Metropolis: Ensemble Offspring, Light is Calling

Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy of the artists.
Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy of the artists.

Sydney-based new music group Ensemble Offspring continue the Metropolis festival with a colourful series of works for live ensemble and video. Their programme Light is Calling began with a great example of a minimalist work that uses less to achieve more. Light is Calling for solo violin, electronics, and video is an attempt to “make something beautiful” after the ugliness of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Composer Michael Gordon provides a slow-moving violin part, devastatingly interpreted by Ensemble Offspring’s Veronique Serret. Reverberant and reversed samples form a finely-textured bed of electronic sound. Film maker Bill Morrison, who also contributed to Julia Wolfe’s Fuel in the MSO’s second Metropolis program, brings the piece to new emotional heights. Morrison’s film consists of a reprint of footage from the black and white 1926 movie The Bells. Morrison melts film footage of figures, faces and horses to produce hauntingly distorted images. As the film turns to yellow, brown, and black, the images smear and stretch across the screen. The echoing electronic part, lamenting violin and immolating film all seem mourn a long-lost innocence.

Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying combines live clarinet (Jason Noble) with prerecorded metallic sounds including a kitchen whisk, bells and harmonium. The delicate sound world also includes pre-recorded clarinets that duet playfully with the live performer. The piece is accompanied by a video of stop-motion hair clippings on a white background. The hair slowly coalesces into a face, setting in motion a series of vivid animations including soap suds and metallic shards. Noble transfixed the audience with the hypnotic clarinet part. This was especially strong during the opening abstraction of drifting hair follicles.

Ensemble Offspring’s Metropolis programme included the world première of audiovisual artist Chris Perren’s Dive Process. In Dive Process, Perren builds on his recent experiments with musical and video phasing. Dive Process uses a retro video of a girl diving into water. The video is reversed and replayed at her point of entry into the pool, creating a rhythmic explosion and contraction of bubbles. Three versions of this film are then played side by side at different rates in a mesmerising phasing pattern. Perren’s score for percussion, clarinet, and violin mirrors the visual phasing pattern. Perren builds the intensity of this pattern during segments where dozens of copies of the video are spaced around a sphere. Continuing the theme of rhythmic counterpoint, the ensemble then played Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, a sister-piece to Reich’s Six Pianos, which Zubin Kanga performed in an arrangement by Vincent Corver earlier in the festival.

Ensemble Offspring reserved the second half of the concert for Damien Ricketson’s magnificent Fractured Again Suite. For this large-scale chamber ensemble work, Ricketson draws inspiration from the physical properties and sound of glass. In particular, Ricketson singles out the glass harmonium, a relatively popular instrument in the eighteenth century that has since fallen into obscurity. The closest thing one can hear to its ethereal tone nowadays is a dextrous performance on a row of tuned wineglasses. Ricketson builds the Fractured Again Suite out of fragments of compositions for the glass harmonium by Mozart, Donizetti and others. These fragments are then reflected, distorted and splintered like glass to form the arresting and sparkling surface of the suite. The rapid opening resembles an off-kilter clockwork automaton racing towards self-destruction. The glass-inspired video accompanying the work includes a brilliant array of coloured lights projected upon tubes, panes, and rods of glass. Some of these lights are reflected in repetitive, rhythmic ways, while at others they resemble the more timbral reflections of the piece’s later movements.

Ensemble Offspring
Light is Calling
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
14 May 2015

Michael Gordon, Light is Calling; Nico Muhly, It Goes Without Saying; Chris Perren, Dive Process; Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint; Damien Ricketson, Fractured Again Suite.

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