The musicologist Richard Toop passed away in Sydney on 19 June 2017. Born in 1945 in Chichester, England, his desire to study contemporary music at the postgraduate level (then a radical proposition) soon gave way to complete immersion in the topic as Stockhausen’s teaching assistant at the Köln Musikhochschule, 1973–74. In 1975 he moved to Sydney to lecture at the New South Wales Conservatorium (now the Sydney Conservatorium), where he is remembered by generations of students as an inspiring and generous teacher. Abstract and impersonal questions about some giant of the 1970s were inevitably answered in the first person with pearls of detailed musical insight. Not that he limited himself to study of the twentieth century, his expertise reaching back to renaissance repertoire.
Once in Australia, his engagement with international movements in contemporary music hardly ceased and he is widely (though incorrectly, as he was the first to admit) credited with coining the term “New Complexity”. His books and articles, including a series of lectures from the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten from 2002, testify to a depth of culture that lifts music off the page and transposes it into a living sphere of ideas. He will be sorely missed.
In 2011 I invited Richard as the keynote speaker of the student colloquium “Music and Time” at the ANU School of Music (25 November). His talk, “Judging The Quick and the Dead (and analysing them too)” was a wide-ranging reflection upon his career and I feel it is appropriate to share it at this time. I apologise for the poor quality of the video, though it does improve in the first couple of minutes. If anyone objects to me sharing this, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Ensemble Offspring presented their Arc Electric program of works by women composers at the Melbourne Recital Centre. An all-woman program is not unusual for Ensemble Offspring because their entire year’s programming has been dedicated to music by women. As Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director Claire Edwardes explained, the challenge in putting the program together was deciding between the wealth of excellent contenders. Ensemble Offspring were in fine form, presenting some of their most scintillating performances yet.
Two works from very different traditions showed a sophisticated minimalist sensibility. Kate Moore’s Velvet takes folksy romanticism to new heights of sensuality while inflecting it with obsessive pulsation. Cello and piano intertwine in an insistent 5/8 rhythm. The cello, played with bravado by Blair Harris, reaches ever higher and louder in swelling espressivo lines. While Moore studied with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands, Cassie To studied in Australia. Her Avialae weaves the calls of endangered bird species into a sweeping, pulsating texture.
From the overblown to the microscopic, Melody Eötvös’s Tardigrade conjures the microscopic realm of some of the world’s most divisive creatures. The tardigrade, also known as the “moss-piglet”, looks like an eight-legged vacuum bag and is almost invincible. They can survive in boiling water, ice, deserts, and the depths of the sea all thanks to their ability to change form to suit their conditions. Edwardes played bowls filled with rice to produce a texture of tiny particles, Lamorna Nightingale played flitting, darting lines on flute and piccolo. The grotesque appeal of the tardigrade was not lost on the composer, who treated the audience also to a series of wet munching sounds.
Liza Lim’s Turning Dance of the Bee consists of a daytime and a nocturnal tableau. During the day, bees perform the figure of eight “waggle dance” oriented towards the sun. At night the bees remain in the hive. Lim’s daytime tableau is full of darting gestures and athletic rhythms, but the nocturnal tableau is truly magical. The solo flute line, performed with the utmost serenity by Nightingale, is transformed over a string drone into a graceful meditation before being joined by a sumptuous bass clarinet line.
Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ Horizontals is so-called for its focus on form and texture over vertical harmony. Sandpaper blocks, saucepans and chopsticks inserted between the piano strings provide groups of timbres. Zubin Kanga’s prepared piano was particularly effective with its muted, gong-like tones. True to the piece’s name, each timbre group is presented before moving on to the next and I found myself wanting to hear some of these sound groups superimposed in new combinations.
Possibly the most well-known living female composer, Kaija Saariaho would be hard to pass by in any celebration of contemporary art music by women. Her work Cendres (ashes) here received a sensitive performance. The sounds of breath and hair on strings conjured images of ash and dust like the cremated remains of the musical patriarchy raining down around us.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Melbourne Recital Centre
The ensemble Eighth Blackbird have championed the brighter side of contemporary American music since forming in college in 1995. Their energetic stagecraft has earned them global fame (at least as far as contemporary music ensembles go), including several tours to Australia. They also enjoy collaborative relationships with composers, often learning repertoire by heart and interacting in ways a music stand-bound performer cannot. During this tour, the ensemble collaborated extensively with the young Australian composer Holly Harrison on a rocking new work.
Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak” is a homage to American minimalism and was composed for Philip Glass’ 75th birthday. Featuring a quotation from Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, the piece includes a string of bitter-sweet instrumental pairings (especially effective when played with all the energy of the ensemble’s cellist, Nicholas Photinos), which build to moments of sinister intensity punctuated by kick-drum.
Bryce Dessner looked even further back in time to inspire his Murder Ballads. The seven reconstructions of folk songs displayed a stunning array of moods and textures, including some galloping wood-block effects by percussionist Matthew Duvall and even actual thigh slapping. The extended version of the Murder Ballads performed for the tour includes movements not included on the ensemble’s recording. The movement “Underneath the Floorboards” is recognisable as Sufjan Stevens’ incredibly creepy—and in this context entirely appropriate—song about the “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Eighth Blackbird worked intensively on Holly Harrison’s new work Lobster Tales and TurtleSoup commissioned by Musica Viva with support from Geoff Stearn and the Hildegard Project. The piece is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The hybrid gryphon and mock turtle in the story are musically figured with bombastic energy in a musical amalgam of rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop, blues, and funk. Dazzling riffs and solos are punctuated by fragments of text interjected by the musicians. The piece is driven by a powerful groove that has its apotheosis in an unlikely and spectacular bass clarinet and flute duo performed by Michael J. Maccaferri and Nathalie Joachim.
The program contained two works from Eighth Blackbird’s Hand to Eye project. For this series of compositions, composers were asked to respond to works in a private collection of visual art. Ted Hearne’s By-By Huey is inspired by Robert Arneson’s painting “By-By Huey P.” The painting is a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, who murdered a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, in 1989. The portrait features a praying mantis superimposed over Robinson’s face. As the program states, “A guide at the Frankel Gallery told me Arneson included the mantis in the portrait because ‘they eat their own.'” The music is similarly self-destructive, with a variety of strategies aimed to silence the music including muting, instrument preparation, and sudden, sharp attacks resulting in vanishing splashes of tone colour. Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade takes as its point of departure the pen-and-ink “(variegated spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby, a picture consisting of just that, thousands of spirals of different thicknesses. The piece, likewise, is an elaboration of one see-sawing rhythm that is shared around the ensemble in rich overlapping textures.
Though Eighth Blackbird interact more on stage than most contemporary music ensembles, I would have liked to have seen them perform from memory and get away from their iPads. The program was an excellent insight into contemporary music from the States and a great opportunity to nurture a new Australian work.
Melbourne Recital Centre
The Tilde festival is named after the symbol “~” used to identify objects in the sound processing environment MSP, which is a staple for composers, sound artists, and experimental musicians. This year the festival demonstrated how far it has expanded beyond its namesake. Welcomed to the blazing aluminium and hot-pink stages of Southbank’s Testing Grounds were musicians from experimental, improvisational, notated, and world music traditions. Testing Grounds have also grown around Tilde. From a field of temporary structures made from recycled wooden pallets, Testing Grounds is now a fully-equipped venue with four highly customisable stage areas and a bar. Just the sort of place to spend a hot day in January.The Tilde Academy that takes place leading up to the festival graces the schedule with high-quality student work that has been workshopped with leading composers and practitioners. A true double bass virtuoso, Patrick Lyons, played new works by the composers Jaslyn Robertson and Sam Wolf. With the help of a whispering electronic part in her work Imposter Syndrome, Wolf helped draw the audience’s focus away from the hulking solo instrument to contemplate sonic minutiae. Another student highlight was the performance of John Zorn’s Cobra by the academy students directed by the experimental guitarist Gary Butler. Part of the fun is working out what on earth is going on as the students respond to incomprehensible directions held up by Butler.
A Tilde festival wouldn’t be complete without some impressive home made sonic gadgets and John Ferguson’s Circles did not disappoint. A box containing a single-board computer (maybe a Raspberry Pi and two Arduinos) sequence live samples in an intelligently random way that the performer then has to respond to and negotiate with. The device gives the impression of having a life of its own. Its dials and lights are thankfully turned towards the audience, who can watch the performer react as the device throws up autonomous changes.
From hacked electronics to hacked guitars, Chris Rainier performed songs by Harry Partch on his modified microtonal guitar. Rainier’s medley of readings, tape recordings, and songs make his program a complete theatrical performance.
Jacques Soddell’s electroacoustic work In the Park was a timely exploration of Australian nationalism, including field recordings of nationalist chanting and speeches. It was followed by the multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Scully’s performance of solo works on double bass, cello, viola, and violin. While Scully can certainly play all of these instruments, a more confident performance on one would have sufficed. Scully was joined on stage by Mirren Strahan for her work “Gratitude,” an ironic juxtaposition of violent frotting on violin and double bass with shouted exclamations of gratitude.
Flutes featured heavily this year, with performances by Hannah Reardon-Smith, Melanie Walters, and Laura Chislett Jones. Chislett Jones’ recital was a particular delight, taking the audience on a finely curated tour through works for flute and electronics of the past few decades. Taking place days after the murders on Burke St, Michael Smetanin’s at times violent and gentle Backbone was thoughtfully dedicated “to those who are suffering”.
The open stage in the middle of the Testing Grounds hosted a kaleidoscope of acts, making the experience of queuing for an artisanal burger all the more enjoyable. A highlight was Bianca Gannon’s solo gamelan with loop pedal performance, which brought a meditative tone to the balmy evening.
After a long day of new music it was refreshing to hear Nunique Quartet, a complexist super-group turned jazz band. It’s great to know people can have so much fun counting their irrational rhythms. Definitely hire for your next party.
As tiny festivals of sonic exploration, interdisciplinarity, and improvisation, the Liquid Architecture and Inland concert series are natural partners. For one of the year’s first concerts they teamed up to bring the world’s foremost experimental cellist Okkyung Lee, to Melbourne. The concert’s title suited the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration. “Nothing but disaster follows from applause” is a quotation from the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, who consistently criticised nationalism and religious hypocrisy in post-war Austria. While there is some uncertainty as to whether populism will develop into fascism under Trump, the election of a climate change denier to the White House all but seals the fate of our natural environment. Far from relaxing or soul-cleansing, the ecological theme that ran through “Nothing but disaster” was a “dark ecology” tinged with the melancholy knowledge of our contribution to the destruction of our own ecosystem.
Alexander Garsden and Ida Duelund-Hansen are better known to Partial Durations readers as a post-spectralist composer and a Scandinavian avant-garde chanteuse. These musical personalities find a magical synthesis in the folk-revival duo True Strength. Switching between Danish and English, Duelund-Hansen’s light and pure voice sings of waves, tussocks of grass, and terraced hillsides over Garsden’s floating acoustic guitar harmonies. Duelund-Hansen’s double bass part journeys along in melodic counterpoint. The overall sound is reminiscent of Alela Diane and Ryan Francesconi’s album Cold Moon, albeit denser and with a greater rate of textural change. True Strength’s songs are series of reflective tableaux, but they never let you linger too long. You can and should hear True Strength on Spotify (though don’t mistake them with the christian metal band), or live in Hobart and Melbourne over the next week.
Having last heard Oren Ambarchi perform a richly-textured noise set through a hulking battery of amplifiers at the Aurora Festival in 2011, I brought my earplugs to the Abbotsford Convent. These turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Crys Cole and Ambarchi’s principal source of amplification were networked smartphones. Cole used an iPad to send nocturnal field recordings to the phones spaced around the hall. Croaking frogs and chirping insects wafted through the room while Ambarchi repeated a single note on an acoustic guitar. Throughout the set, Cole’s sound design shifted into man-made analogues, including what sounded like rustling paper and vocal whispers. I found this set no less affecting than a full-body immersion in noise. Who can innocently listen to the sounds of nature any more? Every environmental sound is now an indictment of our custodianship of it. Once the purview of dollar-bin relaxation tape manufacturers, recording a cicada is now a radical act.
The synthesiser and tape collaborations of James Rushford and Joe Talia have long stretched the limits of the audible, but their whisper-soft set for “Nothing but disaster” gained a new poignancy from the ecological preludes of True Strength and Cole and Ambarchi. Among the Lynchesque synth drones I heard distant wolf-howls and crickets, all suffused in an electromagnetic, static glow.
Okkyung Lee’s set heralded from the other side of the world and the opposite end of the dynamic range. Playing behind the audience and in complete darkness, Lee let us know what an efficient noise machine the cello is. Growling, grinding, and never still, Lee savaged her instrument in new and remarkably dexterous ways, though this was only evident to me when I craned my neck to catch the shadow of her bow arm. We’ve all heard a cello getting murdered, but it would have been good to see how Lee does it. For the most part her technique was lost on the audience.
Liquid Architecture and Inland are the products of an adventurous and discerning experimental music community with the ability—more or less unique in the contemporary music community—to attract audiences from other art forms. Such curatorial vision has the power to develop powerful artistic responses to the social and environmental disasters of our age (take your pick).
Liquid Architecture and Inland
Nothing but disaster follows from applause
The Abbotsford Convent
20 January 2017
True Strength, Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi, James Rushford and Joe Talia, Okkyung Lee
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
“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.
By André and Michel Décosterd
Bendigo Symphony Orchestra
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
4 September 2016