Not only European composers come in generational clusters. The Australian composers Nigel Butterley and Helen Gifford were both born in 1935 and went on to become two of the country’s most recognisable compositional voices. The composers also share stylistic traits, emphasising the ritualistic and ecstatic side of the human voice in works drawing on antiquity. Both composers are well at home in atonal pitch space, even if they navigate it with differing degrees of systematicity. Players from two great champions of Australian music, Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, came together to celebrate the composers’ eightieth years at the Church of All Nations.
Desperation for solo viola opens with microtonally detuned motoric rhythms. Phoebe Green, for whom the piece was written, pursued the anxious bowing with an intensity worthy of the work’s title. The piece explores not only moments of desperation but also the stupor that follows. The violist has to nimbly attach and remove a heavy practice mute in moments of creepy stasis, before launching back in to the ruminative acrobatics.
Highly-charged physicality also featured in the second solo piece by Gifford on the program. Siva: the Auspicious One was composed for the virtuoso pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and demands positively divine energetic resources. Siva, the Hindu god of destruction and recreation, is conjured in this epic piece by thunderous bass chords, ascending scales, and hammered-out tremoli. Pianist Peter Dumsday put his entire body into the twists and turns of the work, reminding us all that he is—in his spare time—a racing-car driver. The piece raises the abstract dialectical question: Can you really destroy anything in music? Once a note is played it cannot be undone, only opposed by a new note. The violent chords of Siva: the Auspicious One seem to rail against this musical limitation, straining to bring real destruction into music but only making more music in the process.
Laudes and Forest I by Nigel Butterley plunged the audience into environments of delicious variety. Both pieces are inspired by spaces, the four movements of Laudes being inspired by four different churches and Forest I sketching a woodland scene. The dense writing never lapsed into monotony thanks to the sensitive interpretations of the performers and conductor Timothy Phillips.
Justine Anderson shined a light on the composers’ love of text and myth with two vocal works: Nigel Butterley’s Three Whitman Songs and Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia. The Whitman settings are gems of twentieth-century art song, nimbly bringing the tip-toeing text of “O you whom I often and silently come,” the spiralling incandescence of “Not heat flames up and consumes,” and the hallowed tones of “I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ” to musical life.
Gifford’s Music for the Adonia is remarkable within the program for showing just how much Gifford’s music has changed over the past twenty years or so. Her interest in Ancient Greece provides her with a masterfully-imagined sound world that is at once raw and refined. The text for the piece is sound-based, painting with ecstatic power the Adonia, a festival where women mourned the death of Adonis.
Six Degrees and Arcko have once again provided audiences with informed and refined interpretations of some of Australia’s finest contemporary music. If only Gifford and Butterley could turn 80 more often.
Musicians from Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Church of All Nations
11 December 2015
Nigel Butterley, Laudes; Helen Gifford, Desperation for solo viola; Nigel Butterley, Three Whitman Songs, Forest I; Helen Gifford, Siva: The Auspicious One, Music for the Adonia.