Arcko Symphonic Ensemble: Karlsruhe-Canberra

The Arcko Symphonic Ensemble’s final programme of 2014 delved into the influence of two very different locales upon the ensemble, its conductor Timothy Phillips, and its composers. From Canberra, where a generation or two of composers and pianists have been raised by Larry Sitsky including Alistair Noble, Rohan Phillips and Joy Lee. The State University of Music in Karlsruhe, Germany, also introduced Phillips to Wofgang Rihm and Stephan Schneider.

With its refined swathes of musical texture, Noble’s cycle of three pieces entitled Glasteppich betrays a fascination with the music of Morton Feldman. Glasteppich I was written in Basel, where Noble lived for half a year while researching his searingly acute series of analyses of Feldman’s music. Noble had a folder of left-over sketch material and set about using them to make a new piece. The idea for the piece coalesced when he was examining homemade rugs made from recycled materials in Lenzburg. Inspired by the notion of weaving the different strands of his compositional output together, he imagined a rug made from a material that could be “variously transparent, translucent or opaque” (to quote the programme), such as glass. A few pointers from Beat Furrer later and Noble was ready to deploy his arsenal of weaving, layering, erosion and erasure processes in his Glasteppich or “glass carpet.”

So much for the piece’s origin and inspiration, which are as ordinary as any. Composers (including Feldman) frequently reuse and cobble together old materials. Who hasn’t had a couple of pointers from Beat Furrer? The effect in this case, however, is marvellous. Michael Kieran Harvey gave the piece all the three-dimensional complexity it asks for, with its murky bass tones; lonely, brittle, beating chords and fragments of harmonic voice-leading. I have never seen anybody reach into a piano so insouciantly to pluck out a crystal-clear high tone. There was even something smooth about the way Harvey knocked on the bottom of the piano.

Superb performances were thick on the ground, with Kim Tan’s rendition of Glasteppich II for solo flute. After Glasteppich I, Noble envisioned two pieces that would fold the material inwards and outwards respectively. These pieces became Glasteppich II and III. The in-folded piece for solo flute is extremely dense, challenging the performer’s ability to make sense of the score, which is spread over several staves. Tan’s interpretation also gave the impression of complete control, professing the work with a beautiful agility that was aided by the friendly acoustic of the Northcote Town Hall. Tonal sounds are certainly not out of bounds for Noble, and the appearance of clearly diatonic fragments made for interesting pills within the irregular fabric of the piece. “Balance” and “restraint” are the words that best come to mind to describe Noble’s first two Glasteppich pieces, words that unfortunately cannot be said of the third.

Whereas the textures of the solo Glasteppiche were consistent, Noble took some liberties with Glasteppich III for the Arcko ensemble. A large-scale form emerges when the piano returns in the middle of the piece with material reminiscent of Glasteppich I. In doing so, the audience takes leave of the virtuosically-dark texture established so far. It is hard to explain just how grim this piece is. Eerie close string harmonies meld with the punctual piano and make futile pizzicato interjections. The piece just drifts along in this listless way, with directionless, whole-tone-based chords. It is a piece that benefits from its duration, holding its particular brand of desparation together through the startling appropriateness of each sound. Well there you go, restraint again. And a ternary form can hardly be called unbalanced. It must be said that superlative performances were also the norm here, with the strings in particular placing and shaping each note within the texture like a mournful jewel.

In Wolfgang Rihm’s terrifyingly-loud Chiffre II, the composer takes silence as a positive rather than a negative space, as “to be beaten.” The ensemble strains against the confines of silence in all registers, filling the hall with infernal dotted rhythms, string-scrubbing and endless bass drum and timpani. The piano, when it is heard, sounds absolutely tiny next to the gargantuan ensemble. But whenever a breath is taken, silence flows back in like water.

Stephan Schneider’s The Message is Simple sounds like a 1990s electro hit crossed with the House of Cards theme. It is a political piece of music in a popular idiom. The piece gives the lie to its moral, which is that “There are no borders in music, there are no frontiers in art. As an artist there is no reason to adopt the notion of being protected by borders.” Why is it that a popular idiom signifies borderlessness? Is it because everybody is supposed to like it (they don’t. Even the world of popular music divides itself into limitless antagonistic subgenres)? Or is it because the only borderlessness being advocated today is that of the free-trade agreements that ensure the frictionless passage of goods (and music commodities)? As a composer, of course one may range freely among musical materials, but many electronic music artists would staunchly defend the border between their music and Schneider’s.

Rohan Phillips’ Sarabande has a lot of interesting parts, but hangs together rather loosely. This may be tied to the piece’s composition over a number of years and its inspiration from baroque dance suites with their fleeting characters. It is billed as a piece for piano and small ensemble, though the guitar part (Geoffrey Morris) has a role that at least equals the piano (Joy Lee). I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of the violin part at the beginning, with its single note acting as a pivot for the harmony around it. The cowbells are a playful feature, one of the many almost independent-sounding parts to the piece. I imagined myself lost in a sea of music, invited to listen to one part and then another. In a rare moment of inter-instrumental solidarity the French horn reaches out and continues the resonance of the timpani.

The Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Northcote Town Hall
13 December, 2014
Programme: Alistair Noble, Glasteppich I, II, II; Rohan Phillips, Sarabande; Stephan Schneider, The Message is Simple…; Wolfgang Rihm, Chiffre II.

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