Kupka’s Piano and Ensemble Offspring: The Machine and the Rank Weeds

Kupka’s Piano and Ensemble Offspring
The Machine and the Rank Weeds
Judith Wright Centre
21 March 2014
Review by Liam Viney

Kupka’s Piano recently performed alongside Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring in a collaboration that seemed mutually beneficial to the two groups, and was exciting for the capacity audience that attended at the Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane. Exploring the relationship between “the mechanic and organic”, the performance was illuminated by a quote from the composer of one of the major works that may as well have been describing the ensembles themselves:

“These wild flowers, these rank weeds pushing up in the interstices of the machine, grow in importance and then overflow until they give the sections into which they have worked their way like parasites an entirely unexpected coloration.” Gérard Grisey

The quote describes Grisey’s image for his Talea, the centerpiece of the program, but it equally serves as a metaphor for these two groups; Kupka’s Piano trails Ensemble Offspring by 17-year years in terms of lifespan, yet within the current cultural “machine,” both groups are flowers with wildness in their character, and (especially together) they have an “overflowing” abundance of important things of beauty to say. The “unexpected coloration” is detected in the exponential power generated by the collaboration. Negative ecological connotations surrounding “weeds” and “parasites” are here inverted into an admiration for feisty living things that persist and succeed in a potentially hostile environment, similar to, for example, new music groups.

Across eight compositions, including two world premieres (both completed this year) and two Australian premieres, the performance proved how profoundly engaged modern music is with present-day cultural, social, political, and, (increasingly throughout the 20th century), scientific concerns. Jane Stanley’s Helix Reflection seductively intertwined flute and clarinet lines in a sonic imagining of the double helix, performed with delicacy and perfectly blended instrumental balance by Lamorna Nightingale and Jason Noble. Damian Barbeler’s Deviations on White similarly derived inspiration from the natural world, in this case a dazzling chiaroscuro evoking the interplay of light and dark shades filtered through a fast-moving cloudscape. Claire Edwardes gave a brilliant first performance of this challenging work, launching herself, (mallets descending with accuracy from great height), into what constitutes an imposing new contribution to the solo vibraphone literature. Hannah Reardon-Smith’s virtuosic and mesmerizing rendition of Phillipe Hurel’s Loops also represented a connection with potentially organic principles – transformative processes enacted through repetition.

One of many highlights was 24-year old Michael Mathieson-Sandars’ starkly beautiful Character Motions (2014) – performed with precision, sensitivity and consummate chamber musicianship by Alex Raineri, Angus Wilson and Reardon-Smith. Again, the music linked to organic themes with the program notes describing the composer’s attempt to use a “more bodily approach” to composing in order to find a “more complex kind of subject.” Complexity was achieved, within a highly economical language, in the form of a work full of expressive connotation. Physicality also played a significant role in Noble’s bass clarinet solo Asteletsa, by Jukka Tiensuu, in which a set of instructions for physical movement is included. Rude-ish off-stage sonic gestures bookend the palindromically structured piece, which is full of invention and flirtatious wit, and Noble’s performance had listeners (and, here more than usual, watchers) focused on his every action.
The panache with which the Ensemble Offspring players handle semi-theatrical movement was confirmed in Matthew Shlomowitz’s Letter Piece 8. Robotic movements connected the piece to the program’s mechanic/organic theme, but revealed another seam within the program – the relationship between sound and gesture. Letter Piece 8 seems to separate out music and gesture, creating a space where repeated beat-long musical gestures become associated (for this listener) with specific and distinctive beat-long bodily gestures over the course of the piece as the players rotate and alternate between playing while seated, and making movements while standing. In a wonderful sort of climax (perhaps anti-climax in the sense of confounding standard notions of climaxes as necessarily boisterous), all three players performed movements at the same time, in silence, yet the listener could not help but hear the corresponding musical gestures continuing in a kind of internal ghost-echo. The silence was deafening as the room seemed to come alive with aural awareness. Edwardes, Nightingale and Noble fully inhabited their roles as slightly absurdist pseudo-circus performers in an utterly irresistible and entertaining work that rewards multiple listening/watchings in unusual ways. Thankfully, Ensemble Offspring has uploaded an earlier performance to YouTube.

Finally, the large works by Gérard Grisey and Louis Andriessen that ended the first half and entire concert respectively. Grisey’s Talea (subtitled The Machine and the Rank Weeds) and Andriessen’s Workers Union effectively signposted the organic/mechanic theme of the concert. The conductorless performers of Kupka’s Piano (previously mentioned players joined by Adam Cadell and Katherine Philp) navigated a complex score through phenomenal communication and a strong sense of collective responsibility for keeping time. Difficult microtonal intonation was heroically delivered against a slightly out of tune piano that made such accuracy all the more difficult. The piece itself is a work of major significance that broke new and gorgeous ground in its manipulation of pitch and time. Perhaps it was the vibrancy of the surrounding works and the performances they received that highlighted Talea’s position as an “established” work (it is, after all, close to thirty years old). While Brisbane may have only been host to a handful of performances of Grisey (a few by Kupka’s Piano), spectralism is more established overseas and is more frequently heard. That this particular party might be well underway underscores the importance of events like this for Brisbane’s musical health. Andriessen’s Worker’s Union is even more popular, and could one day be in danger of becoming that composer’s Bolero. Yet on this occasion, (a performance notable for its creative use of percussion), with both groups uniting to perform the last piece, a sense of joy was palpable. There was a feeling of recognition between the two groups – an appreciation of common purpose, the rich vitality and life-affirming persistence of “wild flowers and rank weeds.”

Liam Viney


Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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