2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Diptych

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Argonaut Ensemble rehearse for Diptych, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Alex Taylor

BIFEM has been notable for its symmetries of programming and its commitment to singular (hardcore) aesthetics. Mirroring the opening concert Seeing Double, which paired double concertos from Australian composers, Diptych put together two substantial electronics-saturated quintets from composers working in Paris: Chilean Jose Miguel Fernandez and Italian Lara Morciano. Both composers have embraced the medium full force, drenching their sonic canvases in swathes of electronic and acoustic colour. This was a celebration of sensual overload, fecundity, excess.

Fernandez’s Amas (which translates as a “heap”, a “pile”, or an “accumulation”) opens with a sustained, glistening electronic texture rich in high partials. Over this, oboist Ben Opie sets out his crucial role from the get-go with piercing, microscopically oscillating trills that will return as a sort of refrain: a central trunk of sound from which the other instruments branch. The smooth oboe tone soon begins to splinter into virtuosic fragments, intersecting and colliding with the ensemble.

The jarring physical movements of both energetic percussionist Madi Chwasta and suave guitarist Mauricio Carrasco trigger live processing elements; soon Opie’s oboe darting arabesques are surrounded by scrunches and flicks of percussive sound. Conversely the violin and double bass parts seem, at least initially, more sympathetic to, even synergistic with the oboe line, hanging off pitch material and short tremolo phrases. But the oboe alone seems immune from electronic interference: all the other instruments are draped in the digital.

Fernandez draws connections between micro and macro forms: structurally the work oscillates, just as the oboe does, between chunks of dense, hyperactive texture and more restrained, relatively static sections. As listeners we’re continuously in flux: machines spin out of control; Liquids seize up. Near the middle of the work, cut-up static and percussion—accompanying a hugely virtuosic oboe cadenza—gives way to nothing but gentle electronic vibrato. But the innate disturbance of this germinal oscillating figure soon precipitates more forceful action. Over the sustained spectral base, a series of striking single sounds emerge: oboe multiphonics, gong strikes with upward bends, exaggerated double bass vibrato. Throughout, the oboe soloist maintains a vital presence, either against a stippled tachisme effect, or on a bed of gentle creaks and sighs.

The last chunk of the piece is notable for its sensitivity: it seems beautifully quaint and nostalgic after so much whirling virtuosity. Though the needling oboe trills return again, this time they herald a point of rest at the end of the work. The texture once again gravitates towards sustained sounds, and Fernandez hints at an underlying tonality with seagull glissandi, guitar harmonics and what to my ears is a simple Lydian mode, delicately adorned.

The periodic violence in Amas didn’t quite prepare me for what was to come: Morciano’s Estremo d’ombra was singularly relentless, primal in its pursuit of sonic saturation.

I found the staging elements (and particularly the lighting) a little tokenistic and heavy-handed. Before the piece began, the room was filled with smoke before being completely darkened. The instrumentalists entered one by one, beginning with bassist Jonathan Heilbron, extracting some wonderfully luminous colours from his instrument. This initial growth of the ensemble, subtly augmenting the existing pulsating sound mass, Morciano managed skilfully. However, often new sections of the work would coincide with stark lighting changes, undermining the sense of continuity and accumulation.

Nevertheless, if Amas might be characterised in geometric metaphor as a sine wave, Estremo d’ombra was a wedge, a shadow that grew from a single point to a huge mass, a trajectory that threatened to overwhelm the listener (or at least this particular listener).

As the other higher-pitched instruments entered one by one, the texture became increasingly jittery, chaotic, unbound from its drone origin. This culminated in a sort of hyper-toccata between flute and viola, almost a tremolo of continuous activity; later on an answering section laid out an intricate heterophonic duet between flute and alto saxophone. Throughout, electronics caught the resonance of the various instrumental techniques, building up wave after wave of gesture with echoes of crunch tones, multiphonics, battuto hits, slap-tongues and snap pizzicato.

With the instrumentalists moving to more and more extreme distortions of their ordinary timbres–the most vicious of viola crunch tones, the extreme high register of the flute, Michael Liknovsky exchanging alto for baritone saxophone–we braced for a final assault. And it came: the players gathered in tight around bassist Heilbron, ditching their scores for pure ecstatic free improvisation.

The physical spectacle of this was impressive, but by this point twenty or so minutes in, Estremo D’Ombre felt somewhat indulgent; where Amas held tension in the interplay of stasis and movement, in the mechanistic and the organic, Morciano’s work held little such tension, only relentless drive and growth. While I admire its bravado and commitment, I would have quite happily left the cramped hall ten minutes earlier.

Diptych
Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatrette
4 September 2016

José Miguel Fernández, Amas; Lara Morciano, Estremo d’Ombra

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