Review by Matthew Lorenzon
The intimate solo recitals at the Old Fire Station have become a BIFEM tradition. The prestigious afternoon and late-night slots are a recognition of a performer’s unique contribution to new music in Australia. Violist Phoebe Green has been commissioning new work from some of the most distinctive voices in Australian music since 2005. She marked a decade of commitment to new music with a dynamic program of new works and modern masterpieces for her instrument.
Violists also have a way of adding an extra dimension to their performances, whether it’s Alexina Hawkins performing an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in her recent ANAM recital or, in this case, performing one of Iannis Xenakis’s athletic works while eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The extra dimension in question here has heard every moment of Green’s concert preparation, from the whispering bows of Luke Paulding’s Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light to the metallic churning of Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Green is definitely the queen of multitasking.
The Melbourne-based composer Luke Paulding is known for his complexly sensuous palette. It was therefore surprising to hear the stripped-back second outing of his viola work Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light. The work’s electronic part has been removed, leaving only the viola’s breath-like muted bowing and vertiginous harmonics. Variations of bow pressure save the piece from being entirely schematic. The performer must still lean in to certain delicious tones, like a distant memory of human feeling after the flood. The piece is a hushed song at the end of the world, a faulty remembrance of things past.
Standing imperious, proud, and definitely pregnant, Green launched into the muscular double-stops of Xenakis’ Embellie. Embellie is a unique work within Xenakis’ output, being his only solo viola work and his last solo piece. Embellie also exhibits the folksong-like quality of parts of his later works. Green brought out the lyricism of Xenakis’ bespoke microtonal mode, a difficult feat given the work’s proliferation of double-stops and leaps.
Dialling Xenakis’ elemental energy down a notch, Green was joined on stage by percussionist Leah Scholes for the première of Juliana Hodkinson’s touching and humorous Harriet’s Song. The piece seems to be a musico-theatrical meditation on familial relationships. Scholes and Green play ethereal, almost inaudible tones on vibraphone and viola. Then suddenly, Scholes darts out a pair of scissors at one of the many objects dangling by fishing wire from a microphone stand. A bell clashes to the ground, or a feather lightly floats away. At one point Scholes sharpens a knife and cuts three objects off at once. One’s eye lingers expectantly on the small glass hanging precariously from the fishing wire. The process could continue until all of the objects have shattered on the ground, but Green saves us from this antagonistic fate. Green detaches a music box from the stand and starts humming along to its tune. The piece concludes with Scholes gently accompanying the lullaby on the vibraphone and the rest of the hanging objects.
Green swapped violas for Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Played with sweeping circular bows that pass from the fingerboard, past the bridge, and onto the tailpiece, the piece therefore requires a tailpiece without fine tuners. Green conjured incredible, shifting tones out of the viola. The wood of the bow on the fingerboard sounds metallic, while the tailpiece emits a deep groan. These sounds are not clearly delineated, but swept up in a whirling timbral vortex. Making broad circles with her arm across the whole instrument and sliding her left hand up and down the fingerboard, the piece begins completely fluidly. There are no static pitches or timbres, only movement. As the piece progresses, the performer’s movements slowly become tighter. Very slowly. The piece is extremely long and I fail to see the waypoints that justify it being so. Eventually the sounds occasionally stop “in the throat” of the instrument and about ten minutes later the piece ends with a whimper.
I am a viola convert. With its larger dimensions and deeper range, the viola is an ideal instrument for extended techniques. Creaks, scratches, and harmonics resonate that little bit longer and are that little bit richer than the violin. After Green’s recital I questioned why anyone would ever again write an extended-techniques work for the violin.
Iti Ke Mi
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Old Fire Station
6 September 2015