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On the final Saturday of Arts Festival Dunedin, Wellington-based composer and producer Rhian Sheehan will transform the Dunedin Town Hall into an immersive spectacle of sound and light. This performance will see Sheehan showcase his new album A Quiet Divide, as well as previous work from well-received albums Standing in Silence and Stories From Elsewhere.
Other than for those who had pre-ordered the album, this show is the first and only opportunity to hear Sheehan's new works before the album's release on October 5, and five further national dates.
Sitting in his Miramar home and recording studio, Sheehan is "surrounded by synths and guitars and guitar effects pedals and lots of things".
"I've just finished up with a game soundtrack," he says, referring to Weta Workshops creation Dr Grordbort's Invaders, an augmented reality game eight years in the making that is the brainchild of Weta game director Greg Broadmore.
Sheehan's impressive body of work spans studio releases, film, television and documentaries, with no inclination to be bound by platform or genre. This new live show "gives audiences the chance to sit and contemplate," Sheehan said. Being seated, comfortable, and taken in by a visual offering gave listeners "something to reflect or bounce off".
"These new shows are definitely the most ambitious that we've put together," Sheehan said. A series of screens throw up time-lapses, animations, cosmic explosions and abstract lights, creating a visual spectacular that at times "wraps around the band and creates an illusion".
"We've moved away from narrative-based visuals; everything's in sync with the music."
A band of seasoned musicians replicates the full tapestry of Sheehan's music, including Ed Zuccollo on synth, Jeff Boyle, of Jakob, on guitars, percussionist Steve Bremner, and Sheehan's wife Raashi Malik, of Rhombus, on the piano. In total, there are 22 people on stage creating the all-encompassing experience of sight and sound.
"The exciting thing for me is that people don't expect that there would be so many people involved in conjuring up that sound in a live environment."
In his early days, Sheehan would appear as the end-of-the-night act at clubs and festivals, on stage with a few instruments and a substantial backing track to fill in the gaps of his complex compositions.
"I'm just more interested in playing with a band," he said. "We've tried to be really true to that when we play live."
For Sheehan, the music itself has a nostalgic quality. Without the distraction of words, Sheehan's type of music - ambient, post-rock, electronic, neo-classical - provides a canvas on to which the listener can project their own thoughts and experiences.
"When I'm writing this music I'm constantly reflecting on my own past," he said, along with finding solace and inspiration in the cosmic perspective of humanity.
"I don't think there's a day that goes by that I'm not blown away by the fact that we're all here, a collection of atoms that happened to be thrown together to create beings, whether consciously or not," he said. "I wonder if people think about it or not. The chances of us being here are so absolutely slim it's just crazy."
There has not been a lot of ambient composition coming out of New Zealand, Sheehan said, and perhaps this has been one among many factors that have seen him become an archetypal artist of the genre globally.
"A big influence on me was Brian Eno's ambient works," Sheehan said, adding the likes of Philip Glass and Michael Stearns to the mix of seminal composers in his life.
"I was always fascinated by music that was stirring and didn't need lyrics to stir you."
Rhian Sheehan plays one show only on the penultimate night of the Arts Festival Dunedin, Saturday, September 29 at 7.30pm in Dunedin Town Hall. Book at www.artsfestivaldunedin.co.nz