BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, 15072006

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 15072006_MG_9696.jpeg
Jane Sheldon performs Cycle ‘Canciones’ by Santaigo Diez-Fischer. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Simone Maurer

BIFEM’s Argonaut Ensemble returned on the festival’s second night to perform two Australian premieres: Beyrouth15072006 by Israeli composer, Adam Maor, and Cycle ‘Canciones’ by Argentinian composer Santiago Diez-Fischer. Maor operated the live electronics in his own politically-charged composition, which was conducted by Elena Schwarz and featured trombone, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and percussion. In a post-performance interview with BIFEM Director David Chisolm, Maor revealed that his work originated from a 40-minute recorded improvisation entitled Starry Night by the Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj. This unnerving ‘duet’ between trumpet and Israeli bombings was recorded on 15th July 2006 in Beirut; thus the title of Maor’s composition.

Even if Maor had not divulged the origin of his composition, a sense of this story was apparent in his musical treatment of the subject. Beirut’s anticipation and fear of the bombs was heard in the unstable string tremolos and fluttering brass breaths. The irregular, sinking trombone glissandi conjured sinister undertones of the approaching warplanes. The sounds of planes, a bomb strike, and sirens (from Kerbaj’s recording) were heard twice, framed by short instrumental phrases. Its narrative is clear and Maor mirrors the sounds in the ensemble: trumpet as sirens and sliding string harmonics as howling wind. As the piece closes, the trombone reiterates its sinking glissandi, this time growling and amplified. Gradually slowing and fading out, the warplanes have returned home. But Beirut does not sleep peacefully, waiting in fear for tomorrow.

Diez-Fischer’s three songs (performed as a cycle) made a complete contrast to Maor’s linear narrative. Some audience members felt the songs were too thematically restrained or focussed, however credit is due to Diez-Fischer’s full exploration and exhaustion of the minimal musical material. All three songs varied upon a three-note phrase sung by soprano, Jane Sheldon, of which the lowest pitch was a vocal fry. Similar guttural frictions were also heard in the ensemble: scratching of the bow across the lap-held electric guitar, rushing air noises in the winds, and skimming bows across string instruments. Sheldon’s guttural repetitions at times seemed desperate to form words and the instrumentalists offered frequent, but short bursts of dialogue. Although I also felt frustrated, wanting to ‘liberate’ the performers from the tightly controlled and repetitive musical elements, my key to resolving this sensation was to surrender to the hyper-focussed material and enjoy the suspense.

The Argonaut Ensemble members are Australian and international soloists brought together specifically for BIFEM. However, from their assured musical precision and communication, they have the refinements of a well-established ensemble. Particular commendation must be given to trombonist Charles MacInnes and soprano Jane Sheldon. MacInnes performed his part with virtuosity and stamina, while Sheldon displayed complete command and consistency of vocal production throughout the repetitive musical material of Cycle ‘Canciones’. Maintaining a striking physical stillness, she effortlessly executed the intervallic gymnastics required to quickly alternate between pure tone and vocal fry. The combination of musicians and compositions ensured this concert was a highlight of the festival.

Argonaut Ensemble
Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September, 2017

Adam Maor, BEYROUTH15072006; Santiago Diez-Fischer, Cycle ‘Canciones’

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