BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Matinée

Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Bendigo Bank Theatre
4:00pm, 15 September

In their second concert, BIFEM’s house band turn their attention to two local heroes, Elliott Gyger and James Rushford. They are joined by Clara Maïda, one of the festival’s international guests, in a musical exploration of form and the formless, of ambivalence and flux.

In Crystallise, Gyger seeks to compose a polyphony of four percussion voices. Percussionists are usually treated as so many arms activating so many instruments. Gyger characterises each of the four percussion batteries with a particular family of instruments, namely cymbals, wood percussion, metal percussion and tuned percussion. Unable to resist his combinatory urges, each battery also has something in common with another battery, such as the appearance of keyboard percussion in several sets of instruments. Gyger chose the formal structure of a primordial soup coalescing into distinct forms. This is a favourite programmatic conceit of Gyger’s generation, raised as it was on science fiction and pop-cosmology. It would be interesting to study the different mechanisms by which figures emerge from these compositional soups. Do figures articulate, sublimate or emerge out of the morass? I think that this form, by now a terrible cliché, belies a deeper ideology of the compositional process (not that there is anything inherently wrong with having an ideology of composition—we are all shouldered with a few regardless). This is the ideology that there are more or less structured elements of a composition, an ideology that stretches back at least as far as Nietzsche accusing Wagner of “agitating the swamp.” I prefer to think that a composition, be it aleatoric, serial or tonal, is always-already structured, if not by the composer then by the listener or at a “neutral” level. One might say that the structure of a piece (or a once-off performance) is “overdetermined” by so many forms of timbral, pitch and rhythmic listening that a primordial soup is technically impossible to compose.

That said, how does Gyger’s soup work programmatically? The piece sounds the same density throughout, giving the impression that Gyger’s is a petri-dish culture where nothing enters and nothing escapes. Elements move about until the four percussive voices take form. This presents a challenge for the performers, who are tasked with differentiating a homogenous texture.

Rushford’s Espalier is what I like to call one of his Twin Peaks pieces. This epithet comes from the quality of the synthesizer forming the background of the piece as well as its unsettling atmosphere. In a humorous exchange with ABC Classic FM’s Julian Day, Rushford associated the piece, perhaps more appropriately, with Brian Eno. The piece is inspired by espaliering fruit trees, a process replicated in the exchange of musical material between the clarinet, glass bottles, bass flute, violin and cello, as well as in the physical movement of the performers around the space.

Rushford’s second piece in the programme could hardly have contrasted more with the first. Viper Gloss is a concentrated, brilliant explosion of tone colour. It takes as its inspiration the space around a viper: its sheen, the movement of air and the movement of its prey. Impossibly agile and fluid cello and flute lines intertwine above cascades of shimmering piano and glockenspiel notes. With a hiss of aluminium foil in cello strings, the viper strikes and a moment of stunned, muted tones ensues. The peace does not last long, though, as terrifying screaming noises erupt from the piccolo.

Clara Maïda’s triptych Psyche cité/transversales returns to the theme of flux and crystallisation with a philosophical and psychoanalytic lens. As Maïda’s notes for the piece tell us, the first movement takes Spinoza’s “fluctuatio animi” as a starting point. Spinoza used the term to denote the ambivalent feelings that arise when one is confronted with an object that has both positive and negative connotations. Musicians will be familiar with this experience from the moment they lay eyes on their instrument each morning; the rest of us have our parents. Maïda’s “fluctuatio (in)animi” is thus the moment preceding this affective oscillation. Both states are presented simultaneously, overlapping and intertwining in an arborescent structure that is yet to be actualised. Maïda faces the same problem as Gyger: that of the presentation of the prestructured. Maïda’s complex of forces once again places the audience in the presence of an already-actualised, “programmatic” flux. The episodic alternation of electronic and instrumental parts also presents the audience with a very clear sense of ambivalent contrast that threatens to override the contrasting processes erring through the textures. For a truly sustained flux of simultaneous forces the audience had to wait a few more hours for the interminable polyphony of Stockhausen’s Sirius.

The second movement, “Ipso facto” [“by the fact itself”] does quite the opposite. Whereas “fluctuatio (in)animi” pitts various forces against one another, “Ipso facto” seeks to produce an electronic atmosphere completely devoid of automatism. The electronics of Psyche cité/transversales are a breath of fresh air in a country where the dominant electroacoustic aesthetic vacillates between the concentrated, material exploration of one particular instrument and noise. Rarely do we hear the Ircam house style of glittering, awesome atmospheres generated out of field recordings (though, as prodigious travelers, many Australians get rather sick of them overseas!).

The third movement, “Via rupta,” is named after the Roman practice of building straight highways by breaking through obstacles. The obstacles here are psychological, physiological and urban. Field recordings from subways are combined with instrumental parts where the performers play through their strings with plectrums. Moments of fluidity are released as the strings break into loose glissandi. The clarinet sounds like a jackhammer (though I usually associate that sound with dinosaurs, a spot of semantic fluctuatio).

You can listen back to the concert at ABC Classic FM.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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