Ensemble Offspring, Between the Keys

Ensemble Offspring
Between the Keys
The Street Theatre
8 June
Guest review by Veronica Bailey

I have always had a love for chamber music with varied instrumentation. It allows composition to drive what sounds are included rather than being restricted by the instruments that are available to the ensemble. This was beautifully demonstrated in the concert Between the Keys, presented by Sydney based group Ensemble Offspring. Instruments were commissioned for the ensemble for a previous concert. These instruments included a violin like instrument called an Undachin Tarhu, built by Peter Biffin, with an additional set of seven strings under the fingerboard that resonate with different frequencies . These strings are tuned to the centaur tuning system developed by Kraig Grady which was likewise adopted by other instruments in the ensemble. This included a vibraphone, harmonium, the bell-like meru bars, the clarinis and a keyboard.

The concert opened with a work by Arana Li titled Mysteries. The work aptly demonstrated the new sounds of the centaur vibraphone, the undachin tarhu and the clarinis. This was one of my favourite works of the night, the instruments sounding as naturally as if this configuration of instruments was as common as a string quartet.
Next was Music in Similar Motion by Phillip Glass, a minimalist piece conceived to be played by any group of instruments. This piece suited the centaur vibraphone and detuned keyboard perfectly, the ringing of the vibraphone adding a hypnotic quality to the work.

Amanda Cole’s Hydra was written specifically for the clarinis made for the ensemble. The sound was reminiscent of medieval music and the melodic interaction between the two players was enjoyable to listen to.
Some Shades of Blue by the artistic director Damien Ricketson was performed with great style by Anna McMichael on the undachin tarhu. It evoked thoughts of Mongolian nomads wandering vast plateaus. The conclusion to the piece had centaur vibraphone broken chords accompanying undachin tarhu bow scrapes, which were haunting and other-worldly.

Kraig Grady’s pentatonic piece Akashic Torus was often reminiscent of gamelan music. The vibraphone playing of Claire Edwards stood out in this piece and the meru bars, built by Grady, added a wonderful, sonorous quality when struck.

Arvo Pärt is a composer that I love listening to and I greatly enjoyed the Ensemble Offspring version of Fratres. Perhaps not more than the original, but still very much.

The final piece of the evening was a composition by Terumi Narushima. Hidden Sidetracks took the listener on a journey of all the centaur tuning has to offer. Beginning as a very tonal piece, with few centaur tunings evident, the piece quickly changes to take on a more oriental feel, and more notes feel a little strange to western ears. Quick dance-like segments feature regularly, with the work then returning to a more tonal centre.

This was a most enjoyable concert exploring an intriguing and rarely visited sonic landscape. Different, but very accessible, the program proved a hit with barely an empty seat in the house.

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