Category Archives: Uncategorized

Totally Huge New Music Festival: Johannes Sistermanns/Decibel, SPACE/PLI, 2015

Johannes Sistermanns performing NEW YORK sur_. Photo Brian Baley
Johannes Sistermanns performing NEW YORK sur_. Photo Brian Baley

I’m in Perth covering the Totally Huge New Music Festival and mentoring a bunch of great young writers. Our reviews will be appearing on the RealTime website over the next week. Check out my review of Johannes Sistermanns’ opening installation/performance with Western Australia’s premier new music ensemble Decibel here.

Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Nostalghia

Metropolis audiences enjoyed a week of chamber music before the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert of the festival. It was a pleasure to hear contemporary music writ large after becoming accustomed to the tight-knit intensity of chamber music. Under the baton of guest conductor André de Ridder, the orchestra takes diverse and stimulating approaches towards the festival’s theme of “music inspired by the moving image.” De Ridder has also taken the opportunity to introduce Australian audiences to the young composers represented by the Bedroom Community label. De Ridder even brought the cellist Oliver Coates—a Bedroom Community veteran—along for the ride.

Tōru Takemitsu, Nostalghia “in memory of Andrei Tarkovsky”

Rather than fill the programme with music composed for film, De Ridder explored circuitous routes between music and the moving image. The concert began with Tōru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia for solo violin and orchestra, which was written in memory of the Soviet and Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky’s film of the same name is about a writer who travels to Italy researching the life of a composer. Takemitsu’s piece is thus a composition about a film about a composer. I mentioned Tarkovsky in an earlier Metropolis review as a example of a film maker with a sophisticated understanding of unsettling cinematic effects. Tarkovsky develops tension through long, wide shots of indifferent and beautiful landscapes before introducing human characters in the foreground. A mysteriously teeming, elemental nature is always lurking behind human fickleness. I would call the atmosphere of films like The Sacrifice or Stalker a sort of claustrophibic agoraphobia. Takemitsu’s elegy for Tarkovsky is a perfect meeting of artistic styles, brilliantly brought to life by Sophie Rowell. In Takemitsu’s music, nature and the elements are also in the ascendant with swooping lines and ethereal bow effects. Rowell took the audience through Takemitsu’s other-worldly musical space with the utmost conviction.

Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene

Schoenberg composed his Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene in 1929 on the invitation of Heinrichshofen Verlag, a publishing house specialising in silent film scores. Fritz Lang had recently released his chilling image of the future in the silent film Metropolis. The Great Depression and the rise of Nazism in the Weimar Republic provided their own, terrifyingly real images of the future. It is only fitting, then, that instead of composing music for a particular scene, Schoenberg used his twelve-tone technique to express “threat, danger and catastrophe” more generally. The piece is today an interesting historical record of frightening effects in music. In Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene the language of fear is still pinned to the outer reaches of the circle of fifths and in evocative gestures like scurrying, swarming strings. The timbral effects of Penderecki (whose work Polymorphia appears in Saturday’s programme) have since come to dominate the language of horror-film scores. The MSO made the most of Schoenberg’s evocative language, bringing out each vignette of the piece. Perhaps there is still more horror-music to be written with tone rows. I was scared.

Harry Sdraulig, Kaleidoscope (Cybec finalist)

Every MSO concert of the Metropolis festival includes a piece by one of the finalists of the Cybec Foundation’s 21st Century Australian Composers Program. The program gives young composers the valuable opportunity to workshop their compositions with players from the orchestra. Three pieces are then chosen for presentation at the Metropolis festival, providing the even more valuable opportunity of refining their compositions. Harry Sdraulig’s Kaleidoscope was chosen as the first Cybec piece of the festival. Sdraulig was able to develop the piece with guidance from the composers Julian Yu and Brenton Broadstock. In a short interview with De Ridder, Sdraulig explained that he wanted to make the most of the timbre of each instrument in the orchestra. Like the coloured crystals of a kaleidoscope, each instrumental colour shines through the rich orchestral texture. Sharp attacks from the keyboard percussion punctuate winding, Stravinskian woodwind lines and driving string-section rhythms.

Nico Muhly, Cello Concerto

Nico Muhly and Daníel Bjarnason form part of the Bedroom Community label, a close-knit group of composers based in Reykjavík including Australia’s own Ben Frost. Muhly’s use of diatonic harmony and repetition show the influence of his long-term mentor Philip Glass. He has worked closely with a number of pop artists, notably Björk, whose free and idiosyncratic use of voice and electronics can also be heard in some of Muhly’s compositions. Muhly’s orchestral works break free from the strict rhythmic counterpoint of Glass and paint a more complex, immersive sound world. Muhly divides stuttering, fragmented rhythmic material between distinct instrumental timbres. He is, however, intent on keeping his musical language easy on the ears. Without the continuity and counterpoint of earlier minimalist works, Muhly’s voices are snapped to a harmonic and metrical grid. This is especially the case in Muhly’s Cello Concerto, which opens with successive shocks of percussion underneath a searching cello line. This texture is consciously borrowed from the beginning of Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles. Unlike Dutilleux’s more ambiguous and threatening opening chords, each of Muhly’s percussive chords is a brick supporting the flowing crescendi and decrescendi of the melody. Cellist Oliver Coates (for whom the Cello Concerto was written) gave a febrile performance of the piece, with lush string crossings, double stops and tremoli.

Daníel Bjarnason, Blow Bright

While minimalist influences still permeate Bjarnason’s work, his orchestral composition Blow Bright presents a more menacing side of the Bedroom Community sound. Bjarnason’s piece is inspired by the “brightness and energy” of the Pacific Ocean, though this is an energy that evidently runs into dark and foreboding depths. Slapping Bartok pizzicati jump out from the cellos and basses while the percussion drives the piece forward with insistent cross-rhythms. Bjarnason contrasts full, saturated orchestral textures with stripped-back rhythmic figures.

These contrasts made me consider the dramatic role of dynamics in relation to the festival’s sub-theme of suspense and horror. Loud and sudden sounds will always surprise us. At 2013’s Totally Huge New Music Festival I discussed David Toop’s very effective practice of betraying the audience with loud shocks after lulling them into a false sense of security. The juxtaposition of loud and soft orchestral textures, appearing in baroque terraced dynamics, probably hasn’t had the same emotional effect on audiences since the advent of electrical amplification. All the more reason to investigate the subtle art of freaking people out with tones.

In terms of audience numbers, Metropolis appears to be having its most successful year yet. The combination of film as a theme and works by minimalist composers may be responsible for this. It is to De Ridder’s credit that he has explored the festival’s theme through a variety of stimulating avenues.

Nostalghia
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2015

Tōru Takemitsu, Nostalghia; Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene; Harry Sdraulig, Kaleidoscope; Nico Muhly, Cello Concerto; Daníel Bjarnason, Blow Bright.

Sydney Chamber Opera: Fly Away Peter

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.
Mitchell Riley, Brenton Spiteri and Jessica Aszodi. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

Review by Alistair Noble

A Triumph for Contemporary Opera

Elliott Gyger’s masterful opera, given a polished and committed première performance by Sydney Chamber Opera this week, is surely one of the major musical events of the year. It takes on even greater significance in the context of the ever-more conservative, fearful programming of the major musical institutions in Australia such as Opera Australia. This is not the place to rehash the recent public debates about the value or nature of contemporary opera but it is necessary to acknowledge that Gyger’s work serves as a perfect rebuttal of the foolish arguments put forward by those who think opera should be no more modern than Puccini, or no more radical than a Broadway musical. One can only hope that the prime-movers of such regressive notions have the courage to attend Fly Away Peter. If they did, they might well learn something from the experience.

During the past few days, we have seen the opera gain an exceptional degree of critical attention and acclaim in the mainstream media, reflecting not only the inherent qualities of the work and of the performance, but also the sense that the full-house audiences were in the presence of something powerful, significant, and above all beautiful. Contemporary opera is alive and successful in Australia, but it’s not in the Opera House. Perhaps that is a good thing. Poetic, provocative, beautiful, and haunting, Fly Away Peter is work that surely must have a strong future. There have already been calls for this production to tour, and I have no doubt that other companies will be keen to stage it in future years.

Cashing in on the ANZAC centenary juggernaut, the publicity for Fly Away Peter gave the impression of this being a war-themed opera. I must admit to some initial scepticism about the work for this very reason and if one did take the marketing hooks as the basis for interpretation it would be deeply problematic. Viewed as a simple war opera, it would be hard to justify such a poetic treatment, which flies dangerously close to romanticising death and destruction. As Adorno famously wrote in 1951, »nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch«, and surely one could argue much the same for the appallingly stupid horrors of WW1—and yet we keep at it. Fortunately, Fly Away Peter is not really a war opera, and perhaps only tangentially concerned with the war at all—in this way arguably similar to Malouf’s original book. To my relief, I found that the opera soars above and beyond the limitation of war-commemoration and is much concerned with larger issues of genuine human concerns about the nature of our meaningfulness in the world. In this sense, it is a work of incisive contemporary relevance and not at all a historical drama.

The Libretto

David Malouf’s novella Fly Away Peter (1982) is justly renowned for the lyrical poeticism of its descriptive writing. Malouf sings his landscapes and characters lovingly to life with words that convey much more than is written, opening spaces for imagination and wonder. Dramatically, it presented some challenges to the librettist, in so far as there is not a great deal of direct dialogue and indeed not a great deal of plot—some of the key ‘action’ takes place off set, or off the page, and what remains serves more as material for contemplation than drama. Pierce Wilcox has done a very artful job of creating the libretto for the opera, and his text serves as the structuring vehicle for both Gyger’s music and the dreamlike world of Imara Savage’s staging.

Staging

The cavernous industrial space of the Carriageworks theatre works very well for the set designed by Elizabeth Gadsby—an assymetrical pyramid of giant steps washed over with white clay. This set, like many aspects of the work, is only simple at first glance. As the piece unfolds we find that the production is elegantly minimalist, with a well thought-out function and poetry that goes far beyond the merely minimal. The only props are simple blue buckets, laid out across the steps in different ways at different times, and containing the white clay that gradually ends up smeared over characters clothes and bodies. There is a nuanced ambiguity in this, as one wonders whether the humans are growing out of the mud, or dissolving into it.

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.
Brenton Spiteri. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

I particularly enjoyed Verity Hampson’s lighting of this production, which uses angled side-lights to play with the singers’ shadows on the huge expanses of concrete wall at Carriageworks. This contributed strongly to the dreamlike, poetic nature of the work as one’s eye was drawn back and forth between the bodies of the singers on the set and their giant, puppet-like figures moving across the walls. As the opera progressed, this created a magical sense of a multi-layered drama in which certain aspects are played out on the ground and embodied, while others are metaphysically projected into other realms of being or consciousness.

The Ensemble

The singing cast of Mitchell Riley, Brenton Spiteri and Jessica Aszodi have a considerable burden to carry as the only characters on stage for the 80-minute uninterrupted play. The success of this present production is certainly due in large part not just to their individual abilities but their strength as a remarkably unified ensemble. Their actual characters are not fixed, as they fluidly shift from their main parts to speak for others at different times, and to sometimes voice more abstractedly reflective or poetic words—and even birdsongs.

It is clear that Gyger composed for these particular voices, making careful use of their individual abilities and strengths. Spiteri has a beautiful, effortless tenor voice that is wonderfully consistent in tone across its range and brings a refined lyricism to his main character of the wealthy landowner Ashley Crowther. Riley’s voice is in some ways more complex, with gear-shifts that complement the youthful athleticism and foal-like awkwardness of his character Jim Saddler, a working man and passionate bird-fancier. In the final, transfigurative scene of the opera, Gyger makes a sensational use of Riley’s powerful falsetto. Jessica Aszodi’s part as the middle-aged photographer Imogen Harcourt is also judiciously composed to use her distinctive and always well-controlled voice to great effect. She has a challenging role to play in some respects, as her character is sometimes part of the main action, sometimes drifting to one side as a kind of chorus, and at other times chatting with the two soldiers (Jim and Ashley) far away on the Western Front, as all three meet in world of the mind that is the centre of gravity of the opera. Her strong lower register proves useful, as her vocal line at times sits within the same space as the male voices; on a musical level as well as a dramatic one she can move in and out of the men’s world.

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley
Jessica Aszodi. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley

Supporting and embracing the theatrical core of the vocal parts, the instrumental ensemble directed by Jack Symonds is very strong and colourful. There is terrific playing from all seven members of the group (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion), while violinist James Wannan and percussionist Alison Pratt both play key roles with flair and sensitivity.

The Music

Gyger’s music is always skilful, cleverly designed, poetic and elegant. All these characteristics serve to bring out the subtleties of Fly Away Peter’s libretto and, perhaps more importantly, provide the background energy and structure that carries the play forward with a compelling momentum. The overall musical cohesion of the piece is a tremendous feat—it successfully feels like one great sweep of music and theatre rather than a succession of set-pieces and scenes. This is achieved partly by the use of a carefully planned set of harmonic structures, in which chords and (by extrapolation) melodic lines relate to each other by vertical symmetry—an analogue for the air and earth relations that are fundamental to the text.

These particular harmonies, and the way in which they are used for much of the work, enable the creation of music that has a lovely, radiant transparency. This is the source, I feel, of the beautiful dreamlike character of the opera overall, that is sympathetically translated to set, staging and lighting by the production team. At the point of the play where the two young men are translated to the war-zone, the chord materials are re-organised to be more dense, with the harmonic shift being heralded by a skilfully phrased drum solo that grows out of the sound of an aircraft engine. Later sections of the opera seem to move between these two sound-worlds, of the radiantly spacious on one hand and the more claustrophobic, entrapped on the other.

Although the instrumental septet is a conscious replica of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale ensemble (1918), there is little other reference to Stravinsky’s work—except perhaps obliquely in the magnificent jazz-age rhythms that drive the aircraft/war section of the opera. Gyger uses the small ensemble in such a colourful way that one cannot help thinking that the large orchestras of conventional symphonically-oriented opera are a little redundant. From the intimacy of brief solos to the massed sound of the full ensemble, a universe of sound is encompassed. The use of muted brass and bowed percussion add another layer of affective colours.

With the ornithological focus of the story, it was inevitable that the composer must consider the use of birdsong in the music. Gyger has made skilful use of transcribed birdsongs in some sections of the opera—more in the manner of Messiaen than of Sculthorpe, in so far as the songs are not simple effects but integrated with the musical materials in interesting and powerful ways, moving across registers and woven through the harmonies. In a very interesting recent article, Gyger has noted that this use of birdsong has introduced two new kinds of material to his work: glissandos, and microtones.[1] This is, I feel, very significant. At the age of 46, Gyger has given us his first opera—and at the same time the project has changed his music. To some extent this illustrates how important it can be for composers to have opportunities such as this, to collaborate with writers and dramatists, and in the process to inspire us also to reinvent our worlds.

The Message

Opera is an inherently strange artistic medium—it is by nature contrived, an extremity of artifice. How could this possibly be made relevant to us as Australians in the 21st century? In this, one senses the significance of the broader achievement of Fly Away Peter: Gygyer has demonstrated that it is possible to write theatrical vocal music that is singable without being simple, that is expressive without being cheesy or melodramatic, that invites us to suspend disbelief and enter the world of imagination that is opera itself. Rather than being stuffy and elitist, this is a universe where each of us hears to some extent our own voices, and where we observe ourselves acting out the drama of human existence.

How, the character of Jim asks, can we as fragile individuals stand against such a leviathan as war? He has a vision of a future in which people are herded into cattle-trucks… and he is not only speaking of the holocaust but warning us of our own loss of freedom, of the ways in which we too are herded. The things Jim understands, his natural abilities, seem worthless in this world.

Fly Away Peter is an opera about ordinary people being caught up in the great meat-grinder of history. It is about powerlessness. It reminds us that the things we love and understand (symbolised by birds and seedling plants) have no value in the economy of politics and war (wars, after all, are not started by armies but by politicians). Similarly, human life and the natural environment we inhabit seem to have all value leached away, dissolved into the barren mud. And yet, after the tide of inhuman ‘great event’ has turned, these simple, individual activities and delights revive. The war recedes into the form of a near-meaningless nightmare, while ghosts dreaming of birds on the estuary at home in Queensland become ever more meaningful and real.

To some extent, Fly Away Peter strikes me as a manifesto of very current relevance: to what sinister machineries of state/nation/ideology/economy are we (unwittingly) serving as the cannon-fodder? To what limited extent is there scope for resistance? What are the dreams and loves that we would cling to, that bring beauty and meaningfulness to our brief lives, and form our only true legacy?

– Alistair Noble

Fly Away Peter
Music by Elliott Gyger
Libretto by Pierce Wilcox from the novella by David Malouf
Sydney Chamber Opera
Carriageworks 2-9 May 2015

[1] http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/insight-fly-away-peter

Metropolis: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Ben Walsh and The Orkestra of the Underground perform The Arrival. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ben Walsh and The Orkestra of the Underground perform The Arrival. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground’s score to The Arrival is a timely exercise in empathy. Shaun Tan published his picture book in 2006, five years into the “new normal” of Australian immigration policy. Since the Tampa crisis of 2001, both major Australian political parties have sought to outdo each other in the cruelty with which they treat asylum seekers arriving by boat. It is debatable whether this cruelty, including indefinite detention in deplorable conditions, is coherent with or the best way of achieving their most common justification: stopping deaths at sea. With the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez recently finding that aspects of Australia’s immigration policy violated the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, now is the perfect time to reconsider the place of “the arrival” in the Australian imagination. Instead of demonising them as “illegals” or “queue jumpers,” The Arrival paints those seeking a better life in a new country as resilient and grateful members of the community.

The Arrival is remarkable for its unpolemical yet highly emotional depiction of immigration, the result of Tan’s extensive research into the migrant experience. Throughout the thousand-or-so images of the wordless picture book, one follows a father as he leaves his family in a town menaced by some unnamed evil. He arrives in a strange new land, finding accommodation and work thanks to small acts of kindness from others with their own stories of persecution and war. He is finally reunited with his family in the new land. In a touching final scene, his daughter gives directions to another new arrival. In Walsh’s production, stills from the picture book are projected behind the band in glorious detail, with minimal panning to give the scenes a greater sense of movement.

It is a shame that Tan does not write more, as he is one of the most beautifully-expressed individuals I have had the pleasure of hearing and reading. At the beginning of the concert, Walsh read a letter from Tan explaining that the last thing anyone who has written a book or a PhD wants is to see their work projected on a screen. However, seeing and hearing Walsh’s musical accompaniment to the book brought him back to its inspiration: The stories of migrants who leave everything behind to form a new life, granting hope and insight to us who take peace and security for granted. He concludes, “We are all the children of migrants.”

It is notable, however, that the sympathetic characters in The Arrival all seem to share their own personal stories of migration. Are people for whom the memory of fear and flight has faded a lost cause? Absent, too, is the xenophobia so many migrants experience upon arrival in a new country. Tan may have held some hope in 2006 that a Labor government would try a different tack on immigration. After ten more years of the new normal, I wonder whether Tan would draw the book differently today.

The reader is able to empathise with the protragonist of The Arrival because he leaves a world that would be relatively familiar to any reader. The protagonist’s fashion and surroundings are roughly Eastern European. The Orkestra of the Underground mirror the protagonist in white shirts and waistcoats. They reflect his implied nationality with an energetic Balkan brass band sound augmented with the percussion of Walsh, Gregory Sheehan, and the seamlessly-integrated tabla of Tarlochan Kandola. The Orkestra of the Underground is a band of extremely talented musicians and each player is given a truly awe-inspiring solo.

The protagonist arrives by boat in a new city that is utterly foreign. The clothing, animals and language that Tan creates for the city resemble those of no culture in existence. From that point on, the reader has no more purchase in the world than the protagonist as he learns to navigate the city and understand the local food and language. It was evident (after hearing a few days of weird and wonderful musical worlds at the Metropolis New Music Festival) that the music of The Arrival does not change with the protagonist’s surroundings. Instead of confronting the listener with a completely alien musical world when the protagonist arrives in the new city, Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground continue to paint the dramatic arc of the work in the dance-rhythms of his homeland. To be fair, an hour of hardcore avant-garde music might not have the desired cathartic effect, but I was left wondering what Tan’s strange new world might have sounded like.

The ensemble provided compelling incidental music to accompany the story, sliding seamlessly between “exogenous” musical accompaniment and painting “endogenous” sounds from the images. A roll on the tabla becomes the running feet of soldiers, a tuba makes a very convincing foghorn and a heavy bow on the double bass sounds like creaking wooden planks. Perhaps most striking is the moment where the protagonist encounters a curling black tail like those menacing his hometown. The ensemble stops in its tracks as the traumatic trigger floors the protagonist. The Arrival has had a long run, enjoying sold-out shows around Australia. I only hope that more people have the chance to see this beautiful and important work.

The Arrival
Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground
Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Recital Centre
6 May 2015

Syzygy Ensemble: Brunswick Beethoven Festival

A piano chord questions the air. A high, fragile melody responds from the cello. The cello tune is less alien than the stone-hard chord, almost speech-like as it rises and falls. The cellist, Blair Harris, has his bow right up on the fingerboard of the instrument, making a thin tone like somebody singing far away. The violin, clarinet and flute join in with a kaleidoscope of contrasting timbres. The violinist (Jenny Khafagi) and cellist lean together in vibrating, fleeting harmony. A tone like brushed steel emerges from the clarinet (Robin Henry) and flute (Laila Engle). The sonic pairings of wood and steel disintegrate in a flutter of trills. By taking the concentrated tone of the solo cello as a starting point and then introducing an array of contrasting sounds, Kerry opens out a timbral space with palpable depth. The piano part (performed by Leigh Harrold) prods the sonic perimeter, both a part of it and apart from it. The piece is Gordon Kerry’s Making Signs, my most exciting concert experience of the year so far (though it is a little early to start making claims like that). Syzygy Ensemble recently performed the piece for the second time at the Brunswick Uniting Church among a programme of works by Roger Smalley, Annie Hsieh, Luke Hutton and Brett Dean. The five members of Syzygy have honed Making Signs so carefully that the texture is thick with edges and layers, each sound delineated from its neighbours like grains of sand under a microscope. What a perfect piece for an ensemble whose name implies an alignment or union of distinct elements not through synthesis, but through Frankenstein-style juxtapositions and superpositions.

Making Signs was originally commissioned by Julian Burnside for Syzygy’s “Grammar” concert, one of a series exploring the three disciplines of the medieval trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Kerry, now pushing into his fifties, has had plenty of time to think about musical grammar. He was born into the generation that reacted against Darmstadt-style musical modernism as it was taught in Australia well into the 1980s. Indeed, the piano chords at the beginning of Making Signs are from Winter Through Glass, a serialist piece from 1980 that Kerry calls his first “grown-up” composition. As the years passed, many of his contemporaries retreated into a hazy Australiana, nostalgically painting the landscape with the post-impressionist techniques of this time last century. Kerry kept his teeth, which are bared to the gums in Making Signs, at least for a little while. As the piece progresses, the audience becomes aware that they are no longer hearing a timbral kaleidoscope, but a sort of tonal grammar.

Like watching a minute hand move on a clock, one is unsure of exactly when the coupling and uncoupling of instrumental timbres takes a back seat to harmony. With the benefit of a score one can see the clear juxtaposition—indeed the syzygy—of episodes based on clear horizontal lines on the one hand and gestural effects on the other. The experience in the concert hall is more gradual, like a theme in a poem dawning on you after several readings. Once you notice it, you see how it permeates the entire structure of the work. Except for the serial piano chords, Making Signs is based on a bespoke mode not unlike those used by the composer Olivier Messiaen. Some conventional tonal chords can be carved out of Kerry’s mode and the instruments make their way through it in a style resembling traditional counterpoint. Kerry’s use of the mode is evidence that he is not immune from the reactive pathos of his generation. The piece ends with the entire ensemble see-sawing, running and leaping across the mode in a way that would not be out of place at the end of a blockbuster Christmas film. They roughly outline an F# Minor chord that resolves dutifully to a G chord, albeit tinged with augmented uncertainty and a nice raised seventh. Despite some kitsch moments, the mode gives an especially vibrant quality to the timbral kaleidoscope of the opening. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most important aspect of this jagged introduction. The piece achieves a strange alchemy by creating a continuum between two qualitatively different ways of making signs: through instrumental timbre and through harmony. And yet, both ways of making signs seem to “work” equally (even if I would argue that the first works “more” than the second).

All of the works on Syzygy’s programme were well chosen for their rhetorical power. Hsieh’s clarinet, piano, violin and cello quartet Towards the Beginning is probably the most programmatically ambitious, attempting to tell a story of cosmic birth, life, catastrophe and death. A expectant cloud of harmonics and trills coalesces into searching lines. A thunderous piano climax gives way to chaotic multiphonics and tremoli. At the end of the piece, the piano creeps back in, cowed and conciliatory. The piece was composed in 2010, before Hsieh moved away for further study. While I was not thrilled to hear another primordial soup piece, Towards the Beginning showcases Hsieh’s gift for instrumental writing. From the cosmic to the painfully individual, Luke Hutton’s Fregoli Delusion explores the disorder of the same name where one identifies multiple people as the same person. The piece is perfect for Engle’s highly characterised flute playing. In contrast to her recent performances of Jennifer Higdon’s athletic flute solo Rapid Fire, the flute of Fregoli Delusion is somewhat sombre, creeping along suspiciously and starting with skittish paranoia. Syzygy brought out the character in Smalley’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. The opening, I am led to believe it is called “Blooded room,” features leaping rhythmic counterpoint that is inexplicably humorous. The ensemble also brought out the expansive second section and the piece’s absolutely thrilling climax where each instrument comes into its own. Brett Dean’s Old Kings in Exile, the audience was told, rewards multiple listenings. Having heard Syzygy perform the piece twice now, I have learnt to appreciate the mysterious first movement, “Night Music,” with its groaning drum skins and long, winding flute lines. The “Double Trio,” a reference to Carter’s Triple Duo, is a scintillating battle of trills. I wonder whether the piece lacks immediacy. The music never seems to leave a foreground-background frame like a marionette theatre with “incidental” percussion effects and obvious points of focus. I will have to hear it again.

Syzygy Ensemble
Brunswick Beethoven Festival
Brunswick Uniting Church
18 February 2015
Gordon Kerry, Making Signs; Roger Smalley, Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano; Annie Hsieh, Towards the Beginning; Luke Hutton, Fregoli Delusion; Brett Dean, Old Kings in Exile.

I discuss Gordon Kerry’s Making Signs further in the upcoming first issue of the contemporary art magazine Fine Print.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive

Earth Dances. Cover by Peter Long. Courtesy of Black Inc.
Earth Dances. Cover by Peter Long. Courtesy of Black Inc.

Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive
Andrew Ford
Black Inc.

Andrew Ford’s Earth Dances explores the ways in which musicians from diverse genres and backgrounds have sought to “rough up” their music. Sometimes the most simple premises are the most interesting, as Ford’s wide-eyed incursions into rock, pop, classical and contemporary art music show. Ford interleaves fascinating interviews with contemporary composers with his own essays on the body, percussion, the voice, drones and childhood.

Ford works every canonical composition you could reasonably expect into the book. The Rite of Spring gets its obligatory half a chapter, though Ford goes beyond merely discussing Stravinsky’s “sophisticated aping of violence.” Ford is more interested in the difficulties this violence posed for an early twentieth-century ballet. He discusses Stravinsky’s dissatisfaction with its ending and the work’s adherence to a balanced form that recognises the diminishing returns of extreme dynamics.

As well as canonical works, the book is brimming with idiosyncratic references that bring out Ford’s personal tastes. Earth Dances opens with the example of Elliott Carter’s A Symphony of Three Orchestras, where Carter appears to sabotage the refinement of his own work with a brutal orchestral meltdown. This example brought to mind another case of musical self-sabotage, the beginning of the Rautavaara Harp Concerto, where the giant orchestral boot crushes the fledgling opening theme several times with exceptional cruelty. Some days you have to skip it. At the opposite end of the classical-popular divide Ford discusses the appeal of anti-folk singer Daniel Johnston, as well as Robert Davidson’s viral setting of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech Not Now, Not Ever. The book’s great strength is Ford’s dexterity in jumping from example to example, which inspires the reader to situate their own musical world between intellectual and corporeal poles.

The interviews with Richard Barrett, Martin Bresnick, Karin Rehnqvist, Liza Lim, Pauline Oliveiros and Brian Eno  present valuable variations on the book’s theme. Barrett compares his found musical materials to Andy Goldworthy’s land art. Martin Bresnick describes his Opere della musica povera, which are materially basic but not musically poor. Rehnqvist discusses her connection to Swedish herding calls, which she discovered during her conservatorium training. Lim raises the politics of the fetish of traditional musics. She recognises that

‘tradition’ quite often has a past that’s in collusion with slavery, genocide, colonialism and so on. The romance of nationalism often denies the ugly parts of history but, more worryingly, turns a blind eye to how that past continues to reach out and affect the present and shape continuing conditions of power. Cultural matters are intimately political! (146)

I like this term, “intimately” political where many would reach for “inherently” or “fundamentally,” implying an interactive duality between musical and political interests. Pauline Oliveiros discusses the practice of “deep listening” and Brian Eno recounts the adventure of American minimalism’s response to European modernism.

The book’s all-encompassing theme threatens to be its most unsatisfying feature. Earth Dances contains as many examples of musicians see-sawing between intellectual and corporeal modes of composition as it does explanations of why they do it. According to Ford, a composer may rough-up their music to serve a dramatic imperative, to serve humanist or nationalist ideologies, to shock or to reinvent their practice. One important reason is left out: to make a buck. While Ford acknowledges that the corporeal, “primitive” musical pole exists between quotation marks, defined through its contrast with Western ideals of refinement and civilisation, there is no real discussion (outside of Lim’s remarks) of issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation, of the refinement in the “primitive” and so on. To be fair, many have written that book before and I am just as interested in the formal yo-yo of music history as the West’s bloody-minded fascination with its Others. All the same, Ford could have acknowledged the thorny political issues that arise when, for instance, Paul Simon sells a bazillion copies of an album featuring recordings of black musicians in Johannesburg made under anti-apartheid sanctions.

Ford could also have made more of the contradictions between different forms of the corporeal aesthetic pole. As Bresnick’s musica povera shows, simple does not necessarily equal rough. Is American minimalism a simplification, refinement or a roughing-up of a previous aesthetic? Ford frequently returns to the idea one veers toward the “primitive” pole to make way for renewal. If so, then has minimalism led to formal recomplexification, or is it a musical apotheosis? I like to imagine a four-phase cycle with the destruction of a “rough” aesthetic making way for simplicity, from which a new phase of construction begins leading to complexity, but can such a cycle really be found in anybody’s practice?

Ford bookends Earth Dances by associating his intellectual/corporeal divide with the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ book The Raw and the Cooked. In one sense, this is entirely correct. Structuralism’s gift to musicology has been the idea that music resembles and indeed interprets myth through contrasting and interconnected themes. On the other hand, The Raw and the Cooked presents precisely the opposite theory of musical development to Ford’s yo-yo. In an extended criticism of serialism and musique concrète in the book’s “Overture,” Lévi-Strauss compares music to a language because they are both based on shared, limited sets of elements. Just as all English speakers recognise the same few phonemes, we all recognise the same set of pitches related by the hierarchy of overtones. His idea was torn to shreds by successive generations of composers, critics and musicologists. The diversity of temperaments and scales around the world is enough to refute his claim, let alone the genuinely communicative and thrilling experiments of modern music that readers of this blog will be familiar with. Lévi-Strauss admitted that he didn’t like or understand the music of the cultures that he himself studied. But to Lévi-Strauss the “harmonic grid of selection” is immutable and irreplaceable. He did not believe that any amount of roughing up could make way for a new one. This is evidently a live issue, because Ford’s book came out around the same time François Mitterand’s ex-economics adviser and some-time conductor Jacques Attali used Lévi-Strauss’ idea of the harmonic grid to call atonality “musical terrorism” (and this from the author of Noise, a book that crassly equates Western art music’s formal history with the economic stages of historical materialism). It is obscene to compare musical violence to the actual taking of lives (see the interrelated but distinct political and musical priorities above). But Attali raises a valid question: Does musical destruction merely peck around the edges of musical norms, or is it a genuine step in the process of musical innovation?

Ionisation: Speak Percussion, Kroumata and ANAM musicians

Seeing Speak Percussion take the stage with Sweden’s Kroumata was like seeing the young Australian ensemble face-off with an older, alternate-universe version of themselves. Both ensembles have made their names pioneering works for percussion ensemble with an intensely focussed and physical flair. Both ensembles have also been important in commissioning repertoire by composers from their home countries. The virtuosic students of the Australian National Academy of Music augmented this formidable force to present a programme of overwhelming sonic power. Much of the appeal of percussion music is its sheer volume and ability to saturate a space with sound. It was therefore encouraging to hear a nuanced programme exhibiting the ensemble’s wide range of possible effects.

Sven-David Sandström’s Drums is a shameless example of the former. It is a festival piece, a show-stopper, a blistering demonstration of strength and stamina. I can imagine it launching a car. If that is not enough, then it has a programme! A leader unites a chaotic mob. Once everybody is in lock-step, the leader proceeds to destroy everything. The piece reflects its age, or at least appealed to it, as the piece has been performed more than 200 times. It was was composed in 1980, when there were many more dictators starving and killing their own people than now. Today we know that chaos is also a utopic vision with its own devastating consequences.

It is interesting to note that younger composers rarely try to represent chaos as such, even if only for musical rather than political reasons. Modern ears are always ready to hear the largest possible envelope, and a chaotic field will always sound like one ordered texture among others. There is a push instead towards minimal differences. The world première of Bent Sørensen’s Silence was an excellent example of this approach. The four-movement work explores different ways of barely breaking a silence, including hand-rubbing, rubbing sand blocks, clapping, humming and whistling. The piece seems to say “if you are going to break the silence, you’d better have a good reason.” The textures (when they build), such as sparse clapping and bowed marimbas, have something coded and ceremonious about them. Did anyone else notice that the piece includes the same hand-rubbing pattern as used in the Melbourne-based vocal ensemble Invenio’s song Your Horizon?

Australia was represented by two mainstays of Speak’s repertoire (when they can get a large enough ensemble together!), Anthony Pateras’ Flesh and Ghost and Liza Lim’s City of Falling Angels. City of Falling Angels makes use tremoli across various wooden percussion instruments. It sounds of bones. Rattling rutes and skin drums raise the hair on the back of your neck. It is a dry, forbidding piece. Pateras’ Flesh and Ghost also delights in dry and cutting sounds. This time, cymbal crescendi die away to reveal beds of metallic tinkling. This gesture is then explored in various striking orchestral combinations. I can’t think of a living Australian composer with the same sense for tone-colour as Pateras. Formally it is a one-idea work of the “more time to find something that works” type, such as were discussed in Bendigo a couple of months ago.

Ionisation
Speak Percussion, Kroumata and ANAM musicians
Eugene Ughetti, conductor
South Melbourne Town Hall
19 September, 2014
Edgard Varése, Ionisation
Liza Lim, City of Falling Angels
Sven-David Sandström, Drums
Bent Sørensen, Silence
Anthony Pateras, Flesh & Ghost

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.