Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Logic

Syzygy Ensemble
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
11 April, 2014

Syzygy Ensemble’s concert at the Metropolis New Music Festival established them as Australia’s most unique contemporary music ensemble. These four hyped-up new music nerds have hit upon a winning strategy of disarming the audience by tittering amiably at them before striking fear into their hearts with faultless virtuosity.

Syzygy gave pride of place to an accomplished work by Elliott Hughes, the inaugural winner of the Melbourne Recital Centre Composition Commission. The title, Arcs and Sevens, describes the two movements of the work that play on energetic, colourful polyphony on the one hand and a stricter 7/8 metric plan on the other. The piece opens with syncopated lines that erupt from the ensemble. These eventually settle into a slower, more lyrical, minor-mode polyphony of melodies. Eventually even these lines settle into held notes like vibrating geological strata. The shorter, swinging second section sees lines imitated throughout the ensemble. The two parts of the work are in reality very well integrated, so that Hughes takes the audience on a colourful journey, rather than juxtaposing contrasting ideas.

The ensemble’s intensity only increased as they tackled Nicholas Vines’ Economy of Wax, which is based on a portion of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species dealing with the emergent structure of honeycomb from the autonomous action of bees guided by the evolutionary principle of the economy of wax. It was difficult to tell whether the work was conceived with an economy of notes in mind as the ensemble navigated the work’s metric modulations and various structures based on the number six. The instruments buzz with a sort of autonomy, each regurgitating enough musical ideas for a lifetime of composition. Above them all, Judith Dodsworth sang the text ecstatically loud and high, less a queen than another buzzing worker in the hive.

Logic forms the first of three concerts in which Syzygy Ensemble explore the medieval trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. In this first concert pragmatism, automatism, arithmetic and nature were variously traded as synonyms for logic. Toshio Hosokawa’s exquisite Stunden-Blumen reflects upon nature and time in a refined palette drawn from French mid-twentieth-century composers Jolivet and Messiaen (ending with a lovely glissando-trill-tremolo!). John Luther Adams’ The Light Within continued this “nature” theme with a minimalist drone that changed like the shades of the sky at dawn. All in all, I am not sure that the pieces chose did the “logic” theme justice. A stricter interpretation of the word, considering logical properties and their relationship to composition, would have made for a much less colourful show. However, it remains to be seen how Logic will contrast with the remaining two concerts in Syzygy’s series to describe the limits of each concept.

Kate Soper’s immensely entertaining Only the Words Themselves Mean What they Say perhaps came the closest to a reflection on logic as such, which is only capable of determining whether an argument is valid, not whether it is true. A valid argument is one in which, if its premises are true, then its conclusion will be true as well. Whether this argument is about bees or, in Soper’s case, human relationships, is immaterial. Laila Engle and Dodsworth’s performance was by far the best that I have seen of this popular piece. This may seem ridiculous, but it helped that Engle and Dodsworth are almost exactly the same height and that, as well as taking the piece a little faster than usual and being impeccably coordinated the whole way through, they choreographed their body language and facial expressions so that they seemed to meld into one variously sad, angry and staring body.

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