As tiny festivals of sonic exploration, interdisciplinarity, and improvisation, the Liquid Architecture and Inland concert series are natural partners. For one of the year’s first concerts they teamed up to bring the world’s foremost experimental cellist Okkyung Lee, to Melbourne. The concert’s title suited the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration. “Nothing but disaster follows from applause” is a quotation from the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, who consistently criticised nationalism and religious hypocrisy in post-war Austria. While there is some uncertainty as to whether populism will develop into fascism under Trump, the election of a climate change denier to the White House all but seals the fate of our natural environment. Far from relaxing or soul-cleansing, the ecological theme that ran through “Nothing but disaster” was a “dark ecology” tinged with the melancholy knowledge of our contribution to the destruction of our own ecosystem.
Alexander Garsden and Ida Duelund-Hansen are better known to Partial Durations readers as a post-spectralist composer and a Scandinavian avant-garde chanteuse. These musical personalities find a magical synthesis in the folk-revival duo True Strength. Switching between Danish and English, Duelund-Hansen’s light and pure voice sings of waves, tussocks of grass, and terraced hillsides over Garsden’s floating acoustic guitar harmonies. Duelund-Hansen’s double bass part journeys along in melodic counterpoint. The overall sound is reminiscent of Alela Diane and Ryan Francesconi’s album Cold Moon, albeit denser and with a greater rate of textural change. True Strength’s songs are series of reflective tableaux, but they never let you linger too long. You can and should hear True Strength on Spotify (though don’t mistake them with the christian metal band), or live in Hobart and Melbourne over the next week.
Having last heard Oren Ambarchi perform a richly-textured noise set through a hulking battery of amplifiers at the Aurora Festival in 2011, I brought my earplugs to the Abbotsford Convent. These turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Crys Cole and Ambarchi’s principal source of amplification were networked smartphones. Cole used an iPad to send nocturnal field recordings to the phones spaced around the hall. Croaking frogs and chirping insects wafted through the room while Ambarchi repeated a single note on an acoustic guitar. Throughout the set, Cole’s sound design shifted into man-made analogues, including what sounded like rustling paper and vocal whispers. I found this set no less affecting than a full-body immersion in noise. Who can innocently listen to the sounds of nature any more? Every environmental sound is now an indictment of our custodianship of it. Once the purview of dollar-bin relaxation tape manufacturers, recording a cicada is now a radical act.
The synthesiser and tape collaborations of James Rushford and Joe Talia have long stretched the limits of the audible, but their whisper-soft set for “Nothing but disaster” gained a new poignancy from the ecological preludes of True Strength and Cole and Ambarchi. Among the Lynchesque synth drones I heard distant wolf-howls and crickets, all suffused in an electromagnetic, static glow.
Okkyung Lee’s set heralded from the other side of the world and the opposite end of the dynamic range. Playing behind the audience and in complete darkness, Lee let us know what an efficient noise machine the cello is. Growling, grinding, and never still, Lee savaged her instrument in new and remarkably dexterous ways, though this was only evident to me when I craned my neck to catch the shadow of her bow arm. We’ve all heard a cello getting murdered, but it would have been good to see how Lee does it. For the most part her technique was lost on the audience.
Liquid Architecture and Inland are the products of an adventurous and discerning experimental music community with the ability—more or less unique in the contemporary music community—to attract audiences from other art forms. Such curatorial vision has the power to develop powerful artistic responses to the social and environmental disasters of our age (take your pick).
Liquid Architecture and Inland
Nothing but disaster follows from applause
The Abbotsford Convent
20 January 2017
True Strength, Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi, James Rushford and Joe Talia, Okkyung Lee
Opening this week as part of the Sydney Festival, Mary Finsterer’s new opera Biographica presents a satisfying opportunity to hear some splendid performers (in what, by some measures, might be considered to be Australia’s leading opera company) presenting a major new work by one of our finest living composers.
Like Elliott Gyger, whose first opera Fly Away Peter was heard in Sydney and Melbourne during 2016, Finsterer has come to the writing of opera in mid-career. Indeed, she has written very little vocal music of any kind since the 1980s, so Biographica represents a new turn for her in several respects—as vocal music, as a theatre work, and as a large-scale piece. The duration is an interesting new development as many of Finsterer’s best-known works are relatively short, while the only piece longer than 30 minutes in her published catalogue prior to Biographica was the sound-track for Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary.
So, it would seem logical that Finsterer’s approach to composing a large-form (90-minute) opera would be informed by her experience as a composer for cinema. This does seem to be the case, and Biographica benefits from a cinematic sense of timing—but also, more importantly, from the composer’s filmic skill with pulling focus. Her strong musical personality is such that it easily takes the foreground—indeed this arresting quality has always been a key characteristic of Finsterer’s work. But here she shows a deep, 3-dimensional capacity for shifting the musical material to the middle-ground of the theatrical experience, and even at times to the full background, thus allowing space for the subtlety of a dramatic moment or gesture to be seen and felt by the audience.
Biographica is a staged meditation on the life and work of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), a Renaissance polymath whose abilities and life-story make someone like Leonardo Da Vinci seem rather dull. In many ways, Cardano’s legacy is much more important—while Da Vinci left us the Mona Lisa, Cardano’s intellectual legacy (to mention just a few things) includes pioneering work on mathematical probability, theories of how to win at card games, and designs for complex universal joints that are still used today in your car. When it came to gambling, Cardano was known to be a violent player; he always set out to win by applying his mathematical theories, so card-swapping interference from old-style cheats sent him into a rage—one imagines because they upset his calculations even more than his finances.
And then there was his personal life… hell’s bells. To say that Cardano had a dysfunctional family would be a kindly euphemism. His biography begins with an illegitimate conception and his mother’s failed attempts at abortion (she is played here by Jane Sheldon). It goes downhill from there, and in the opera we witness a few select low-lights: his beloved eldest son (Simon Lobelson) was executed for poisoning his own wife; his second son (Andrew Goodwin) ended in prison for theft (but not before Cardano Sr. cut his ear off); his daughter (Jessica O’Donoghue) died of syphilis… one sad case the master physician could not cure.
How does one present a tale like this in operatic form? How does one compose an opera at all in the 21st century? The answer, as discovered by Finsterer, is in a carefully designed set of twelve tableaux, and a main character who does not sing. The part of Cardano is played by the actor Mitchell Butel with sincerity and gravity. Here is a man of towering genius, misdirected passions, and personal tragedy… yet in the end his passing is radiant. Opera, of course, was a historicist art-form from the beginning (developed in the years just following Cardano’s own lifetime) in its concerns with reinventing a lost theatrical sensibility of some imagined golden age, and in the use of historical or mythological tales as a thinly veiled means for engaging with contemporary issues. So, while it was always concerned with the past, it has never been about the past. This deep reflection on Cardano’s work and life is really about us… you and I and our magnificent, disturbing world.
To some extent, Biographica is also a more universal reflection on the relation of work to life. Cardano’s personal life is sensational in a tabloid sense, but ultimately his intellectual work is surely more important. Or maybe not? Can we separate work from life, and if so, how? As a consulting doctor to a dying archbishop, Cardano delivers a lecture on hygiene, arguing that the man himself does not require treatment, “…it is the room around him that must be cured!”. This and other insights grew from his belief in the inter-connectedness of things. The heavenly bodies, he noted, drag entire oceans in their wake as they dance through space. How could they fail to exert an equally overwhelming influence upon tiny creatures like us?
In the music for Biographica, Finsterer re-processes Renaissance musical language but not simply as pastiche, this is something more profound… and in fact the composer has been working on this opera for quite a few years, developing her thinking about this musical world through several ‘satellite’ pieces (to borrow Larry Sitsky’s phrase), such as Angelus (a 2015 trio for clarinet, cello and piano) and Silva (a concerto for percussion and ensemble composed in 2012). In these pieces, we find Renaissance materials (melodic, harmonic, and gestural) filtered through a 21st century sensibility and technique.
How does a non-tonal composer assimilate diatonic and triadic materials meaningfully? This is not as simple a question as it sounds, and I suspect that it is in this area that the composer has made full and effective use of the several years spent developing this work. At the same time, we now notice through the filter of Biographica that intervals of 3rds (perhaps especially minor 3rds) have always been strongly present in Finsterer’s music, even in her more abstract pieces of the 1990s—as also is a tendency to build music structures around drone-like pedal points and long-held centric tones. Both of these have been made to serve as points of linkage for the incorporation of the Renaissance-inspired materials. In terms of orchestration, Finsterer is a composer who has always used extended playing techniques fluently as very natural sonorities alongside more conventional sounds, they never seem like mere effects in her music. The score for Biographica is full of lovely colours, both dramatic and subtle. The result is captivating, intelligent, and theatrically powerful.
The libretto by Tom Wright is complex and subtly nuanced, with layered textures that are an effective way to present some of the complexity of the stories and characters. The text spoken by Cardano (Mitchell Butel) is strong and offers a fine vehicle for the actor. Jane Sheldon is consistently excellent as Cardano’s mother, the special instrument of her higher register used to great effect. The omni-talented Jessica O’Donoghue (a wonderful pop singer-songwriter as well as classical performer) finds an elegant awkwardness for the tragic daughter of Cardano. One hopes to see more of her on the opera stage in future. The splendid mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser almost steals the show, both in the sense of her wonderful lower register playing a crucial part in Finsterer’s ensemble writing, and also in that her aria (tragi-comically sung as she takes a pause in dying from poison) somehow forms the dark heart of the opera, like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy.
The production is poetic, creative, and effective. Directed by Janice Muller (with support from Danielle Maas as Assistant Director), the staging is minimalist but with dark depths and surprising angles, making full use of the huge floor-space at Carriageworks. Designer Charles Davis has succeeded in creating a Renaissance effect, without the over-blown sense of a historical drama… it’s subtle enough to be almost a taste, or a philosophy, rather than a mere representation. The performance is gorgeously lit (by Matt Cox)—and the few moments in the later scenes where the lighting seems less convincing coincide with moments where a little dramatic momentum is lost generally (such as in scenes 10 and 11, and the transition to the final scene, ‘Day of Death’), suggesting that some additional rehearsal time might have been useful.
Opera is in its very nature a collaborative art-form, and this performance of Biographica is certainly the result of a very impressive and imaginative team-effort. Unlike a film or a play, however, this is a staged work that very clearly could only have been conceived by a composer, and in this sense it seems fair to give the final tribute to Mary Finsterer. Biographica is a beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work from an important composer of our time.
Music composed by Mary Finsterer
Libretto by Tom Wright
Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring.
Carriageworks, 7-9 & 11-13 January 2017
Review by Alistair Noble
Like all good neo-noir dystopias, the city of Michael Bakrnčev’s Sky Jammer has roots in contemporary urban life. In this episode I speak with Bakrnčev about property speculation, Macedonian folk dances, and conflicting advice in his Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers commission.
Thanks to the ABC and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for giving us permission to use their recording of Sky Jammer from the 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival.
Australia’s dedicated new-music oboist Ben Opie has given Australian composers and audiences a fresh perspective on his instrument. For Into the Outer, Arcko Symphonic Ensemble called on Opie’s formidable talents to play both canonic twentieth-century oboe music and the world premiere of Caerwen Martin’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings: “Sticks Leaves and Butterflies”.
Penderecki’s Capriccio for Oboe and 11 Strings is a rollercoaster of instrumental effects and complex rhythmic duetting between the soloist and string orchestra. Composed for the godfather of contemporary oboe, Heinz Holliger, it is a veritable glossary of quacking, squeaking, sucking, and popping sounds that now sits at the core of contemporary oboe repertoire. Penderecki has fun associating techniques for oboe with extended string techniques, the two parts mockingly imitating each other. Philliips managed the extreme changes in dynamics throughout this piece with what can only be described as a great sense of humour.
Caerwen Martin composed her Concerto for Oboe and Strings after hearing Opie perform Penderecki’s Capriccio. It retains the playfulness of Penderecki’s piece, being dedicated to her daughters’ “behaviours and intelligence”. The orchestra is in this case more accompaniment than duet partner, providing a series of pizzicato, twittering, and stridently harmonic backdrops to the oboe’s characterful interjections.
The rest of the concert made the most of the Arcko string section, comprising works by Andrián Pertout, Annie Hui Hsin Hsieh, and Roger Smalley. Andrián Pertout’s Into the Labyrinth takes the listener on a fairly straightforward journey from a laid-back, loping bass line to a vicious tutti string climax. The labyrinth, the composer tells us, is the self-doubting and circuitous route of a composer’s career. Hsieh’s Into the Outer is an adventure in grit, with extensive scrubbing and sul ponticello bowing, culminating in Caerwen Martin’s ruthless attack on her cello, at times scraping the bow down the strings with both hands. In Strung Out, Smalley literally strings out the string players in single file across the stage. The stereo effects that result from this setup are astounding and generally under-utilised in new compositions.
Into the Outer was an excellent example of how Arcko works to ensure the continuity and depth of Australian musical culture. Laying claim to both the first and second Australian performances of the Penderecki Capriccio, as well as premiering a work inspired by its Australian premiere, the ensemble have ensured that this piece leaves a mark on Australian repertoire and audiences.
Into the Outer
Arcko Symphonic Project
16 July 2016
Andrián Pertout, Navigating the Labyrinth; Krzysztof Penderecki, Capriccio for Oboe and 11 Strings; Annie Hui Hsin Hsieh, Into the Outer for 13 Solo Strings; Caerwen Martin, Concerto for Oboe and Strings: “Sticks Leaves and Butterflies”; Roger Smalley, Strung Out for 13 Strings.
Plexus are prodigious music collectors, racking up one of the, if not the, highest commission-counts of any contemporary music ensemble in Australia. Their Polyphony program at the Melbourne Recital Centre saw the trio inspire not one, but two choirs to join them in performing a program positively stuffed with new music by local and international composers. Already renowned soloists and chamber musicians, the substantial choral works bookending the concert showed Plexus to be consummate accompanists and collaborators as well.
Ed Frazier Davis sets moments from Shakespeare’s The Tempest against a sweeping cinematic background of swelling violin and rich piano harmonies for Melbourne’s adventurous Polyphonic Voices. Davis accents his tonal excesses with some effective and creative word painting, particularly in “Caliban’s Song” where swerving, choir-wide whistling beats in your ears. “A hum about mine ears” indeed. “Ariel’s Song” includes some seriously grave intoning of “Full fathom five my father lies” with a sunken cathedral near by. “Stephano’s Song” transported the audience to 11pm on the last night of choir tour. These finely-crafted portraits left me wanting to hear more of this oratorio-Tempest.
A much younger choir provided a no less brilliant performance of Dermot Tutty’s sprawling moral tale Colours Bleed. The VCASS Choir here take the place of a chorus narrating a story that will be familiar to any gap-year voluntourist: The passage from righteous dismay at global inequalities to a realisation of the complexity of local circumstances and the often problematic role of foreign aid workers. In this work Tutty draws on his experience working with and composing for students at the ABCs and Rice school in Cambodia. I wish the whole work could sustain the energy of its dashing opening, but I was heartened that Tutty saved some of his most dissonant writing for moments of realisation, where heartfelt delusion is peeled back to reveal bitter reality. What to do next is the question, when righteous dismay burns on amid the knowledge of how hard it can be to make a difference, and I think Tutty can be excused for not resolving this question here.
Not wanting to forget Plexus, it should be mentioned that they also tossed off three instrumental world premieres. Sdraulig’s Evocations are my favourite of Sdraulig’s pieces. Delicate and detailed they are, as he writes in his program note, “incantations” with a ceremonial quality that Plexus achieves with extreme focus and coordination across the ensemble. There was something nicely detached in this music, like surveying a model city with its tiny figures painted in bold block colours.
Plexus are always good for a contrast and hearing Andrew Aronowicz’s pointillist Shattering Blooms after the Sdraulig was like hearing music history sped up. After Sdraulig’s masterful linearity it was nice to hear a new line, a wiser, more crooked line with holes and sudden 90-degree turns. Though impactful and savage, this piece didn’t have the depth of character I have come to love about Aronowicz’s writing. It seemed somehow processed through quotation marks. That said, I have never seen a performer so convinced of a young composer’s music as pianist Stefan Cassomenos in the final moments of Shattering Blooms.
From the beginning of Andrzej Karalow’s Through I was worried about the bar chimes. They stood there next to clarinettist Philip Arkinstall like a bad omen. If only people occasionally set up instruments that they never played. To me chimes mean terribly produced children’s music and creepy 80s ABC TV. Fortunately Through quickly develops a murky, sinister texture. It is impenetrably dark for a while, depicting (according to the composer’s note) the topography of physical land and metaphysical dimensions. Arkinstall’s bass clarinet maintains this sense of hushed, nocturnal focus. When the chimes are finally played in the third movement, they do contribute to the “coloristic kaleidoscope” including crotales resounding around the Salon.
Plexus never cease to please with their commitment to new music and deft turns of programming. The inclusion of choral works in this concert adds another few strands to their plexus of musical activities.
Plexus with The Polyphonic Voices and the VCASS Chamber Choir
Melbourne Recital Centre
10 August 2016
Ed Frazier Davis, Tempest Songs; Harry Sdraulig, Evocations; Andrew Aronowicz, Shattering Blooms; Andrzej Karalow, Through; Dermot Tutty, Colours Bleed
A warm welcome to the 2016 BIFEM Music Writers Workshop team! These five writers will work closely with the mentors Keith Gallasch, Virginia Baxter, and Matthew Lorenzon to bring you fresh and informed coverage of Australia’s most intensive weekend of new music.
Claudine has been making sounds since the age of three. Today, she is a recognised pipe organist and soundscapist with a passion for blending electronic and acoustic elements to create evocative soundscapes. Spanning the jazz, electronica, classical and world music genres, Claudine brings films, theatre and interactive media to life with audio compositions.
She is resident noise maker at doe and doe, a multi-disciplinary creative studio based in Sydney, Australia, solo produces under the moniker Clypso and is one half of electro-pop duo, colourspacecolour,
Claudine also teaches keyboard studies, music theory and programming.
Rebecca is a young classical musician active in composition, programme curation, and social justice, and by evening freelances orchestrally on violin, viola, cello and bass. Rebecca has performed with Arcko Symphonic, Forest Collective and Victoria Opera; has appeared as guest performer with ANAM, Melbourne Composers’ League, and as guest soloist with the Monash Academy Orchestra; and has toured China, USA and Australia with various ensembles. Earlier this year she was shortlisted for Melbourne Theatre Company’s ‘Women in Theatre’ (Sound Design and Composition). She holds a Professional Performance Certificate from Penn State where she studied under Juilliard’s Rob Nairn on a university scholarship, and this year has been engaged as tutor for The University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and first-year orchestra. Rebecca runs a music studio which provides free instruments and tuition to refugee adults and children, and conducts for The Cybec Foundation’s Laverton string orchestral training program, ‘Crashendo’. She is passionate about bringing both historical and contemporary female composers’ string quartet repertoire into greater public awareness with her close friends/colleagues of The Kith Quartet.
Alex Taylor is one of New Zealand’s leading young composers, as well as a multi-instrumentalist, poet, critic, lecturer, conductor and impresario. He writes about music for the Pantograph Punch, Radio New Zealand, his own blog The Listener, and regularly gives pre-concert talks for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Areas of critical interest include the music of New Zealand composers, particularly the late Anthony Watson; the role of contemporary opera; and the use of microtones and extended tonalities. Alex teaches composition and orchestration at the University of Auckland, and he is currently writing an opera based on David Herkt’s The Last Delirium of Arthur Rimbaud.
Melbourne based oboist and writer Madeline Roycroft holds a Bachelor of Music (Hons) and Diploma of Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne. She recently completed her dissertation on the Reception of Shostakovich in France, which draws upon archival research from the National Library of France and the International Association for Shostakovich Studies in Paris. Madeline is a woodwind tutor who performs regularly in the Melbourne music scene. She also contributes interviews, listicles and live music reviews for online publication CutCommon.
Zoe Barker holds an honours degree in musicology from the University of Melbourne, graduating in 2015. With a particular interest in contemporary music, her research focussed on tools for the analysis of electroacoustic music. Zoe currently programs and hosts Australian Sounds on 3MBS Fine Music, which features contemporary Australian music and regularly includes interviews with leading and emerging composers. She is also a cellist who teaches and performs in Melbourne.
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
Musical egg shells, a dancing pianist, and a long-distance collaborative relationship all feature in this month’s podcast. The composer Samantha Wolf, dancer Gemma Dawkins, and pianist Alex Raineri discuss their piece The Ties That Bind Us for Kupka’s Piano’s program The Human Detained.
Thanks to Sam, Gemma, and Alex for the recording used in this episode.
You can watch the full video of The Ties That Bind Us over at Making Waves, a monthly playlist of contemporary Australian music. The Partial Durations podcast is produced with support from RealTime Arts.
With classic works by Olivier Messiaen and forward-looking pieces by living Australian composers, the final night of the Metropolis New Music Festival straddled over 75 years of new music. Building on the festival theme of “the city” with two world premières, Metropolis finally addressed issues of migration and the unique environmental and social predicaments of Australian cities.
Barry Conyngham’s Diasporas placed much-needed emphasis on the migrant populations that make cities thrive. And he did so—thank goodness—without trying to imitate a cultural melting pot of musics. Instead the piece was like watching a world map of population movements. A deep, murky bed of sound depicts the various dangers and “push factors” that encourage populations to pack up their things and move to unknown shores. Textures made up of massed scurrying runs or accented notes pass from desk to desk and from section to section. From the birds-eye view of this composed heterophony we zoom down to the human level as instrumental solos full of bitter-sweet hope rise out of the texture. Moving from statistical abstraction to human detail, Diasporas inverts the dominant narrative of migration in this country, the narrative that says “yes there are human lives at stake, but we mustn’t let that influence our policy.”
Michael Bakrnčev updates the “city scape” piece for twenty-first century Melbourne with Sky Jammer. Sky Jammer has at its base the social and environmental problems arising from urbanisation that have been so absent from the festival so far. In his program note Bakrnčev cites a prediction that by 2056 the population of Melbourne will climb towards ten million. But can the surrounding environment support such a population (especially if Melbourne’s water supply is reduced by up to 35% as a result of climate change)? Bakrnčev also feels that social groups and families will be strained by the growing population. With median house prices at or near one million dollars in Melbourne and Sydney, young people cannot afford to buy property near their families or where they grew up. To Bakrnčev, the sky scrapers being erected around Melbourne are not the beacons of progress and economic vigor as we have heard older composers depict them. He writes:
The term ‘skyscraper’ once implied ‘progress’. To my mind—and thinking not only of my own generation, but of our children’s and their children’s—’progress’ has become a dubious word. So emerges this work’s title, Sky Jammer.
I don’t entirely agree with Bakrnčev. With their stunning density and vacancy, Melbourne skyscrapers are deservedly symbols of Australia’s inflated housing market and disregard for community health. However, building up is one alternative to Melbourne’s addiction to building out across the countryside. But the more densely a city is developed, the more planning is necessary to ensure the city is healthy. And in Melbourne, home of bike lanes on raised tram stops, I hold out little hope for a renaissance in enlightened civic planning.
Sky Jammer is a local and contemporary piece in more than its program. Its sound so clearly draws on the compositional influences around Bakrnčev. In its dense, rapidly-changing textures one can hear the influence of Australian complexist composers. The instrumental timbres have the grit of a piece by Anthony Pateras. With its attention to instrumental colour and formal cohesion one can hear the influence of Bakrnčev’s teacher Elliott Gyger. Though this description might make him sound like the love-child of dour modernists, Bakrnčev brings his own crowd-pleasing style to the piece, in particular during a virtuosic violin solo for Sophie Rowell, who needs to be congratulated for several incredible solo passages throughout the festival.
Two works by Olivier Messiaen took the festival theme skyward. Couleurs de la Cité Céleste evokes the jewel-encrusted walls of the Heavenly City descending to Earth after the apocalypse. Scored for a large ensemble of brass, woodwind, percussion, and piano, the sheer volume and violence of the music is more apocalyptic than sublime. For a composer so sensitive to tone colour, the piece has a notable absence of resonance. Only bells ring out across the auditorium. The brass—evoking the seven trumpets of the apocalypse—announce the end-times in gigantic clusters while the keyboard and keyboard percussion piece together a mosaic of dry attacks. It is a flat, medieval representation of the Heavenly City rather than a scene of shimmering fanfare. The MSO’s Guest Conductor Robert Spano did not hold back from Messiaen’s vision. In his interpretation each tutti chord is so loud you can hardly bear to listen to it—like looking into the sun. This is perhaps Messiaen’s idea: to paint the cataclysmic aura around a city that shines so brightly you cannot look directly at it.
The most dedicated audience members stayed on for a precious event: Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata’s late-night performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. Where one can sometimes question individual players’ commitment to new music in an orchestral concert, Go and Kawabata’s performance was positively ecstatic. Locked on to each other’s gaze across the bodies of the two grand pianos, sweat dripping onto the keyboards, each movement was a masterful, sensitive interpretation of Messiaen’s understanding of the polyvalent “Amen”. Returning to this work composed shortly after the Second World War, at the dawn of the experiments in form, rhythm, pitch, and timbre we call “contemporary music,” was the perfect nightcap for a thrilling festival.
Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata
Melbourne Recital Centre
21 May 2016
An “aporia” is a problem, a state of puzzlement, or a rhetorical gesture based in a lack of information. A few of the reviews in this series on the Metropolis New Music Festival have ended in aporia. I have argued that urban centers present both problems and solutions to environmental and social problems. As such, I am unsure of how to interpret twentieth-century music representing cities. Does the triumphalist evocation of skyscrapers in Copland and Higdon sound optimistic or cynical to me? Maybe it is too early to tell. Maybe it is too late. I was also unsure of how musicians should approach the explosion of sexual norms that urban centers make possible. Is a focus on sexual extremes necessary, or will a potted history of sex in music suffice? Admittedly, I was using aporia to shut down hurriedly-written articles, but to post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, a situation in flux was a creative space. Michael Kieran Harvey’s Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia” also uses this space of uncertainty as a creative tool.
The aporia of Harvey’s piano sonata is the uncertainty between intuitive and systematised writing. Philosophical subtexts of musical compositions can sometimes be disappointingly reductive, such as when a piece tries to depict a concept that lives and breathes in a complex world of abstract language. Consider if Harvey just wrote a piece that meandered about uncertainly for a while to depict the philosophical impasse of an aporia. Instead, Harvey uses “aporia” to describe his compositional process. As any composer or music analyst of systematised music will tell you, this is the musical aporia. A system may give you a series of possible structures, but how do you actually fit them together to make a piece of music? When do you change the results of your system to suit your tastes?
Another reason title “Aporia” is so appropriate is that it captures the audience’s (or at least my) thought process while hearing the piece. Inspired by the incredible sound of the trams that rumble past the home of the piece’s commissioners Graeme and Margaret Lee, “Aporia” is based on the harmonic series and its inversion. One catches snatches of the harmonic series at the beginning of the work, but one largely has to take the composer at his word. Harvey’s brute physicality as a pianist adds to this aporia. The sonata’s thunderous clusters and showers of filigree may well be predetermined, but at times they slip into the realm of sheer physical gesture. At one point Harvey pauses, stares at the keyboard, and begins attacking it with sweeping glissandi. Where is the system? Does it matter? These are perennial, undergraduate questions, but sometimes the most basic questions are the most important and in this case, they actually bring the piece to life.
The rest of the program was occupied by extended prog-rock keyboard solos that a better critic will have to describe. Harvey’s recitation of a poem by Saxby Pridmore about the massacre of Jews by Arrow Cross militiamen provided a moment of supreme gravity amid the synthesized bacchanal.
City of Snakes
Michael Kieran Harvey
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 May 2016
Michael Kieran Harvey, Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia”, City of Snakes, From the Walls of Dis, Deaths Head Mandala, N Chromium, 48 Fugues for Frank (Zappa), The Green Brain; No. 6 ‘Beetles’, Budapest Sunrise, Kazohinia