Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood: Broken Consorts

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha'i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.
Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha’i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.

It is a truth commonly acknowledged that a fan of irrational rhythms, jarring dissonances and difference tones will also  enjoy the rasping timbres and wild gestures of baroque music. In Broken Consorts, Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood explore this subterranean passage between early and new music that passes under the full-to-bursting tone and metrical pomp of the romantic era. What explains the affinity between early and contemporary music? As the composer Damien Ricketson mused during the concert, the groups share “a mutual disregard for vibrato.” Performers of early music will retort that this description only applied in the early days of Historically Inspired Performance Practice and that today they know to use vibrato sparingly as an expressive effect. But neither adepts of early music nor contemporary music are known for their sense of humour.

In early music terminology, a “broken consort” is an ensemble constituted from more than one family of instruments. By playing contemporary and early music on early, modern and bespoke instruments,  Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood bring the notion of the broken consort into the twenty-first century. While some works in the programme were creative reimaginings of old and new works on old and new instruments, a new work by Felicity Wilcox was commissioned especially for the concert. While the reimagined early and modern works provided an engaging comparison of instrumental timbres, Wilcox’s piece went furthest towards a genuine exploration of new and early musics’ shared emphases on gesture and rhetoric.

The concert began with Matthew Locke’s Consort of Fower Parts, which Ironwood played in a historically-inspired fashion. This was the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing Ironwood perform, and I was blown away by Daniel Yeadon’s cello tone and rhetorical expressivity. From a purely early-music performance to a completely new work, Wilcox’s Uncovered Ground was a palimpsest of musical styles. The composer likens the piece to a “a chipped painted wall that partially reveals a forgotten mural.” The piece features begins with a descending figure reminiscent of the lamenting bass of a passacaglia or Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. This baroque gesture is quickly replaced by modern extended techniques, including pianist Zubin Kanga playing inside the piano with a bottle. Other baroque forms can be made out beneath the whispering, scraping string sounds, including a decorative string duet and dance rhythms.

The episodic form of Matthew Locke’s Suite from The Tempest provided opportunities for creative instrumentation. Kanga’s piano was prepared to comical effect, with Blu-Tac on piano strings producing “popping” cadences. Paper in between the piano strings and bulldog clips on Claire Edwardes’ vibraphone brought the instruments closer to the brighter, buzzier baroque sound world. I was pleasantly surprised when the two ensembles stood for a spot of very convincing madrigaling.

Damien Ricketson’s Trace Elements was inspired by a sixteenth-century manuscript, the Cracow Lute Tablature. The manuscript includes musical forms that are unidentifiable within our current knowledge of sixteenth-century music. Ricketson was attracted to the idea of forgotten musical styles, as well as the fact that tablature describes the actions required for a piece to be played rather than how it sounds. Trace Elements is written in an invented tablature that can be performed by a quartet consisting of two wind and two string insturments. The performance will thus be different every time that a different combination of instruments and tunings are used. Due to the tablature, as Ricketson writes, “the underlying gestural identity remains constant.” The ensemble chose a compelling combination of modern flute and clarinet with early viola and cello. This produced startling effects as the undeniably “modern” gestures, using the full range of the instruments, were modulated by the gut strings of the string instruments.

The concert closed with Mary Finsterer’s Silva, which was composed in 2013 for Ensemble Offspring featuring Claire Edwardes on percussion. The title means “forest” and the piece reflects the eerie quiet of forest environments, with scattered fragments of Tallis’ “Spem in alium” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” lighting up the space like birdsong. There were some wonderful timbral surprises, including a sumptuous combination of gut-stringed cello and modern bass clarinet. The tone of Veronique Serret’s modern-strung violin stuck out in the muted forest like an enthusiastic lyrebird. After each instrument was given some time to make itself heard, the piece closed with a beautifully rough gong chime evocative of a rusted bell in a forgotten temple.

Ricketson’s Trace Elements

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood Ensemble

Broken Consorts


23 February 2013

Matthew Locke, Consort of Fower Parts; Felicity Wilcox, Uncovered Ground; Matthew Locke, Suite from The Tempest; Damien Ricketson, Trace Elements; William Lawes, Consort in Six Parts; Mary Finsterer, Silva.

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