Syzygy Ensemble, Into the Light

Syzygy Ensemble
Into the Light
The Melbourne Recital Centre Salon
18 November 2013
By Hannah Lane

Syzygy ensemble saw in the festive season with the celebratory finale of their 2013 Melbourne Recital Series. Their boundlessly energetic performance traversed a piñata’s worth of new music styles from brilliantly constructed French postmodernism to relentless pop-influenced American minimalism.

With the Salon set up cabaret style, allowing the audience to mingle and relax, the ensemble must be commended for leaving stuffy concert hall conventions at the door and instead infusing the audience with a sense of the sheer fun of some of this music. However, this didn’t mean that when it came to virtuosic moments Syzygy didn’t know how to up the ante!

Andrew Norman’s Light Screens (2002) takes its name and musical inspiration from architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic stained glass windows. The relentlessly episodic form and jazzy harmonies of this piece resonate with the so-called “ecstatic music” movement that is currently dominating the younger and cooler American composition scene headed up by poster boy Nico Muhly and his record label The Bedroom Community. Light Screens oscillated between frenetic activity and moments of repose with rhythmic ostinati and recurring melodic motifs juxtaposed with sustained notes and colouristic timbral effects from the flute, during which the listener could easily imagine the composer marvelling at the ecstatic beauty of Lloyd Wright’s designs as the light moves through them. The violin, viola and flute created striking, sudden bursts of colour and then disappeared into the ether, while Blair Harris maintained an architectural thread—a counterpoint to the fragmented melodic and rhythmic activity—with sustained tones on the cello.

The “party piece” of the evening was undoubtedly French composer Bruno Mantovani’s postmodern mash up, D’un rêve parti (2000). Mantovani may be known to some for his recent controversial comments about female conductors. Fortunately his gender politics weren’t on display in this seamless journey through the major French compositional styles of the twentieth century. The title is a snappy bilingual pun, D’un rêve parti, translating roughly to English as “a departed dream”, as well sounding like “rave party”. We revel in swirling cluster chords and descending arpeggiated gestures from the piano, which bring to mind the keyboard writing of Debussy, Messiaen, and at times Boulez, while the piccolo and clarinet provide melodic gestures reminiscent of Debussy and Jolivet. The build up to the middle section of the work was particularly thrilling, beginning with a lyrical melody from Robin Henry’s clarinet, which signals a move into a new sonic world of seedy cabaret jazz, but not before we hear a piano solo, a cloudy Messiaen-like chord progression and some extended techniques, with Leigh Harrold reaching inside the piano to produce a dark, ominous thumping tone that is joined by weighty groans and growls from the cello, while the flute and clarinet repeat an ever intensifying ascending melodic question mark until we begin to feel like the music is literally bursting at the seams. Suddenly we’re in the world of raucous jazz with Thelonious Monk-style riffs on the piano and shifting syncopated rhythms that sound like a racing heart. The improvised feeling in these passages is breathtaking but Mantovani is not finished with his technicolour dreamlike journey through musical history. We experience the relentless rhythm of an underground techno rave party interspersed with bursts of explosive jazz. Upon introducing the piece, Syzygy flautist Laila Engle mentioned that the ensemble had discovered this work six years ago but did not have the requisite number of musicians to perform it up until this year. The level of commitment and passion for this music was most evident in the ensemble’s performance that night.

Philip Cashian’s Dark Inventions (1992) provided a point of moody repose after the hyperactivity of D’un rêve parti. Low tones on the flute and alto flute were echoed by a series of expansive gong strokes. Shimmering interjections from the glockenspiel floated above a backdrop of shifting blocks of colour as cello, piano, clarinet and flute each added a new timbre.

Also providing a stylistic foil to Mantovani’s dense, hallucinatory musical trip was local composer Ralph Whiteoak’s jazz influenced vignette Along Came A Spider (2012) and the American composer (and co-founder of the iconic new music festival and ensemble Bang on A Can) Michal Gordon’s minimalist pop hit In the Light of the Dark (2008). With their varied use of popular musical material and appropriation of popular musical styles, these pieces worked effectively in providing a sense of musical unity to a diverse program.

Hannah Lane

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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