Australian Voices: Gordon Kerry

Gordon Kerry. Photo by Keith Saunders
Gordon Kerry. Photo by Keith Saunders

Gordon Kerry
Australian Voices (curated by Marshall McGuire)
Melbourne Recital Centre
11 June

The Australian Voices series, presented by the Melbourne Recital Centre and ANAM, celebrates established Australian composers with a night of performances by some of the country’s finest young musicians. For the performers and audience members, the series is an important education in recent and ongoing musical history. For the composers, the night is an opportunity to hear some of their works performed for perhaps only the second or third times. The intimate Salon is the ideal venue for such an event, with Kerry briefly introducing his works and thanking the concert organisers for “dusting him off.”

Kerry’s works between 2002 and 2008–from which the programme was drawn—play with shifting textures and formal convolutions (in the sense of a piece’s overall shape). Figures tumble over each other and episodes are reduced to glimpses through open doors as they are juxtaposed, superimposed and brought into lyrical contact with each other. The series curator Marshall McGuire commented on this aspect of Kerry’s compositions when he likened them to poems. Indeed, many of Kerry’s works are based on poems and it was particularly helpful of McGuire to read some of them out. If Kerry’s chamber pieces are poems, then, despite the lengths of their namesakes, they are sagas. And the Nothing That Is, Blue Latitudes and Nocturne all rely on their sprawling forms to achieve their full effect. As Wallace Stevens writes in The Snow Man, the inspiration for And the Nothing That Is: “One must […] have been cold a long time to behold the junipers shagged with ice […] and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.”

Kerry’s representations of snow and ice in And the Nothing That Is reveal a sensitivity to the still and crystalline forms of nature. Pointillistic piano decoration and pure string harmonics are scattered over the cold ground of a single cello note. The angularity of And the Nothing That Is contrasts with the fluid gestures of Blue Latitudes, where a flute springs over a ticking harp line. Not all is light and clear, however. Kerry’s music also has a dark side, as in the wandering, Wagnerian strings that precede the flute and harp duo.

A solo trombone piece and a marimba duo broke up the concert with interludes of energetic humour. As McGuire noted, Aria for trombone, performed by Iain Faragher, contrasts the lyrical and theatrical aspects of the instrument. The boppy marimba duo Out of the Woods sees two improvisatory lines converge upon a repeated hook.

The concert’s concluding work, Nocturne, was played beautifully by the ANAM students. Anthony Chataway attacked the dominant viola line with passion and precision. Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet haunted the Salon from outside the space before entering to play a surging duo with the viola. Creeping figures met each other in the dark to engage in some midnight counterpoint, apparitions flickered across the ensemble and a repeated, descending piano figure tolled the hours.

As a lesson in history, the concert was a monument to the enormous body of post-impressionist music, for want of a better term, produced in Australia over the past thirty years in reaction to the brief dominance of the Boulezian aesthetic in our music institutions. Students of my generation, who were not traumatised by serialism, naturally ask themselves whether post-impressionism is still an interesting compositional path. When Boulez sits innocently next to Boyd on the shelf it seems no more valid to appeal to a piece’s listenability as a marker of its quality than it was to appeal to its complexity once upon a time, especially if that listenability devolves into tired word-painting and another faun-like flute line. After a few “rain” pieces that Boulez on the shelf looks mighty tempting. That said, Kerry’s chamber works form a worthy monument, with a three-dimensional discursivity betraying no lack of construction.

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