Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Elision

From the circles of Dante’s Inferno to Ethiopian churches carved into rock faces, Elision’s program was inspired by sacred cities both real and imagined. With their almost inhuman virtuosity, the performers took the stage like mythical guardians of each citadel.

The only musical sound Dante hears in hell is a horn belonging to the giant Nimrod. The giants are trapped in the Circle of Treachery for attempting to overthrow the gods. With their intelligence and compassion “in inverse proportion to their size,” the program note for Elision’s Metropolis concert associated them with “thuggish brutality and malevolent military power.” In Giganti John Rodgers attempts to compose the sound of this loud and brutal instrument played by lungs larger than any human’s. Given new music’s addiction to supersized wind instruments, it’s surprising someone hasn’t tried it before. Benjamin Marks’ trombone lays a powerful bed of sound while Tristram Williams adds high overtones on trumpet. Aviva Endean’s contrabass clarinet provides grist and timbre, rumbling and roaring in waves. But even giants run out of breath and eventually this imagined meta-instrument falls silent.

In Richard Barrett’s Adocentyn, Genevieve Lacey and Paula Rae painted another type of sacred city: Tommaso Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun inspired by an eleventh-century textbook of magic. The city has a central castle with four gates guarded by an eagle, a bull, a lion, and a dog. On the summit of the castle is an enormous tower that changes colour, kind of like the Melbourne Arts Centre during White Night. But unlike the feverish crush of White Night, Lacey’s bass recorder and Rae’s bass flute are busy and gentle, playing a sotto voce duet with all the twists and turns of medieval streets.

Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar takes a sledgehammer to the musical architecture of Elision’s history. Treating recordings of past performances as “found material”, they are processed beyond recognition by Daryl Buckley’s effects pedals, forming an immersive sonic environment like tonnes of glass being ground into fine powder. Buckley’s guitar carves lines through this sonic dessication like a finger through dust.

Elision celebrate 30 years of new music this year, making their first commissions not so new any more. Marshall McGuire acknowledged this history with a performance of Vezelay, a solo harp work by Alessandro Solbiati from the 1990s, when the ensemble maintained close relationships with a group of Italian composers. The piece is inspired by an abbey in Vezelay that is constructed to represent “a way from darkness to light.” The piece is satisfyingly ambiguous about what counts as darkness and light. Contrasting use of the harp’s low and high registers is kept to a minimum. Rather, obscurity and clarity seem to be the key distinguishing characteristics. The piece begins with McGuire striking and messily brushing the strings. Dirty glissandi and harmonics jumble together. Tremoli across strings—some of which are muted—creates a sound like rattling beetle shells. Clearer sounds stand out from these obscured tones, like clear harmonics struck simultaneously with a lower fundamental, or whispering high trills.

When the program note to Matthew Sergeant’s ymrehanne krestos said that a superimposed texture of decoupled articulations, valve patterns, and dynamics would be “scrubbed” to reveal its constituent parts I didn’t expect there to be any actual scrubbing. But Peter Neville dutifully raises a scrubbing brush at the beginning of the piece and attacks a pair of bongo drums. Harsher scrubbing seems to coincide with moments of clarity in the brass texture as Williams and Marks focus on elements of articulation or dynamics. The composer associates this distinction between dense surface texture and excavated simplicity with the Ethiopian monastery ymrehanne krestos, which is carved into a rock face.

The trend in complexist music to draw inspiration from ancient history and mythology has found itself at home in this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival’s theme of the city. Of real and imagined cities the festival has so far focused on the imaginary or those of the distant past. I look forward to the festival’s march towards the urban present over the next two weeks.

Sacred Cities
10 May 2016
Melbourne Recital Centre

John Rodgers, Giganti; Richard Barrett, Adocentyn; Aaron Cassidy, The wreck of former boundaries; Richard Barrett, Aurora; Alessandro Solbiati, Vezelay; Matthew Sergeant, ymrehanne krestos

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