Metropolis New Music Festical 2016: Syzygy Ensemble

A city shapes the people who inhabit it, as was demonstrated in an episode of the Radiolab podcast. The average speed at which people walk the streets is closely correlated to the city’s population size. Syzygy Ensemble took the transformative quality of living in close quarters as the inspiration for their “Cramped Space”  program at the Metropolis New Music Festical. Just as cramped physical spaces transform us as human beings, Syzygy Ensemble showed how artistic restrictions profoundly shape the music we create.

In Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Tatatata cellist Blair Harris walks the virtuosic tightrope of a prerecorded voice: That of the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The voice interjects the odd grainy “ta” as the cello plays rhythmic double-stops. The voice becomes more rhythmic as the two engage in a rapid and humorous duet. The two parts appear equal, but the cellist’s agency is limited by the prerecorded voice.

From a prerecorded duet partner to a live one, Giacinto Scelsi’s duet Ko Lho for flute and clarinet is a balletic study in dynamic and timbral precision. Swelling crescendi and decrescendi overlap in a haunting, shimmering surface. Where Harris was restricted in time by his prerecorded duet partner, the two instruments in Ko Lho are restricted in pitch-space. The swelling dynamics and tone colours of the piece are so many ways to differentiate the instruments within a tight harmonic range. Neither Ter Veldhuis nor Scelsi seem to mind their self-imposed restrictions. Both pieces end in gestures of resignation. The cello slides down into long, exhausted notes, while the flute and clarinet end luxuriating in their close harmonies.

The pianist Leigh Harrold and violinist Jenny Khafagi are tied together by John Adams’ motoric rhythms in Road Movies. Khafagi and Harrold’s rendition of this familiar piece was a tour de force of energetic precision. From the first movement, which races along like a race car driver with a death wish, to the contemplative scordatura of the second and the hectic hoedown of the final movement, the audience was completely transfixed by the Khafagi and Harrold’s unstoppable momentum.

Anna Clyne evokes the restricted space of childhood imagination in 1987. This space is not that of the supposedly unbounded imaginations of children, but our bounded memories of childhood. 1987 seems to have been a sad year for Clyne, judging by the ominous chorale for cello, violin, bass clarinet, and bass flute overlaid with the cranking and tinkling of a music box. Recordings of a fairground melt into a truly apocalyptic movement with gritty cello and bass clarinet.

Charlotte Bray’s Upflight of Butterflies continues the theme of cramped imaginary spaces by pursuing the paradox of loneliness in company. Each movement paints a bitter-sweet pair of words from the poetry of Pablo Neruda’s poetry including “Abandoned Sun,” “Trail of Light,” “White with Space” and “Dazzlement of Butterflies.” The sun is painted with flat, sustained harmonies like a cold and distant star singing to itself. The trail of light implies something leaving or being pursued, just as Laila Engle’s flute haplessly follows Harris’ meandering cello line. One would think that at least a “dazzlement of butterflies” would be unequivocally positive, but even the motoric beating of wings across the ensemble was tinged with acerbic harmonies.

Beyond Syzygy Ensemble’s characteristically thoughtful approach to the festival theme, the concert provided the opportunity to hear each individual performer’s formidable talents in a solo or duo setting, proving once again why Syzygy Ensemble are Melbourne’s most energetic and dynamic contemporary music ensemble.

Syzygy Ensemble
Cramped Space
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 May 2016

Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Tatatata; Giacinto Scelsi, Ko Lho; John Adams, Road Movies; Anna Clyne, 1987; Charlotte Bray, Upflight of Butterflies

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