaces for its hub each year. In 2012, it was the then-abandoned Argus Building on Elizabeth Street. Last year, it was the State Library. In 2017, the nine-day festival will move into another unlikely home: St Paul’s Cathedral.
Its sandstone walls and soaring neo-Gothic arches will resonate with the sounds of Sampa The Great, DJ Hell and Jacques Greene. The adjacent cathedral car park will also host a mass of gigs throughout the week, both day and night, as well as events such as the Melbourne Music Market, a chance to both pick your weekly produce and flit through boxes of vinyl.
“People were not expecting us to go to the cathedral,” says MMW event manager Elise Peyronnet. “I think many people know it solely as an architectural landmark in Melbourne, but probably not from going in. I think that’s what we’re proud of, bringing people into different venues that they’re not usually exposed to.”
Following last year’s studious surrounds at the State Library, Peyronnet was keen to up the ante again. “I’ve had my eyes on St Paul’s Cathedral for a few years, but I always thought it was too big of a venue,” Peyronnet says in a silky Parisian accent. “But the stars aligned.”
“We made contact with Dean Andreas Loewe earlier this year,” she adds. “His response was very positive and enthusiastic. I guess we thought it would take more time to convince him, but he’s a real music fan. It’s probably the music that unified us.”
Dean Loewe played a pivotal role in putting this year's hub together. He’s an honorary fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, where he also lectures. His expertise as a music historian, combined with an intimate knowledge of the cathedral as a performance space, has proved invaluable. For the Anglican Church of Australia and the City of Melbourne, it’s been an unlikely and fruitful collaboration.
“At Melbourne Music Week we’re all about the community, and unifying the community,” says Peyronnet. “The Church has a similar mission through its own music. It’s a different genre of music, but it’s still the same spirit.”
She adds that without Dean Loewe and his team at the Anglican Diocese, “we wouldn’t have been able to get it across the line. I think we’re really lucky to have a dean in Melbourne who’s so open-minded.”
The cathedral regularly hosts functions, and is often rented out for large dinners, so there’s never been a problem with serving alcohol within its walls. As with any place of worship, there’s a time for reverence and also a time for revelry. The cathedral last year became a canvas for White Night projections, but Peyronnet says this is the first time its interior will be used for heavily amplified music.
The 1200-person-capacity cathedral lends itself to sternum-thwacking, low-frequency sounds. Anyone who’s experienced the nine-pedal, 44-stop organ music at St Paul’s can attest to the physicality of its acoustics. It’s unsurprising, then, that the cathedral is an incredible venue for accommodating techno and electronic dance music in all its forms.
“When you look at live music venues, the first step in the process is seeing whether it’s going to work with the acoustics,” Peyronnet explains. “We brought in a production company early on to consult on the sound design, and this program reflects the acoustics of the venue. We’re not playing heavy rock inside the cathedral, it’s more electronica and electronic music.”
“Last year, when we were at the State Library, we had restrictions because we were working in a heritage-listed building. So now we really know how to manage those limitations.” Literal truckloads of production equipment – speakers, trussing, staging and each artist’s own gear – must be measured in advance to ensure that it can fit through the cathedral’s modest entrances, and MMW’s production set-up cannot leave a trace on the heritage-listed space. From a sound-engineering standpoint, an artist’s vocals can easily be muddied in such an echoing, cavernous space. This means that mid-to-high frequencies must be expertly finessed.
Peyronnet and her production team have also had to consider the daily realities of working with a major institution, as it did last year.
“Both the State Library and St Paul’s are operating venues,” she says. “So the cathedral will continue to run its services every day, and there’s even a wedding happening on the Saturday. They have their own events, and we won’t be disturbing them. It’s up to us to work around it.
Melbourne Music Week runs November 17–25.
Tickets and more info available at mmw.melbourne.vic.gov.au.
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