Elegy for realtime

Matthew Lorenzon

For over 20 years realtime has been a dedicated space for the documentation, appreciation, and criticism of new music in Australia. Throughout my seven years writing for the magazine and the realtime-supported blog Partial Durations, I have had the privilege of following the work of many musicians as they grow, drop out, drop back in, move overseas, and create the most thrilling music I have ever heard.

realtime editors Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter’s contributions to new music in Australia cannot be overstated. One American visitor to the Tura New Music Festival was shocked to hear I had been sent there by a magazine, remarking that “nobody reviews contemporary music in the US because nobody gives a shit.” Well, we do, and Keith and Virginia set the bar high for an aspiring music critic. My first review was of Chamber Made Opera’s first “living room opera” The Itch by Alexander Garsden. Who else would send a reviewer to a living room to hear a contemporary opera by a young composer? Keith made it clear there were to be no nineteenth-century grammatical hangovers, no awkward fluff, no unsubstantiated criticisms, but still an overall and definite point to the review. In a world of distractions, attention can be the greatest gift. Keith and Virginia wouldn’t put down their fine-tooth combs for the next seven years and through their editorial support I have grown immeasurably as a writer.

I continued to write regularly for realtime and in 2013 proposed a side-blog dedicated to contemporary music. I believe my crazy pitch was something like “How about I write more for you for less?” Keith has not passed on his knack of thinking up catchy titles, so I proposed the obscure name of “Partial Durations,” a term drawn from a composer’s sketch that vaguely reflected the blog’s ephemerality. Keith insisted that we could do better, but the next day confessed that he couldn’t think of anything else, so it stuck. I think Partial Durations became an important source of criticism for the contemporary music scene until competing priorities caused the blog to slow almost to a stop this year. A particular highlight of this period was running writers’ workshops at the Tura New Music Festival and the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Keith, Virginia, Alistair Noble, and I would mentor a number of emerging writers at each festival, producing reviews at a break-neck pace. Even with tight deadlines Keith and Virginia would take the time—much to the writers’ surprise—of poring over each review word by word. Most of the writers had never had so much attention paid to their writing, and sadly may never again. At all points the ethos of measured criticism (describe, explain, and then if you must, criticise) ensured that participants left these festivals with a greater understanding and appreciation for music. I hope they all experienced the personal artistic growth that comes from suspending judgement long enough to better understand a work.

There are 273 reviews on Partial Durations, that’s 273 small acts of witnessing music change and develop in Australia. These would not have been written without realtime’s support and I am so glad that realtime have offered to include them in their online archive, which they will develop throughout next year.

So what did change? I have seen a brilliant generation of musicians emerge from the VCA, burn brightly and then disperse around the world. I have seen Monash University emerge as a powerhouse of musical exploration. The Aurora Festival came and went, like the aurora itself, over Western Sydney. Tura New Music tirelessly ploughed on in the West and up the coast. In Queensland, Kupka’s Piano led a resurgence in contemporary concert music with a truly ambitious series of concerts. MONA FOMA taught us all how to really enjoy contemporary music. Young composers became numb to the old aesthetic arguments propagated by their teachers at music schools. Complexist or pastoralist, who cares? They’ll both be played side by side at the Cybec competition. The Metropolis Festival carved into the scene before losing its edge, but the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music grew from strength to strength as Australia’s answer to Darmstadt or Huddersfield. Even if critical discourse around this music is in decline, musicians themselves are becoming more critically aware, as testified by the explosion of action around gender equality over the past years.

There are so many lessons to take away from this experiment in music journalism, but a rather pessimistic one is that the internet is an inhospitable medium for careful and considered writing. We have an unhealthy relationship to online content, wanting to read quickly and shallowly. The resulting churn means less time to revise and deepen opinions. As advertisers and government funders crave ever more traffic, the writing must become thinner and cheaper. As the cost of reviewing falls to those who need it most—the musicians—the lines between advertising and honest reviews blur.

That said, the internet has transformed our access to new music for the better. Writers and musicians are now better connected and informed about each others’ work than ever before. Online streaming makes premieres across the world instantly accessible to all. How can we make use of the good while avoiding the bad in this situation? I propose a radical model for “slow criticism” in music writing, one with anonymous authors and subscribers, which is only available in print, and which has an international scope. Anonymity may seem counter-intuitive given that it leads people to unleash their worst natures online, but in a controlled, edited print environment it ensures honesty and collaboration. An anonymous subscriber base, perhaps facilitated by way of crypto-currency, ensures that readership exerts no influence upon the authors. A quarterly print-only publishing schedule is a necessary impediment to fast-food criticism. To research, to explore new ideas, and to think carefully and critically, authors deserve to be paid a decent rate for their work. The content will therefore be dictated in a large part by the subscribers willing to forego speed for quality.

But that’s just a crazy idea. Who would start such a thing? Why reject the immediacy and reach of online content? It is truly devastating to see realtime fold right as they had designed a new website that seemed to speak to the best side of online publishing. The new site casts such a breadth of content immediately before the reader’s eyes, but in its simplicity and elegance encourages them to settle in with an article or two. But why advertise on such a site when you can cast another tile into the infinite advertising soup of a Facebook feed or junk mailbox? Why support an independent, critical publication when a few dollars will buy a string of ingratiating adjectives elsewhere? Ah, realtime, I’m gonna miss ya.

BIFEM: Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette, Illud Etiam

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 ILLUD ETIAM_MG_9814
Juliana Snapper in Illud Etiam. Jason Tavener photography.

Review by Joel Roberts

On Sunday afternoon at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, the sounds of murmuring electronics gently eclipsed the noises of an expectant audience at the performance of Illud Etiam. Named after a work by Philippe Manoury, four works were performed by soprano Juliana Snapper and composer Miller Puckette. At this point in the festival, I was uncertain of what to expect next.

The question that had derailed my expectations was simply “what should one expect at an exploratory music festival?” Would there be New Music; Experimental music; Other Music; the Avant Garde; Wacky Shit? My experience at the Festival successfully shifted my sense of cultural framing. Another shift in this area was as a result of witnessing Snapper and Puckette’s staging of You who will emerge from the flood. Described as an opera, this hybrid work included a soprano who sang underwater, an electronic score, a glass-walled dunking tank and a pair of large projector screens and was the sort of work that could have been placed within the worlds of theatre, opera or visual art.

Illud Etiam was presented in a simple and direct manner in the Bendigo Bank Theatre, an ornate rectangular room that had originally housed masonic meetings. A single microphone pointed directly across a pair of music stands which had been arranged like a dais or news-desk giving the impression that we were about to witness a sermon or news conference. Snapper’s appearance in a simple black dress reinforced the unencumbered nature of this performance, a stark contrast to the metre-long merkin worn in You who will emerge. The room’s simplicity and a simple lighting set-up only emphasised the program’s more dramatic moments. The dry acoustic of the room also enabled the audio processes to be completely controlled within the electronic environment. Together, these elements intensified the focus on Snapper’s performance and Puckette’s electronic soundscape.

A flash of light marked the beginning of selections from Manoury’s song cycle, En Écho. The songs sounded like poetic matter of fact accounts and stories in the manner of recitative. Manoury’s approach to the vocal writing was engaging while remaining within the realm of the conventional. Early into the performance, it was clear that Snapper’s ability to communicate as a singer completely eclipsed the fact that I had no understanding of the French text. Completely engaged in her performance, I also had a growing awareness of the richness of the electronics. More accurately described as orchestration, Manoury’s sweeping electronic landscape evolved and developed with the richness of any conventional orchestration.

The principal timbre of the electronics, a “hybrid keyboard”, was a blend of piano, bell, and organ-like sounds that provided a strong musical presence throughout the work. In places a “scribbling” sound was transformed into a whimpering. In another, excited gestures of electronic sounds would overflow in response to the singer’s sounds. At other times, quiet “voices” could be heard within the musical texture. I began to wonder if I was hearing pre-recorded sounds, or spontaneous electronic responses to the singer? All these elements contributed to the excitement of this performance. In places, Snapper appeared to be waiting for an electronic response to her singing. This human-machine improvisation further enhanced the sense of excitement in the performance.

 After the performance, Puckette explained to me that he had created the electronic platform for the work, which he then taught to Manoury, who realised the work’s orchestration. I discovered that Puckette was officially listed as a collaborator on the work, an element that would have been worthwhile to add to a program. The improvisation that I had heard was a result of the programming. The computer “knew” the score and followed the singer, anticipating events and responding to them in real time. To me, this represented an aspect of artificial intelligence which emulated the skills of great musicians from any style.

Snapper’s own composition, Double Voiced, provided a different approach to singer-electronics interaction that sounded more like an ensemble. An array of electronic textures provided richly harmonised choral accompaniment, counterpoint and immediate responses to the vocalist, sometimes in the manner of a duet. The use of a huge digital reverb, in contrast to the room’s acoustics, was an auditory pleasure. In places, the electronics’ timbre resembled the sounds of extended techniques on acoustic instruments.

At other times the electronics sounded like hysterical laughing. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the live vocal from the processed sound, a feature particular to this work. One of the difficulties as an audience member at this festival was the omission of program notes for all performances. I think this is problematic because it is hard to frame and contextualise works without some background. It could be suggested that this is an elitist approach that is not interested in cultivating audiences from outside the new-music scene.

For example, the text to Illud Etiam, another Australian premiere by Manoury, had been impenetrable to me until after the performance. It was clear that the piece had a religious context and some parts of the text were in latin. The religious connotations were reinforced by the sounds of electronic bells which permeate the work like a Yamaha dx-7 on steroids! By looking online I discovered that the work was inspired by scenes from Bergman’s film Seventh Seal, which deals with issues around sorcery. The text is a blend of an original medieval text and a poem by Louise Labe. While the singer plays the dual roles of inquisitor and victim, the dynamic intensity of her voice triggers “sound flames”. In this case, the greater the volume, the greater the degree of instability in the electronics. According to Manoury, the fire represents both punishment and the woman’s desire to be consumed.

Early into the performance it surprised me to realise that this concert was essentially a traditional vocal recital. A freshness and excitement (the experimental) was added to this through the use of a distinctive timbral palette, computer indeterminacy and improvisational elements. Despite the incredible volume and quality of audio production, there is not the same sense of deep immersion that one feels when an orchestra is accompanying a soloist. For example, Snapper maintained a sense of character throughout the performance, except in moments where she was waiting for a response from the electronics. However, I’m sure this is something that could be developed, if it needed to be Is it the result of the piece having an improvisational aspect to it and the artist simply needing to tune in to a spontaneous electronic response? Snapper and Puckette’s use of experimental music making within the context of traditional staging and presentation contributed to a successful and deeply engaging performance.

Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Illud Etiam
Bendigo Bank Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017

En Écho, Philippe Manoury; Double Voiced, Juliana Snapper; Illud Etiam, Philippe Manoury.

BIFEM: Sultan Hagavik, Only Extasy & Motion

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 ONLY EXTASTY AND MOTION_MG_9742
Sultan Hagavik perform Only Extasy & Motion. Jason Tavener Photography.

Review by Kishore Minifie Ryan

Polish duo Sultan Hagavik are somewhat of an exception to BIFEM’s usual aesthetic. Whereas most of the compositions presented at the festival are notated meticulously and require performative virtuosity, Sultan Hagavik’s performance is unscored and virtuosity is almost ​irrelevant. In the tradition of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, they take tapes of popular artists and manipulate them, using cassette decks and Dictaphones, into something new.

Mikołaj Laskowski and Jacek Sotomski, with their bleached hair and face masks, have an androgynous, doll-like appearance. Their masks, besides from the thick black eyebrows and bright red lips, are translucent. On their recordings, their instrumentation is often credited collectively as “portable cassette deck players and Dictaphones” and although they sometimes specify the individual cassette players that each of them use, their respective contributions are less important than the overall impact of their combined performance. Furthermore, the fact that their faces are hidden makes it more or less impossible to identify them individually.

One has much longer hair that protrudes from under his beanie and wears a low-cut shirt that reveals chest hair. The other wears a colourful vest and pyjama pants. They sit among the equipment scattered across the stage, which includes several cassette players, a Walkman, a keyboard and, most likely, a Dictaphone or two. Behind them is a human-size statue of a gorilla with a baby. At the front of the stage is a much smaller statue of a bear.

The first thing we hear is a sampled voice counting “one, two, three” followed by grindcore-esque blast beats played on an ’80s drum machine. The wall of intentionally out-of-time samples and beats comes to a halt and for a couple of seconds and we hear the decay of a cymbal. Then the voice again “one, two, three, four” and more blast beats with noisy tape samples. After the first “movement” the audience does not applaud and we listen as they eject their cassettes from the decks and insert new ones.

Only Extasy & Motion is presented as a long form work, but the “movements” have less in common with New Music—at least in terms of duration and form—than they do with the pop and metal genres they borrow from. Would the audience applaud after each movement (song) if Sultan Hagavik performed in a different context?

The second movement begins with a low drone that quickly speeds up and merges with multiple layers of warped instrument samples. A soul or gospel song—most likely a well known one, but one that my friends and I were unable to identify—is buried under the sound of squeaky sped-up tape. The tape speed is manipulated in such a way as to create an atonal Theremin-like melodic contour. This “theme” is interrupted by a short segment of low tape drone with faltering blasts of the soul song. A recapitulation of the atonal Theremin theme cuts abruptly to the high pitch texture of a cassette being played in fast forward or rewind. The movement is concluded with a warped flute-like melody that sounds as though it is taken from the same soul song.

Only Extasy & Motion is most evidently derivative of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics technique in its third movement, which sounds as if it is created entirely from samples of one recording. Rammstein’s self-titled 1995 song begins with low synth hits and the tape speed is initially, albeit briefly, consistent. For the first time we hear a discernible key, or harmonic point of reference, but this is quickly eliminated by an increase in tape speed. The well-known guitar riff (with bass and drum kit) is paused at the end of each bar, or sometimes after a couple of beats, giving way to a low tape drone, presumably created from samples of the same song. Snippets of the famous guitar hook are played back at slightly different tempos before the song is heard only in fast forward and, quite possibly, in rewind, at speeds that make it unrecognisable.

In the fifth movement we hear a woman screaming sexually. The vocal sample, presumably taken from a porn video, is manipulated in such a way as to create a melodic contour of sorts. This porn-melody is somewhat reminiscent of the atonal Theremin-esque line in the second movement. However, the porn sample is played back in start-stop bursts and as a result is somewhat less suggestive of a Theremin. That is to say, its staccato-ness interrupts the horizontal contour. At one point the tape speed is slowed—like John Oswald’s 1988 plunderphonic recording of Dolly Parton’s “The Great Pretender”—in order to make the female voice sound like a man’s.

There are also several movements in Only Extasy & Motion that are not characterised by appropriation of popular songs. One movement is defined by bird sounds and another is built around a dance hall beat and a simple chord progression. At one point one of the performers in Sultan Hagavik hammers out a simple chord progression on an actual keyboard (set to piano sound) and repeats this for a surprisingly long time. The other performer eventually positions the microphone in front of his face and the audience wait in expectation. When he sings his voice is drenched in reverb and other effects, making it hard to distinguish from the rest of the music. After some time, everything fades out except the piano sound. The singer sits without moving and again we listen in anticipation. He triggers a loud sample of a female voice singing “baby” and the audience laughs. He triggers samples of “baby” and “don’t stop now” repeatedly until the audience gradually stops laughing.

The denouement of Only Extasy & Motion is made from The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Initially the bluesy guitar riff is punctuated by a snare-like rhythm on beats two and four achieved by quickly switching a cassette deck on then off. The vocal anacrusis “she’s so…” and the triplet guitar arpeggio that follows remain relatively untouched besides from slight tape speed manipulation. John Lennon’s vocals, “I want you, I want you so bad” are mixed very loud and the rest of the track is almost muted, lyrically and thematically echoing the “baby” and “don’t stop now” vocal samples and pornographic sound bites, all of which accentuate the strong sexual implications of the work’s title. The denouement is reminiscent of the Rammstein movement in terms of its loud dynamic and blatant plunderphonic treatment of a guitar-oriented pop song. A section characterised by somewhat minimal variations in tape speed transitions to a section made up of fast forward and rewind sounds over tape noise. After everything fades to silence, a vocal sample of a woman sings what sounds like “Zola” and then something indiscernible—I could not identify this sample either. The audience laughs nervously, then applauds.

Only Extasy & Motion could be understood as a feminist critique of popular culture, but whether or not Sultan Hagavik intended it as such is ambiguous. The transformation of porn audio into melody is an unusual form of appropriation. Evidently, judging by the audience’s laughter, most people find the porn-melody hilarious, although others may well find it upsetting. Do Laskowski and Sotomski wear masks merely as a means to remain anonymous? Do they slow the tape down purely to make the porn-melody sound funnier? Or are their androgynous masks and the fact that they briefly slow the tape down to make the porn sample sound like a man meant to be understood as critiques on gender norms? The fact that The Beatles’ song is characterised by an expression of lust and is sung by a man combined with the inclusion of highly sexualised female vocal samples mirrors the objectification of women within the popular music industry and society in general, but whether these samples were combined with feminist intentions—or perhaps as a comment on heteronormativity—remains indeterminate.

Only Extasy & Motion
Sultan Hagavik
Trades Hall
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Saturday 2 September

BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Dead Oceans

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 DEAD OCEANS_MG_9959
The Argonaut String Quartet in Dead Oceans. Jason Tavener photography.

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

Each year BIFEM reserves box-office takings to commission new works for the following year. By commissioning works from Australian and international composers, BIFEM has become a globally recognised hub for new music. This year’s closing concert foregrounded BIFEM’s culture-building mission by juxtaposing world premieres from the emerging Australian composers Caterina Turnbull and Samuel Smith with Australian premieres by Clara Iannotta and Anahita Abbasi. The Argonaut String Quartet handled the challenges thrown at them with apparent ease, whether Turnbull and Smith’s palettes of extended string techniques or Iannotta and Abbasi’s blocks of styrofoam, aluminium foil, and desk bells.

Last year Turnbull participated in the Monash University Composers’ Workshop at BIFEM. Her string quartet attracted the attention of the festival organisers and ultimately a commission from Julian Burnside, QC. Burnside’s support gave Turnbull the opportunity to return to her short piece, extending and refining it into a series of tableaux of delicately layered instrumental effects. In Eminulos (a latin adjective describing a slight projection), masses of bird-like chirps, imitative call and response, booming down bows, tremolos, harmonics, and whispering circular bowing tumble into one another like folded geological layers. Turnbull’s heterophonic effects seem to augment the string quartet into a string orchestra.

Those familiar with Smith’s music will recognise his dynamic musical gestures in Dead Oceans, one of this year’s BIFEM Box Office Commissions. Throughout the work’s 18 minutes these gestures are built into breathtakingly dense and fluid textures. Growling notes evaporate into indeterminately high harmonics; glissandi careen around the instruments, turning corners with screeches of gritty bow pressure. From masses of mercurial lines emerge staggered legato bowing from Elizabeth Welsh and Erkki Veltheim’s violins. These rafts of timbral respite drift atop Graeme Jennings and Judith Hamann’s busy viola and cello parts like flotsam bobbing on the ocean. The work’s general movement from dissonance to consonance lends a sense of nostalgia or repose to the second half. The bobbing legato tones sound like parts of buildings floating on the ocean after being swept out to sea by a storm. The work’s environmental program is suggested by its subtext, “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans” from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But Smith insists, like Dylan, that it is just that, a subtext.

Clara Iannotta’s A Failed Entertainment was similarly not inspired by the dark comedy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for which “A Failed Entertainment” was the working title. A Failed Entertainment is the beginning of the composer’s process of exploring longer and more complex forms, which Wallace achieved with extended, digressionary footnotes. A Failed Entertainment is a similarly masterful combination of finessed writing and awkward interruptions, including “footnotes” played by stamping on desk bells.

Abbasi’s Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis shines a spotlight on the timbral possibilities of the cello, which the rest of the quartet frames and accompanies while drawing nearer to its timbre. In the beginning, Hamann ceremonially strums the prepared cello with wide movements of her arm, the aluminium foil between the strings emitting a deep and resonant buzz like the chains on the back of a Persian daf drum. Hamann’s uneven, declamatory rhythms break the tension of the other instruments’ groaning and creaking overbowed strings. Sometimes the cello moves closer to the sound of the other instruments, as when Hamann flicks the edge of the cello with the hair of the bow (a swashbuckling move as effective to see as to hear). Meanwhile, the other instruments emit gentle “puffs” by bowing the sides of their instruments. At other times the other instruments move closer to the cello’s sound, as when the viola’s strings are prepared with blu-tac to change their pitch and timbre. The piece is just one of a series of “Distorted Attitudes” exploring distorted social perspectives and social attitudes towards distortion. I hope we have the chance to hear the rest of them live.

At the end of the day, who doesn’t love a string quartet? It’s an approachable genre that can gently prise open even the most unadventurous ears. The Argonaut String Quartet’s deft execution of microtones, extended techniques, and instrument preparations provides Australian composers and listeners with an invaluable musical resource. With the Argonaut String Quartet, everybody can rest assured that bespoke pitch systems will be accurately reproduced, while non-traditional performance techniques will be treated with the utmost musical sensitivity.

Dead Oceans
Argonaut String Quartet
Capital Theatre
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017

Caterina Turnbull, Eminulos; Samuel Smith, Dead Oceans; Anahita Abbasi, Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis; Clara Iannotta, A Failed Entertainment

BIFEM: Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra, Small Infinities

Review by Lewis Ingham

Performed by the Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra including 21 community musicians, Small Infinities explored massed groups of identical instruments with a realisation of Horatiu Radulescu’s Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets (1972) and a new work by Samuel Dunscombe, Small Infinities Together (2017). As a listener, I felt removed from the communal sound creation that dominates both compositions. However, both works catered to the rare experience of sharing the huge and beautiful Sacred Heart Cathedral with up to 28 clarinetists.

Radulescu’s composition consists of 96 individual sound events that are to be performed by seven identical woodwinds. In the case of this concert, seven clarinets. Each of the 96 events requires the clarinetists to play a multitude of sounds: single pitches, trills, and multiphonics to name a few. Emerging from and receding back into silence, the massed effect of these tones is a complex, pulsating, and dense cloud of sound.

The sound of the seven clarinets in the cathedral is utterly spectacular, particularly when hearing the movement of the upper partials in this spectral work. Due to there only being subtle differences between the sound events, I feel particularly removed from the communal sound creation of the seven performers. The sound is completely mesmerising, but with the 96 sound events being of similar construction and quality, I feel there is a spirituality or experience reserved only for the performers.

In Dunscombe’s composition, the greater number of performers reduces this exclusivity that I feel in Radulescu’s work. The Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra, now featuring 28 clarinetists, is split into four groups of seven players, each with a leader helping to conduct the time-based graphic score. Whereas Radulescu uses specific instructions to achieve his sonic ends, Dunscombe allows each performer greater chance and freedom through his score. This feature of the work is particularly engaging to watch in the community clarinet choir that only began rehearsing on the day of the performance.

Dunscombe exhibits a wonderful control over developing single drones into shimmering harmonic fields, but also allows instability to creep into the piece through various embouchure techniques. In the cathedral, this exploration of dense sustained clusters doesn’t overwhelm the space. But what lacked in the performance was the inclusion of greater percussive elements to utilise a different quality of the space. While Dunscombe does incorporate a number of soft key clicks and tongue slaps in the composition, I feel these are under-utilised as an effect to offset the sustained passages and explore the separate physical spaces each ensemble group occupies, surrounding the audience at the front of the church.

Small Infinities
Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September 2017

Horatiu Radulescu, Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets; Samuel Dunscombe, Small Infinities Together

BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, 15072006

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 15072006_MG_9696.jpeg
Jane Sheldon performs Cycle ‘Canciones’ by Santaigo Diez-Fischer. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Simone Maurer

BIFEM’s Argonaut Ensemble returned on the festival’s second night to perform two Australian premieres: Beyrouth15072006 by Israeli composer, Adam Maor, and Cycle ‘Canciones’ by Argentinian composer Santiago Diez-Fischer. Maor operated the live electronics in his own politically-charged composition, which was conducted by Elena Schwarz and featured trombone, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and percussion. In a post-performance interview with BIFEM Director David Chisolm, Maor revealed that his work originated from a 40-minute recorded improvisation entitled Starry Night by the Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj. This unnerving ‘duet’ between trumpet and Israeli bombings was recorded on 15th July 2006 in Beirut; thus the title of Maor’s composition.

Even if Maor had not divulged the origin of his composition, a sense of this story was apparent in his musical treatment of the subject. Beirut’s anticipation and fear of the bombs was heard in the unstable string tremolos and fluttering brass breaths. The irregular, sinking trombone glissandi conjured sinister undertones of the approaching warplanes. The sounds of planes, a bomb strike, and sirens (from Kerbaj’s recording) were heard twice, framed by short instrumental phrases. Its narrative is clear and Maor mirrors the sounds in the ensemble: trumpet as sirens and sliding string harmonics as howling wind. As the piece closes, the trombone reiterates its sinking glissandi, this time growling and amplified. Gradually slowing and fading out, the warplanes have returned home. But Beirut does not sleep peacefully, waiting in fear for tomorrow.

Diez-Fischer’s three songs (performed as a cycle) made a complete contrast to Maor’s linear narrative. Some audience members felt the songs were too thematically restrained or focussed, however credit is due to Diez-Fischer’s full exploration and exhaustion of the minimal musical material. All three songs varied upon a three-note phrase sung by soprano, Jane Sheldon, of which the lowest pitch was a vocal fry. Similar guttural frictions were also heard in the ensemble: scratching of the bow across the lap-held electric guitar, rushing air noises in the winds, and skimming bows across string instruments. Sheldon’s guttural repetitions at times seemed desperate to form words and the instrumentalists offered frequent, but short bursts of dialogue. Although I also felt frustrated, wanting to ‘liberate’ the performers from the tightly controlled and repetitive musical elements, my key to resolving this sensation was to surrender to the hyper-focussed material and enjoy the suspense.

The Argonaut Ensemble members are Australian and international soloists brought together specifically for BIFEM. However, from their assured musical precision and communication, they have the refinements of a well-established ensemble. Particular commendation must be given to trombonist Charles MacInnes and soprano Jane Sheldon. MacInnes performed his part with virtuosity and stamina, while Sheldon displayed complete command and consistency of vocal production throughout the repetitive musical material of Cycle ‘Canciones’. Maintaining a striking physical stillness, she effortlessly executed the intervallic gymnastics required to quickly alternate between pure tone and vocal fry. The combination of musicians and compositions ensured this concert was a highlight of the festival.

Argonaut Ensemble
Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September, 2017

Adam Maor, BEYROUTH15072006; Santiago Diez-Fischer, Cycle ‘Canciones’

BIFEM: Kupka’s Piano, Fray

Review by Lewis Ingham

For their debut BIFEM performance, Brisbane ensemble Kupka’s Piano presented a wonderful program exhibiting restraint and intricacy. The program’s evocative themes were particularly brought to life through the septet’s ability to control and balance sounds at such low dynamics.

Diana Soh’s Incantare:take 2 (2015) explores the multiple meanings of its Latin title: “to sing”, “to repeat with words”, and “to consecrate with spells”. A restrained sonic palette persists throughout the work: in the first movement the soft woodiness of the marimba and ricochet bowing contrast with fragile syllables spoken into the flute and clarinet. The second movement mixes high string harmonics with breathy flute textures and the third movement lets the gong and glockenspiel punctuate grainy bowing textures and soft winds. The lightness and delicacy of these sounds appeared to float, casting a spell over the entire work.

Braneworlds (2016) by Liam Flenady (electric guitar) splits the ensemble into four groups, each group playing to an individual click-track—the composition responding to a Lisa Randall book on multidimensional physics. Repeating gestures within individual groups play with the theme of multidimensionality. The gestures allow the varying tempi of each group to become perceptible within the texture. But Flenady’s control over sparsity, while having so many intricate and individual parts, is a feature. The work often drops away to the paired flutes of Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle, but reincorporates the other ensemble groups at different tempi without letting them overwhelm the overall sonic density.

Hearing from the perspective of ‘entering the fray’, I find myself drawn to the orchestration of Elliott Gyger’s new double concerto for two flutes, Fray (2017). Gyger offers a wonderful dialogue between the two flutes, showcasing each possible combination of piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. There is plenty of mimicking and imitation in the work; not just between the two flutes, but within different configurations of the ensemble, testing whether one entering the fray needs to be different in order to be effective. The most striking aspect of this work is the delicacy and dynamic restraint displayed in the ensemble when neither flute is playing. Whether in the thoughtful harmonic progressions of Alex Raineri’s piano or the regularly sustained phrases of Katherine Philp’s cello, Gyger generates an intricate and quiet sonic landscape which allows any instrument to enter the fray and be impactful, creating friction against the arrangement. The composition’s light ending with two piccolos is fitting for both the piece and the program, highlighting the credit Kupka’s Piano deserve not just for their performance skills, but their programming.

Kupka’s Piano
Ulumbarra Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September 2017

Diana Soh, Incantare:Take2; Liam Flenady, Braneworlds; Elliott Gyger, Fray


BIFEM: Jessica Aszodi and Jenna Lyle, Grafter

Jessica Aszodi and Jenna Lyle in Grafter. Photo by Ben.

Review by Simone Maurer

Dressed in loose-fitting black and khaki clothes, Jessica Aszodi and Jenna Lyle began Grafter centre stage, facing each other. The stage was equipped with microphones, hanging speakers, and electronic equipment on a desk. Standing motionless, Aszodi sang a sustained vowel-tone as Lyle swayed her upper body over Aszodi, purposely interrupting her vocal projection. This example of what the performers describe as “choreographically affecting sound” underpins the work, and highlights the use of body movements for sound effect, rather than visual effect. The performers’ body movements were not intended as a separate artistic element—they were integral to the sound production. In fact, there was little movement which was not connected to a sound. Dividing the performance between acoustic and electronic production, Aszodi and Lyle used “gross and fine body movements” to interplay and interact with elements of vocal production, resonance, space, and electronics.

Although one uninterrupted work, I heard the performance as a book of etudes; each study seemingly designed to focus on a particular element. The focus of the first etude, choreographed sound manipulation, was developed in the following etude to interplay with the resonance of the performer’s bodies. Still facing one another, Lyle swayed and weaved around Aszodi’s open mouth, sporadically capturing its resonance as they sang. Lyle introduced a microtonal interval, producing a combination tone which created further aural distortion. This ‘third voice’ was perhaps a reference to the later electronic voice of feedback produced by two other bodies (microphone and speaker). The specific relationship between Aszodi’s and Lyle’s bodies allowed them to produce a unique set of sounds and movements, and it is hard to imagine the work being as successfully focussed if performed by substantially different bodies. For example, if a great height difference meant Lyle had to stand on tiptoes to reach Aszodi’s mouth, or if one performer was male.

The third etude introduced larger body movements and hinted at the upcoming electronic elements. Sound exchanges between long syllables, shushes, and hisses—accompanied by pulling and pumping of the performers’ arms—evoked imagery of piston-like forces and motions within a mechanical machine. The athletic spectacle of the work increased dramatically as Aszodi and Lyle linked arms behind their bodies and, in turn, lifted the other onto their back. This was a display of both physical and vocal strength, which left me wondering what it would be like to experience another vocally resonating body on mine as I either lifted or was lifted. Although these movements were interpreted by some as comedic, I saw the combination of strength and risk as one of the more physically intense moments of the performance. The slight bodily trembling and hesitance momentarily drew the performers’ experience to the foreground of the performance.

The second, shorter, part of the performance explored interaction between body, space, and electronics, specifically the two hanging speakers, microphones, and hand-held lights. Choreographically manipulating sounds from the speakers, Aszodi diverted the white noise around her flowing body movements. Lyle soon joined, mirroring Aszodi’s movements, while holding small lights. I am not sure if the lights had a deeper meaning, but their presence prompted interplay between both visual and aural ‘shadowing’. Later, the lights were rubbed over the live microphones, creating the perception of an ostinato.

The final etude explored interplay between human versus electronically produced whistles, and the handheld lights were now less of a visual influence. Aszodi’s soft whistles were accompanied by slow pacing across the stage; however, not moving may have better complimented Lyle’s still body, which only moved to rub a live microphone on a speaker, producing short, delicate pitches of feedback. The gradual dimming of the lights and human/electronic whistle interplay clearly signposted the closure of the performance. The first light went out. Aszodi’s whistling ceased. The second light went out. The feedback whistle stopped. Silence.

As a performer-researcher interested in the fields of musical gesture and embodiment, I found Grafter to be an informative study of some possibilities of choreographed sound manipulation. Live electronics is a performance element I am not experienced or knowledgeable in; however, Grafter has prompted me to investigate incorporation of electro-acoustic elements into my flute playing. I have greater confidence in pursuing this after attending the BIFEM Composer Colloquium, which was presented the day following Grafter. Chaired by Aszodi, both she and Lyle discussed their work and development as multi-disciplinary artists. Aszodi voiced her concern, held by other audience members (myself included), of being boxed in to the label of one discipline, such as ‘Singer’, ‘Composer’, or ‘Dancer’. She spoke of the difficultly in trying to include other artistic elements outside her label as ‘Singer’, which the panel (also consisting of Eliot Gyger and Matthew Horsely) attributed to concepts of authority and expertise. They agreed that expertise in an artistic discipline was achieved through formal accreditation and years of practise. However, Aszodi argued that rigorously committing to a secondary artform is possible—as she is currently doing with her dance education. Aszodi’s artistic ‘identity crisis’ resonated with my own as I am also beginning study in dance and struggle with feeling like an imposter. I think that Aszodi’s and Lyle’s combined expertise and knowledge of singing, dance, and composition strengthened and informed their performance. As Grafter is a continually evolving work, I hope to witness future adaptions by Aszodi and Lyle, resulting from their further interdisciplinary exploration.

Jessica Aszodi and Jenna Lyle
Bendigo Bank Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September, 2017

BIFEM: Juliana Snapper, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 YOU WHO WILL EMERGE FROM THE FLOOD_MG_9460
Juliana Snapper, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Lewis Ingham

Bathed in blue light, the metal and glass dunk-tank sits wedged between two projector screens, cold and foreboding against the warm red interior of Bendigo’s Capital Theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, an underwater opera composed by Juliana Snapper with Andrew Infanti, explores themes of violence, gender, and sexuality in a captivating performance on the opening night of 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music.

The work commences with a pre-recorded piano track. The loose rhythms and harsh timbres of the gently out of tune piano dissolve into a subtle layer of synthesised sounds. A pencil-drawn animation of a lonely and naked figure emerging from a body of water flashes across the projector screens. The figure appears androgynous until its breasts emerge from the water. This sequence of images repeats, but with each viewing you feel there are subtle changes to the shading and details of the animation, much like the subtly expanding piano melody.

Snapper emerges from behind one of the screens, climbing onto the dunk-tank and allowing her costume to be taken in by the audience. She wears a dress with blonde wig hair spouting from beneath the hem, like a vast mane of pubic hair. Holding herself on the outer rim of the tank, a new part in the electronic track takes off, this time an artificial choir dominating the sonic palette. Accompanying this new section are projected images of motionless bodies floating in water, this imagery adding a sinister feeling to the water on stage and suggesting why Snapper has not yet touched the water.

A strong moment of silence follows, which is broken by Snapper singing a solo passage of German text. There is no translation for the text, but the nineteenth-century expressionist quality of the music evokes a carnivalesque, ritualistic quality to the way Snapper has displayed herself so far.

Snapper lowers herself into the water slowly and deliberately, the microphones placed around the tank amplifying the sounds of the water and her body against the container. As a key moment in this opera, there is an innate theatricality to Snapper’s first plunge into the water. At first I feel she has no control and resents the water, her costume ungracefully floating through the water and exposing her crotchless outfit. The dunk-tank itself is a machine of ritual humiliation and it’s quite confronting to see the performer force herself beneath the surface whether intentional or not. Eventually Snapper wrestles control of her movements, pulling herself from the water and onto a metal swing suspended just above the liquid’s surface.

There is a sense of the performer exploring the distance between herself and the water as she emits sharp melodic inhalations and exhalations centimetres above the surface. This is further enhanced by a close-up live camera feed, which is projected onto the two screens, magnifying Snapper’s interactions with the water. The camera also allows Snapper to add nuances to her presence in the tank, magnifying her physical efforts to stare into the camera or press her body against the glass. The water in the tank frames the performance and Snapper’s interplay with this voyeuristic frame may be perceived as sexualised or distressing.

The sound of underwater singing isn’t entirely unexpected; a torrent of bubbles with muffled, yet discernible, pitch. More affecting is Snapper’s strong accentuation and treatment of her breathing. When transitioning between singing above and below water, Snapper’s breaths are deep, shallow, melodic, or a frightening gasp. I catch myself holding my breath as I watch Snapper move through the water. This sense of empathy is enhanced by the heavy amplification of her breathing and the sudden loud bangs as she brushes against the tank.

Elements suggest repressive violence: the volume of her underwater singing fading with the depth of her submersion, or the fact that Snapper’s vocal passages from within her watery cell are purely syllabic with the removal of full words. Between the screens and the tank, the audience can watch the performer drown in full sight, even though there is uncertainty as to whether this is forced or not. While Snapper dives alone in the tank, the screens display a video of Snapper being violently dunked and held under the water by two men.

The electronic tracks operate like interludes in the latter stages of the work, Snapper adding drama to these interludes by fully submerging herself. Normally the electronic tracks feature synthesised sounds rather than recorded samples, however, the final electronic section features an eerie vocal duet between a real male and female voice. The uncertain fluidity of the melody begs a final question, are they singing with or against each other?

The stage plunges into darkness, not allowing the audience to witness Snapper exit the tank. Only her faint splashing is heard in the blackness of the theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood is as confronting as it is captivating with Snapper demonstrating her ability to expand vocal technique and performance. With the reemergence of the lights the soprano takes her well deserved bow whilst towelling herself off.

You Who Will Emerge From the Flood
Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Bendigo Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September 2017

BIFEM: Matthew Horsley, A Book of Migrations

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 A BOOK OF MIGRATIONS_MG_9580
Matthew Horsley, A Book of Migrations. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Kishore Minifie Ryan

Liam Flenady’s ‘A Book of Migrations’ is a work of microtonal counterpoint for uillean pipes, a traditional Irish bagpipe-like instrument not customarily heard in Western art music. Drawing on a collaboratively devised set of almost 200 specific microtonal fingerings on the instrument, Matthew Horsley simultaneously reads fragments of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne. The piece is marked with stark elliptical extracts of the text that switch mid-sentence between English and mediaeval Gaelic. Fragments such as ‘shelter of a single tree’ and ‘sleeping on a hard couch’ are half-buried in the acoustic and electronic textures and it is often it hard to tell which language is being spoken.

The piece begins with a monophonic mid-register drone with slight microtonal variations played by Horsley and accompanied by a very high electronic hiss. This is a significant opening because it foreshadows the tone of the piece and introduces the dichotomy between the traditional acoustic instrument and the electronic accompaniment. Furthermore, the initial pipe drone with electronic hiss introduces questions about the relationship between discernible pitch material and noise. Are these two seemingly contrasting sonic events discrete phenomena? Or are pitch and noise, as Flenady’s composition suggests, capable of combining into something indefinite, something that is neither of those things? At what point does a multiphonic drone become noise? How many partials does it need to have?

The drone falls into a somewhat traditional monophonic melody, each note preceded by one or several grace notes and the last note of each phrase sustained to create an unbroken line. This brief section is as close to traditional Irish music as Flenady’s piece will get. However, the intricate microtonal textures that characterise the piece are countered by the uillean pipe’s unique sound, which prevents a complete redefinition of the instrument.

Flenady’s piece lies in the liminal space between perceptible tone and noise. While the electronics provide several contrasting textures such as a multiphonic drone reminiscent of traffic sounds, distorted pulsing syncopated noise and an undulating bell-like drone, Horsley’s initially tradition playing-style gives way to octopus-eque virtuosity and Ligetian polyphony. Horsley’s low register multiphonic drones and high pitch frenetic microtonal lines are redolent of train horns and cats having sex, respectively.

The piece takes its name from American writer Rebecca Solnit’s book in which she traces her Irish ancestry, strengthening the meaning of the piece. Despite the seemingly impenetrable atonal textures, the instrument’s distinct sound persists and the fact that one note is often sustained against a melodic line, however atonal, underpins the modal connotations. This is what twenty-first century music of the Irish cultural diaspora sounds like.

A Book of Migrations
Matthew Horsley
Bendigo Trades Hall
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September

Liam Flenady, A Book of Migrations