All posts by matthewlorenzon

About matthewlorenzon

I'm a Melbourne-based musicologist and music-writer interested in contemporary music, music theory and philosophy.

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Press, Play

So far Metropolis has explored the theme of “the city” through urban music, ancient and sacred cities, and architecture. All nice, creative approaches to the theme. With Press, Play’s program Crashing Through Fences, Metropolis got political. And it is high time, too, since whether we like it or not (mostly not) we are in the middle of an election campaign through which we decide what our society—and cities—will look like. Will they be divided into gated communities and slums or will we stop widening the gap between the rich and everyone else? Will we invest in services that will reduce homelessness? Will the roads be choked by car fumes or will public transport decongest arterial motorways? Will parts of the city be under water in half a century? The poet Sean Whelan joined pianist Sonya Lifschitz and flautist Lina Andonovska to show that politics can be as appropriate a subtext to a contemporary music concert as ancient architraves and turntabling.

Whelan’s laconic, Melbourne-inspired poems heightened the concert’s political relevance by stealth. I assume they were written for this occasion as they were read for the first time in this concert. Icon describes the city covering the natural vegetation, a perfect preface to Steve Reich’s pastoral Vermont Counterpoint. Andonovska  highlighted the piece’s twittering and popping textures while deftly swapping between flutes of different sizes.

Whelan’s Shadow described the memories intermingling behind our backs before the fluid rhythms of Erik Griswold’s In Patterns of Shade took us on their dappled journey.

With Other People’s Houses Whelan approaches the lived reality of cities more directly and intimately. He speaks of a home that “knows too much,” this time accompanied by the mysterious swirling flute of Timo Andres’ Crashing Through Fences.

Lifschitz retook the stage alone for three “City Portraits” by Robert Davidson. Each portrait is based on the speech patterns of a figure who has shaped our urban environment. “Free Architecture” uses Frank Lloyd Wright’s interview with Mike Wallace. Wright’s vision of “an architecture that would be a grace to its landscape not a disgrace” is reflected in Walter Burley Griffin’s original and much-departed-from designs for Canberra. “Not Now, Not Ever” is a piano arrangement of Davidson’s famous choral arrangement of Julia Gillard’s even more famous “misogyny speech,” a speech that for one glorious moment crushed the persistent, casual misogyny that is so often tolerated in silence beneath a mighty, righteous fist.

In the third “City Portrait” a voice says “I am a young man of 71 years old, I built my first house when I was 17 1/2.” It is particularly affecting that we do not have an image of the speaker this time. Who is this man? He describes himself as a poet “working with my eyes and hands,” venturing into nature, speaking from “the heart of man.” Footage of children playing in a park flickers past as he describes his dream of “sun, space and green” for all. But to have sun, space, and green, the voice tells us, 2000 people must live together joined by a single vertical road. It is the voice of Le Corbusier, the modernist architect who we have to thank for every reinforced concrete tenement built after the Second World War. But when described in his voice and accompanied by Davidson’s expansive piano, played with Lifschitz’s commitment and sensitivity, one begins to understand his utopian vision. Against this bitter-sweet piano part we see his buildings torn down like so many democratic post-war innovations.

The image of thousands of people coexisting in neat blocks is given musical form in Beat Furrer’s Presto con Fuoco. The motoric flute and piano parts interlock precisely, filling each other’s silences. Bent at the knees, ready to spring at the dense score,  Andonovska’s charged, athletic performance keeps the entire audience on the edge of their seats.

Politics being out of the bag, Whelan’s When Everything Falls likens shopping to looting and criticises our diminishing sense of value in a world where anything can be bought. He imagines climbing Eureka tower and breaking a window, only to turn away from the “best view of Melbourne” to the face of his lover. After this, the amplified Sigur Rós-like chords of Chris Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn are a devastating love song.

Whelan’s final poem Don’t Break My Sky poetically lists elements of our society that unpoetically slap us in the face every day: Draconian immigration policies, $6000 toasters, “the orange-tinted supervillain of the US Presidential primaries,” and so on. Confronted with all this Whelan says we “turn inward, turn outward,” and crash on through. It is so easy to switch off from politics when it is presented to us as a stream of unrelenting point-scoring imbecility. But a powerful program by these incredible artists is just enough to make you care again.

Crashing Through Fences
Press, Play
The Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
14 May 2016

Sean Whelan, Icon; Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint; Sean Whelan, Shadow; Erik Griswold, In Patterns of Shade; Sean Whelan; Other People’s Houses; Timo Andres, Crashing Through Fences; Robert Davidson, City Portraits; Beat Furrer, Presto con Fuoco; Sean Whelan, When Everything Falls; Chris Cerrone, Hoyt-Schermerhorn; Sean Whelan, Don’t Break My Sky

Metropolis New Music Festical 2016: Syzygy Ensemble

A city shapes the people who inhabit it, as was demonstrated in an episode of the Radiolab podcast. The average speed at which people walk the streets is closely correlated to the city’s population size. Syzygy Ensemble took the transformative quality of living in close quarters as the inspiration for their “Cramped Space”  program at the Metropolis New Music Festical. Just as cramped physical spaces transform us as human beings, Syzygy Ensemble showed how artistic restrictions profoundly shape the music we create.

In Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Tatatata cellist Blair Harris walks the virtuosic tightrope of a prerecorded voice: That of the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The voice interjects the odd grainy “ta” as the cello plays rhythmic double-stops. The voice becomes more rhythmic as the two engage in a rapid and humorous duet. The two parts appear equal, but the cellist’s agency is limited by the prerecorded voice.

From a prerecorded duet partner to a live one, Giacinto Scelsi’s duet Ko Lho for flute and clarinet is a balletic study in dynamic and timbral precision. Swelling crescendi and decrescendi overlap in a haunting, shimmering surface. Where Harris was restricted in time by his prerecorded duet partner, the two instruments in Ko Lho are restricted in pitch-space. The swelling dynamics and tone colours of the piece are so many ways to differentiate the instruments within a tight harmonic range. Neither Ter Veldhuis nor Scelsi seem to mind their self-imposed restrictions. Both pieces end in gestures of resignation. The cello slides down into long, exhausted notes, while the flute and clarinet end luxuriating in their close harmonies.

The pianist Leigh Harrold and violinist Jenny Khafagi are tied together by John Adams’ motoric rhythms in Road Movies. Khafagi and Harrold’s rendition of this familiar piece was a tour de force of energetic precision. From the first movement, which races along like a race car driver with a death wish, to the contemplative scordatura of the second and the hectic hoedown of the final movement, the audience was completely transfixed by the Khafagi and Harrold’s unstoppable momentum.

Anna Clyne evokes the restricted space of childhood imagination in 1987. This space is not that of the supposedly unbounded imaginations of children, but our bounded memories of childhood. 1987 seems to have been a sad year for Clyne, judging by the ominous chorale for cello, violin, bass clarinet, and bass flute overlaid with the cranking and tinkling of a music box. Recordings of a fairground melt into a truly apocalyptic movement with gritty cello and bass clarinet.

Charlotte Bray’s Upflight of Butterflies continues the theme of cramped imaginary spaces by pursuing the paradox of loneliness in company. Each movement paints a bitter-sweet pair of words from the poetry of Pablo Neruda’s poetry including “Abandoned Sun,” “Trail of Light,” “White with Space” and “Dazzlement of Butterflies.” The sun is painted with flat, sustained harmonies like a cold and distant star singing to itself. The trail of light implies something leaving or being pursued, just as Laila Engle’s flute haplessly follows Harris’ meandering cello line. One would think that at least a “dazzlement of butterflies” would be unequivocally positive, but even the motoric beating of wings across the ensemble was tinged with acerbic harmonies.

Beyond Syzygy Ensemble’s characteristically thoughtful approach to the festival theme, the concert provided the opportunity to hear each individual performer’s formidable talents in a solo or duo setting, proving once again why Syzygy Ensemble are Melbourne’s most energetic and dynamic contemporary music ensemble.

Syzygy Ensemble
Cramped Space
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 May 2016

Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Tatatata; Giacinto Scelsi, Ko Lho; John Adams, Road Movies; Anna Clyne, 1987; Charlotte Bray, Upflight of Butterflies

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Elision

From the circles of Dante’s Inferno to Ethiopian churches carved into rock faces, Elision’s program was inspired by sacred cities both real and imagined. With their almost inhuman virtuosity, the performers took the stage like mythical guardians of each citadel.

The only musical sound Dante hears in hell is a horn belonging to the giant Nimrod. The giants are trapped in the Circle of Treachery for attempting to overthrow the gods. With their intelligence and compassion “in inverse proportion to their size,” the program note for Elision’s Metropolis concert associated them with “thuggish brutality and malevolent military power.” In Giganti John Rodgers attempts to compose the sound of this loud and brutal instrument played by lungs larger than any human’s. Given new music’s addiction to supersized wind instruments, it’s surprising someone hasn’t tried it before. Benjamin Marks’ trombone lays a powerful bed of sound while Tristram Williams adds high overtones on trumpet. Aviva Endean’s contrabass clarinet provides grist and timbre, rumbling and roaring in waves. But even giants run out of breath and eventually this imagined meta-instrument falls silent.

In Richard Barrett’s Adocentyn, Genevieve Lacey and Paula Rae painted another type of sacred city: Tommaso Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun inspired by an eleventh-century textbook of magic. The city has a central castle with four gates guarded by an eagle, a bull, a lion, and a dog. On the summit of the castle is an enormous tower that changes colour, kind of like the Melbourne Arts Centre during White Night. But unlike the feverish crush of White Night, Lacey’s bass recorder and Rae’s bass flute are busy and gentle, playing a sotto voce duet with all the twists and turns of medieval streets.

Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar takes a sledgehammer to the musical architecture of Elision’s history. Treating recordings of past performances as “found material”, they are processed beyond recognition by Daryl Buckley’s effects pedals, forming an immersive sonic environment like tonnes of glass being ground into fine powder. Buckley’s guitar carves lines through this sonic dessication like a finger through dust.

Elision celebrate 30 years of new music this year, making their first commissions not so new any more. Marshall McGuire acknowledged this history with a performance of Vezelay, a solo harp work by Alessandro Solbiati from the 1990s, when the ensemble maintained close relationships with a group of Italian composers. The piece is inspired by an abbey in Vezelay that is constructed to represent “a way from darkness to light.” The piece is satisfyingly ambiguous about what counts as darkness and light. Contrasting use of the harp’s low and high registers is kept to a minimum. Rather, obscurity and clarity seem to be the key distinguishing characteristics. The piece begins with McGuire striking and messily brushing the strings. Dirty glissandi and harmonics jumble together. Tremoli across strings—some of which are muted—creates a sound like rattling beetle shells. Clearer sounds stand out from these obscured tones, like clear harmonics struck simultaneously with a lower fundamental, or whispering high trills.

When the program note to Matthew Sergeant’s ymrehanne krestos said that a superimposed texture of decoupled articulations, valve patterns, and dynamics would be “scrubbed” to reveal its constituent parts I didn’t expect there to be any actual scrubbing. But Peter Neville dutifully raises a scrubbing brush at the beginning of the piece and attacks a pair of bongo drums. Harsher scrubbing seems to coincide with moments of clarity in the brass texture as Williams and Marks focus on elements of articulation or dynamics. The composer associates this distinction between dense surface texture and excavated simplicity with the Ethiopian monastery ymrehanne krestos, which is carved into a rock face.

The trend in complexist music to draw inspiration from ancient history and mythology has found itself at home in this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival’s theme of the city. Of real and imagined cities the festival has so far focused on the imaginary or those of the distant past. I look forward to the festival’s march towards the urban present over the next two weeks.

Sacred Cities
10 May 2016
Melbourne Recital Centre

John Rodgers, Giganti; Richard Barrett, Adocentyn; Aaron Cassidy, The wreck of former boundaries; Richard Barrett, Aurora; Alessandro Solbiati, Vezelay; Matthew Sergeant, ymrehanne krestos

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Hymns to Pareidolia

The 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival got off to a meditative start with duration-based and minimalist performances by Atticus Bastow, Nick Tsiavos (et al.), and the Australian Art Orchestra, nut before long we were racing through the dystopian 8-bit streets of imaginary cities.

Throughout the festival, free after-work performances in the foyer are set to attract passers-by and patrons of the bar next door. On the festival’s opening night the sound artist Atticus Bastow—resembling a sound-monk in his black robes and shaved head—welcomed the audience with a buzzing, humming soundscape. The carefully-arranged speaker system diffused the sleepy, insect-like drones into unique sonic nooks provided by the architecture.

Wandering into the candle-lit Salon I spotted a row of beanbags and immediately claimed one. I had heard of Nick Tsiavos’ fifteen-hour Immersion performance at Dark Mofo last year and was determined to make the most of the hour before the next performance began. Though Immersion is a long program, it has the feel of a series of perfectly crafted miniatures. Each piece explores a particular idea or texture with warmth and humour. Tsiavos called them “gently unfolding musical events” and as I began to doze in my beanbag I was most certainly inclined to agree. Percussionists Peter Neville and Matthias Schack-Arnott played two sets of ride cymbals. Neville threw splashes of sound into the air as he struck his overlapped set, letting them jangle against each other. Schack-Arnott brushed a lazy rhythm on his, barely a groove. At another point Neville and Schack-Arnott face off around a bass drum with wood blocks on top. They traded rhythmic motifs faster and faster until Neville’s mallet broke, but he persevered with the stick and severed mallet head. Given the intimate context, it seemed only appropriate, if not fortuitous, that something like that should happen. Anthony Schulz plays a pitch-bending accordion solo. Adam Simmons bleats a sad, breaking soprano saxophone tune accompanied by Tsiavos, who cuts each phrase off short, letting the pathos linger. A series of poems sung by Deborah Kayser punctuate these instrumental adventures. Kayser’s velvet croon melds into the sound of an accordion or a saxophone, creating microtonal beats against the other instruments. I could have stayed another 14 hours.

The Australian Art Orchestra spread lavishly across the stage of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The stage bristles with brass, strings, percussion batteries, keyboards, and electronics, each of which toots, rattles, and growls mechanically through the program’s gigantic and complex piano rolls of minimalist music. The Australian Art Orchestra are the country’s masters in flat, pointillistic textures, as the pulsating atmospheres of Peter Knight’s Diomira and the looped vignettes of Austin Buckett’s Virtuoso Pause made clear.

The concert’s featured composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée wields this style to great effect in Hymns to Pareidolia. Pareidolia is the condition of seeing patterns where none exist. Each instrument seems to follow its own loping pace over a walking bass played on the piano. Like a Pollock painting, rhythms of colour and texture jumble together in nonchalant harmony. Then, as though Pollock’s canvas is being stretched and bent, the entire ensemble dramatically slows and increases its tempo like a tectonic tempo rubato. The technique must require remarkable ensemble coordination. Either that, or a great conductor such as Tristram Williams, who led the ensemble through two of Lizée’s pieces with video.

At this point the relaxed, meditative festival was given a shot of red cordial and a smartphone with unlimited Youtube data. Karappo Okesutura is a mashup of edited and spliced karaoke videos (which derives from the full title, which means “empty orchestra”). In her program notes Lizée imagines a scenario where “a karaoke singer takes to the stage to perform an 80’s chart-topper only to find that the karaoke machine is behaving erratically. It begins jumping to different sections of the track, rewinding and stopping without warning. The karaoke tape itself is damaged and warped, yet the singer is still able to keep their composure; they keep up with the machine and finish the song like a professional.” Except it is so much more than that. Each song is masterfully arranged for the ensemble, which accompanies and augments the skipping, warping tape. Lizée loops and lingers on moments of audiovisual oddity, such as the way colour sweeping across a line of karaoke text curves around a “b”, or the strange meatiness of kisses in old black and white movies.

8-bit Urbex was commissioned especially for the concert as an “excavation of the hidden, lost, abandoned, forgotten and destroyed ruins of cities.” In this case the cities are to be excavated from 1980s and ’90s video games and their bleeping soundtracks are combined with other musics of the city, including jazz and ’70s-’80s era turntabling. For me it was a trip down memory lane (and the “trip” is explicitly figured in the work, with someone placing tabs on their tongue with scenes from the computer games printed on them). There is something truly psychedelic about those early computer games, where programmers had to find rough and ready design solutions and create images with the bare minimum of pixels. At one point Lizée repeats two frames in a computer game where the only movement is a sprite opening and closing their pixellated mouth. Elsewhere Lizée adds depth to the orchestral sound, accompanying the skipping soundtrack of a noir-style platform shooter with rich orchestral timbres. My favourite scene, though, was Lizée’s setting of the original Sim City, playing on the satisfying crunch of laying roads in strange, commuter-hellish designs.

From 0 to 100 in three hours, we have entered the cities of Metropolis 2016.

Metropolis New Music Festival
Atticus Bastow, Nick Tsiavos, Australian Art Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2016

Syzygy Ensemble and Anni Ha: The 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age

We live in remarkable times, though we rarely stop to reflect on this fact. Sally Greenaway’s steampunk infomusical The Seven Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age asks us to step back and consider the major technological achievements of the past 150 years. As Michael Orloff tells us in the show’s information-packed brochure, over the last 40,000 years:

  • Only 120 generations have known and used the wheel.
  • Roughly 40 generations have used windmills and watermills.
  • 20 generations have known and used timepieces.
  • 10 generations have known printing.
  • 5 generations have travelled in [steam-powered] ships and trains.
  • 4 generations have used electric lights.
  • 3 generations have travelled in automobiles, used telephones and vacuum cleaners.
  • Only today’s generation [and a half?] has travelled to outer space, used atomic energy, PCs and notebooks and artificial satellites to transmit audio, video, and other information around the globe.

Greenaway takes us through the advent of telecommunication, the Age of Convenience, computing, industrial warfare, modern medicine, and cinema with the help of an adventuring reporter (Anni Ha) and her luddite, morse-coding zeppelin pilot. Ha shares the stage with Syzygy Ensemble sporting 1920s aviation kit and several fantastical stage pieces by Candlelight Productions. As each issue segues neatly into the next, the audience is left with a succinct message concerning the benefits and drawbacks of the technology we take for granted. Have telecommunications really made us feel more connected to one another? The audience ponders this as the ensemble bounces jazzy themes back and forth. We consider how appliances don’t seem to leave us with more free time as fragments of vintage radio ads build into a suffocating crescendo.

As someone of an almost futurist persuasion, I loved seeing the mechanical miracles of the past century and a half paraded before my eyes. But I wondered whether the negatives were understated. Greenaway’s accelerating runs and drifting harmonies capture the thrill we all should feel flying around thousands of feet above the ground in machines with over a million moving parts, but the obvious ecological impacts of international flight were not addressed. It also seemed a bit weak to end a three-movement meditation on the horrors of war with a call to consider the technological advances that war has accelerated. But that was always going to be a difficult episode to segue in and out of and overall the issue of war is handled with sensitivity and tact.

The show’s pedagogical intent is obvious and its value extends to the appreciation of avant-garde musical composition. Greenaway whips out an arsenal of groaning and clashing extended techniques to represent industrial warfare, showing just how affecting these sounds can be when contrasted with tonal materials and inserted into a narrative. Her incorporation of prerecorded material is also effective, particularly when we listen to a scientist describing bursting into tears after implanting the first successful bionic ear. Thanks to the Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission, Greenaway was able to bring together a stellar team of musicians, actors, and producers to create an enthralling and polished work.

The Seven Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age
Syzygy Ensemble
Anni Ha
The inaugural Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission
The Melbourne Recital Centre
27 April 2016

Episode 2: Waiting for the Storm to Break


It’s a still, hot night in Brisbane and you can’t get to sleep. Jakob Bragg composes waiting for the rain.

Thanks to the Queensland Philharmonia Orchestra for the recording in this episode. Thanks also to Marshall McGuire and Jess Wells for letting me use the beginning of Muntu Walunga as the Partial Durations theme!



519672-178_Download-128  Download (13MB)


You can hear the full recording of Atmosphoria over at Making Waves, a monthly playlist of contemporary Australian music. The Partial Durations podcast is produced with support from RealTime Arts.

RealTime     Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 7.25.24 AM 

Plexus: L’Invitation au château

Plexus (Philip Arkinstall, Monica Curro, and Stefan Cassomenos) with Helen Morse and Paul English at Cranlana. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Surrounded by autumnal trees, lush lawns, and the Italianate outcroppings of Harold Desbrowe-Annear’s sunken garden, it is easy to forget that Cranlana is only twenty minutes from the city centre. The house is a cultural treasure-trove, with portraits of the Myer family surrounded by Chinese vases and dwarfed by a painting of Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (yes, that’s the Earl of Sandwich). Described by Lady Marigold Southey as the “family function centre,” none of the Myer family currently live at Cranlana. The building still has the distinct feeling of a home, perhaps due to the steady stream of guests who gather there for lectures, concerts, fundraisers, and masterclasses. On this particular occasion Cranlana opened its doors for Launch Housing, an organisation dedicated to ending homelessness. On the initiative of Josephine Ridges, Melbourne’s serial commissioners of new music Plexus and the actors Helen Morse and Paul English volunteered a humorous and poignant concert combining music and the spoken word.

Launch Housing’s Deputy CEO Dr Heather Holst explained the frequent case of pregnant women accessing housing services because their current living situation is no longer suitable for raising a family. Launch Housing envisages a purpose-built apartment building that not only provides shelter to these women and their families, but also provides them with access to Melbourne’s cultural riches. While Plexus’ program had distinct ANZAC Day overtones, there was plenty to make one consider the themes of home, safety, and belonging.

Stravinsky originally wrote Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and a septet of musicians. The performance may also include dancers contending with Stravinsky’s lively rhythms and constantly changing time signatures. Plexus and English had their work cut out for them and they rose to the challenge superbly. Plexus tore through the piece’s waltzes, tangos, and Stravinsky’s faltering attempt at jazz. English captivated the audience with a truly wicked devil.

The Soldier’s Tale tells the parable of a soldier returning home who trades his fiddle with the devil for wealth. Awakening from his dream of riches, he has been turned into a wraith-like figure who his friends and family can no longer see. In the original Russian tale the soldier is a deserter, but in The Soldier’s Tale his past is ambiguous. We are simply told that he is broken by war. Instead of divine justice, his trade with the devil is almost accidental, the result of seeing a genial enough face after so much hardship. The Soldier’s Tale draws the audience’s attention to the soldier’s experience rather than its cause. We might approach the issue of homelessness with as few preconceptions and as much empathy. A lack of shelter is a basic emergency to be dealt with before the effects of long-term homelessness take hold, including estrangement from one’s family, networks, and invisibility to society at large.

The theme of anonymity continued with the world première of And I Always Thought by the American composer Martin Bresnick. Bresnick is one of the most thoughtful of contemporary composers, treading a line between craft, art, and experiment. The piece takes as its poetic inspiration two poems by Bertold Brecht: “And I Always Thought”  and “Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch”. The pathos of the former infects the subject of the latter. I take away from “And I Always Thought” dismay at a grinding condition of existence.

[…] When I say how things are
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up.
Surely you see that.

The poem’s first phrase is an artistic manifesto in itself: “And I always thought that the simplest words / Must be enough”. But the poem’s last line “Surely you see that” calls the first into question, leaving Brecht’s “simple words” hanging in the air. This question  provides us with a way of interpreting Bresnick’s approach to the second poem. Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch describes the relentless pursual of the unknown soldier “from Moscow to the city of Marseilles.” The soldier is captured, killed, and defaced. A monument to war is then built over his body “so that / The Unknown Soldier / In no circumstances stand up on Judgement Day / and unrecognisable / […] pointing his finger, expose us who can be recognised / To justice.” Chilling stuff. In Bresnick’s composition I like to think that the trio plays the role of the soldiers building the arch. Curro lays brick upon brick of slow, rising double-stops. Arkinstall plays a limping, persistent clarinet line. One begins to feel the weight of the growing arch in the dense piano chords. The piece is relentless, but so is war. Bresnick seems to give us a new manifesto for representing a grinding struggle: Simple words, repeated. But is this still enough?

Plexus have a knack of putting together balanced and varied programs and this concert was no exception with plenty of lighter pieces to offset Bresnick’s gravitas. You can almost taste popcorn in the soaring, filmic lines of Robert Davidson’s Lost in Light. A movement from Mary Finsterer’s “Julian Suite” dedicated to the human rights advocate and philanthropist Julian Burnside gave the audience space to reflect while the trees sighed in the wind outside the Cranlana ballroom. The audience was left in high spirits thanks to a hilarious performance of Jean Anouilh’s comedy L’Invitation au château, cleverly adapted and read by Helen Morse. Plexus played the incidental music with all of the good humour due to Poulenc, at times joining in the play itself. And so the audience stepped out of the château a little lighter of heart and pocket, having raised funds for other much-needed homes.

L’Invitation au château
Plexus with Helen Morse and Paul English
Launch Housing benefit concert
1 May 2016

Igor Stravinsky, L’Histoire du soldat; Robert Davidson, Lost in Light; Mary Finsterer, Julian Suite no. 1, movement 1: “Nobility”; Martin Bresnick, And I Always Thought; Francis Poulenc, L’Invitation au Château.

Rubiks Collective: Imaginarium (Marcus Fjellström Portrait Concert)

Photo: Alan Weedon (
Rubiks Collective perform Imaginarium by Marcus Fjellström. Photo by Alan Weedon (

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Swedish composer Marcus Fjellström from his Odboy and Erordog Suite, a darkly humorous new media creation that I have reviewed several times. Anyone with a healthy sense of childhood nostalgia or a pet whimsy for old computer games and antique horror will love this piece, which was performed yet again by Fjellström’s Australian champions, Rubiks Collective, at Melba Hall.

In Rubiks’ Imaginarium portrait concert, a packed auditorium was introduced to three other creepily entertaining works by Fjellström. Each work combined Fjellström’s characteristic animations with live performance in a unique and stimulating way. Klavierbuch #1 for video and keyboard (Jacob Abela) could be the product of a collaboration between the creators of Guitar Hero and the “beautiful” video game Limbo. And why shouldn’t an interactive piano primer be haunting and beautiful? The audience watches a projection of the simple and eerie piano music surrounded by stylised animations. In the first movement flowers slowly turn into spiders as the pianist progresses through the music. In another episode tears fall from a childishly drawn face. I would love to see Fjellström try his hand at a similarly traumatising music education app.

The Alchemist Dances is the closest Fjellström came to a conventional contemporary piece of concert music, though even this virtuosic percussion solo performed by Kaylie Melville included a quirky take on the genre, playing on the similarities between alchemical symbolism and contemporary musical notation. The audience sees the same arcane lines, cones, and dots as the performer, who interprets them as they see fit. It is common for audiences to see a performer’s graphic score, but often they don’t know where the performer “is” on the score, or how they are interpreting it. In this case, a single symbol is shown at a time and the audience has time to predict how it might sound and appreciate Melville’s creative interpretations.

In Imaginarium Fjellström goes straight to the source of his artistic inspiration: the childhood imagination. Fjellström takes drawings from workshops with children and turns them into arresting audiovisual episodes. A series of lines, spirals, and doodlings turn into a bus trundling through a nocturnal city. Lines radiate from the hands of a cosmic conductor perched atop a mountain, the stars exploding into a constellation of faces. Fjellström’s adult work is firmly rooted in a clear recollection of his own macabre childhood imagination (didn’t we all have one?), avoiding the assumption that children’s imaginations must be brimming with garishly-coloured blocks and bubble writing. Though, as the Mulligrubs generation found out, colourful and disturbing are far from mutually exclusive. Rubiks did the rapt audience at the New Music Studio concert a huge service in introducing them to this original musical creator.

Rubiks Collective
Imaginarium (Marcus Fjellström Portrait Concert)
New Music Studio concert series
Melba Hall
10 April 2016

Marcus Fjellström, Klavierbuch #1, Odboy and Erordog Suite, Alchemist Dances, Imaginarium

Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta: Midnight Songs

Second-hand musical nationalism emerged as a theme of the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta’s Midnight Songs program at Melba Hall, with composers arranging and imitating musical styles from Bulgaria, China, Russia, as well as the Communist International.

The 153 pieces making up Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos will be familiar to pianists who have jumped through the collection’s graded hoops as students. For this concert the composer and conductor Elliott Gyger gave six of the folk music-influenced tunes an orchestral makeover. Gyger focussed on movements with beats of unequal length, known as “Bulgarian rhythm.” By arranging the pieces for orchestra, it is as though Gyger has “coloured in” the monochrome piano pieces, or enhanced the piano’s limited colour palette. The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonetta, conducted by Gyger, painted the piece in beautiful brush-strokes while bringing the pieces’ rhythmic energy to the stage.

Moving east, James Wade’s Midnight Songs take as their inspiration a collection of Chinese yuèfǔ poems written  by an anonymous poet during the Southern Dynasties in the fifth or sixth centuries. The “simple symphonic poem on the changing of the seasons” shows masterful control of tone colour, with overlapping planes of senza vibrato strings melding into clear flute and woodwind tones, all underpinned by the rasping texture of double-stopped cello. The piece appeared to me an orientalist romp, to the extent that the opening, shimmering chords seemed a striking imitation of the Chinese sheng (mouth organ). The Wade explained to me afterwards that it wasn’t his intention at all to imitate the sound of the instrument, which just goes to show how much these interpretations can be in the ear of the beholder.

Julian Yu imitated the style of Shostakovich in Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished). The piece is brimming with clever imitations of Shostakovich’s symphonies, jokes that the ensemble clearly enjoyed performing.

Perhaps the odd one out on this program was Liam Flenady’s Kampflieder. It doesn’t imitate any particular national style, but instead takes as its basic material revolutionary songs from a book given to Conlon Nancarrow when he joined the Spanish Civil War in 1936–7. Nancarrow fought with the International Brigades, an amalgam of liberal-democratic, socialist, and communist anti-fascist soldiers recruited by communist parties around the world. The Kampflieder were also brought together by the Comintern or Third International, even if some of the songs are more obviously communist than others. As was typical of this stage of communism, the book is an attempt to piece together a catholic, international communist culture from diverse nations. Communism, the Kampflieder seem to say, isn’t just something from Russia; it belongs to all.

A selection of these revolutionary songs are given a similarly “generic” treatment in Flenady’s composition. They are not treated with this or that national style, but instead treated with post-serial metrical, harmonic, and structural techniques that were also considered—once upon a time—to hold a certain pan-cultural legitimacy. I’m sympathetic to this idea that the inventions of modernist artists and musicians should be  accessible to all (whether people choose to learn about them is another matter), but like communist axioms their adoption in different contexts can have wildly diverging effects.

Modernist works should also be subject to local evaluation and appreciation. So, did Flenady’s process-based composition work in Melba Hall performed by the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta and surrounded by various national caricatures? Yes, for several reasons. The piece was an excellent contrast to the lyrical nationalism of the surrounding works. Like a detailed triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, the orchestra is divided into three sections playing in different time signatures, creating a complex rhythmic counterpoint. Against its more conservative foils, the piece also displays adventurous instrumental writing, with seething masses of high violins, wallowing woodwinds, and gritty bass strings. This grandiosity is punctuated by muted percussion, lending the texture a pathetic intimacy. You can’t make out the individual songs, but certain harmonic colours pass like clouds between the orchestral sections. I began wondering where the fight was in all of this textural refinement when a shred of melody turns into a cluster of notes run wild. Before I knew it the orchestra had exploded into a wonderful, blaring mess with a solo piccolo riding atop it with gentle upward glissandi. Not wanting to be too cliché in his socialist anthem, Flenady makes the piece amble to the end.

Modeled on the London Sinfonietta, the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta are filling an important niche in local musical life. In Midnight Songs they have brought together established and emerging composers for an accessible and challenging program.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta
Conducted by Elliott Gyger
Melba Hall
18 March 2016
Béla Bartòk, arr. Elliott Gyger, 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm; James Wade, Midnight Songs; Liam Flenady, Kampflieder; Julian Yu, Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished).

Episode 1: Muntu Walunga

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The composer Jessica Wells discusses Muntu Walunga, her piece for solo harp inspired by Bakongo mythology and the extended harp techniques of Carlos Salzedo.

Thanks to Marshall McGuire for allowing us to illustrate the discussion with his recording of the piece.



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You can hear the full recording of Muntu Walunga over at Making Waves, a monthly playlist of contemporary Australian music. The Partial Durations podcast is produced with support from RealTime Arts.

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