Kupka’s Piano: Outer Sounds

Kupka's Piano. Photo courtesy of artist.
Kupka’s Piano. Photo courtesy of artist.

Review by Alistair Noble.

Kupka’s Piano are a Brisbane-based new-music ensemble, made up of a core group of intelligent and startlingly adept young musicians supplemented periodically by equally interesting guests. They are committed to the performance of important works by living composers from around the world, alongside a focus on Australian composers. Many of their performances are Australian premieres, which says a great deal about the significance of the group in the cultural life of the nation. Over the past several years in Brisbane, they have built up a well-deserved, devoted following.

In this, the second concert of Kupka’s Piano’s 2015 series at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, the ensemble continues its ‘extra mural’ theme with a notion of sounds from “the other side.” What exactly these walls represent is perhaps something open to individual interpretation (a state of mind? Geographical or cultural distance?), but the conceit does reflect rather well the sense of permeability that characterises much recent and contemporary music, where sounds, styles, ideas, colours, and voices often bleed across old boundaries. Individual musical works (and bodies of work) now seem to talk to each other so freely, even promiscuously, yet we retain some sense of the old lines of demarcation without which such transgressions might seem less thrilling, while at the same time inscribing our own lines upon the conceptual maps of our increasingly strange and estranging world.

New music doesn’t really shock anymore. At worst, it might irritate or, more commonly, simply fail to engage with its listener, like a missed train connection. We no longer talk much about whether a piece is good or bad (let alone great), but rather couch our critiques in terms of whether a work ‘works’, or not, according to mutable criteria of functionality that perhaps have some relation to the ‘mural(s)’ of this series’ theme.

Past Brisbane-resident Liza Lim’s Inguz (fertility) for clarinet and cello was composed in 1996, and the title is a reference to a Nordic rune. This is a lovely work of fluid poetry and organic proliferations; gently melodic, yet thoroughly of its time in terms of technique and colour. Lim handles the two instruments masterfully—the unique colours of each are imaginatively exploited yet contained within a frame of the composer’s imagination, a space that both can inhabit and that informs their interactions. Cellist Katherine Philp and clarinettist Macarthur Clough gave a forensically beautiful performance that made the most of all the subtle gorgeousness of the intricate score.

Jérôme Combier’s Feuilles des paupières (2005) for piano, percussion, flute and clarinet is also a very beautiful work. This piece is one part of a large cycle, Vies Silencieuses, a series of chamber works inspired by painters and in particular the quietly powerful still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Combier approaches the instruments with great aural sensitivity, and a vital sense of orchestration. On the one hand, he writes for piano/percussion as if they form a single, huge instrument. The sounds he conjures from the players are both seductive and exciting, and show a detailed understanding of what the instruments can do and how to bend them to his musical purpose. Against this, Combier has written flute and clarinet parts that are, once again, so well integrated in conception as to seem almost a single instrument, or like a pair of intimately connected human voices. Combier’s music demands both sensitivity and precision to succeed in performance, which certainly works to the strengths of Kupka’s Piano as an ensemble (augmented here by guest flautist, Tamara Kohler). The performance was tightly controlled and colourful—although I felt that in this case the piece might benefit from a more forgiving, resonant acoustic environment. Some of the fragile sounds need a little more reverberation in the room to fully bloom. Is Kupka’s Piano working towards an Australian premiere performance of the full Vies Silencieuses cycle? Let’s hope so.

Philippe Hurel’s Tombeau in memoriam Gerard Grisey (1999) for piano and percussion has, on the surface at least, a lot going for it. It has the name of our sainted Grisey in the title, for a start… yet in many respects it disappoints. Pianist Alex Raineri and percussionist Angus Wilson gave a superlatively virtuosic and dramatic performance of the four movement work, which is so brimming with challenges as to be virtually created to fail. The instrumental combination of piano and vibraphone, upon which much of the work relies, is a highly problematic one. It has all the inherent difficulties of a two piano ensemble (essentially two percussion instruments having to play exactly in time with each other) with the added problem of the oil-and-water timbral (in)compatibility of piano and vibraphone as a duo. Of course, uncommon or peculiar instrumental combinations can be very interesting in the right hands, but in this work Hurel fails to hear a way through the obstacles, and it never quite comes into focus as a genuine duo. In sonority and structure, this is essentially a piano piece, over-burdened with hollowly clichéd gestures at several levels, onto which the percussion parts have been grafted as a kind of lean-to extension. The effect, when it succeeds now and then, is very like a prepared piano.

There are some nice moments—the first movement has an arresting, kinetic excitement, and the slow second movement unfurls an interestingly tense, reflective mood—yet the piece undermines itself too often with unconvincing, unfocused sonorities and empty gestures. One such, if I may labour the point, is an episode of tedious transpositions, in which upper and lower parts move outward from each other, stepping rather aimlessly along a scale. This is a recurrent motif of Messiaen’s technique that in his own work has a relentless, implacable energy but in imitation almost always sounds dull—and, like musical spakfilla, one suspects that its function is to conceal some inherent structural flaw. Raineri and Wilson battled heroically against the inbuilt weaknesses of Hurel’s work (and made it sound in some ways a more interesting piece than it actually is) but in the end one is left with a sense that Grisey deserves a better memorial than this.

Brussels-based Australian composer Liam Flenady’s new work Si el clima fuera un banco (2015), for piano and fixed media (pre-recorded midi-piano and speaking voices), takes its inspiration from Hugo Chavez’ famous 2009 speech in Copenhagen, where he observed that ‘If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it already’. This is very interesting piece, which works with Flenady’s interests in politics and counterpoint to play with seeming oppositions such as refinement versus crudeness, complexity versus directness. The score is certainly fearsomely complex, and makes great demands of the pianist. Here, Raineri projected a very different quality of sound to that heard in the earlier works in the concert: less percussive, richer and warmer. As a result of this very beautiful sonority and Raineri’s confidence with the virtuosic score, Flenady’s music was revealed as luxuriantly poetic, even lyrical.

The combination of live and recorded/artificial piano is an interesting one, and the interactions between the two were intriguing. One cannot help wondering if this would be even more effective if the work was scored for two pianos…? Or perhaps that would be a different piece. I found the recorded voices to be most effective in a musical sense when the words could not quite be heard clearly… then, it felt as though the sounds (not merely words) of voices from another room were intruding, and commingling with the piano music. In a way, this raised another interesting question: does the work really need those voices, or could it succeed as a purely instrumental piano (or two-piano) work? For myself, I felt that the counterpoint of voices, together with the in- and out-of-room pianos evoked exactly that sense of permeability that seems ideally characteristic of music in our times, like an eggshell letting the oxygen in. What stayed with me long after was not the words or even the explicit political messages, but the expressivity of Raineri’s piano playing as the work seemed to breath in and out the fragrance and texture of disembodied voices.

Flenady writes in the program that his work ‘will have little impact on politics’, and in a sense that is true… but perhaps music affects us in a different way, in a different substance, on a different level. I’m not sure that we can measure such impact in the same way we measure political (or, for that matter, market) impacts. The power elites of our world would have us believe that music is just entertainment, thus powerless, but I think we should exercise caution in assuming that this is the case. Flenady’s music raised these final questions in my mind: What if music as an art form actually does have an impact? Would that change the way we do things?

The concert ended with the Australian premiere of Beat Furrer’s Gaspra, a marvellous work for seven instruments composed in 1988. It astonishes me that this piece has not been previously played in Australia—but then very little of this important Swiss-born composer’s work has been heard in this country, to our loss (mind you, the same could be said of Grisey). While there were other very good pieces on this concert program, Gaspra was from the first moment in a realm of its own, like a comet (or rather, a stray asteroid) burning through the sky. Like all Furrer’s music, Gaspra is created from a fusion of electric nervous energy with moments of intense calm; the two in some way feeding each other. There is a powerful yet subtle intelligence at work here, and a wonderful instinct for sonority and colour that is thoroughly integrated with structure—even passages of more-or-less indeterminate pitch, glissandos or extended techniques, move within an iron-strong harmonic frame.

Gaspra is built as an intricate montage-form in terms of its overall architecture, with several motifs recurring and interacting with each other as the work progresses. One of these, some lovely low-pitched rhythms for the piano, seems to be a distilled reference to La Princesse de Bali from André Jolivet’s Mana (a neglected masterpiece of the earlier twentieth century). At other moments we hear little flashes of material that betray Furrer’s interest in the music of Feldman, but such references or allusions are never simply pastiche in Furrer’s music: they are always very integrated with his own distinctive language, and deeply meaningful. Under the direction of conductor Benjamin Marks, Kupka’s Piano gave a splendid performance of great flair and magical subtlety. The ensemble was joined for this piece by the inimitable Graeme Jennings (viola) and Tamara Kohler (flute) as guests.

This was an important concert for both Brisbane and Australia. The immense dedication of the ensemble members is clearly evident, as this is a kind of music that requires a huge effort of preparation to perform well and Kupka’s Piano play very well indeed. Their programming is creative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. The cutting edge of Australian music creation is at present very clearly in the hands of smaller groups or individuals operating independently of large institutions and venues and often on very limited budgets. Kupka’s Piano are one of the best and most exciting of these groups, and one senses as they perform that history is being made.

– Alistair Noble

Kupka’s Piano
Extra mural II: Outer Sounds
Friday June 19th
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

Liza Lim, Inguz
Beat Furrer, Gaspra, AP
Phillipe Hurel, Tombeau in Memoriam de Gerard Grisey, AP
Jérôme Combier, Feuilles des paupières, AP
Liam Flenady, Si el clima fuera un banco, WP

1 thought on “Kupka’s Piano: Outer Sounds

  1. Reblogged this on Kupka's Piano and commented:
    A wonderful review of our last concert from Alistair Noble for the Partial Durations/RealTime blog!

    “This was an important concert for both Brisbane and Australia. The immense dedication of the ensemble members is clearly evident, as this is a kind of music that requires a huge effort of preparation to perform well and Kupka’s Piano play very well indeed.”

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