Syzygy Ensemble: Brunswick Beethoven Festival

A piano chord questions the air. A high, fragile melody responds from the cello. The cello tune is less alien than the stone-hard chord, almost speech-like as it rises and falls. The cellist, Blair Harris, has his bow right up on the fingerboard of the instrument, making a thin tone like somebody singing far away. The violin, clarinet and flute join in with a kaleidoscope of contrasting timbres. The violinist (Jenny Khafagi) and cellist lean together in vibrating, fleeting harmony. A tone like brushed steel emerges from the clarinet (Robin Henry) and flute (Laila Engle). The sonic pairings of wood and steel disintegrate in a flutter of trills. By taking the concentrated tone of the solo cello as a starting point and then introducing an array of contrasting sounds, Kerry opens out a timbral space with palpable depth. The piano part (performed by Leigh Harrold) prods the sonic perimeter, both a part of it and apart from it. The piece is Gordon Kerry’s Making Signs, my most exciting concert experience of the year so far (though it is a little early to start making claims like that). Syzygy Ensemble recently performed the piece for the second time at the Brunswick Uniting Church among a programme of works by Roger Smalley, Annie Hsieh, Luke Hutton and Brett Dean. The five members of Syzygy have honed Making Signs so carefully that the texture is thick with edges and layers, each sound delineated from its neighbours like grains of sand under a microscope. What a perfect piece for an ensemble whose name implies an alignment or union of distinct elements not through synthesis, but through Frankenstein-style juxtapositions and superpositions.

Making Signs was originally commissioned by Julian Burnside for Syzygy’s “Grammar” concert, one of a series exploring the three disciplines of the medieval trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Kerry, now pushing into his fifties, has had plenty of time to think about musical grammar. He was born into the generation that reacted against Darmstadt-style musical modernism as it was taught in Australia well into the 1980s. Indeed, the piano chords at the beginning of Making Signs are from Winter Through Glass, a serialist piece from 1980 that Kerry calls his first “grown-up” composition. As the years passed, many of his contemporaries retreated into a hazy Australiana, nostalgically painting the landscape with the post-impressionist techniques of this time last century. Kerry kept his teeth, which are bared to the gums in Making Signs, at least for a little while. As the piece progresses, the audience becomes aware that they are no longer hearing a timbral kaleidoscope, but a sort of tonal grammar.

Like watching a minute hand move on a clock, one is unsure of exactly when the coupling and uncoupling of instrumental timbres takes a back seat to harmony. With the benefit of a score one can see the clear juxtaposition—indeed the syzygy—of episodes based on clear horizontal lines on the one hand and gestural effects on the other. The experience in the concert hall is more gradual, like a theme in a poem dawning on you after several readings. Once you notice it, you see how it permeates the entire structure of the work. Except for the serial piano chords, Making Signs is based on a bespoke mode not unlike those used by the composer Olivier Messiaen. Some conventional tonal chords can be carved out of Kerry’s mode and the instruments make their way through it in a style resembling traditional counterpoint. Kerry’s use of the mode is evidence that he is not immune from the reactive pathos of his generation. The piece ends with the entire ensemble see-sawing, running and leaping across the mode in a way that would not be out of place at the end of a blockbuster Christmas film. They roughly outline an F# Minor chord that resolves dutifully to a G chord, albeit tinged with augmented uncertainty and a nice raised seventh. Despite some kitsch moments, the mode gives an especially vibrant quality to the timbral kaleidoscope of the opening. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most important aspect of this jagged introduction. The piece achieves a strange alchemy by creating a continuum between two qualitatively different ways of making signs: through instrumental timbre and through harmony. And yet, both ways of making signs seem to “work” equally (even if I would argue that the first works “more” than the second).

All of the works on Syzygy’s programme were well chosen for their rhetorical power. Hsieh’s clarinet, piano, violin and cello quartet Towards the Beginning is probably the most programmatically ambitious, attempting to tell a story of cosmic birth, life, catastrophe and death. A expectant cloud of harmonics and trills coalesces into searching lines. A thunderous piano climax gives way to chaotic multiphonics and tremoli. At the end of the piece, the piano creeps back in, cowed and conciliatory. The piece was composed in 2010, before Hsieh moved away for further study. While I was not thrilled to hear another primordial soup piece, Towards the Beginning showcases Hsieh’s gift for instrumental writing. From the cosmic to the painfully individual, Luke Hutton’s Fregoli Delusion explores the disorder of the same name where one identifies multiple people as the same person. The piece is perfect for Engle’s highly characterised flute playing. In contrast to her recent performances of Jennifer Higdon’s athletic flute solo Rapid Fire, the flute of Fregoli Delusion is somewhat sombre, creeping along suspiciously and starting with skittish paranoia. Syzygy brought out the character in Smalley’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. The opening, I am led to believe it is called “Blooded room,” features leaping rhythmic counterpoint that is inexplicably humorous. The ensemble also brought out the expansive second section and the piece’s absolutely thrilling climax where each instrument comes into its own. Brett Dean’s Old Kings in Exile, the audience was told, rewards multiple listenings. Having heard Syzygy perform the piece twice now, I have learnt to appreciate the mysterious first movement, “Night Music,” with its groaning drum skins and long, winding flute lines. The “Double Trio,” a reference to Carter’s Triple Duo, is a scintillating battle of trills. I wonder whether the piece lacks immediacy. The music never seems to leave a foreground-background frame like a marionette theatre with “incidental” percussion effects and obvious points of focus. I will have to hear it again.

Syzygy Ensemble
Brunswick Beethoven Festival
Brunswick Uniting Church
18 February 2015
Gordon Kerry, Making Signs; Roger Smalley, Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano; Annie Hsieh, Towards the Beginning; Luke Hutton, Fregoli Delusion; Brett Dean, Old Kings in Exile.

I discuss Gordon Kerry’s Making Signs further in the upcoming first issue of the contemporary art magazine Fine Print.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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