Zephyr Quartet, A Rain from the Shadows

Zephyr Quartet. Photo by Sam Oster
Zephyr Quartet. Photo by Sam Oster

Zephyr Quartet
A Rain from the Shadows (album launch)
Melbourne Recital Centre
26 April

More at home with a viola in his hand, Jason Thomas shakily grips the booklet of Zephyr Quartet’s new album A Rain from the Shadows. Glancing around the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon, he recites Mike Ladd’s “Dirt” in his best Radio National baritone. The quartet now seems to evoke the growing termite mounds of the Plenty Highway with rhythmic double-stops, looping violin motifs and ever more dramatic melodic interjections. Dirt is just one of the poetic responses to existing Zephyr Quartet compositions commissioned for A Rain from the Shadows. The album also includes works composed in response to poems by Iraqi-Australian poet Yahia Al Samawy, Australian Rob Walker and Mexican-American poet Gary Soto.

Belinda Gehlert’s compositions express a wide-eyed wonder at the natural world, drawing inspiration from snorkeling in freshwater sinkholes near Mt. Gambier in South Australia and expanses of dunes near the ocean. In Dunes, based on a poem by Rob Walker, the wind eternally blows millions of tiny boulders of sand over each other, eroding mountains and bones along the way. The loping, Sisyphean ostinato of the viola is contrasted with a lyrical slow section, as though we have taken a step back from Sisyphus’ microscopic work to view the shifting landscape.

Hilary Kleinig composes transformation in From Darkness to Day, drawing upon a similar line from Al Samawy’s poem Four Loaves from the Heart’s Oven. Sending a message of hope, the piece is a variation on a breath, from its first meditative inhalations to its final jubilant shouts.

Contrasting with Gehlert and Kleinig’s episodic impressionism, Emily Tulloch’s two compositions Skyroads and Air drew (unconsciously or not) on the contrasting worlds of nineties computer game music and twentieth-century timbral experimentation. Skyroads is so named because, after composing the piece, Tulloch realised it resembled the soundtrack to the eponymous 1993 shareware game. Having spent some time with the game over the weekend—purely in the interests of good journalism—I can critically and objectively verify this similarity. Tulloch’s sustained and polymetric violin lines recall a time in sound card manufacturing when timbral variation came at a premium and polyphony was an exciting new possibility. In contrast, Air develops a floating texture of string harmonics and the convoluted overtones of flautando bowing. The piece concludes with some masterful whistling over the quartet’s sustained notes.

With its vivid imagery and dramatic string writing, A Rain from the Shadows could be dramaturged and presented more theatrically. Some interest was lost in the absence of the texts from the performance (with the exception of Thomas’ recitation). The presence of the texts could encourage the quartet to further accentuate the gestural, expressive aspect of their original compositions.

Read Chris Reid’s review of A Rain from the Shadows over at RealTime.

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