All posts by partialdurationscontributor

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Speicher (2)

©Jason Tavener Photography SPEICHER_MG_1359
ELISION and ANAM students perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

Speicher, the title of Enno Poppe’s 2013 work for large ensemble has a number of translations in English, including reservoir, memory and storehouse. All of these mirror the complex structure within the piece, performed by ELISION ensemble and students of the Australian National Academy of Music. Over the course of 75 minutes, early snippets of thematic material are carried into new and expanded contexts as six individual works weave recurrent ideas and memories. The audience can then draw upon their own memories of the unfolding work to determine why the music becomes increasingly familiar.

Conductor Carl Rosman leads a polished and thought provoking performance of Poppe’s monumental work. Valiant and untiring, Rosman barely takes a second to pause as the six segments (which range in length from three to twenty minutes) move seamlessly onward.

Various sections are infused with popular music styles, allowing us to hear pitch bends and vibrato from the clarinet, snatches of laid-back drumbeats and bluesy influence in the muted brass. Poppe’s use of colourful instrumental pairings is a real highlight of the work. Nothing confirms timbral innovation more than audience members’ eyes darting madly around the stage, trying to determine the source of unusual instrument pairings. Sustained harmonics in the upper strings pass seamlessly to the flute; contrabassoon and bass clarinets deliver solo passages in the very top of their ranges. A sudden, feisty duet between soprano saxophone and accordion is exemplary of the innovative use of timbre. ANAM saxophonist Luke Carbon is show-stealing in numerous explosive solos that jump frantically between top register squeals and robust, overblown bottom notes which display just how well the instrument lends itself to extended techniques.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Speicher though is the impact that listening to microtones for an extended period of time has on the audience’s sense of pitch. From the very beginning of the work there are extensive periods that provide the listener with mere fragments or compressed versions of a melody. Sustained discordant clusters, coloured by members of the high wind section, repeatedly punctuate these passages. Rather than recoiling at the potentially unsettling nature of these chords, the audience is comforted by the rare moments of stillness they provide. There is also a physical dimension to the performance in which the musicians momentarily relax their jerky body language as they lean into sustained dissonances.

Adjusting to the busy, disjointed nature of the opening themes creates an equally unusual sense of rhythmic displacement in the listener. At the sudden appearance of a single coherent phrase, this characteristic becomes strikingly evident. Performed sensitively in the top range of the cello, a melody that spans only several bars is cleverly unprecedented to the point that it is perceived as a syntax error for the human ear.

A feat that the performers execute particularly well throughout Speicher is the evolving role of instrument groups within the ensemble. During the six sections we experience a quiet, playful opening of sliding and seesawing violas, dense chords in the strings and keyboards enhanced by solo wind and brass voices, then a sudden ‘attack of the high winds’ in the supercharged finale.

From the beginning of this concluding section, Poppe has already rewritten the rules of conventional voicing in an innovative exploration of the top register, which members of ELISION and ANAM treat with utmost musicality. Sustained, high-pitched cluster chords from piccolos, oboe, soprano saxophone and clarinet could easily result in a shambles; instead, balance is achieved to the point of borderline aural discomfort. Dissonances ring out across the auditorium, achieving dynamic strength that is seldom heard from woodwinds alone. The brass section adds to the effect towards the end, generating an energised and equally voluminous charge to the finish line.

The texture suddenly becomes sparse for the work’s gripping conclusion, led masterfully by ELISION veterans Paula Rae and Peter Veale. A continuous note from the piccolo and oboe is repeatedly bent up and down, like a wide vibrato played in slow motion. The woodwinds gradually fade, and the conclusion – which is strangely evocative of a fly trapped in a jar – is executed tenderly by Tristram Williams on the soprano trombone, buzzing softly in steady pulsations of the same eerie pitch.

Overall, ELISION and ANAM are to be commended for their outstanding interpretation of Poppe’s multilayered work. Australian audiences should cross their fingers that this premiere performance allows Speicher to find a place in future programming of contemporary repertoire.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Speicher (1)

©Jason Tavener Photography SPEICHER_MG_1304
ELISION and ANAM students perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

Enno Poppe’s Speicher is a play on memory, a greatly expanding field of knowledge for our generation. We know our memories are malleable, largely illusory, constantly mutating, decaying or enriching. In German, the term ‘speicher’, meaning ‘storage’, and refers both to psychological memory storage, and also more specifically as a store of pitch class sets used in a compositional process.

At the opening of the piece there is no memory, only attention. Poppe’s atom of musical thought is the salty sul pont viola paired with bleak sonar-radio emissions from the accordion. These bare elements return recognisable, yet in eloquent settings and manipulated through unexpected readings. Vibrato is Poppe’s justification for challenging our traditional concept of a note as belonging to a fixed pitch. With intervals-wide, pitch-traversing vibrato we learn to reconsider our idea of a musical atom. We’re reminded of the pitch continuum at play in vibrato and reassess our assumption in our perception of the discrete tone.

By contrast, after this hypervibrato and ‘hyperchromatic’ divisions of less than a semitone, late-Romantic string vibrato is introduced only for a moment and suddenly we can hear this normally ubiquitous left-hand string technique as a chaotic, over-stimulating, maelstrom of thousands of incomprehensible musical events. And in these small moments we might experience an appreciation of sounds units on a small order of magnitude and perhaps experience the reverse operation of Schenkerian analysis which looks for the skeleton of a work, not for its biochemistry.

 Conducted by Carl Rosman and performed by a the champion forces of Elision ensemble joined by the fresh-blood of Australian National Academy of Music, the combined ensemble evoked cohesive textural moments, and colouristic effects convincingly. The students clearly delighted in their full-citizenship in any register of their instruments.

 Shout out to a grand-effort Parker-esque solo on alto sax by clarinettist, Luke Carbon. Kyla Matsuura-Miller tag-teamed the second violin part at the 4th movement and knocked it out of the park with rhythmic finesse and delicious tonal ferocity. Props to Eli Vincent in valiantly helming the nucleus of the work as first viola. Applause to the professionals: concertmaster Graeme Jennings who was a consistent and efficient leader, cellist Séverine Ballon, whose early attack on the cello was the first and true expression of musical violence in the work; her solo in section I explores the highest pitches of the deepest strings, creating an innocent, swallowed sob in melody that was reminiscent of the frailty of a child’s voice. Tristram Williams, a strong advocate of this work, played with precision and expression. There were seriously stunningly executed harp treats in the texture from Marshall Mcguire. Best and Fairest goes to James Crabb on accordion. The evolution from harmonics to accordion hums was sublime, and Crabb, master of camouflage, as a foreign species of instrument among the full palette of orchestral instruments. It returns to the fore of the texture evoking its unique voice; an imperceptible transformation before our ears, as if Escher himself could draw sound. Like Escher, Poppe is a numerologist and does not believe the 12-tone technique would have been so successful were it not for the cultural significance of the number 12. This piece appears to be based around the number six on multiple levels. Six movements, each containing six parts, the hyper chromatic use of 6th tones.

Stylistically, most of this work is in Poppe’s own compositional language of clear texture, and microtonal organic development. However, in a potential nod to Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Poppe enters the stylistic world of the foxtrot. Apart from minor technical details, challenge some students struggled to find their groove. Some bebop stomps were finely executed on the drum kit and one wished for similar conviction in the strings. From the ironic use of grotesquely pretty Hollywood strings to tone-dense Mondrian-esque geometric forces in the winds and Debussy’s harmonic-gravity defying language, textural transitions were the most spectacular feature of the ensemble’s interpretation.

A humble woodblock knock, emerging meekly from an apocalyptic orchestral force, elicited a chuckle from the audience, and true, a musical ugly-duckling it was. Our duckling returns as a pluck in the harp and we delight in its glorious transformation into a swan-tone adorned in overtones. Outside of this piece I would have serious doubts as to whether a single harp note held sufficient aesthetic power.

 All these micro-details are essentially developmental links in an 80-minute epic, expansive enough to puff its chest at Beethoven’s 9th. At the close of Speicher, it’s possible to hear the initial opening notes of Beethoven 9’s recitative, a melody symbolic of refusal for new material. One can’t help but feel Poppe reached the precipice of a musical mind verging on new material, only to reiterate and reaffirm the work’s fidelity to singular ideas and their possibilities and thus the piece exits before new material can be spoken, suspended on the trumpeter’s tongue.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (2)

(C)Jason Tavener Photography HARP G UITAR DOUBLE CONCERTO_MG_1126
Argonaut Ensemble, Maxime Pascal conductor, Harp Guitar Double Concerto by David Chisholm, Jason Tavener photography

Review by Alex Taylor

Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a converted jail, may soon be home to BIFEM’s resident Argonaut ensemble on a more permanent basis. At Friday night’s opening concert Seeing Double, Bendigo festival founder and featured composer David Chisholm waxed lyrical on the “criminal” lack of this kind of permanent new music infrastructure. “All criminals need to be brought to justice, and this is the jail where that can happen.” BIFEM’s opening double bill of double concerti showed us both the possibilities and temptations of that infrastructure, embodied here by large, skilful instrumental forces and consummate soloists and conductors; a veritable toybox for two precocious postmodernists.

Jack Symonds’s Decadent Purity is a work that attempts to blend quite disparate elements. At the outset a cloud of high harmonics hovers over a stop-start grumble of double bass and contrabass clarinet, opening up a chasm of registral space and spectral colour. The two solo instruments, too, carve opposing roles; the viola d’amore draws out its long line against percussive exclamation marks: elaborated argument against decisive punctuation. The first of seven movements also sets out another more uncomfortable dichotomy: two harmonic worlds in combat. A sturdy neo-Baroque tonality, reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, is pitted against the subtle slippage and inflection of microtones and textural nuance. It’s a promising collision.

Both soloists hold the drama of the work in their phrasing and movements. James Wannan sways on tiptoe, his viola d’amore an ornate, many-stringed creature of clear resonance and line, making the most of the acoustic at the front of the Ulumbarra Theatre stage. Wannan’s approach embodies the decadent purity of the title, imbuing Baroque details with a rich, almost Romantic sensibility. Percussionist Kaylie Melville moves with a pixie swagger, each entry dashed off with a cutting, almost sardonic precision. But her role for the most part remains one of commentary and fleeting gesture, unable to enter the harmonic and melodic realms that form the bulkhead of the work.

As captivating as the soloists were to watch and listen to, the dramaturgy and flow of the work itself at times seemed forced, imposed from above rather than extrapolated from the rich materials already at play. You couldn’t help but be seduced by sighing herds of ascending or descending microtones, but these remained as fixed objects rather than catalysts for generating gesture. The restraint and sensitivity of more spacious sections (for example the penultimate movement with its slow-moving scales) was several times undercut by overtly dramatic tropes. High-energy toccatas recurred throughout the work, most forcefully in the final movement where the marimba propelled us, no, forced us, towards cadential release.

The attractiveness of Symonds’s work is undeniable, but the promise of that initial collision of soloists, ensemble and the stylistic strains of both Baroque and modernist Avant-Garde is ultimately left unfulfilled.

David Chisholm’s Harp Guitar Double Concerto seemed a more natural and less masochistic pairing than viola d’amore and percussion: here were two forces of equal dynamism and resonance. A striking, hard-edged opening hints at the diverse gestural possibilities of those two soloists. Rapid pinball glissandi in the brittle high reaches of the harp answer a deep upward sweep in the guitar.

Like a flickbook, the opening cuts rapidly from gesture to gesture, often blurring in the orchestral maelstrom of an expanded Argonaut Ensemble. You get the sense that this is a kind of pastiche, but not of direct quotation, or even of particularly strong stylistic allusion. Occasionally more distinctive slivers poke through: swaggering muted brass recall Miles Davis, and later a frantic viola solo has echoes of Elliott Carter, a haywire cog spinning in the wrong machine. These are relatively rare moments, and you sense there might be a wealth of such detail hidden amidst some ambitiously thick, even clumpy textures. These aren’t helped by an acoustic that threw the soloists into relief at the front of the stage, while damping the intricacies beyond the proscenium arch.

For much of the work, the action continues in postmodern pile-up fashion, impulsive, rather than linear, time hammered out ecstatically. For a time, this was immersive, like those pools of plastic balls you used to get at some adventurous fast food chain playgrounds, a liquid made of solid objects. But as the piece progressed there was a more and more present feeling that these gestures, constrained as they were in a four-square metric scheme, rarely got beyond fragments. You have to say too that the obvious talents of conductor Maxime Pascal were utilised sparingly with so much martial time-keeping. However within the relatively square metric scheme, Pascal was able to draw out a range of bold shapes and colours from the ensemble.

It wasn’t until the fluid, effortless harp cadenza, a dazzling display of delicacy both from Chisholm and from harp soloist Jessica Fotinos, that we glimpsed an interior alternative to the glitzy, pluralistic mass offered by the front half of the work. Even though, like the rest of the piece, it might have benefitted from more space and breath, the finely crafted but rather lengthy cadenza allowed us to pivot towards lyricism and fragility. Out of the cadenza came a positively decadent cor anglais duo from Jasper Ly and Benjamin Opie, foreshadowing their oboe heroics at the exquisite, abrupt ending. In turn the cor anglais led us tag-team into a nostalgic, washed-out kind of texture, strings fluttering between solid pitches and combinations of ethereal partials.

The guitar soloist, Mauricio Carrasco, also had a chance to show off his solo chops, delivering both sheer brutality and lyrical nuance in a much shorter but no less impactful cadenza. In fact, it contained to my mind the evening’s most sensitive, fantastical moment. Out of the resonance of guitar harmonics came a delicate veil of sound, initially difficult to place but revealed as a falsetto vocal hum from Fotinos across the stage. The harmonics and falsetto continued, a true interior world, almost haunting in a fragile continuity against the flamboyance of what had come before. After a brief and brutal swansong in the guitar, we returned to that interior, but more confidently, as if a fresh discovery has been made. Over a breathy mass of sustained string harmonics, the oboes asserted this new, insistent lyricism: at the very end, a way forward.

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016
Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity; David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)


2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (1)

James Wannan performs Decadent Purity, Jason Tavener Photography

By Zoe Barker

The world premiere of two new Australian double concerti was a bold way to open the BIFEM festival. The inherent juxtapositions allowed by the medium, including the relationship between the two soloists, and their interaction with the chamber orchestra, were explored in different ways by composers Jack Symonds and David Chisholm. With both composers writing for unique instrumental combinations, Symonds’ Decadent Purity pairing viola d’amore with percussion, and Chisholm’s work for harp and guitar, there were many opportunities for an absorbing musical dialogue.

 Symonds’ manipulation of range and timbre was one of his work’s most striking aspects. The chamber orchestra was scored for instruments which reflected the extremes of their families—bass flute paired with piccolo, clarinet with contrabass clarinet, and a string section comprising two violins, two celli and a double bass. Opening the work, the viola d’amore soloist James Wannan was joined by the two orchestral violins playing pure dissonant tones at the top of their registers. The addition of bowed vibraphone created an ethereal sound world, and the entrance of the double bass at the depths of its range created a sense of open space ready to be filled by the soloists. This feeling of envelopment continued throughout, with the viola d’amore often given the space to fill in the registral gaps. Not only was this interesting scoring, but a clever move from Symonds. By eliminating instruments of a similar range, the mellow tone of the viola d’amore had no problem cutting through the small orchestra.

The strengths of the performance owed much to the inspired interpretation of the two soloists. Wannan approached sections of the work with the energy of a violinist playing a Romantic concerto, with virtuosic chordal passages and series of string crossings executed with flair. Crucially, he also knew when to pull back and play with a sense of fragility, blending with the small chamber orchestra. Kaylie Melville mesmerised with her dancing movements among the large percussion set-up, and demonstrated an extraordinary ability to impart a sense of musicality to even the smallest gestures. With so much material for Wannan to delve into, the percussion line unfortunately seemed underdeveloped in comparison. Sporadic snatches of marimba and vibraphone played a supporting role to Wannan’s line, as did the work of Melville’s untuned percussion, but the instruments were never an equal partner in the concerto.

Symonds explored many musical ideas within the work, ranging from the delicate opening to the parodic sections underscored by steady percussion beats, and those of a more modernist idiom with alternate agitated stabs from the soloists and orchestra. While each section had merit and interest, the work attempted to draw together too many disparate elements—perhaps inevitable given the task of featuring a baroque instrument alongside the very twentieth century concept of a percussion solo. Those sections which slowly unfurled, exploring the timbral qualities of the unusual instrumentation could have been developed further. The section towards the end using slow scales climbing through the ensemble was one of the most effective in this way, and it was moments such as these where the work’s title, Decadent Purity, was most strongly reflected. These glimpses of purity could be identified at points throughout, coming through especially in the upper strings, providing moments to savour.

For David Chisholm’s new double concerto, the Argonaut ensemble swelled to a 29 piece chamber orchestra, suggesting that this piece might be more decadent than the first. Opening the work with flamboyant gestures from the two soloists, Chisholm launched into a spirited postmodern pastiche, with different musical ideas emerging at once from all sections of the orchestra. The scoring for the solo instruments often enhanced their timbral similarities, heightening the playfulness of the work by adding an element of aural ambiguity. A concern in the opening, and other fairly densely scored sections in the work, was the ability of the guitar to be heard over Chisholm’s sometimes heavy-handed orchestration. While the harp benefitted from its greater natural resonance, the guitar was often lost.

Harpist Jessica Fotinos fully drew out the different facets of the work, excelling in sections of contemporary harp writing featuring extended techniques as well as making the most of more traditional passages with her lyrical playing. The harp cadenza was a point of serenity in an otherwise busy work, with her expressive performance commanding attention. Guitarist Mauricio Carrasco also managed to capture the many different idioms and styles demanded of him, ranging from agitated strummed passages to quasi flamenco chords, traditional classical guitar technique and a humorous passage of slide guitar.

While the cadenzas proved to be great vehicles for demonstrating the talents of the two soloists, their sheer length impaired the flow of the work, the content doing little to distill or clarify the many layers of material presented in the orchestral sections. These often proved overwhelming, with little distinction between the snippets of stylistic allusion layered in the dense score.

While a fuller string section would have benefitted this work, the existing players demonstrated their sound abilities through divisi passages requiring all violinists to act as soloists. A strong woodwind section was headed by oboists Benjamin Opie and Jasper Ly, who impressed in their unusual double cor anglais solo following the harp cadenza, and their unexpected heroic oboe line to finish the work. Interjections from trombonist Charles MacIness added both humour and darkness to the piece, and were supported by a very strong bass woodwind section. The Argonaut Ensemble in its new large format confirmed its position as an exciting voice in Australian contemporary music making.

By Zoe Barker
As part of the 2016 BIFEM Music Writers’ Workshop

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)

DOMICILE: Alone Together

Review by Charles MacInnes

I set off to Carlton for the first performance of DOMICILE last Friday night, and even though I knew quite a few people amongst the group gathered outside, we remained mostly silent during the event. As we visited the different areas of the house there was a quick whisper on the stairs, a smile from across the room or a small nod of encouragement before something new began.

Straight through the downstairs section of the house, I landed in blacksnowfalls (2014 by Wotjek Blecharz) where Matthias Schack-Arnott had lithely joined himself to a single, slightly battered timpani. Like a teenager on the train I stared at the window and watched the sounds go by. The skin became taut and some sequences of letters formed, along with rhythms of copper under a body that moved and stretched to dampen the sounds.

Matthias Schack-Arnott performs blacksnowfalls by Wotjek Blecharz. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Next door were the honks and squeezes of Dale Gorfinkel’s installation Baby boomer. You pedalled while holding on to an old Zimmer frame and the balloons and hoses and brass relics came to life. The apparatus seemed to have assembled itself from the junk in the shed and it kept going even after we stopped pumping air through. My brass player self began to realise how accidental a lot of life’s noise is. Sound and its complex waves and vibrations already exist, and we players perhaps take a little too much credit for its creation, and are correspondingly also deflated when it from time to time falters.

Vanessa Tomlinson plays on Baby boomer by Dale Gorfinkel. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Ascending the stairs, I overhear the Conversation (2004 by Georges Aperghis) between two women (Jenny Barnes and Niharika Senapati) in the bath. The bubbles obscure their bodies and the voices are a mixture of inwards exhalations and assenting disagreement. When I hear people arguing, I can quickly tell that most of the time they don’t know what they are arguing about. They become so used to their practised roles that a quip or jibe represents years of misunderstanding. The underlying root of the problem is long since forgotten—we’ve lost the ability to analyse—instead acting out our expected frustrations on whoever’s at hand.

Downstairs again, I sat in the chair waiting to be next in a one-to-one Audition (2014 by Angelo Solari) with Carolyn Connors. We were seated opposite each other and the script/score was open. She: Hello


I (reading): hello.

We bounced back and forth following the lines, mimicking each other in normal voices. Often asked to overlap the dialogue, it got a little faster before a Martin was mentioned a few times. She sprung from her chair and left, returning with the electric kettle now full of water. While waiting for it to boil we had to stare at one another. I was strategically pessimistic about my efforts at doing well, but kept my gaze fixed. Blinked a few times. Much later in the garden after the whole performance was finished, she said I was one of the most natural ones because I didn’t try to act.

Now heading to the front room, I copied Aviva Endean’s filmed actions in A face like yours (2015) on the TV screen. This was a warping of space and time perspective because I had done this once already at this year’s Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. This time I was alone as I put the squishy coloured earplugs in. My fingers, as I copied the screen, started drumming on cheek bones, moving to ears, neck, face, nose, forehead then squeezes and pullings at the the lips and teeth. The sound is magnified and distorted as it comes in through the strange connections of bones, tendons and nerves like a web of old water pipes in an apartment building. We arrived at the Adam’s Apple with a high pitched humming before ending with hands covering nose and mouth.

Tiny wisps of air made it through the clarinet in Lehadlik, also performed and written by Aviva Endean (2015) in the open dining room at the heart of the house. Two candles flickered from the clarinet’s presence and a crackly recording of an old man’s torah incantation came from under a chair by the hearth. The tones were long and suspended but low in the air. My mind wandered out into the garden and I looked again at the window I’d been staring at from inside by the timpani with the live projected image of him still playing. The pieces in the house were repeating over and over as the audience shifted and changed and I think they’re doing it again now as I write.

Aviva Endean performs Lehadlik. Photo by Pier Carthew.

To get to the garage you had to pass through three or four bedsheets hung from the gables. Matthew Horsley was shaved bald and had on a pair of flimsy white cotton pants. ?Corporel (1984 by Vinko Globokar) was disembodied as if from another time and dimension, perhaps some edited-out character of Brecht’s insisting that we feel and understand the false glamour and artificiality of entertainment today? His chest and face and scalp become chafed red from the harsh contact of his hands, and it finished with a dramatic exit through the automatic roller door that would’ve done Bertolt proud. The last piece I heard was a couple (Aviva Endean and Alexander Gellman) in the upstairs bedroom performing Void. Walking slowly toward each other in a routine they’ve enacted many times before, the microphones in their mouths caused a screech and wail of feedback. Was it getting stronger as they neared or changing frequency? Or were our poor ears just getting used to the piercing, painful sound? When they kissed it stopped. But they walked out again to quickly reassume positions for another round.

Aviva Endean and Alexander Gellman perform Void. Photo by Pier Carthew.

As the audience, we narrowed down the distance between each of us as we moved through the different floors and rooms of the house. As I glanced into the makeshift mirror of glass over a black and white photo on the landing, I was reminded just a little more of who I am. Music does this beautifully; we are connected but each engrossed in our own calm thoughts. In DOMICILE we circumnavigated sound and it came together under one roof with the utmost magic and beauty.

A house in Carlton
4/5/6 December 2015
Directed by Aviva Endean
Presented as part of the New Music Network’s emerging artists program

Review by Charles MacInnes
Melbourne-based composer and trombonist Charles MacInnes is currently undertaking a PhD on the role of improvisation in new music.

ANAM: Des canyons aux étoiles

Fabian Russell. Photo by Tristan Rebien.
Fabian Russell. Photo by Tristan Rebien.

Des canyons aux étoiles
Georgia Ioakimidis-MacDougall
ANAM fellowship concert
South Melbourne Town Hall
26 November, 2014
By Andrew Aronowicz

It’s difficult not to feel an air of ceremony at performances of Messiaen’s music. And I don’t think it’s just due to the overt religious references; it’s because we hardly ever get to hear it live. Messiaen in Melbourne is sadly all too rare a treat, but a treat it was to gather on Sunday evening at the Australian National Academy of Music to hear the 40th anniversary performance of Des canyons aux étoiles…, one of his most sublime orchestral creations.

Written to celebrate the bicentenary of the founding of the United States, the work is at once grand and profoundly intricate in its design. The canyons in question are the majestic gorges and rock formations that define the desert landscapes of Utah. Much of the score’s sparkling edifice suggests these bold, rugged features, constructed from finely wrought orchestral chords, and the angular language of birdsong.

The orchestra for Sunday’s performance was mostly from ANAM’s current cohort, though fleshed out with some friends and local freelancers. The ensemble met the challenges of the work head on, producing a glittering tapestry of sound replete with startling chord changes, dramatic extremes and choruses of sparkling, rustling gestures evoking the birds of Messiaen’s inspiration. At the helm was conductor Fabian Russell, who maintained complete control over the frequently wild score.

Of the 44 individual instrumental parts, four soloists dominate the kaleidoscopic texture of the work, perhaps the most demanding of which is the solo piano. Jacob Abela handled the awe-inspiring complexity of the piano writing with consummate skill and flair, achieving a timbral range befitting the work’s dynamic demands. His performance of Le moqueur polyglotte, a fiendishly challenging catalogue of tricksy Mockingbird calls, was brilliant to behold.

Ben Jacks made a golden sound in his robust performance of the french horn solo. His reading of the Appel interstellaire (Interstellar call) was hauntingly beautiful, and featured a fascinating display of technical wizardry with delicate colour changes and stratospheric exploration of the instruments upper harmonic spectrum (apparently designed to evoke the plaintive cries of wild coyotes). Similarly, Kaylie Melville and Peter Neville each showed expert handling of the intricate rhythms and colours of the solo xylorimba and glockenspiel parts, respectively.

The performance on the whole came off as impressively accomplished, and any ensemble issues were easily forgiven thanks to the dedication and spirit of the players. The work is long (twelve movements and over an hour and a half of the French master’s dazzling colour onslaught), but the sense of cohesion and logic was generally well maintained.

-Andrew Aronowicz

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

Did Opera die with Puccini? – Opera Australia’s New Season

The announcement of Opera Australia’s 2015 season a few weeks back was greeted with more yawning than outrage. The repertoire is obviously conservative, the productions staid (Moffatt Oxenbould’s Madama Butterfly again?), and the inclusion of Anything Goes was viewed as a cynical attempt to boost box-office revenue at the expense of opera performers (and orchestral musicians) who would otherwise be on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (1).

I thought it might be fun to compare 2015’s repertoire with Opera America’s list of the most performed operas in the world. Let’s compare this list with, say, the Lyric Opera of Chicago (with a budget twice that of Opera Australia). And let’s look at what the Nuremberg State Opera is offering:

Opera Australia World Ranking Chicago Ranking N.S. Opera Ranking
La Traviata 1 Tosca 5 La Traviata 1
La bohème 3 Don Giovanni 10 Magic Flute 4
Magic Flute 4 Il Trovatore 20 Marriage of Figaro 8
Tosca 5 Tannhäuser 50 Hansel and Gretel 15
Butterfly 6 Capriccio ? Turandot 17
Marriage of Figaro 8 Porgy and Bess ? Masked Ball 24
Aida 12 Anna Bolena ? Tristan 36
Elixir of Love 13 The Passenger ? Sigfried 42
Turandot 17 The Property Premiere Les Huguenots ?
Faust 34 El Pasado Nunca se Termina Premiere King Roger ?
Don Carlos 43 Carousel Musical Damnation of Faust ?
Anthing Goes Musical Quai Ouest Premiere
Singin’ in the Rain Musical
My Fair Lady Musical
Ritter Eisenfrass Operetta

This small sample tells us that while Nuremberg and Chicago have their fair share of standard repertory items in their seasons, there are always some curiosities (like King Roger or Anna Bolena), some premieres and some lighter fare. OA’s season presents neither curiosities nor premieres.

Why is OA’s season so conservative?

The federal public subsidy for opera in Australia is highly lopsided. Here is a summary of funding for the four major Australian companies for financial year 2012-2013 (2):

Company Government(s) ($millions) Other ($millions) Staff Productions
Opera Australia 25.2 (25%) 74.8 (75%)
State Opera of South Australia 2.95 (58%) 2.12 (42%) 4 4
West Australia Opera 2.29 (42%) 3.14 (58%) 14 4
Opera Queensland 3.02 (53%) 2.59 (47%) 17 4

The Federal Government has put all its operatic eggs in a single basket, granting Sydney the greatest access to professional opera in the nation.

Since the merger of the Victorian State Opera with the Australian Opera in 1996, the resultant Opera Australia has played a season in Melbourne each year; however, Melburnians generally only see half of the productions presented in Sydney.

It may seem that OA is merely responding to the wishes of its benefactors, who may demand to see the favourites. Yet the Chicago Lyric Opera has an annual revenue of roughly US$70 million, of which perhaps US$200,000 comes from government support – clearly, philanthropists are happy to fund new and/or interesting works. Instead, I believe the blame lies squarely with the company’s artistic director. Lyndon Terrancini seems to believe opera died in 1926 with Turandot – and the focus on glitzy events like Opera on the Harbour or South Pacific have turned the company into a tourist attraction rather than an opera company for the city. Here are a few quotes:

‘In all our research we find that if people come to a contemporary opera and they don’t like it, we can’t get them back. The biggest complaint they have is, and this is a quote, they “hated the music”.’

‘[New Music] has become so driven by academics and I mean this pompous academic attitude to making music, I mean it’s just mad’ (The Australian, 31 March, 2012).

The logic is simple: new music sounds awful and is difficult for people unfamiliar with opera to hear. But as readers of this blog would be well aware, consonance did not die with Puccini in 1926. Witness the extraordinary success of the meandering post-post-tonal works of Glass and Adams, the most-performed opera composers around today. Or the playful pastiche of Judith Weir, whose four operas received eight performances worldwide in the 2012/13 season. Indeed, one doesn’t have to return to the 19th century to find 20th and 21st century composers who wrote approachable music (it’s odd to see Janaček and Britten unrepresented this year or last). Even so-called ‘difficult’ works can be popular with audiences – Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten sold 5000 tickets at $250 each in 2008 in New York (New York Times, 7 July, 2008).

Since its inception, Opera Australia has presented thirteen premieres of varying quality (3). Commissioning is risky: witness the wide gap that exists between The Eighth Wonder and Bliss. And larger companies are poorly resourced to support the development of new works. Since rehearsal time is inherently more expensive for them, it is difficult to allocate enough time to really iron out new works’ teething problems. The mighty Metropolitan Opera began a commissioning programme in 2006 which was beset with many difficulties, not least being its equally mammoth resources which had difficulty adapting to works with requirements outside the usual repertory. The first fruits of this programme didn’t reach audiences until 2013 with Two Boys, only the fifth premiere at the Met in the previous forty years.

I believe that it is silly to expect OA to perform new Australian works. The risk-averse tenure of Lyndon Terrancini has ensured that only well-established composers will be represented – if at all. This is not necessarily a loss to Australian audiences. Companies such as the Victorian Opera are commissioning and performing new work, and presenting innovative productions of firm favourites (their production this year of La traviata was one the most thought-provoking I have ever seen). What needs to change is the disproportionate public subsidy afforded to OA. If wealthy tourists wish to see a dull production of a repertory staple at the Opera House, perhaps they should pay a greater share of the production costs in their ticket. Public subsidies for the arts should go some way to advancing that form – not just in the production of new work, but in the presentation and access to old works. A fairer distribution of the meager funding may allow some smaller state companies to advance their innovative fare, and respond to a younger opera audience who doesn’t wish to be condescended to.

Note: Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits, an hour-long children’s opera, will be presented in Melbourne for seven performances. The work was commissioned by the Melbourne Festival and the Perth International Arts Festival, and is not part of the subscription season. While the results may be intriguing, its brevity in both presentation and duration may prevent any serious critical interest.

(1) The inclusion of lighter fare is not unknown to opera companies, allowing a great degree of cross-subsidisation. In 1971, the Nuremberg State Opera bookended Luigi Nono’s noisy and highly-Marxist Intolleranza 1970 with Die Csádásfürstin and Kiss Me, Kate – an operetta and a Broadway musical respectively. But at least these choices were appropriate for an opera house – requiring large orchestras, choruses, larger voices and little dancing in comparison to Anything Goes, which has a relatively small cast yet requires a preponderance of triple-threats.

(2) There are few other major companies, the most prominent being Early Music-focused Pinchgut in Sydney, the omnivorous Victorian Opera and the Melbourne Opera. Finally, there are a great number of smaller companies who either regularly perform chamber or smaller works, or do not present an opera each year (CitiOpera, Chamber Made Opera, Harbour City Opera, etc.).

(3) The Little Mermaid by Anne Boyd (1985); Metamorphosis by Brian Howard (1985); Voss by Richard Meale (1986); Whitsunday by Howard (1988); Mer de glace by Richard Meale (1992); The Golem by Larry Sitsky (1993); The Eighth Wonder by Alan John (1995); Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Richard Mills (1999); Batavia by Richard Mills (2001); Love in the Age of Therapy by Paul Grabowsky (OzOpera 2002); Lindy by Moya Henderson (2003); Madeline Lee by John Haddock (2004); Bliss (2010) by Brett Dean

-Alexander O’Sullivan


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

Benjamin Carey et al.: _derivations

_derivations cover. Image courtesy of the artist.
_derivations cover. Image courtesy of the artist.

Benjamin Carey, Alana Blackburn, Evan Dorrian, Joshua Hyde and Antoine Läng
Integrated Records

Encounters between computers and improvising musicians can be overwhelmingly one-way. The instrumentalist begins playing. Their sound is recorded, transformed and spewed back into the space. A secondary level of input, in the form of buttons or foot pedals, allow the performer to trigger pre-programmed transformations. To minimise the disturbance of controlling the system, a second performer may operate the signal processor. How can an improvisational logic be programmed into the computer itself? How can a signal processing system not just play back to, but play with an instrumentalist? These are some questions that Benjamin Carey asked when he started working on the _derivations system in 2010.

The _derivations system analyses a musical performance in real time and creates a database of musical gestures based on that performance and, if the performer wishes, on previous performances as well. As in “traditional” electroacoustic improvisation, the program’s response is to transform and play elements of the recorded performance. Carey’s innovation is in the semi-autonomous actions the program makes in response  the live performance. _derivations tracks both the volume and spectral content of a live phrase. The statistical reduction of this phrase is then stored for comparison with later phrases and also for comparison with the phrases that _derivations itself plays. _derivations can respond through several channels or modules at once and all of these channels are listening to each other, generating results that are truly difficult to predict and so, from the performer’s point of view, semi-autonomous. Like a live performer, the modules are also conscious of when other modules are playing and so play in a broadly contrapuntal manner. _derivations can therefore “play with itself” without the performer playing at all.

What influence does the performer have in programming the system before the performance? The performer chooses a range for the lengths of phrases _derivations plays and also for their frequency of overlapping. This overlapping or density can also vary throughout a performance according to a preset trajectory.

The results, six of which have been recorded for Carey’s new album on Integrated Records, are remarkable in expanding the often linear and binary (multiply the same sort of sound as the performer or contrast starkly) of improvising laptop artists. The sessions feature drum-kit, recorder, saxophone and voice alone or in ensembles, performed by Alana Blackburn, Evan Dorrian, Joshua Hyde, Antoine Läng and Carey. They are miniature snapshots of rich sonic worlds, like intricate landscape dioramas. “Tactility” uses a library of sounds of a recorder, contrasting trills, low portamenti, flutter tonguing, melodic flurries and humming fields of sound. Without being able to see the performer and with the relatively restrained range of the digital sound transformations,  it is sometimes difficult to tell the system’s contributions from those of the performer. There is an insect-like autonomy-within-limits to the improvisations, which are constantly piquing the ears with new and only-just-unexpected sounds.

None of the recordings are longer than ten minutes and they give the impression that the program has a fairly static formal imagination. It is clear that the program treats the statistical data of each sample like a “point” or “molecule” in its system, much like the first serial composers. It would be great to hear the program extended to achieve a “molar” level of autonomous, large-scale organisation that might count the equivalent of one track of _derivations as a unit in itself.

You, too can have a play with _derivations here.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime project.

Austin Buckett: Grain Loops

Cover of Grain Loops by Austin Buckett. Image courtesy of artist.
Cover of Grain Loops by Austin Buckett. Image courtesy of artist.

Austin Buckett
Grain Loops
Album review by Henry Andersen

Anything repeated enough times comes to seem different. When a scratch on a vinyl record creates a locked groove, the resultant loop of sound pulls itself away from the normal tension and release of the music around it. The natural choreography of the stylus is disrupted. (Imagine the stylus as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, only to have it fall back down each day. In this moment, Camus will tell us, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy.”) If you’ve ever left a locked groove playing for some time, or fallen asleep to the clicks and pops of a stylus on the cardboard centre of an LP, then you’ll know that there is joy to be found in stripping away the narrative function of music and letting it go nowhere for a little while.

Grain Loops is the latest LP from Sydney based composer and sound artist Austin Buckett. Though the album is released on vinyl, the loops from which it is constructed are digital, not analogue. That is, they have been made by cutting and repeating digital waveforms recorded by Buckett during a residency in Banf, Canada.  All of the recordings are made by passing sandpaper over the surface of four snare drums. This techniques is a favourite of Bucket’s, for the rich variation in noise colour that it can create. In most circumstances, the detail of this coloration would pass unnoticed but on Grain Loops with each snippet of sound bracketed by repetitions of itself, the finer details of the sound (call them grains if you like) suddenly become magnified. Hear that filter-like effect in the left channel? no? listen again. and again. and again.

The album’s drive to repetition is carried by its macro-structure as well. There are a total of 30 tracks – each track lasts for exactly one minute and is made of one loop (of around 1-5 seconds) repeated to fill its allotted, one-minute bracket. The decision to have each track last one minute seems quite arbitrary (for me it could have been longer) but the decision to keep each track at equal proportions to its neighbours is vital. Even as the sonic qualities and groove of each track change, the essential concept is repeated – like 30 manifestations of a single idea or 30 photographs of a single object. You could think of the form of the whole album as something like a ‘theme and variations’ – only without the theme. The album doesn’t have an ‘original theme’ in any traditional sense (proven by the fact that the album’s tracks could easily be shuffled without upsetting the form). If there is an ‘original theme’ it is the concept and it isn’t heard so much as it is hinted at by the common factors that span each variation.

If there is a chance to escape modernism’s morbid obsession with progress, it is through repetition. Anything that loops back on itself can’t be moving foreward. We can forget that grand narrative for a little while and just enjoy the feeling of going nowhere (what could be more comforting, and more endless, than the sound of windscreen wipers in a  storm?). As each track of Grain Loops plays, even as we know it will only last a minute, it feels like it could play forever – has played forever. It seems to stretch past the horizon in every direction. And then, all of a sudden, we are back where we started – with Sisyphus, the stylus and the locked groove. Anything repeated enough times takes comes to seem different…

By Henry Andersen

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

Speak Percussion: 8th Taiwan International Percussion Convention

Speak Percussion
8th Taiwan International Percussion Convention
National Concert Hall, Taipei
27 May 2014
Review by Alistair Noble

Thomas Meadowcroft, Cradles
Anthony Pateras, Hypnagogics
Matthew Shlomowitz, Popular Contexts Volume 6
Simon Løffler, b

The Taiwan International Percussion Convention is a triennial event begun in 1993, the creation of Ju Tzong-Ching and supported by his own ensemble, the Ju Percussion Group. In 2014, the 8th iteration of the convention hosts 10 ensembles and 10 soloists from 14 countries around the world. The convention is titled ‘Taiwan’, rather than ‘Taipei’ for good reason, as it aims to bring percussion performances to venues around the island over a 10 day period, with the international and local performers undertaking tours to venues in Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Hsinchu, Yilan, Changhua, Chiayi and Taitung. In terms of organisation, logistics and finance, this is a monumental undertaking, a music festival that has moved beyond the local to operate on a national front. Certainly, it serves to illustrate the extraordinary commitment and energy that can sometimes be brought to artistic endeavours in Taiwan, and the size of audiences seems to indicate that the convention organisers have been able to tap into a deep well of support at the community level.

Among the international guests at the 2014 convention are Speak Percussion from Melbourne, represented for this performance by Eugene Ughetti (artistic director), Matthias Schack-Arnott, Leah Scholes, and lighting designer Travis Hodgson. Australian fans will know this group for their polished and dedicated performances of works by contemporary European and Australian composers in particular. It is satisfying to see the group, with its flexible ensemble membership, making a strong impression at major international events like TIPC and MaerzMusik in Berlin.

Speak Percussion are more than just a virtuoso ensemble. They display a lively good taste in repertoire, and a strong commitment to the communication of their love and fascination for this music. They have a distinctive style of performance, combining a genuine jouissance with an unassumingly Australian theatricality, that brings to life even music that might seem alarming or pretentious in other hands.

In the cavernous space of the National Concert Hall in Taipei, I worried that the ensemble would be somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the architecture, and that the audience might be small. On both counts, my fears were proven wrong. The hall filled rapidly with a large and enthusiastic audience, and the ensemble quickly took control of the stage and compelled attention by simply sounding terrific. Travis Hodgson’s lighting effectively transformed the gigantic space into something psychologically more intimate, with the performers lit only by narrow spotlights and the auditorium otherwise in complete darkness. A group of catholic nuns occupied the row in front of me—contemporary music fans? Or aunts and cousins of the convention organiser? I imagine them having a percussion ensemble in the convent and rehearsing Ionisation after Matins.

The concert opened with Thomas Meadowcroft’s Cradles (2013), a wonderful piece for two percussionists and Wurlitzer e-piano. The beautiful, chilled-out sound of the Wurlitzer (played by Leah Scholes) is the foundation for a work that contains a wealth of brilliant details. The two percussionists make use of a great raft of instruments, including finger cymbals, plastic castanets, Japanese toy drums, small shell chimes, medium shell chimes, a cluster of small Korean bells, and Chinese bells. The main work for the duo, however, is in playing the two reel-to-reel tape machines—pulling the unspooled tape by hand through the machines to create a complex and varied music of gurgles, rattles and chirps that is exhilarating and expressive, amusing and richly colourful. It’s as though Gregor Samsa (the post-rock band, not the character in Kafka’s story) were collaborating with 1950s Stockhausen, which is to say that Meadowcroft’s distinctive music is both intelligent and gorgeous. You can hear a recording of another performance of the work here.

Hypnagogics (2005), an 8-minute piece for a solo percussionist by Berlin-based Australian composer Anthony Pateras, is a richly rewarding, almost symphonically-textured work. This is surprising in some ways because the score calls for a carefully limited range of ultra-high pitched ‘micro instruments’—tiny little pits of wood, metal, skin, ceramic and glass—together with tinnitus (actually pre-recorded high-pitched electronics). This arresting palette of sounds becomes slowly more sinister as the music progresses, and then finally simply captivating. It is a clever and finely-crafted piece that rewards repeat listening. Matthew Shlomovitz spoke at Darmstadt in 2012 about the relation between musical material, and the engaged process of composing with, or investigating that material, proposing that ‘[o]ne way in which music might become critical is through investigating its own substance’. Pateras’ Hypnagogics would serve as a fine example of this notion in theory, except that the reality of the music is so much more than this. Eugene Ughetti, as the soloist, gave a brilliant and compelling performance. Have a listen here.

Matthew Shlomovitz’s four-movement suite Popular Contexts Volume 6 (2013), is a work for drum kit, vibraphone, midi keyboard and laptop (i.e. samples). It started very promisingly, rocking along happily. The nuns in front were tapping their feet and nodding appreciatively. And it continued more or less like that, for four inscrutably shapeless movements. It is fun music, and I really wanted to like it, but despite an excellent, energetic performance, something just doesn’t feel right. In another context, I might love it: it would be perfect music for a nightclub—a hip, glossy, fashion-magazine kind of bar, where you and I could sit in the corner and drink, watching the rich gangsters and the smart models. Or it might be a movie soundtrack–the scene set it in the same bar, overlooking the bay in Hong Kong, with John Travolta as a Russian oligarch who always wears dark glasses because he’s actually a vampire (you knew that, right?), drinking excellent, icy vodka to match his fine suit.

Like even the best movie soundtrack, however, this music is a bit long-winded and tedious in concert. It is stylish and cool (in a slightly irritating way at times), but ultimately insubstantial. As the piece wore on, the nuns withdrew into a more meditative state, perhaps saying some quiet rosaries or simply praying for it to stop. It would have sounded better if we were drunk. Get me a vodka.

The concert finished with a work titled simply b (2002) by young Danish composer Simon Løffler. Scored for three musicians, three neon lights, effect pedals and a loose jack cable, this might at first seem like a daft idea for a piece—but it sounded wonderful. The players knock out complex rhythms on the effect pedals while the loose jack cable. . . well, it does what loose jack cables do, crackling and humming, and the blinding neon lights flicker on and off in the darkened auditorium generating electro-magnetic interference (sometimes magnified by the performers grabbing hold of the lights and each other to make a direct-circuit contact). It is a thunderously exhilarating, dangerous piece, with a powerful theatrical element. In addition to the superficial thrills, on a deeper level the work is a superb critique (in the sense of compositional investigation) of some unlikely materials. The nuns were perched on the edge of their seats, eyebrows bristling with excitement and electro-static energy.

Alistair Noble

Speak Percussion are also performing:

7.30pm, 30 May 2014
Chiayi Performing Arts Center, Chiayi, Taiwan, R.O.C.

7.30pm, 31 May 2014
Performance Hall of Cultural Bureau, Hsinchu County, Taiwan, R.O.C.

2.30pm, 1 June 2014
Yuanlin Performance Hall, Changhua, Taiwan, R.O.C.



Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.