Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Press, Play

So far Metropolis has explored the theme of “the city” through urban music, ancient and sacred cities, and architecture. All nice, creative approaches to the theme. With Press, Play’s program Crashing Through Fences, Metropolis got political. And it is high time, too, since whether we like it or not (mostly not) we are in the middle of an election campaign through which we decide what our society—and cities—will look like. Will they be divided into gated communities and slums or will we stop widening the gap between the rich and everyone else? Will we invest in services that will reduce homelessness? Will the roads be choked by car fumes or will public transport decongest arterial motorways? Will parts of the city be under water in half a century? The poet Sean Whelan joined pianist Sonya Lifschitz and flautist Lina Andonovska to show that politics can be as appropriate a subtext to a contemporary music concert as ancient architraves and turntabling.

Whelan’s laconic, Melbourne-inspired poems heightened the concert’s political relevance by stealth. I assume they were written for this occasion as they were read for the first time in this concert. Icon describes the city covering the natural vegetation, a perfect preface to Steve Reich’s pastoral Vermont Counterpoint. Andonovska  highlighted the piece’s twittering and popping textures while deftly swapping between flutes of different sizes.

Whelan’s Shadow described the memories intermingling behind our backs before the fluid rhythms of Erik Griswold’s In Patterns of Shade took us on their dappled journey.

With Other People’s Houses Whelan approaches the lived reality of cities more directly and intimately. He speaks of a home that “knows too much,” this time accompanied by the mysterious swirling flute of Timo Andres’ Crashing Through Fences.

Lifschitz retook the stage alone for three “City Portraits” by Robert Davidson. Each portrait is based on the speech patterns of a figure who has shaped our urban environment. “Free Architecture” uses Frank Lloyd Wright’s interview with Mike Wallace. Wright’s vision of “an architecture that would be a grace to its landscape not a disgrace” is reflected in Walter Burley Griffin’s original and much-departed-from designs for Canberra. “Not Now, Not Ever” is a piano arrangement of Davidson’s famous choral arrangement of Julia Gillard’s even more famous “misogyny speech,” a speech that for one glorious moment crushed the persistent, casual misogyny that is so often tolerated in silence beneath a mighty, righteous fist.

In the third “City Portrait” a voice says “I am a young man of 71 years old, I built my first house when I was 17 1/2.” It is particularly affecting that we do not have an image of the speaker this time. Who is this man? He describes himself as a poet “working with my eyes and hands,” venturing into nature, speaking from “the heart of man.” Footage of children playing in a park flickers past as he describes his dream of “sun, space and green” for all. But to have sun, space, and green, the voice tells us, 2000 people must live together joined by a single vertical road. It is the voice of Le Corbusier, the modernist architect who we have to thank for every reinforced concrete tenement built after the Second World War. But when described in his voice and accompanied by Davidson’s expansive piano, played with Lifschitz’s commitment and sensitivity, one begins to understand his utopian vision. Against this bitter-sweet piano part we see his buildings torn down like so many democratic post-war innovations.

The image of thousands of people coexisting in neat blocks is given musical form in Beat Furrer’s Presto con Fuoco. The motoric flute and piano parts interlock precisely, filling each other’s silences. Bent at the knees, ready to spring at the dense score,  Andonovska’s charged, athletic performance keeps the entire audience on the edge of their seats.

Politics being out of the bag, Whelan’s When Everything Falls likens shopping to looting and criticises our diminishing sense of value in a world where anything can be bought. He imagines climbing Eureka tower and breaking a window, only to turn away from the “best view of Melbourne” to the face of his lover. After this, the amplified Sigur Rós-like chords of Chris Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn are a devastating love song.

Whelan’s final poem Don’t Break My Sky poetically lists elements of our society that unpoetically slap us in the face every day: Draconian immigration policies, $6000 toasters, “the orange-tinted supervillain of the US Presidential primaries,” and so on. Confronted with all this Whelan says we “turn inward, turn outward,” and crash on through. It is so easy to switch off from politics when it is presented to us as a stream of unrelenting point-scoring imbecility. But a powerful program by these incredible artists is just enough to make you care again.

Crashing Through Fences
Press, Play
The Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
14 May 2016

Sean Whelan, Icon; Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint; Sean Whelan, Shadow; Erik Griswold, In Patterns of Shade; Sean Whelan; Other People’s Houses; Timo Andres, Crashing Through Fences; Robert Davidson, City Portraits; Beat Furrer, Presto con Fuoco; Sean Whelan, When Everything Falls; Chris Cerrone, Hoyt-Schermerhorn; Sean Whelan, Don’t Break My Sky

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