It’s Thursday, and it’s one of the hottest days of summer in Perth. It’s beautiful on the beaches and in the parks but in the CBD there is little shade and walking in the streets, through the bright canyons between the office towers, it’s as if every drop of moisture is being extracted from my skin.
Before heritage protection laws came in in the 1990s, many of Perth’s elegant, more human-scale buildings were destroyed in favour of these high-rise monuments to mining money that reflect the sun’s glare and provide no shade. “These are developers’ buildings – easy and cheap to construct, but paying little attention to our hot, sunny climate or the architecture of earlier generations,” the former executive director of Heritage Perth Richard Offen once said of the architecture that started going up in the mining boom of the 1980s.
It’s almost eerie, this bank of steel and glass towers rising from desert and dust in one of the most isolated capital cities on earth. The scene is futurist in the manner of a JG Ballard novel, but with the boom waning and the homeless appearing on the streets, the tone is less triumphant and more elegiac. Seen in this light, it seems apt that Perth was chosen as one of the few cities in the world where Uber’s driverless cars will be tested. Whether by default or not, humans are being designed out of this landscape.
Up in one of the glass towers on St George’s Terrace, on a disused floor, there are two desks scattered with empty bottles of water and expensive cold brew coffee next to a bank of controls. At one of the desks sits a guy in noise-cancelling headphones, facing the skyline. The room has a dystopian, end-of-the-mining-boom vibe about it.
The man in the headphones is Tom Supple, one half of curatorial duo Supple Fox. Hannah Fox, the other half of Supple Fox, is nearby, as is collaborator Byron J Scullin. The team behind the ethereal sound art piece, Siren Song, that debuted at Dark Mofo last year, are staging a 10-day “reimagining” of the work for the Perth festival and this abandoned office floor is their control room.
As in Hobart, there are around 500 speakers attached to buildings in the CBD that, at dawn and dusk, broadcast music made by human voices. The song plays for approximately seven minutes as a helicopter, also with speakers attached, circles the city. The song changes in each performance depending on the movement of the helicopter and where you are standing in the city, but it sounds like a series of chants and incantations that switch between singular notes and choral sounds. Vocalists include Noongar singers Kristal Kickett and Karla Hart, alongside Carolyn Connors, Deborah Cheetham, Tanya Tagaq and Tara Tiba. Their concert hall is the skyscrapers and canyons of the city.
The work opened Perth festival on 9 February. Scullin describes the experience of hearing it as “intensity by stealth.” Supple, however, repeatedly describes the work as an “incursion”, a word usually used in war to describe an invasion or a hostile entrance to a territory.
He compares the Perth Siren Song to the Tasmanian version: “Here you have people in their office blocks. People are listening to it from their towers. You see them come up to the glass,” he says. “There is something interesting about seeing businessmen [listening] at their windows, in their vertical prisons. ”
In a way, Siren Song could be seen as the incursion of the feminine, through the voices of the female vocalists, into a very hard, male corporate space.
There is also an added element of surprise here in Perth. “One guy said that he heard the sounds and came out of work and he told me, ‘I thought the rapture had come’,” says Fox.
I saw the work last year in Hobart as part of Dark Mofo, and it is remarkable how much the canvas – in this case, a city – can change the actual experience of it. In Hobart, the helicopter approached from the water, before circling around the CBD. That city is physically more open than Perth – the buildings are lower, the harbour acts as a natural axis on which the city orients itself – and the sound bounced off the water more than the buildings.
Perth’s architectural canyons change the nature of the sound: last Thursday night, standing in Perth’s St George’s Terrace, the sublime voices and a scratchy, piercing feedback echoed off the glass to great effect. The chopper hovering between the towers as the sun set seemed like some sort of apocalyptic portent. It was both beautiful and unsettling. Those people around me, waiting at the traffic lights in the heat, stopped, looked up and pointed at the chopper.
I was lucky enough to ride in the helicopter with Rotorlift pilot and Siren Song co-collaborator Roger Corbin in Hobart last year. It remains a vivid, cherished memory, as much for the beauty of seeing Hobart at dusk from the air, the monumental and beautiful sounds coming in waves from the speakers attached to the bottom of the chopper and from the buildings around us, as for the avuncular company of Corbin himself.
Corbin died in a helicopter accident in November last year, at the age of 57, the day before the Perth festival program was announced. He was to take part in this year’s Perth Siren Song. Instead, his colleagues from Rotorlift pilot the chopper in Perth, having flown the many thousands of kilometres there from Hobart, stopping in the desert along the way to refuel.
Scullin becomes teary in the office block when talking about Corbin’s funeral. Corbin’s coffin was carried off by helicopter, joined by a platoon of other choppers. It finished with that single helicopter parting from its mates and flying off and away into the sky.
The work lives on. The team are taking Siren Song to Ipswich, UK, next year as part of an ambitious project marking the centenary of the first world war.
Once again female vocalists will feature. I joke to the team about a network of different Siren Songs around the world. What the world needs now is more incursions of this kind.
• Guardian Australia was a guest of Perth festival