Sydney Chamber Opera, Ensemble Offspring: Biographica by Mary Finsterer

Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Review by Alistair Noble

Opening this week as part of the Sydney Festival, Mary Finsterer’s new opera Biographica presents a satisfying opportunity to hear some splendid performers (in what, by some measures, might be considered to be Australia’s leading opera company) presenting a major new work by one of our finest living composers.

Like Elliott Gyger, whose first opera Fly Away Peter was heard in Sydney and Melbourne during 2016, Finsterer has come to the writing of opera in mid-career. Indeed, she has written very little vocal music of any kind since the 1980s, so Biographica represents a new turn for her in several respects—as vocal music, as a theatre work, and as a large-scale piece. The duration is an interesting new development as many of Finsterer’s best-known works are relatively short, while the only piece longer than 30 minutes in her published catalogue prior to Biographica was the sound-track for Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary.

So, it would seem logical that Finsterer’s approach to composing a large-form (90-minute) opera would be informed by her experience as a composer for cinema. This does seem to be the case, and Biographica benefits from a cinematic sense of timing—but also, more importantly, from the composer’s filmic skill with pulling focus. Her strong musical personality is such that it easily takes the foreground—indeed this arresting quality has always been a key characteristic of Finsterer’s work. But here she shows a deep, 3-dimensional capacity for shifting the musical material to the middle-ground of the theatrical experience, and even at times to the full background, thus allowing space for the subtlety of a dramatic moment or gesture to be seen and felt by the audience.

Biographica is a staged meditation on the life and work of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), a Renaissance polymath whose abilities and life-story make someone like Leonardo Da Vinci seem rather dull. In many ways, Cardano’s legacy is much more important—while Da Vinci left us the Mona Lisa, Cardano’s intellectual legacy (to mention just a few things) includes pioneering work on mathematical probability, theories of how to win at card games, and designs for complex universal joints that are still used today in your car. When it came to gambling, Cardano was known to be a violent player; he always set out to win by applying his mathematical theories, so card-swapping interference from old-style cheats sent him into a rage—one imagines because they upset his calculations even more than his finances.

And then there was his personal life… hell’s bells. To say that Cardano had a dysfunctional family would be a kindly euphemism. His biography begins with an illegitimate conception and his mother’s failed attempts at abortion (she is played here by Jane Sheldon). It goes downhill from there, and in the opera we witness a few select low-lights: his beloved eldest son (Simon Lobelson) was executed for poisoning his own wife; his second son (Andrew Goodwin) ended in prison for theft (but not before Cardano Sr. cut his ear off); his daughter (Jessica O’Donoghue) died of syphilis… one sad case the master physician could not cure.

How does one present a tale like this in operatic form? How does one compose an opera at all in the 21st century? The answer, as discovered by Finsterer, is in a carefully designed set of twelve tableaux, and a main character who does not sing. The part of Cardano is played by the actor Mitchell Butel with sincerity and gravity. Here is a man of towering genius, misdirected passions, and personal tragedy… yet in the end his passing is radiant. Opera, of course, was a historicist art-form from the beginning (developed in the years just following Cardano’s own lifetime) in its concerns with reinventing a lost theatrical sensibility of some imagined golden age, and in the use of historical or mythological tales as a thinly veiled means for engaging with contemporary issues. So, while it was always concerned with the past, it has never been about the past. This deep reflection on Cardano’s work and life is really about us… you and I and our magnificent, disturbing world.

To some extent, Biographica is also a more universal reflection on the relation of work to life. Cardano’s personal life is sensational in a tabloid sense, but ultimately his intellectual work is surely more important. Or maybe not? Can we separate work from life, and if so, how? As a consulting doctor to a dying archbishop, Cardano delivers a lecture on hygiene, arguing that the man himself does not require treatment, “…it is the room around him that must be cured!”. This and other insights grew from his belief in the inter-connectedness of things. The heavenly bodies, he noted, drag entire oceans in their wake as they dance through space. How could they fail to exert an equally overwhelming influence upon tiny creatures like us?

In the music for Biographica, Finsterer re-processes Renaissance musical language but not simply as pastiche, this is something more profound… and in fact the composer has been working on this opera for quite a few years, developing her thinking about this musical world through several ‘satellite’ pieces (to borrow Larry Sitsky’s phrase), such as Angelus (a 2015 trio for clarinet, cello and piano) and Silva (a concerto for percussion and ensemble composed in 2012). In these pieces, we find Renaissance materials (melodic, harmonic, and gestural) filtered through a 21st century sensibility and technique.

Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

How does a non-tonal composer assimilate diatonic and triadic materials meaningfully? This is not as simple a question as it sounds, and I suspect that it is in this area that the composer has made full and effective use of the several years spent developing this work. At the same time, we now notice through the filter of Biographica that intervals of 3rds (perhaps especially minor 3rds) have always been strongly present in Finsterer’s music, even in her more abstract pieces of the 1990s—as also is a tendency to build music structures around drone-like pedal points and long-held centric tones. Both of these have been made to serve as points of linkage for the incorporation of the Renaissance-inspired materials. In terms of orchestration, Finsterer is a composer who has always used extended playing techniques fluently as very natural sonorities alongside more conventional sounds, they never seem like mere effects in her music. The score for Biographica is full of lovely colours, both dramatic and subtle. The result is captivating, intelligent, and theatrically powerful.

The libretto by Tom Wright is complex and subtly nuanced, with layered textures that are an effective way to present some of the complexity of the stories and characters. The text spoken by Cardano (Mitchell Butel) is strong and offers a fine vehicle for the actor. Jane Sheldon is consistently excellent as Cardano’s mother, the special instrument of her higher register used to great effect. The omni-talented Jessica O’Donoghue (a wonderful pop singer-songwriter as well as classical performer) finds an elegant awkwardness for the tragic daughter of Cardano. One hopes to see more of her on the opera stage in future. The splendid mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser almost steals the show, both in the sense of her wonderful lower register playing a crucial part in Finsterer’s ensemble writing, and also in that her aria (tragi-comically sung as she takes a pause in dying from poison) somehow forms the dark heart of the opera, like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy.

The production is poetic, creative, and effective. Directed by Janice Muller (with support from Danielle Maas as Assistant Director), the staging is minimalist but with dark depths and surprising angles, making full use of the huge floor-space at Carriageworks. Designer Charles Davis has succeeded in creating a Renaissance effect, without the over-blown sense of a historical drama… it’s subtle enough to be almost a taste, or a philosophy, rather than a mere representation. The performance is gorgeously lit (by Matt Cox)—and the few moments in the later scenes where the lighting seems less convincing coincide with moments where a little dramatic momentum is lost generally (such as in scenes 10 and 11, and the transition to the final scene, ‘Day of Death’), suggesting that some additional rehearsal time might have been useful.

Opera is in its very nature a collaborative art-form, and this performance of Biographica is certainly the result of a very impressive and imaginative team-effort. Unlike a film or a play, however, this is a staged work that very clearly could only have been conceived by a composer, and in this sense it seems fair to give the final tribute to Mary Finsterer. Biographica is a beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work from an important composer of our time.

Biographica
Music composed by Mary Finsterer
Libretto by Tom Wright
Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring.
Carriageworks, 7-9 & 11-13 January 2017
Review by Alistair Noble

 

 

 

Episode 4: Sky Jammer

10847-futuristic-city-1366x768-fantasy-wallpaper

Like all good neo-noir dystopias, the city of Michael Bakrnčev’s Sky Jammer has roots in contemporary urban life. In this episode I speak with Bakrnčev about property speculation, Macedonian folk dances, and conflicting advice in his Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers commission.

Thanks to the ABC and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for giving us permission to use their recording of Sky Jammer from the 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival.

519672-178_Download-128  Download (15MB)

The Partial Durations podcast is produced with support from RealTime Arts.

RealTime      

Arcko: Into the Outer

Australia’s dedicated new-music oboist Ben Opie has given Australian composers and audiences a fresh perspective on his instrument. For Into the Outer, Arcko Symphonic Ensemble called on Opie’s formidable talents to play both canonic twentieth-century oboe music and the world premiere of Caerwen Martin’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings: “Sticks Leaves and Butterflies”.

Penderecki’s Capriccio for Oboe and 11 Strings is a rollercoaster of instrumental effects and complex rhythmic duetting between the soloist and string orchestra. Composed for the godfather of contemporary oboe, Heinz Holliger, it is a veritable glossary of quacking, squeaking, sucking, and popping sounds that now sits at the core of contemporary oboe repertoire. Penderecki has fun associating techniques for oboe with extended string techniques, the two parts mockingly imitating each other. Philliips managed the extreme changes in dynamics throughout this piece with what can only be described as a great sense of humour.

Caerwen Martin composed her Concerto for Oboe and Strings after hearing Opie perform Penderecki’s Capriccio. It retains the playfulness of Penderecki’s piece, being dedicated to her daughters’ “behaviours and intelligence”. The orchestra is in this case more accompaniment than duet partner, providing a series of pizzicato, twittering, and stridently harmonic backdrops to the oboe’s characterful interjections.

The rest of the concert made the most of the Arcko string section, comprising works by Andrián Pertout, Annie Hui Hsin Hsieh, and Roger Smalley. Andrián Pertout’s Into the Labyrinth takes the listener on a fairly straightforward journey from a laid-back, loping bass line to a vicious tutti string climax. The labyrinth, the composer tells us, is the self-doubting and circuitous route of a composer’s career. Hsieh’s Into the Outer is an adventure in grit, with extensive scrubbing and sul ponticello bowing, culminating in Caerwen Martin’s ruthless attack on her cello, at times scraping the bow down the strings with both hands. In Strung Out, Smalley literally strings out the string players in single file across the stage. The stereo effects that result from this setup are astounding and generally under-utilised in new compositions.

Into the Outer was an excellent example of how Arcko works to ensure the continuity and depth of Australian musical culture. Laying claim to both the first and second Australian performances of the Penderecki Capriccio, as well as premiering a work inspired by its Australian premiere, the ensemble have ensured that this piece leaves a mark on Australian repertoire and audiences.

Into the Outer
Arcko Symphonic Project
16 July 2016

Andrián Pertout, Navigating the Labyrinth; Krzysztof Penderecki, Capriccio for Oboe and 11 Strings; Annie Hui Hsin Hsieh, Into the Outer for 13 Solo Strings; Caerwen Martin, Concerto for Oboe and Strings: “Sticks Leaves and Butterflies”; Roger Smalley, Strung Out for 13 Strings.

Plexus, Polyphony

Plexus are prodigious music collectors, racking up one of the, if not the, highest commission-counts of any contemporary music ensemble in Australia. Their Polyphony program at the Melbourne Recital Centre saw the trio inspire not one, but two choirs to join them in performing a program positively stuffed with new music by local and international composers. Already renowned soloists and chamber musicians, the substantial choral works bookending the concert showed Plexus to be consummate accompanists and collaborators as well.

Ed Frazier Davis sets moments from Shakespeare’s The Tempest against a sweeping cinematic background of swelling violin and rich piano harmonies for Melbourne’s adventurous Polyphonic Voices. Davis accents his tonal excesses with some effective and creative word painting, particularly in “Caliban’s Song” where swerving, choir-wide whistling beats in your ears. “A hum about mine ears” indeed.  “Ariel’s Song” includes some seriously grave intoning of “Full fathom five my father lies” with a sunken cathedral near by. “Stephano’s Song” transported the audience to 11pm on the last night of choir tour. These finely-crafted portraits left me wanting to hear more of this oratorio-Tempest.

A much younger choir provided a no less brilliant performance of Dermot Tutty’s sprawling moral tale Colours Bleed. The VCASS Choir here take the place of a chorus narrating a story that will be familiar to any gap-year voluntourist: The passage from righteous dismay at global inequalities to a realisation of the complexity of local circumstances and the often problematic role of foreign aid workers. In this work Tutty draws on his experience working with and composing for students at the ABCs and Rice school in Cambodia. I wish the whole work could sustain the energy of its dashing opening, but I was heartened that Tutty saved some of his most dissonant writing for moments of realisation, where heartfelt delusion is peeled back to reveal bitter reality. What to do next is the question, when righteous dismay burns on amid the knowledge of how hard it can be to make a difference, and I think Tutty can be excused for not resolving this question here.

Not wanting to forget Plexus, it should be mentioned that they also tossed off three instrumental world premieres. Sdraulig’s Evocations are my favourite of Sdraulig’s pieces. Delicate and detailed they are, as he writes in his program note, “incantations” with a ceremonial quality that Plexus achieves with extreme focus and coordination across the ensemble. There was something nicely detached in this music, like surveying a model city with its tiny figures painted in bold block colours.

Plexus are always good for a contrast and hearing Andrew Aronowicz’s pointillist Shattering Blooms after the Sdraulig was like hearing music history sped up. After Sdraulig’s masterful linearity it was nice to hear a new line, a wiser, more crooked line with holes and sudden 90-degree turns. Though impactful and savage, this piece didn’t have the depth of character I have come to love about Aronowicz’s writing. It seemed somehow processed through quotation marks. That said, I have never seen a performer so convinced of a young composer’s music as pianist Stefan Cassomenos in the final moments of Shattering Blooms.

From the beginning of Andrzej Karalow’s Through I was worried about the bar chimes. They stood there next to clarinettist Philip Arkinstall like a bad omen. If only people occasionally set up instruments that they never played. To me chimes mean terribly produced children’s music and creepy 80s ABC TV. Fortunately Through quickly develops a murky, sinister texture. It is impenetrably dark for a while, depicting (according to the composer’s note) the topography of physical land and metaphysical dimensions. Arkinstall’s bass clarinet maintains this sense of hushed, nocturnal focus. When the chimes are finally played in the third movement, they do contribute to the “coloristic kaleidoscope” including crotales resounding around the Salon.

Plexus never cease to please with their commitment to new music and deft turns of programming. The inclusion of choral works in this concert adds another few strands to their plexus of musical activities.

Polyphony
Plexus with The Polyphonic Voices and the VCASS Chamber Choir
Melbourne Recital Centre
10 August 2016

Ed Frazier Davis, Tempest Songs; Harry Sdraulig, Evocations; Andrew Aronowicz, Shattering Blooms; Andrzej Karalow, Through; Dermot Tutty, Colours Bleed

2016BIFEM: Bendigo Symphony Orchestra, PHO:TON

cjason-tavener-photography-ph-oton-rehearsal_mg_2414
Peter Dumsday and the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra rehearsing PHO:TON, Jason Tavener photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

“Shrouded in darkness, a piano soloist brings a 40-piece orchestra to life by triggering lights and musical patterns.” This appropriately tantalising description in the festival program draws a hungry audience to BIFEM’s blockbuster finale. Concluding a weekend of exemplary community engagement, local gem the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra rises to the challenge of delivering the Australian premiere of Pho:ton, a multi-sensory work composed and designed by Swiss brothers André and Michel Décosterd. With pianist Peter Dumsday, the orchestra enraptures its audience.

 A chatty audience is abruptly silenced when the lights fade, leaving hundreds of eyes darting across a pitch-black stage, searching for something to focus on. Out of the darkness emerges a steady snare drum line, interjected by sparse yet measured, long tones from a bass trombone. As each note is played, a spotlight illuminates the player. I assume Dumsday will be a soloist. Instead, his instrument has forfeited its natural resonance and morphed into an electronic device, where each key is a button that activates a designated light above each performer. Solo players in the upper strings join in a gradually building pattern, spectators eagerly follow the lights as they flicker across the orchestra. Something of a melody forms as disjunct tones increase in pace, resulting in the odd overlap of lighting patterns.

As more and more players are illuminated, we begin to fully appreciate the practical nature of the orchestra’s unusual distribution on the stage. By placing the musicians in elevated rows and columns in a rectilinear grid, the brothers are able to maintain the spontaneous nature of each illumination.

We see only the musicians who play in a particular moment and barely a silhouette of their neighbours. There is also a degree of symmetry in the layout, which is seen most clearly when first and second players of each woodwind instrument light up from opposite sides of the orchestra, passing notes back and forth.

An incessantly catchy tune evolves into a more challenging sextuplet pattern in the strings followed by simple long tones in the woodwinds. As well as toughing out dissonant notes, various brass sections execute overlapping, syncopated phrases that pass from middle to lower voices. A small army of French horns brings courage to individual moments in the spotlight (quite literally), but it is an intrepid piccolo trumpeter who truly steals the show with a high, attention-commanding solo. The players tackle these musical challenges fearlessly, with several ‘deer in the headlights’ moments only adding to the overall charm of the performance.

A brief flash of red illuminates the stage allowing us to see the entire ensemble for the first time. Engulfed in darkness once again, we soon realise that red was the warning signal for an upcoming passage of sheer visual insanity. In sync with downbeats of the music, vertical lines of light move across the orchestra, illuminating different groups of players as they go. Next, horizontal lines move up and down, until these two patterns criss-cross to create a strobing effect, which builds in intensity and culminates in an erratic pattern of diagonally traveling lights.

Music and lights have taken turns as the sensory foci until this point, so it makes sense that the final section should explore their intersection. Returning to the opening structure with an even more complex rhythm, the introduction of steady triplet patterns is mirrored in the lights, which blink three times on the players in these passages. A hemiola pattern [two groups of three beats are replaced by three groups of two beats. Eds] soon emerges with some players lit up twice and others three times, creating a degree of visual stimulation completely unexpected in an orchestral concert.

Musically speaking, Pho:ton is quite a simple piece. Yet there are inherent difficulties when every player has solo passages, since section players are prevented from relying on their principals (often a helpful practice in non-professional orchestras). Indeed, some rhythmic patterns placed rank and file players out of their comfort zone. Nonetheless Peter Dumsday and the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra performed admirably and the many thrilling visuals added a whole new dimension to an already colourful symphonic sound. In piecing together this truly egalitarian work, the orchestra demonstrated just how much regional communities are capable of achieving when given equal opportunity to embrace serious artistic challenges.

PHO:TON
By André and Michel Décosterd
Bendigo Symphony Orchestra
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
4 September 2016

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Diptych

cjason-tavener-photography-di-ptych-rehearsal_mg_2057
Argonaut Ensemble rehearse for Diptych, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Alex Taylor

BIFEM has been notable for its symmetries of programming and its commitment to singular (hardcore) aesthetics. Mirroring the opening concert Seeing Double, which paired double concertos from Australian composers, Diptych put together two substantial electronics-saturated quintets from composers working in Paris: Chilean Jose Miguel Fernandez and Italian Lara Morciano. Both composers have embraced the medium full force, drenching their sonic canvases in swathes of electronic and acoustic colour. This was a celebration of sensual overload, fecundity, excess.

Fernandez’s Amas (which translates as a “heap”, a “pile”, or an “accumulation”) opens with a sustained, glistening electronic texture rich in high partials. Over this, oboist Ben Opie sets out his crucial role from the get-go with piercing, microscopically oscillating trills that will return as a sort of refrain: a central trunk of sound from which the other instruments branch. The smooth oboe tone soon begins to splinter into virtuosic fragments, intersecting and colliding with the ensemble.

The jarring physical movements of both energetic percussionist Madi Chwasta and suave guitarist Mauricio Carrasco trigger live processing elements; soon Opie’s oboe darting arabesques are surrounded by scrunches and flicks of percussive sound. Conversely the violin and double bass parts seem, at least initially, more sympathetic to, even synergistic with the oboe line, hanging off pitch material and short tremolo phrases. But the oboe alone seems immune from electronic interference: all the other instruments are draped in the digital.

Fernandez draws connections between micro and macro forms: structurally the work oscillates, just as the oboe does, between chunks of dense, hyperactive texture and more restrained, relatively static sections. As listeners we’re continuously in flux: machines spin out of control; Liquids seize up. Near the middle of the work, cut-up static and percussion—accompanying a hugely virtuosic oboe cadenza—gives way to nothing but gentle electronic vibrato. But the innate disturbance of this germinal oscillating figure soon precipitates more forceful action. Over the sustained spectral base, a series of striking single sounds emerge: oboe multiphonics, gong strikes with upward bends, exaggerated double bass vibrato. Throughout, the oboe soloist maintains a vital presence, either against a stippled tachisme effect, or on a bed of gentle creaks and sighs.

The last chunk of the piece is notable for its sensitivity: it seems beautifully quaint and nostalgic after so much whirling virtuosity. Though the needling oboe trills return again, this time they herald a point of rest at the end of the work. The texture once again gravitates towards sustained sounds, and Fernandez hints at an underlying tonality with seagull glissandi, guitar harmonics and what to my ears is a simple Lydian mode, delicately adorned.

The periodic violence in Amas didn’t quite prepare me for what was to come: Morciano’s Estremo d’ombra was singularly relentless, primal in its pursuit of sonic saturation.

I found the staging elements (and particularly the lighting) a little tokenistic and heavy-handed. Before the piece began, the room was filled with smoke before being completely darkened. The instrumentalists entered one by one, beginning with bassist Jonathan Heilbron, extracting some wonderfully luminous colours from his instrument. This initial growth of the ensemble, subtly augmenting the existing pulsating sound mass, Morciano managed skilfully. However, often new sections of the work would coincide with stark lighting changes, undermining the sense of continuity and accumulation.

Nevertheless, if Amas might be characterised in geometric metaphor as a sine wave, Estremo d’ombra was a wedge, a shadow that grew from a single point to a huge mass, a trajectory that threatened to overwhelm the listener (or at least this particular listener).

As the other higher-pitched instruments entered one by one, the texture became increasingly jittery, chaotic, unbound from its drone origin. This culminated in a sort of hyper-toccata between flute and viola, almost a tremolo of continuous activity; later on an answering section laid out an intricate heterophonic duet between flute and alto saxophone. Throughout, electronics caught the resonance of the various instrumental techniques, building up wave after wave of gesture with echoes of crunch tones, multiphonics, battuto hits, slap-tongues and snap pizzicato.

With the instrumentalists moving to more and more extreme distortions of their ordinary timbres–the most vicious of viola crunch tones, the extreme high register of the flute, Michael Liknovsky exchanging alto for baritone saxophone–we braced for a final assault. And it came: the players gathered in tight around bassist Heilbron, ditching their scores for pure ecstatic free improvisation.

The physical spectacle of this was impressive, but by this point twenty or so minutes in, Estremo D’Ombre felt somewhat indulgent; where Amas held tension in the interplay of stasis and movement, in the mechanistic and the organic, Morciano’s work held little such tension, only relentless drive and growth. While I admire its bravado and commitment, I would have quite happily left the cramped hall ten minutes earlier.

Diptych
Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatrette
4 September 2016

José Miguel Fernández, Amas; Lara Morciano, Estremo d’Ombra

2016BIFEM: ELISION, How Forests Think

cjason-tavener-photography-h-ow-forests-think_mg_20081
Wu Wei plays sheng with ELISION, How Forests Think, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

What do free jazz and South American rainforests have in common? Very little, other than being respective inspirations for Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim’s latest world premieres. Joined by international guests Peter Evans and Wu Wei, ELISION ensemble takes to the stage once again to present an extraordinary concert of two radically different works.

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries

In The Wreck of Former Boundaries, Aaron Cassidy is heavily influenced by American multi-instrumentalist, composer and innovator of the free jazz movement, Ornette Coleman. As the composer generously shared in a post-concert chat, his piece is analogous to a work for large jazz combo. Some of the seven segments that make up the work existed prior to its completion, entwining here to deliver an array of innovative, contrasting and often discordant subsections. These modular units are delivered, said Cassidy, much in the vein of Coleman’s inventive 1971 album Science Fiction.

One of the pre-existing works provides material for an opening solo performed by double bassist Joan Wright. The unassuming ELISION veteran is powerful and hypnotic in her realisation of hyper-masculine extended techniques such as striking and grinding the bow on the strings. Trumpeter Tristram Williams joins the incidental bass with soft, squeaky interjections that play out like a musical dialogue between a clumsy elephant and an anxious mouse.

It doesn’t take long for the ensemble to begin pushing ‘former boundaries’ of accepted volume. Enter sound engineer James Atkins, accompanied by a cacophony of extended techniques from the acoustic instruments. Spacey electronics reverberate powerfully around the auditorium while screaming and wailing from the clarinet and alto saxophone becomes almost intolerable for audience members and instrumentalists alike (you know it’s loud when the trumpet players cover their ears).

A sudden spell of conducting from the trumpet section leads in to the work’s next exciting instalment: improvisatory passages from BIFEM guest artist and international trumpet royalty, Peter Evans taking the piccolo trumpet to virtuosic extremes. Appointed with the difficult task of relaying live performance cues to the sound engineer, the composer uses a microphone to apply gradual distortion to the timbre. Following an exhilarating moment of solo electronics–which felt like being inside a crashing spaceship—members of ELISION physically stand back to give way to Evans in an extended experimental passage. Solid foundations in jazz and improvisation are self-evident in his expert navigation around the microphone. Initially standing tall to enjoy the instrument’s natural resonance, Evans repeatedly leans in and away from the microphone, exploring the evolving distortions Cassidy and Atkins place upon his sound. A structurally climactic point of the work sees him place the bell of the piccolo trumpet against the microphone, surrendering the instrument’s acoustic capacity. Warped sounds of churning air and clunking valves now become part of a disconcerting atmospheric sound, like being trapped in the belly of a monster.

Daryl Buckley’s electric lap-steel guitar solo is another exciting feature of The Wreck of Former Boundaries. In a real rockstar moment, Buckley relishes the thrill of the sound, once more challenging the audiences’ tolerance for high volume with visceral pitch bends and ringing chords. A concluding solo in the multichannel electronics leaves a similar impact; several performers can be seen smiling at the audience’s shock and uncertainty as to whether this electrifying, action-packed work has truly come to a close.

While The Wreck of Former Boundaries is an extremely effective collaboration of performers and styles, Aaron Cassidy’s only concern about its future is that it relies heavily on certain performers. At the very front of the stage and in the foundation of the work is an inimitable creative partnership between Peter Evans and Tristram Williams. Such an adrenaline-charged premiere makes it almost impossible to imagine the work played by anyone else.

Liza Lim, How Forests Think

In the second half of the program, ELISION ensemble expands to its full membership for the world premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. Completed in Brazil and inspired by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s book of the same title (University of California Press, 2013 http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520276116), the work explores the relationship between trees within a forest by extending the breath and sound identity of the instruments. In the opening bars, pensive saxophone and rainmaker lay the foundations for a dense, interplaying and evocative sound world.

Lim has fashioned a highly distinctive instrumental texture in How Forests Think with the addition of a sheng to the ensemble. In an intermission interview with Matthew Lorenzon, the composer explains how the traditional Chinese instrument comprises 37 vertical pipes and can be played by both blowing and inhaling. With such a wide range of pitches and tone qualities at his disposal, sheng virtuoso Wu Wei is able to match and bring out nuances in timbre of various instruments in the ensemble. There are countless moments where he effortlessly blends both chords and single notes with low notes from the bass flute, the top register of the oboe and even, at times, with percussion. These criss-crossing timbral interactions peak towards the end of the piece when Wei beautifully mimics a poignant duet between cor anglais and cello.

Wei also theatrically delivers a brief, untranslated text which is followed by percussive grunts and unpredictable rushes of breath from the wind instrumentalists. In these mesmerising passages, the audience senses the heightened awareness and responsiveness to ensemble breathing that Lim’s writing demands from the musicians. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde is exquisite in his control of sound, which consistently balances with the assemblage of high wind instruments. Similarly breathtaking is Paula Rae’s almost inaudible delivery of a tender flute melody, played eerily behind powerful throat singing by the multitalented Wu Wei.

After a sudden, slightly confusing conclusion to the penultimate section where unified quavers are repeated à l’ostinato, we settle back in for an ending full of charm. Percussionist Peter Neville is entrusted with the unusual job of scooping beads out of a bowl with his hands, then slowly pouring them inside a violin and various percussion instruments. A more puzzling moment occurs when conductor Carl Rosman—nothing short of outstanding throughout—relinquishes his duties as leader, walks leisurely to the back row of the ensemble and sits down. With the addition of Richard Haynes and Joshua Hyde (to this point clarinettist and saxophonist) the percussion section is suddenly augmented to four. Gentle shakers and soft whistling from the brass players bring this stimulating work to a close.

For BIFEM’s second double bill of world premieres (the first, Seeing Double featured concerti by David Chisholm and Jack Symonds), Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim certainly delivered the goods. Reaching an astronomical standard of musical innovation and performance this ELISION concert evoked emotion, pushed boundaries, educated and inspired.

ELISION
How Forests Think
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
3 September 2016

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries; Liza Lim, How Forests Think

2016BIFEM: Kasper T. Toeplitz and Myriam Gourfink, Data_Noise

jason-tavener-photography-data-noise_mg_2055
Myriam Gourfink and Kasper T. Toeplitz, Data_Noise, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

After a day of complex musical experiences, sound artist Kasper T. Toeplitz and dancer Myriam Gourfink proposed a concert of radical simplicity. Noise art can be irreverent, challenging and confrontational, but Toeplitz and Gourfink’s hour-long arc of noise left me feeling cleansed.

Noise audiences are no strangers to slow changes in texture, but Gourfink’s movements bring a new level of embodied appreciation to these prototypical forms. Myriam Gourfink is a master of micro gesture, performing slow and small movements over long durations. In Data_Noise she turns slowly on the spot, arms held out wide as she pivots on and off of a table. Gourfink is an inveterate planker, spending most of her time half-on and half-off the table. Her extreme physical control extends right to her eyes and face, which are fixed in an eerie half-smile for the entire performance. Her movements are translated into data by sensors on her arms and legs, as well as a pad of buttons that she stands on for the brief earthbound moments of her performance. This data controls parameters in Toeplitz’s sound design, making the dancer and sound artist true collaborators in the total experience.

Toeplitz’s noise does not attack you with eardrum-shattering bursts of sound—it is bread-and-butter noise. Layers of hums and static build to a crescendo and fade, rumbling through your body like a wholesome deep-tissue massage. The introduction of a heartbeat at the loudest part of the performance (was it Gourfink’s?) enhanced the already deeply embodied sonic experience.

With the performers dressed in black inside a black box performance space, the immensity of Toeplitz’s sound design took on fantastical proportions. To me the performance evoked a natural setting. The granular-synthesised atmospheres sounded like the leaves of a great forest rustling and dissolving in the depths of a deep, black lake. When projections were introduced over the entire performance space they were clusters of long, curving lines like reeds swaying in the wind. When projected over Gourfink’s body the moving lines became a dazzling, rapidly flashing pixellated texture.

Dance is a great aesthetic leveler. Audiences who cannot stand contemporary music may enjoy it during a contemporary dance production. Similarly, Toeplitz’s layers of white noise have found their choreographic match in Gourfink’s micro movements. After an hour of tracing the mutating envelopes of Toeplitz’s sonic layers through Gourfink’s rotating limbs (or was it the other way around?) I left the black box of the Old Fire Station ready for another day of—sadly static—orchestras and chamber music.

Data_Noise
Kasper T. Toeplitz and Myriam Gourfink
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
3 September 2016

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (2)

cjason-tavener-photography-machine-for-contacting-the-dead_mg_2473
ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

It’s reported Mahler once said that one ought not bother looking at the view, as he’d already composed it. Well may Australians say, “save your wonderment at the planet’s richest natural jungle communication network—Melbournian Liza Lim has already composed it.” Take a sneak peek at the view here. The point is vistas and sunsets aren’t ever likely to be passé and Mahler will always enrich our spirits, but Australians are travel-crazy, smart, curious, connected and living in the now, and we need art like Liza Lim’s to help us celebrate our uniquely modern experiences of wonder.

Lim is so hot in the international art music scene, she’s the new-classical-music equivalent of an Oscar-laden actor or an athletic medal magnet. Remember when Boulez’ own Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned and performed Machine for Contacting the Dead? Or when the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and performed the Frank Gehry-inspired Ecstatic Architecture as a highlight for the opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall? The time her song cycle, Mother Tongue, was reviewed—or was it revered?— by the writer art music audiences read: Alex Ross in The New Yorker? If her name’s new to you, or her music doesn’t spring to mind, it’s probably a sign some lagging Australian orchestras and opera companies still need to pull their fingers out of their Rings.

In celebration of Lim’s 50th birthday, the dimpled, unfailing servant of the avant-garde, David Chisholm, programmed both the premiere of How Forests Think—an exquisite and consoling work of unprecedented formal ecology, which my ears are aching daily to hear again—as well as a return performance of the fluid, exploratory, mystically beautiful and heartbreaking Machine for Contacting the Dead.

In the 1970s, in a spectacular archaeological accident, the People’s Liberation Army uncovered the tomb of Marquis Yi and the remains of 21 ritualistically-mutilated women, believed to date back to the third day of the third month, 433 BCE, in Suizhou, Hubei, China. These burial chambers were filled with over 18,000 ancient artefacts including a complete armoury and a trove of gold, bronze, silks, calligraphy and, uniquely for the time, a caucus of 124 musical instruments.

In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim pairs archeology and music through a resplendent diversity of orchestral colours and ritualistic performance directions. Lim’s artistic excavations of the human experience draw on her cultural plurality, and eschew the orientalism of some poorly-aged excerpts of Debussy or Puccini.

Like Stravinsky, Lim amplifies the intimate musician-instrument connection and takes the possibilities of tone colour to the extreme, presenting musical colours from breathtaking, as-yet-undiscovered palettes. In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim again allows the performers to explore the colouristic potentialities of their instruments: the pianist stops directing keys and hammers through the instrument, instead extracting resonance from the instrument’s using a looped string. For a moment, the performer has the direct contact with their instrument normally only afforded to winds and strings. Extreme sul pont, often a compositional source of aggression or ambiguity, is executed with a transparency and choreographed introspective tenderness by the ELISION/ANAM strings.

The ELISION/ANAM concert highlights this as music to be watched. The sound structures are paramount, but Lim’s interest in the performer’s experience and their embodiment of compositional devices and themes is part of the reason the experience of being in a Lim audience changes you. Richard Hayne’s contrabass clarinet is central to the stage, and to the work, as a mystical figure espousing extreme yet lyrical multiphonics and animalistic tongue slaps. The clarinets, oboes and violins are split across stage, enhancing sincere ensemble dialogue from Mena Krstevska in the B-flat clarinets as she vaults thematic messages to her counterpart, Mitchell Jones, uncovering unity across the divide at the culmination of the first section.

ANAM student percussionists Thea Rossen, Hamish Upton and professional percussionist Peter Neville won hearts with discrete totems of sounds written in some of the most beautiful timbral pairings of the idiom. I adored the connection of cello and thundersheet along with bowed vibraphone and woodwind. Some mesmerising rototom twisted through unexpected turns. Maraccas were items of grave punctuation in Neville’s hands. Our archaeological setting was tactile, with the dry, decrepit elicitations of rainstick and geophone. A spectacular modern day ritual was evoked from a raised row of three percussionists, extending offerings of mirrored instruments in each palm, with a freakishly synchronised flexatone theme; a musical message so profound, I felt momentarily moved to carve the transcription into a tablet.

Given conductor Carl Rosman’s long-standing familiarity with the work and Liza Lim’s mentorship of this ensemble, Bendigo experienced an authentic rendering of this work, written in the greatest sincerity by one of Australia’s most-impactful living artists.

ELISION/ANAM
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (1)

cjason-tavener-photography-machine-for-contacting-the-dead_mg_2455
ELISION and students from ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

Speaking before the performance of Liz Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000), conductor Carl Rosman drew parallels between the ensemble in its early days and the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) joining them to for this concert. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and recalling how ELISION’s initial approach was to “bite off more than they could chew, and chew like hell,” Rosman praised the young players for their similarly committed attitude towards such a daunting project.

Lim composed Machine for Contacting the Dead for France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in 2000, it coincided with a Parisian exhibition of Chinese archeological treasures recently excavated from a 433 BCE tomb. Among the bodies of the noblemen and concubines were several well-preserved musical instruments, some of which were unidentified. As she so often does, Lim became interested in the link between history and memory, and created this work to imagine female musicians and dancers of the distant past.

Machine for Contacting the Dead received its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2002, performed by ELISION together with members of The Queensland Orchestra; but that’s the last we’d heard of it. A work of many challenges, perhaps its demands have prevented it being programmed elsewhere in the composer’s home country—or the lack of a permanent contemporary music ensemble large enough to tackle such works. ELISION have found a natural match in musicians from ANAM who also joined the ensemble to perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher. Hopefully, the two will recreate this fruitful collaboration to perform similarly ambitious contemporary works in the future.

From the outset of the piece, Lim’s nimble orchestration is on show. With her highly developed ability to craft layers of sounds without overwhelming the piece’s texture, each flutter of high wind and muted brass, wail of string harmonics and punctuation points from the three percussionists helps weave a rich tapestry. While the overall effect is quite visibly and musically raucous, the volume remains understated; recalling a distant memory of imagined music.

Emerging from these memories at various points throughout, the solo cello and bass clarinet assert their presence. Cellist Séverine Ballon’s playing is exceptional. She throws herself into the highly technical and physical part, using extended techniques to make the instrument sound in unfamiliar ways. A brief duet between Ballon and ELISION veteran Peter Veale in the first movement produces some delightful interplay, with Veale’s overblown oboe a perfect match for Ballon’s suitably violent playing.

Equally impressive is Richard Haynes, who doubled on the bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Seamlessly carrying on Ballon’s opening solo in the second movement, the bass clarinet at first matches the tone of the cello before diverting into an energetic and almost jazz-influenced line, punctuated by aggressive tongue slaps and jumps in register. Playing the contrabass clarinet, Haynes brings out a deep and resonant tone, with some frightening low grumbles to underscore the rest of the ensemble.

Each movement contains opportunities for individual musicians to shine. In an interview some years ago Lim hinted that Machine for Contacting the Dead was written with ELISION musicians in mind, despite its commission by another ensemble. Marshall McGuire’s harp with its pitch bends and sustained notes are a great match for the piano, which switches between conventional playing and contemporary techniques including plucking the strings and bowing them with nylon wires. Trumpet flourishes are perfectly suited to Tristram Williams, who precisely executes each one, and Paula Rae’s performance shows her mastery of each of her instruments—in the shrill announcements of the piccolo and the lusty tone of the bass flute.

According to Lim’s specific instructions, the solo bass clarinet, solo cello and contrabassoon are seated front and centre. The remaining musicians surround them, meaning that instrumental families are split up. With Lim’s rich orchestration, this provides some great moments of dialogue and spatial play. A particularly effective moment is shared by the two violinists. Staring down his ANAM counterpart on the other side of the stage, Graeme Jennings’ power is evenly matched by the student in a fiery duet, with a stereo sound effect. The unique arrangement causes some problems with communication and entries, but on the whole the choice enhances the sense of space and drama in the work.

Towards the end of the final movement, attention is drawn to the back of the stage as the three percussionists, harpist and trombonist gather around the piano. With nylon wires, the five bow the grand piano strings, while the remaining percussionist ominously beats on a low bass string with her mallets. Changing the speed and intensity of the bowing wires at different rates, the effect of the pitches emerging and ringing out through the auditorium is magical. The removing of the piano lid is Lim’s own unearthing of centuries-old sonic treasures from the tomb, and a fitting end to a work which demonstrates the composer’s phenomenal ability to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect to hear in a concert hall.

ELISION/ANAM
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016