Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, X-ray Baby

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, photo by Langdon Rodda
Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, photo by Langdon Rodda

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
X-ray Baby
Northcote Town Hall
2 November 2013

Framed by the quirky trompe-l’oeil interior of the Northcote Town Hall, X-ray Baby is a testament to the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble’s philosophy of performing new works by its own members, re-presenting old works from its own repertoire and giving previously premiered works a new lease on life.

Most new orchestral works are never heard beyond their premiere due to the prohibitive cost of convening a large ensemble. Composers, audiences and critics alike risk a shallow appreciation of these nuanced compositions and—unless something goes astonishingly wrong or right—judging individual performances is difficult. Arcko are committed to remedying this situation by giving new large-scale works a second hearing. If a second hearing helps audiences and performers better understand a piece—to hear what has stayed the same—it also provides an opportunity for audiences to tune into what has changed around the piece since its last performance.

Of all the orchestral works premiered in Melbourne recently, Annie Hsieh’s Icy Disintegration is probably the least in need of repeated performance to be understood. The piece is explicitly programmatic, rallying swelling tam-tam rolls, blaring brass sections and shimmering strings to paint the serenity of the Ross Sea, the appearance of cracks and fissures in the Ross Ice Shelf, the immense calving event that produced B-15 ( the largest free-floating object in the world), the break-up of the iceberg into smaller bergs and floes and a scene of nostalgic calm. But never has a piece sounded so urgent in the Northcote Town Hall. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Environment Program have reiterated what we have known for a long time now—that there’s a rather high chance the climate is warming helped along by human-caused carbon emissions—with the addition of some startlingly short time frames for urgent action to avoid widespread, catastrophic damage to human and animal life. With a binding international agreement on carbon emissions unlikely to be reached any time soon, Hsieh’s earsplitting timpani and brass calving event sounds more like the projected cries of hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Her racing, diverging string “fissures” mimic the current political prevarication around this fairly reliable threat to civilisation. But anyway, Hsieh is being bombastic because, as everybody knows, most of the lost ice actually silently melts away from underneath the Antarctic ice shelves.

From the global to the minuscule, Kate Neal’s Particle Zoo II draws inspiration from the mysterious world of subatomic particles. Like the scientists at CERN researching the Higgs boson, composers know that notes cannot easily be reduced to a single point on a page. A note is at once a a point and an envelope of different characteristics. Neal plays with this ambiguity in Particle Zoo II, contrasting a pointillistic piano part with legato accompaniment in the chamber orchestra. The consonant orchestral texture of polyrhythms and arpeggios provides a space within which the virtuosic solo piano (performed by Joy Lee) wanders. Short, tumbling lines and small clusters provide a dazzling array of clashing musical trajectories. The effect would have been improvised or speech-like  were it not for Lee’s poise and concentration, which left no doubt that she was dealing with a challenging and precisely notated score.

In Caerwen Martin’s X-ray Baby performers are asked to interpret graphic scores based on x-rays and ultrasounds of her baby. An episodic construction made the pocket-sized piece a gratifying study in graphic score interpretation. Sul tasto string glissandi conjure the curves of the womb and foetus in an ultrasound. Key clatter and toneless breath from the winds and brass sounds like static interference in the image. Trilling glissandi sound like a nausea I shall never experience and a climax on tam-tam leaves behind a single, pure flute tone. The ensemble evidently enjoyed playing—and playing with—a work celebrating an important event in the life of one of their fellow players.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime project.

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