Seeing Speak Percussion take the stage with Sweden’s Kroumata was like seeing the young Australian ensemble face-off with an older, alternate-universe version of themselves. Both ensembles have made their names pioneering works for percussion ensemble with an intensely focussed and physical flair. Both ensembles have also been important in commissioning repertoire by composers from their home countries. The virtuosic students of the Australian National Academy of Music augmented this formidable force to present a programme of overwhelming sonic power. Much of the appeal of percussion music is its sheer volume and ability to saturate a space with sound. It was therefore encouraging to hear a nuanced programme exhibiting the ensemble’s wide range of possible effects.
Sven-David Sandström’s Drums is a shameless example of the former. It is a festival piece, a show-stopper, a blistering demonstration of strength and stamina. I can imagine it launching a car. If that is not enough, then it has a programme! A leader unites a chaotic mob. Once everybody is in lock-step, the leader proceeds to destroy everything. The piece reflects its age, or at least appealed to it, as the piece has been performed more than 200 times. It was was composed in 1980, when there were many more dictators starving and killing their own people than now. Today we know that chaos is also a utopic vision with its own devastating consequences.
It is interesting to note that younger composers rarely try to represent chaos as such, even if only for musical rather than political reasons. Modern ears are always ready to hear the largest possible envelope, and a chaotic field will always sound like one ordered texture among others. There is a push instead towards minimal differences. The world première of Bent Sørensen’s Silence was an excellent example of this approach. The four-movement work explores different ways of barely breaking a silence, including hand-rubbing, rubbing sand blocks, clapping, humming and whistling. The piece seems to say “if you are going to break the silence, you’d better have a good reason.” The textures (when they build), such as sparse clapping and bowed marimbas, have something coded and ceremonious about them. Did anyone else notice that the piece includes the same hand-rubbing pattern as used in the Melbourne-based vocal ensemble Invenio’s song Your Horizon?
Australia was represented by two mainstays of Speak’s repertoire (when they can get a large enough ensemble together!), Anthony Pateras’ Flesh and Ghost and Liza Lim’s City of Falling Angels. City of Falling Angels makes use tremoli across various wooden percussion instruments. It sounds of bones. Rattling rutes and skin drums raise the hair on the back of your neck. It is a dry, forbidding piece. Pateras’ Flesh and Ghost also delights in dry and cutting sounds. This time, cymbal crescendi die away to reveal beds of metallic tinkling. This gesture is then explored in various striking orchestral combinations. I can’t think of a living Australian composer with the same sense for tone-colour as Pateras. Formally it is a one-idea work of the “more time to find something that works” type, such as were discussed in Bendigo a couple of months ago.
Speak Percussion, Kroumata and ANAM musicians
Eugene Ughetti, conductor
South Melbourne Town Hall
19 September, 2014
Edgard Varése, Ionisation
Liza Lim, City of Falling Angels
Sven-David Sandström, Drums
Bent Sørensen, Silence
Anthony Pateras, Flesh & Ghost
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.