Sydney Festival Review: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith an ethereal master, hidden in plain sight

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is far from a household name, but with some five LPs and an EP under her belt in as many years, the Los Angeles based electronic musician and composer has enjoyed growing underground popularity and now her first tour of Australia – which earlier tonight took her to the St Stephen’s Uniting Church as part of Sydney Festival.

Walking on stage to firstly, finish setting things up, Kaitlyn opened with “First Flight”, the first track off her latest record Ears, proceeding to play through much of the record, including “Anthropoda”, which was a highlight of the set. Smith performs live by herself, standing in front of an elaborate set up of keys, laptop, buttons, cables and knobs – a set up you couldn’t quite see from the church’s pews; Smith standing like a priestess on the alter above her congregation. Her music is mostly made up of effects which she alters live, then kicks in her synth and (occasional) vocals, which are given that Imogen Heap-esque ethereal treatment. Something which sounds particularly pleasing in the church’s aural splendour. Behind her, minimalist projections of light and colour danced through much of the set.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performs at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performs at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Though she didn’t have much to say, I’ve rarely witnessed a busier performer; her hands moving faster along a table of knobs than one might think possible, the effects of which sounding stunning in the space, echoing off the walls and roof in a way that only amplified the effects Kaitlyn was trying to create in the first instance.

It’s of little surprise that Smith works as a composer – there was something particularly cinematic about her music, with someone like Hans Zimmer coming to mind. And like the master, she knew just when to add in some organ for dramatic effect – which sits in the background of the original recording of “Anthropoda”, but in the live environment is brought to the front, to great effect. Her ability to create ethereal soundscapes with samples that, individually, might be quite abrasive, is quite extraordinary. Not always the most accessible, but almost always beautiful.

In some ways, watching Kaitlyn perform in this setting was like seeing the wizard behind a curtain; whose secrets and tricks are just out of reach, the artist and her table of toys (among which I assume the signature Buchla 100 synthesiser sat) raised just high enough that they were out of view. The lights dimmed just enough that detail was hard to make out. It added an aura of mystery to proceedings, but also took away an element of interaction. Not one for banter – using her 50 minutes on stage to deliver just as many minutes of her music – this kept the show from being as engaging as it might have been. A tease, if you will, with some true moments of beauty. I for one would have liked to see more of what those hands were moving for – something I may have achieved sitting upstairs with a pair of binoculars. But alas, amongst my congregation I was a mere follower, opting to close my eyes and let the music envelop me. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that either.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performed on the 12th of January at Sydney Festival. She will appear next at MONA FOMA in Hobart on the 18th before playing NGV Friday nights in Melbourne on the 20th and Sugar Mountain on the 21st.

Photo Credit: Western Vinyl