Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, The Light

By drawing their inspiration from urban life in the second half of the twentieth century, minimalist composers bear witness to the most carbon-intensive period in human history. The jumbo jet opening John Adams’ Nixon in China and his orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Steve Reich’s City Life and Glass’ epic modern chronicle Koyaanisqatsi all show us a world kept in motion by fossil fuels. The composers may not have intended to represent our carbon-dependent lifestyles. It is all the more interesting that the issues they thought they were addressing, including the mediatisation of politics, consumerism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the alienation of individuals from their communities, are all connected tangentially to this one core issue that now looms as the greatest threat to human life. The works bear witness to this moment in history more than judge it. Through its serene and spacious textures, the minimalist musical language often struggles to cast judgement. Instead it impartially reflects, if not sublimates, the images it is associated with.

Julia Wolfe, Fuel

Julia Wolfe’s Fuel brings this problem running all of our trains, cars and planes to the surface. The piece is accompanied by time lapse footage of the port of Hamburg by Bill Morrison. Wolfe describes the piece as beginning in a conversation with Morrison: “We talked about the mystery and economy of how things run—the controversy and necessity of fuel—the global implications, the human need.” Originally composed for Ensemble Resonanz as something of a virtuosic party piece, the MSO strings kept up the stiff pace set by guest conductor André de Ridder. No lugubrious meditation on modern life, Fuel has the orchestra scrubbing, running and glissing for the better part of twenty minutes. Meanwhile, the film shows cranes loading containers on and off of enormous cargo ships. There is something daunting about the film and music, as though the whole frenzied business were precarious, excessive, in a word: unsustainable.

Tan Dun, “Crouching Tiger” Concerto

Cellist Oliver Coates returned to the stage to perform Tan Dun’s cello concerto based on music from the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From the opening glissando-strewn theme I was transported back to my spotty adolescence, seeing the film’s most excellent and unrealistic sword fights for the first time. As such, I loved the cheesy main theme that returns three or four times throughout the concerto. This time around I also appreciated the piece’s extensive catalogue of well-integrated extended techniques, including left-hand pizzicato rolls, glissando effects, plectrum use and en masse string-slapping from the orchestra.

Alexander Garsden, Faculties Intact (Cybec finalist)

Alexander Garsden’s Faculties Intact is the second Cybec commission to be heard at this year’s festival. As Garsden related in his interview with De Ridder, MSO’s first play-through of the piece in January helped him understand “how overblown and ill-informed [his] initial ideas were.” One of the great virtues of the Cybec program at the Metropolis festival is that composers have the opportunity to refine their compositions and then hear them performed again. The audience is also able to hear the diversity of compositional styles among young composers, including Garsden’s idiosyncratic combination of spectralist, stochastic and other post-serial methods. Garsden’s style is unique in Australia. Many Australian composers fixate upon the performer or the instrument. The idea of a piece may have its genesis in the gestures that a performer makes while playing. They may also want to expand the range of sounds one can conjure from an instrument. Garsden seems more interested in the sound you hear rather than how it is made. He may work from a spectrogram (a graph of the energy at different frequencies of a particular sound) to derive the pitches he will use. He then makes sure that certain relationships hold between the timbres of different instruments. For instance, in Faculties Intact the violins move their bows too quickly, so that the sound produced is high-pitched and squeaky. As the violins move into higher and higher registers, the percussionist begins bowing a piece of styrofoam, carrying this squealing sound even higher. At another moment, the violins scrub away lightly in a lower register, producing a rustling sound that is adopted and expanded by a tam-tam scraped with the shaft of a mallet. Smooth, “ordinary” tones make an appearance as an afterthought at the end of the piece, just in case you forgot they were there.

Philip Glass, The Light

Instead of gas-guzzling technologies, The Light draws inspiration from Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley’s experiments in physics. Michelson and Morley determined that there was no substrate, such as a “luminiferous aether,” through which light waves travelled. Their experiments led to research into the velocity of light and eventually the Special Theory of Relativity. Glass takes this pivotal moment in the history of modern science as the basis for his orchestral work The Light, writing that “this is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modern scientific period.” Where the concert began with Wolfe’s picture of the twentieth century running itself into ecological crisis, the concert ends with the dawn of the century and all of its scientific hopes. Can a new scientific dawn resolve the crisis brought about by the past century of industrial activity? This is a question that has been left to the next generation of minimalist composers, such as the artists of the Bedroom Community label.

The Light
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
13 May 2015

Julia Wolfe, Fuel; Tan Dun, Crouching Tiger Concerto; Alexander Garsden, Faculties Intact (con tutta forza); Philip Glass, The Light.

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