While viola and percussion were traditionally supporting parts of the orchestra, the twentieth century saw composers rediscover their unique musical possibilities. If the viola came a little later to the contemporary music party, it has certainly received recent attention in Melbourne with Xina Hawkins’ series of commissions for multiple violas and Phoebe Green’s own solo recital at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music last year. With Leah Scholes preparing a solo recital for BIFEM this September, the time is ripe for a viola and percussion duo commissioning works by some of Australia’s most inventive composers.
Taking place less than two weeks after the Orlando shooting, Green and Scholes’ duo concert was an opportunity for shaken souls to come in from the cold and share a moment of creative unity. Scholes and Green dedicated their performance of David Chisholm’s The Arrival (one of Chisholm’s “requiem” pieces) to “the LGBT community and the lives lost in Orlando.” It is a piece that aims at remembrance “with love, not tears.” This is a particularly painful form of remembrance. The piece plunges you into darkness. Dipping, wounded double-stops fray and fall into the lower register of the viola. Chisholm then gives the audience space for their own thoughts with a thin texture of whistling and occasional glockenspiel. When a more lively texture returns it does not reflect our own feelings of loss in a sentimental, cathartic climax. Instead it offers a snapshot of a personality. The viola line is speech-like, coloured by Scholes’ percussive rim shots. It is uncomfortable to hear a personality conjured so matter-of-factly. But we have to move beyond our personal experience of grief or else we cannot hear the departed voice clearly. Hearing a departed voice without tears is perhaps how we do that voice justice.
Cat Hope’s The Sinister Glamour of Modernity (after Ross Gibson) arranged for viola and vibraphone is an insect-like exploration of clusters picked out of the vibraphone with thimbled fingers. It is an exceptionally creepy, spidery sound underpinning the viola’s drunken, careening lines.
Liza Lim’s viola solo Amulet motivates the instrument’s full range of bow pressure, angle, and speed. Green’s deft control of Lim’s demanding bowing instructions was matched ambidextrously by her left hand, which works both independently and interdependently with the right.
Scholes and Green performed Juliana Hodkinson’s enigmatic performance piece Harriet’s Song last year at BIFEM. The duo lull the audience into a false sense of security with a long, hushed duet. The audience is no doubt wondering what is going to happen to the array of bells, feathers, chimes, and sand bags suspended from microphone stands with fishing twine. Suddenly Scholes’ arm darts out and cuts an object off with a pair of scissors. The attacks become gradually more violent as she picks up pliers and finally, sharpens a knife and lets several bells crash to the ground at once. Without offering any spoilers, I have seen the piece twice and am still hoping to hear certain objects fall, but I suspect the score is specific about which objects are cut (or perhaps Scholes just doesn’t want to clean up afterwards).
The concert also featured the world premiere of Alistair Noble’s hauteurs/temps. With sparse bass drum and declamatory viola, the piece has a ritualistic air. There is nothing monolithic or imposing about this ritual thanks to a certain harmonic softening around the edges. This harmonic thread draws the listener closer to the work, especially when the texture is filled out with resonant crotales. Another sonic highlight was the introduction of a second viola played by Scholes with mallets. While composers and performers will often treat string instruments percussively in improvisations and solo compositions, this is the first time that I have heard this technique effectively integrated in a duo.
I have been reading about Cretan palaces and Noble’s ritualistic sound world transported me into a fantasy of the ancient past. Speaking with Noble over some of Green and Scholes’ home-baked cakes after the concert I was surprised to find that he was also thinking about Cretan palaces while composing it. Or maybe we have both seen Women in Love.
Phoebe Green, Leah Scholes
24 June 2016