Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: MSO, City Lives

Occasionally you read a pithy description of a piece in a program and immediately have an idea of how the piece might sound. As the piece begins, however, it takes you places you couldn’t have imagined. Your two-dimensional expectation becomes a teeming microcosm, a city unto itself. Like a poem, the architecture of the piece defies paraphrase. This was the impression I had listening to Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Spano. Graffiti opens with strings scrubbing near the bridge, a play (despite the composer’s claim that the piece is neither illustrative nor programmatic) on the origin of graffiti in messages “scratched” into the walls of ancient cities. This lone scratching expands into a scurrying chorus, depicting the “Palimpsest” of the movement’s title. I would say that the piece is not only illustrative (if any music is), that it is just as enjoyable without any program. The second movement, “Notturno Urbano,” manages to be both spacious and grotesque thanks to a plethora of extended woodwind techniques that deftly escape cliché, while the epic “Urban Passacaglia” is an immersive journey firmly held together by Spano.

If you are going to do something, do it well. This might the be ethos of the young Perth-based composer Alex Turley. When I first met Turley at the 2015 Tura Totally Huge New Music Festival, he told me he wrote unapologetically pretty music. This year he brings his refined sense of texture and atmosphere to the Metropolis New Music Festival as one of the three finalists of the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program. His piece, City of Ghosts, depicts a city shrouded in mist, devoid of people. Modal melodies arise from a subtly-thunderous bed of pianissimo tuba and double bass. The melodies move wraith-like across the ensemble, describing towering buildings and arches. With its profound palette, City of Ghosts is testament to Turley’s musical imagination and honed talents as an orchestrator.

Michael Daugherty’s Sunset Strip depicts a drive down Sunset Strip from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. It is also a journey in time, evoking the sounds of “swank restaurants, private eye offices, tattoo parlours, Mexican restaurants, motor inns, discos, bilboards, parking lots, gas stations, burlesque halls, piano bars and jazz lounges.” As with so much music from Daugherty’s generation, I wonder how the next generation will hear it. As conflict breaks out over resources and oceans rise, will they hear in Sunset Strip a metropolis teeming with cultural activity, or an engine of environmental destruction? The piece is, after all, literally a homage to a road.

Composed only four years earlier, Steve Reich’s City Life seems more critical of the technological basis of our urban lives. The piece foregrounds recordings of cars and pile drivers, but surrounds them with an uncomfortable harmonic atmosphere. The piece even includes an extended recording of an alarm, signalling that all is not right with the city. But just as the consumerist urban lifestyle fêted in Sunset Strip increases our carbon footprint, population density reduces the fossil fuels used in transportation of goods and electricity. A theme emerging from Saturday night’s two concerts is the city as both problem and solution. As Le Corbusier told us earlier in the evening in Davidson’s City Portraits, we have to learn to live close together to enjoy “sun, space, and green.”

City Life
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
14 May 2016

Unsuk Chin, Graffiti; Alex Turley, City of Ghosts; Michael Daugherty, Sunset Strip for Orchestra; Steve Reich, City Life

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