Soundstream Collective, Old Kings in Exile

Old Kings in Exile
Soundstream Collective
Melbourne Recital Centre
23 July, 2013

The Pierrot ensemble, comprised of cello, violin, clarinet, flute and piano with various additions, has been a mainstay of chamber music since its use in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire of 1912. As the Old Kings in Exile programme at the Melbourne Recital Centre demonstrated, Australian composers continue to explore the versatility of this ensemble to great effect. The Soundstream Collective dove fearlessly into the diverse range of instrumental colours demanded from the works by James Ledger, Brett Dean, Anthony Pateras and Richard Meale.

In Ledger’s Sextet, jazz harmonies and rhythms are transformed into abstract, almost mechanical gestures that are passed between the instruments in a kaleidoscope of musical configurations. The work forms part of a tendency to take pleasure in eclectic compositional dexterity and finesse.

Pateras’ Broken, Then Fixed, Then Broken is a completely different sort of composition. A pre-established group of sounds for piano, clarinet and cello are played in rhythms strung together by chance. The interest of the work lies in the sounds chosen: hard knocking sounds on the prepared piano, Bartok pizzicati on the cello and muted “toots” of the clarinet. As the piece progresses, this high-end sound spectrum shifts to include some richer tones plucked on the cello and gong-like sounds from the piano.

Works by Dean and Meale link contemporary Australian composition and its recent past. Incredible Floridas, premièred by Peter Maxwell Davies’ Fires of London in 1971, is an astonishing response to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, drawing less on his actual poetry than on his poetic world where beauty and horror lie side by side. In the first of six movements, long violin and clarinet notes conjure the colours of vowels described by Rimbaud: “A, noir, E, blanc, I, rouge … .” Chords spread across the range of the piano punctuate and modify the vowels like consonants. Gongs create swelling, receding, fluid forms between the two. Elsewhere Judith Hamann plays a haunting cello solo with maracas, before being surrounded by military rhythms from the percussion and angular phrases from the winds and piano. Given the unforgettable adventure of hearing the piece, It is surprising that this work is only performed in Australia about once a decade.

Dean’s Old Kings in Exile draws inspiration from the memoir of Austrian author Arno Geiger that details the challenges faced by his aging father. Dean dedicates the piece to his own parents in the leafy suburbs of Brisbane, from where he has also drawn inspiration from the calls of the Pied Butcherbird. There is an early-morning pathos to the two slow movements framing the central scherzo of the work. Groaning bass drums and a layer of flortando trills accompany a melancholic clarinet melody that rises neither quietly nor gracefully.

Both Dean and Meale display a gift for bringing out the  solo instrumental parts within the Pierrot ensemble. Meale claimed to have given up his modernist idiom because it struggled to express qualities like affection, love and tenderness. Indeed, in both Dean and Meale’s works we find sympathetic solo instruments struggling against a threatening ensemble. In Old Kings in Exile we also find moments of salvific unity achieved through juxtaposition, such as in the central scherzo where a frenetic passage shared by the flute and cello builds to a climax before cutting short, revealing misty piano chords melting into shimmering string trills.

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