2016BIFEM: ELISION, How Forests Think

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Wu Wei plays sheng with ELISION, How Forests Think, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

What do free jazz and South American rainforests have in common? Very little, other than being respective inspirations for Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim’s latest world premieres. Joined by international guests Peter Evans and Wu Wei, ELISION ensemble takes to the stage once again to present an extraordinary concert of two radically different works.

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries

In The Wreck of Former Boundaries, Aaron Cassidy is heavily influenced by American multi-instrumentalist, composer and innovator of the free jazz movement, Ornette Coleman. As the composer generously shared in a post-concert chat, his piece is analogous to a work for large jazz combo. Some of the seven segments that make up the work existed prior to its completion, entwining here to deliver an array of innovative, contrasting and often discordant subsections. These modular units are delivered, said Cassidy, much in the vein of Coleman’s inventive 1971 album Science Fiction.

One of the pre-existing works provides material for an opening solo performed by double bassist Joan Wright. The unassuming ELISION veteran is powerful and hypnotic in her realisation of hyper-masculine extended techniques such as striking and grinding the bow on the strings. Trumpeter Tristram Williams joins the incidental bass with soft, squeaky interjections that play out like a musical dialogue between a clumsy elephant and an anxious mouse.

It doesn’t take long for the ensemble to begin pushing ‘former boundaries’ of accepted volume. Enter sound engineer James Atkins, accompanied by a cacophony of extended techniques from the acoustic instruments. Spacey electronics reverberate powerfully around the auditorium while screaming and wailing from the clarinet and alto saxophone becomes almost intolerable for audience members and instrumentalists alike (you know it’s loud when the trumpet players cover their ears).

A sudden spell of conducting from the trumpet section leads in to the work’s next exciting instalment: improvisatory passages from BIFEM guest artist and international trumpet royalty, Peter Evans taking the piccolo trumpet to virtuosic extremes. Appointed with the difficult task of relaying live performance cues to the sound engineer, the composer uses a microphone to apply gradual distortion to the timbre. Following an exhilarating moment of solo electronics–which felt like being inside a crashing spaceship—members of ELISION physically stand back to give way to Evans in an extended experimental passage. Solid foundations in jazz and improvisation are self-evident in his expert navigation around the microphone. Initially standing tall to enjoy the instrument’s natural resonance, Evans repeatedly leans in and away from the microphone, exploring the evolving distortions Cassidy and Atkins place upon his sound. A structurally climactic point of the work sees him place the bell of the piccolo trumpet against the microphone, surrendering the instrument’s acoustic capacity. Warped sounds of churning air and clunking valves now become part of a disconcerting atmospheric sound, like being trapped in the belly of a monster.

Daryl Buckley’s electric lap-steel guitar solo is another exciting feature of The Wreck of Former Boundaries. In a real rockstar moment, Buckley relishes the thrill of the sound, once more challenging the audiences’ tolerance for high volume with visceral pitch bends and ringing chords. A concluding solo in the multichannel electronics leaves a similar impact; several performers can be seen smiling at the audience’s shock and uncertainty as to whether this electrifying, action-packed work has truly come to a close.

While The Wreck of Former Boundaries is an extremely effective collaboration of performers and styles, Aaron Cassidy’s only concern about its future is that it relies heavily on certain performers. At the very front of the stage and in the foundation of the work is an inimitable creative partnership between Peter Evans and Tristram Williams. Such an adrenaline-charged premiere makes it almost impossible to imagine the work played by anyone else.

Liza Lim, How Forests Think

In the second half of the program, ELISION ensemble expands to its full membership for the world premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. Completed in Brazil and inspired by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s book of the same title (University of California Press, 2013 http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520276116), the work explores the relationship between trees within a forest by extending the breath and sound identity of the instruments. In the opening bars, pensive saxophone and rainmaker lay the foundations for a dense, interplaying and evocative sound world.

Lim has fashioned a highly distinctive instrumental texture in How Forests Think with the addition of a sheng to the ensemble. In an intermission interview with Matthew Lorenzon, the composer explains how the traditional Chinese instrument comprises 37 vertical pipes and can be played by both blowing and inhaling. With such a wide range of pitches and tone qualities at his disposal, sheng virtuoso Wu Wei is able to match and bring out nuances in timbre of various instruments in the ensemble. There are countless moments where he effortlessly blends both chords and single notes with low notes from the bass flute, the top register of the oboe and even, at times, with percussion. These criss-crossing timbral interactions peak towards the end of the piece when Wei beautifully mimics a poignant duet between cor anglais and cello.

Wei also theatrically delivers a brief, untranslated text which is followed by percussive grunts and unpredictable rushes of breath from the wind instrumentalists. In these mesmerising passages, the audience senses the heightened awareness and responsiveness to ensemble breathing that Lim’s writing demands from the musicians. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde is exquisite in his control of sound, which consistently balances with the assemblage of high wind instruments. Similarly breathtaking is Paula Rae’s almost inaudible delivery of a tender flute melody, played eerily behind powerful throat singing by the multitalented Wu Wei.

After a sudden, slightly confusing conclusion to the penultimate section where unified quavers are repeated à l’ostinato, we settle back in for an ending full of charm. Percussionist Peter Neville is entrusted with the unusual job of scooping beads out of a bowl with his hands, then slowly pouring them inside a violin and various percussion instruments. A more puzzling moment occurs when conductor Carl Rosman—nothing short of outstanding throughout—relinquishes his duties as leader, walks leisurely to the back row of the ensemble and sits down. With the addition of Richard Haynes and Joshua Hyde (to this point clarinettist and saxophonist) the percussion section is suddenly augmented to four. Gentle shakers and soft whistling from the brass players bring this stimulating work to a close.

For BIFEM’s second double bill of world premieres (the first, Seeing Double featured concerti by David Chisholm and Jack Symonds), Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim certainly delivered the goods. Reaching an astronomical standard of musical innovation and performance this ELISION concert evoked emotion, pushed boundaries, educated and inspired.

ELISION
How Forests Think
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
3 September 2016

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries; Liza Lim, How Forests Think

2016BIFEM: Kasper T. Toeplitz and Myriam Gourfink, Data_Noise

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Myriam Gourfink and Kasper T. Toeplitz, Data_Noise, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

After a day of complex musical experiences, sound artist Kasper T. Toeplitz and dancer Myriam Gourfink proposed a concert of radical simplicity. Noise art can be irreverent, challenging and confrontational, but Toeplitz and Gourfink’s hour-long arc of noise left me feeling cleansed.

Noise audiences are no strangers to slow changes in texture, but Gourfink’s movements bring a new level of embodied appreciation to these prototypical forms. Myriam Gourfink is a master of micro gesture, performing slow and small movements over long durations. In Data_Noise she turns slowly on the spot, arms held out wide as she pivots on and off of a table. Gourfink is an inveterate planker, spending most of her time half-on and half-off the table. Her extreme physical control extends right to her eyes and face, which are fixed in an eerie half-smile for the entire performance. Her movements are translated into data by sensors on her arms and legs, as well as a pad of buttons that she stands on for the brief earthbound moments of her performance. This data controls parameters in Toeplitz’s sound design, making the dancer and sound artist true collaborators in the total experience.

Toeplitz’s noise does not attack you with eardrum-shattering bursts of sound—it is bread-and-butter noise. Layers of hums and static build to a crescendo and fade, rumbling through your body like a wholesome deep-tissue massage. The introduction of a heartbeat at the loudest part of the performance (was it Gourfink’s?) enhanced the already deeply embodied sonic experience.

With the performers dressed in black inside a black box performance space, the immensity of Toeplitz’s sound design took on fantastical proportions. To me the performance evoked a natural setting. The granular-synthesised atmospheres sounded like the leaves of a great forest rustling and dissolving in the depths of a deep, black lake. When projections were introduced over the entire performance space they were clusters of long, curving lines like reeds swaying in the wind. When projected over Gourfink’s body the moving lines became a dazzling, rapidly flashing pixellated texture.

Dance is a great aesthetic leveler. Audiences who cannot stand contemporary music may enjoy it during a contemporary dance production. Similarly, Toeplitz’s layers of white noise have found their choreographic match in Gourfink’s micro movements. After an hour of tracing the mutating envelopes of Toeplitz’s sonic layers through Gourfink’s rotating limbs (or was it the other way around?) I left the black box of the Old Fire Station ready for another day of—sadly static—orchestras and chamber music.

Data_Noise
Kasper T. Toeplitz and Myriam Gourfink
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
3 September 2016

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (2)

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ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

It’s reported Mahler once said that one ought not bother looking at the view, as he’d already composed it. Well may Australians say, “save your wonderment at the planet’s richest natural jungle communication network—Melbournian Liza Lim has already composed it.” Take a sneak peek at the view here. The point is vistas and sunsets aren’t ever likely to be passé and Mahler will always enrich our spirits, but Australians are travel-crazy, smart, curious, connected and living in the now, and we need art like Liza Lim’s to help us celebrate our uniquely modern experiences of wonder.

Lim is so hot in the international art music scene, she’s the new-classical-music equivalent of an Oscar-laden actor or an athletic medal magnet. Remember when Boulez’ own Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned and performed Machine for Contacting the Dead? Or when the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and performed the Frank Gehry-inspired Ecstatic Architecture as a highlight for the opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall? The time her song cycle, Mother Tongue, was reviewed—or was it revered?— by the writer art music audiences read: Alex Ross in The New Yorker? If her name’s new to you, or her music doesn’t spring to mind, it’s probably a sign some lagging Australian orchestras and opera companies still need to pull their fingers out of their Rings.

In celebration of Lim’s 50th birthday, the dimpled, unfailing servant of the avant-garde, David Chisholm, programmed both the premiere of How Forests Think—an exquisite and consoling work of unprecedented formal ecology, which my ears are aching daily to hear again—as well as a return performance of the fluid, exploratory, mystically beautiful and heartbreaking Machine for Contacting the Dead.

In the 1970s, in a spectacular archaeological accident, the People’s Liberation Army uncovered the tomb of Marquis Yi and the remains of 21 ritualistically-mutilated women, believed to date back to the third day of the third month, 433 BCE, in Suizhou, Hubei, China. These burial chambers were filled with over 18,000 ancient artefacts including a complete armoury and a trove of gold, bronze, silks, calligraphy and, uniquely for the time, a caucus of 124 musical instruments.

In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim pairs archeology and music through a resplendent diversity of orchestral colours and ritualistic performance directions. Lim’s artistic excavations of the human experience draw on her cultural plurality, and eschew the orientalism of some poorly-aged excerpts of Debussy or Puccini.

Like Stravinsky, Lim amplifies the intimate musician-instrument connection and takes the possibilities of tone colour to the extreme, presenting musical colours from breathtaking, as-yet-undiscovered palettes. In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim again allows the performers to explore the colouristic potentialities of their instruments: the pianist stops directing keys and hammers through the instrument, instead extracting resonance from the instrument’s using a looped string. For a moment, the performer has the direct contact with their instrument normally only afforded to winds and strings. Extreme sul pont, often a compositional source of aggression or ambiguity, is executed with a transparency and choreographed introspective tenderness by the ELISION/ANAM strings.

The ELISION/ANAM concert highlights this as music to be watched. The sound structures are paramount, but Lim’s interest in the performer’s experience and their embodiment of compositional devices and themes is part of the reason the experience of being in a Lim audience changes you. Richard Hayne’s contrabass clarinet is central to the stage, and to the work, as a mystical figure espousing extreme yet lyrical multiphonics and animalistic tongue slaps. The clarinets, oboes and violins are split across stage, enhancing sincere ensemble dialogue from Mena Krstevska in the B-flat clarinets as she vaults thematic messages to her counterpart, Mitchell Jones, uncovering unity across the divide at the culmination of the first section.

ANAM student percussionists Thea Rossen, Hamish Upton and professional percussionist Peter Neville won hearts with discrete totems of sounds written in some of the most beautiful timbral pairings of the idiom. I adored the connection of cello and thundersheet along with bowed vibraphone and woodwind. Some mesmerising rototom twisted through unexpected turns. Maraccas were items of grave punctuation in Neville’s hands. Our archaeological setting was tactile, with the dry, decrepit elicitations of rainstick and geophone. A spectacular modern day ritual was evoked from a raised row of three percussionists, extending offerings of mirrored instruments in each palm, with a freakishly synchronised flexatone theme; a musical message so profound, I felt momentarily moved to carve the transcription into a tablet.

Given conductor Carl Rosman’s long-standing familiarity with the work and Liza Lim’s mentorship of this ensemble, Bendigo experienced an authentic rendering of this work, written in the greatest sincerity by one of Australia’s most-impactful living artists.

ELISION/ANAM
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (1)

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ELISION and students from ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

Speaking before the performance of Liz Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000), conductor Carl Rosman drew parallels between the ensemble in its early days and the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) joining them to for this concert. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and recalling how ELISION’s initial approach was to “bite off more than they could chew, and chew like hell,” Rosman praised the young players for their similarly committed attitude towards such a daunting project.

Lim composed Machine for Contacting the Dead for France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in 2000, it coincided with a Parisian exhibition of Chinese archeological treasures recently excavated from a 433 BCE tomb. Among the bodies of the noblemen and concubines were several well-preserved musical instruments, some of which were unidentified. As she so often does, Lim became interested in the link between history and memory, and created this work to imagine female musicians and dancers of the distant past.

Machine for Contacting the Dead received its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2002, performed by ELISION together with members of The Queensland Orchestra; but that’s the last we’d heard of it. A work of many challenges, perhaps its demands have prevented it being programmed elsewhere in the composer’s home country—or the lack of a permanent contemporary music ensemble large enough to tackle such works. ELISION have found a natural match in musicians from ANAM who also joined the ensemble to perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher. Hopefully, the two will recreate this fruitful collaboration to perform similarly ambitious contemporary works in the future.

From the outset of the piece, Lim’s nimble orchestration is on show. With her highly developed ability to craft layers of sounds without overwhelming the piece’s texture, each flutter of high wind and muted brass, wail of string harmonics and punctuation points from the three percussionists helps weave a rich tapestry. While the overall effect is quite visibly and musically raucous, the volume remains understated; recalling a distant memory of imagined music.

Emerging from these memories at various points throughout, the solo cello and bass clarinet assert their presence. Cellist Séverine Ballon’s playing is exceptional. She throws herself into the highly technical and physical part, using extended techniques to make the instrument sound in unfamiliar ways. A brief duet between Ballon and ELISION veteran Peter Veale in the first movement produces some delightful interplay, with Veale’s overblown oboe a perfect match for Ballon’s suitably violent playing.

Equally impressive is Richard Haynes, who doubled on the bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Seamlessly carrying on Ballon’s opening solo in the second movement, the bass clarinet at first matches the tone of the cello before diverting into an energetic and almost jazz-influenced line, punctuated by aggressive tongue slaps and jumps in register. Playing the contrabass clarinet, Haynes brings out a deep and resonant tone, with some frightening low grumbles to underscore the rest of the ensemble.

Each movement contains opportunities for individual musicians to shine. In an interview some years ago Lim hinted that Machine for Contacting the Dead was written with ELISION musicians in mind, despite its commission by another ensemble. Marshall McGuire’s harp with its pitch bends and sustained notes are a great match for the piano, which switches between conventional playing and contemporary techniques including plucking the strings and bowing them with nylon wires. Trumpet flourishes are perfectly suited to Tristram Williams, who precisely executes each one, and Paula Rae’s performance shows her mastery of each of her instruments—in the shrill announcements of the piccolo and the lusty tone of the bass flute.

According to Lim’s specific instructions, the solo bass clarinet, solo cello and contrabassoon are seated front and centre. The remaining musicians surround them, meaning that instrumental families are split up. With Lim’s rich orchestration, this provides some great moments of dialogue and spatial play. A particularly effective moment is shared by the two violinists. Staring down his ANAM counterpart on the other side of the stage, Graeme Jennings’ power is evenly matched by the student in a fiery duet, with a stereo sound effect. The unique arrangement causes some problems with communication and entries, but on the whole the choice enhances the sense of space and drama in the work.

Towards the end of the final movement, attention is drawn to the back of the stage as the three percussionists, harpist and trombonist gather around the piano. With nylon wires, the five bow the grand piano strings, while the remaining percussionist ominously beats on a low bass string with her mallets. Changing the speed and intensity of the bowing wires at different rates, the effect of the pitches emerging and ringing out through the auditorium is magical. The removing of the piano lid is Lim’s own unearthing of centuries-old sonic treasures from the tomb, and a fitting end to a work which demonstrates the composer’s phenomenal ability to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect to hear in a concert hall.

ELISION/ANAM
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016

 

2016BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Glossolalia

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Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, Jason Taverner Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

The back-to-back presentation of four string quartets which rely near exclusively on extended string techniques is perhaps a risk, lest audiences tire of the continuous glissandi and harmonics which have become almost a cliché in modern works of the medium. However, the finely crafted compositions presented by the Argonaut Quartet each worked on a level beyond using these techniques arbitrarily, demonstrating different approaches to writing in this idiom.

David Chisholm’s Bound South opened tentatively with a delicate sequence of extended techniques shared across the quartet. A soft tapping of strings with the wood of the bow provided the percussive backdrop to the harmonic glissandi and soft tremolo gestures which each player executed in turn. This sequence formed the basis of the work’s material, gradually extending and developing as the instruments overlapped. The overall effect was icy and fragile, reflecting the work’s title and positioning itself in complete opposition to Chisholm’s flashy double concerto premiered the previous evening.

A point of sudden agitation burst from the viola, seemingly unable to continue with the glacial pace of development. Joined by the second violin for the shortest moment, both quickly retreated and continued with the work’s established slow trajectory. This fleeting release of built-up tension seemed to foreshadow a coming section in a more agitated style, yet this was never reached. Instead, Chisholm continued to taunt and whet the appetite with intensity only built within a narrow schema. A dynamic peak was reached towards the end with three tremolo chords played in unison, before a return to the short fragments of the opening material, this time presented with more cohesion.

Through Empty Space continued the delicate sound world established by Chisholm, opening with all four parts playing glassy pure harmonics. Mexican composer Sergio Luque scored much of the work in a close range, blending the sounds of the four string instruments to make the quartet act as one entity. Pitch material played with semitone dissonances spread over an octave, sliding in and out of consonance. The work embarked on a smooth descent through the empty spaces left in the scoring, with Luque demonstrating immense restraint in seeing his musical idea through.

The smooth veneer of the work’s surface was only momentarily broken in a fragment which called for bouncing the bow across the strings. It was almost unexpected to hear the conventionally bowed long tones, but their presentation without vibrato ensured that they worked within the established context. Ending the work the viola and cello traded these long gliding strokes, emerging and disappearing from the violins’ atmospheric bowing over the bridge.

The muted bouncing opening of Chilean composer Pedro Alvarez’s Etude Oblique I immediately announced a shift in gear, moving away from the highly austere first half of the program while still presenting similar sounds and techniques. The pace of development in Etude Oblique was the fastest of any of the works presented so far in the concert, and the dialogue between the instruments was the most contested. Agitation and flashes of urgency were hinted at in the wailing high pitched glissandi and the ricochet bowing gesture which formed the basis of the work’s rhythmic fragments, but yet again these remained contained within a small dynamic structure.

Erkki Veltheim’s Glossolalia was a natural conclusion to the concert. Establishing some violent string playing from the outset, this was the opportunity to fully release the tension so finely built up throughout the program. Reflecting the work’s title, the score was often frenzied, jumping from one idea to the next in rapid succession, with techniques used to create sounds far removed from the traditional capabilities of a string quartet. Aggressive bowing south of the bridge created great noise tones, and the tapping of the bridge with the base of the bow produced a satisfyingly resonant percussive sound. Veltheim fully explored the bass range of the cello, requiring some grungy playing from Judith Hamman who skillfully tuned down during the performance.

The physicality of playing a string instrument suddenly burst to the fore in Glossolalia. Shedding the high control required for the light bowing and isolated gestures in the other works, Hamman’s acrobatic glissandi and Veltheim’s dynamic leading providing a welcome visual change. It was in this final work that the arrangement of the quartet, all four facing inwards on the corners of a square platform, made sense artistically; it was a delight to watch chains of reactions set off by fragments and move around the players.

In a different context, Glossolalia could have come across as a little too uncontrolled and wild, given its length and jerky movement between ideas. But within this program, it seemed to be the continuation along a smooth path, Veltheim’s composition ultimately fulfilling the hints of outburst promised by Chisholm, Luque and Alvarez. The Argonaut Quartet is lucky to have three such versatile and experienced upper string players in Veltheim, Graeme Jennings and Elizabeth Walsh, who rotated roles throughout the performance to play to individual strengths. Together with Hamman’s cello playing, the Quartet is a fine interpreter of new music.

The Argonaut String Quartet
Glossolalia
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Town Hall
3 September 2016

David Chisholm, Bound South; Sergio Luque, Through Empty Space; Pedro Alvarez, Etude Oblique I; Erkki Veltheim, Glossolalia

2016BIFEM: Leah Scholes, Simulcast

Review by Alex Taylor

Amid a concentrated festival program, Leah Scholes’s Simulcast concert was scheduled simultaneously with a Xenakis keyboard marathon by Peter de Jager, the afternoon a kind of meta-simulcast of scheduling by BIFEM director David Chisholm. Thankfully these performances were repeated for those wanting to experience both; though the Xenakis program might have looked on paper the more intensive of the two, Simulcast was its true equal in quality and presentation, no less of a physical feat and with its own singular aesthetic. All five percussion pieces shared a concern with the uncomfortable interaction, the friction, between sound and meaning, and the slippage and failure of language.

Marc Applebaum’s Aphasia enlists his percussionist not as a maker of sounds, or even as a striker of objects, but as a practitioner of a kind of fake sign language. There’s something absurd and yet sublime about the juxtaposition of mundane domestic signs—manipulating a rubix cube, swimming breaststroke, turning a vehicle’s ignition—with totally unfamiliar, otherworldly sounds, distortions of a human voice in the pre-recorded tape part. The voice is both synchronised with the signs and semantically alien to them: this is a form of puppetry more than any kind of meaningful sign language.

Scholes combines the substantial repertoire of hand gestures with an entirely deadpan expression. There’s impressive counterpoint not only in passages of simultaneous and rapidly alternating gestures (all memorised in sync with the complex and rhythmically irregular tape part) but also between this highly animated, angular physical virtuosity and the deliberate blankness of the performer’s face and body. Furthermore, despite the heavy processing, the taped voice is clearly recognisable as a deep male one. In this version of the piece, the disjunction between the sound of that voice (Nicholas Isherwood’s) and the physical appearance of the female performer heightens the sense of ventriloquism, an operatic alien puppeteer loading the performer’s semantic capacity with unfamiliar sounds, to be translated and performed as familiar but contextually meaningless gestures. What begins as a stream of audio-visual objects that could form meaningful language is revealed as a kind of expressive paralysis.

All the pieces on the program shared Applebaum’s interest in spoken language, and perhaps in questioning its communicative function. However some works took a less cynical viewpoint.

Far from deadpan, the emotional tone of Vinko Globokar’s Toucher was highly energetic, switching quickly between characters and conversations in an imaginary series of dialogues with the mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Toucher presented a kind of formalised musical lesson. After a short solfege-style key to the sounds we were about to hear (each specific syllable associated with a unique pop or swish of a percussion gesture), Scholes launched full speed ahead into these aphoristic encounters. Each section was clearly numbered and announced, including the pauses, much to the amusement of the audience. From what I could make out of the French, these sections were arranged in a non-linear order, and the spoken language came in and out of the texture while the percussive simulacra remained a constant, such that our focus (particularly for non-Francophones) was not on deciphering direct semantic meaning, but on observing the inner logic of inflection and phrasing.

Such was her familiarity with the material, so well ingrained was the cadence in her voice and hands, that Scholes was a perfect foil for the potentially didactic structure: nonchalant, incisive and theatrically convincing in embodying a whole cast of characters.

Francois Sarhan’s Homework #1 (part of a series of music-theatre works by the composer) has neither historical figures nor universal signs to tie it to the concrete. Instead Sarhan employs the jargonistic language of instructional manuals to imagine a seemingly innocuous mechanical object which the performer is involved in building or fixing (“take the lip of the pipe” etc.). What begins as a cheerfully optimistic charade (think daytime children’s television) soon dissolves into concern and then panic, as the exterior pragmatic world of systems and details comes into conflict with an interior emotional world—“no, not like that!”—and gets altogether out of control.

At its climax Homework recalls Georges Aperghis’s Le corps à corps, in a complex groove of hitting, twisting and ragged breathing. Although some of the tiniest sounds—the facial percussion, for example—may have needed amplification, the increasingly urgent trajectory carried the listener’s attention right through to a silent, hollow coda.

The longest and most texturally complex work on the program was Rick Burkhardt’s Simulcast, a riot of translation, miscommunication and fragmentation. Scholes was joined by fellow percussionist Louise Devenish, seated at a sort of radio announcers’ table and armed with microphones, suspended cymbals and a range of unusual percussion instruments, including harmonica and clickers. The pair were precise and in sync, down to the matching pitch and inflection of their voices in a dreamlike unison episode. Scholes and Devenish began as a kind of bilingual sports commentary team, but as the empty language of management speak intruded and complex interference patterns emerged, the narrative sense started to unravel. By the end of the work language was being described not in communicative terms but as a kind of interrogation or torture. “Most of what is happening now is shouting.”

Rounding off a sleek and satisfying concert was Australian composer Kate Neal’s declamatory Self Accusation. Like the Globokar, Neal’s work conflated language and percussion gestures, but in a more insistent pulsation, a list of self-reflections that ranged from neutral observations to descriptions of restriction and conflict. Peter Handke’s 1966 text had an appealing Beatnik quality, reveling in repetitive grammatical structures: it might invite comparison with Ginsberg’s seminal anti-establishment poem America.

The whispered control and formality of the opening, with its delicate metallic sounds and tentative self-discovery, opened out into a joyful looseness, proclaiming a rebellion against all the arbitrary constraints of society: “I did not husband my sexual powers! […] I CROSSED ON THE RED!”

In the course of these five works (mirroring the structure of the Xenakis concert), Scholes revealed not only an attention to the finest details of complex percussion music (with the exception of the Rick Burkhardt duo that gave the concert its title, Scholes’s entire program was memorised, to an extreme degree of precision), but also a theatrical flair in spades, a special combination required to pull off such ambitious works. In this regard the expert contribution of director Penelope Bartlau should be specially acknowledged. Scholes used her own body and voice as a site of crisis and discovery, a site for a fascinating interplay of emotional and intellectual currents, interior and exterior worlds. It must be mentioned too that both the works and their interpretation were serious fun, the concert an unashamedly flamboyant and engaging vision of what music can be.

Leah Scholes
Simulcast
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
3 September 2016

Vinko Globokar, Toucher; François Sarhan, Homework; Mark Applebaum, Aphasia; Rick Burkhardt, Simulcast; Kate Neal, Self Accusation

2016BIFEM: Peter de Jager, Marathon (1)

Review by Bec Scully

Greek mathematical geniuses are no stranger to history: Euclid of the distance and Pythagoras of the triangle, to start with. Using his own 20th-Century mathematical genius to create musical structures of a completely other aesthetic dimension, Iannis Xenakis, expanded the rhythmic and musical conceptual capacities of countless musicians. He consolidated hitherto untethered art processes of music and architecture, allowing composers to see that they may follow the same conceptual paths as mathematicians.

But Xenakis was famously fired as a student by Honegger for his creations which he claimed ‘weren’t music’. A prodigious architect for Le Corbusier, Xenakis entered the post-WWII scene of Paris music with his power to realise majestic physical structures of beauty, and sheer will to apply these musically foreign processes to sound structures. The great Messiaen saw something quite different in Xenakis’ untrained potential, and in what has to be the most hilarious doctoral thesis defence ever given, instead of grilling Xenakis on the canon, Messiaen began by insisting Xenakis himself was a giant figure in music for creating a new system while Xenakis sincerely attempted to defend a position of modesty.

Xenakis saw beauty in line and not just in the simplistic pitch/time functions of the original Cartesian planes we call staves. He took our parameters of slow-fast, soft-loud, short-long and high-pitch-low-pitch and brought to our equal attention those we tend not to think of in such explicit terms: disorder-order, resonance-decay, density (musical events per second)-emptiness until musical events become complex multi-dimensional systems normally only comfortably contemplated by physicists. But today Xenakis’ multidimensional musical algorithms are the mental test for contemporary musicians.

The parameter of disorder-to-order is the most pertinent in this music as it reflects Xenakis’ deep sense of cultural and social responsibility in his art. He believed that artistic forms created environments for political structures, and that without allowances for random events and aggregations, if the standard deviation is too low in music, could amount to an expression of totalitarianism. Therefore the keyboard works build upon scaffolds of unpredictability, in places literally unplayable in all prescribed dimensions meaning that the performer’s choice as to how best realise the ideal is integral to the works. In 2008 Daniel Grossman realised these same works that de Jager explores but used computer MIDI programming and so missed Xenakis’ concept entirely in terms of both political ideals, closing off the potential for Xenakis’ intended transformation of the performer.

Peter de Jager’s choice to perform these 5 works shows artistic integrity, mental might, and chops, chops, chops. He played 2 marathon concerts of the same program and I, like others in the audience, attended the first and returned for the second. In Evryali, de Jager’s Dous, lasseir lines were fluid and sweeping, a complete other world to the chopping, rhythmic play of the opening, leading to the most beautiful execution of the sparse, pointillistic 7 bars, each note created with unique astral intensity and placement. De Jager creates uncannily clear contrapuntal journeys via the expansive block chords, remaining true to close, lower-register voicing, eliciting the most captivatingly secure and organically transfigured syncopations.

De Jager’s Khoaï is high drama for the left hand, with digital beep codes in the upper register for the right, both conveyed without tainting and impressively unreactive to each other. The thumping of the harpsichord’s pedals lends the piece the quality of a censored organ’s foot manual, determined to be heard regardless. The expansions of register with increasingly drastic changes of tone were spine-tingling. Wild polyrhythms with both dynamic and timbral short leashes made de Jager a musical lion tamer. After the landmark bar’s silence, the sextuplets, quintuplet and nested triplets and duplets are hair-raisingly energised. A spectacularly expectation-thwarting ending of an exponential-like reduction of musical density and energy drops seemingly towards silence only to be interrupted by a final shattering resonance. Returning to the piano timbre for Mists brings us back to the expansive resonances that evoke the title of the piece. Beginning with a juicy B-flat bass line repeated only twice, enough for de Jager to convey a moment of the jazz idiom with weight and placement for our ears to sink into. The first phrase ends with a tense resonant cluster, and in the second the resonance-structure seemingly hovers over the piano, vividly realised with angelic tone-colour.

Naama, far from the nebula of Mists, hits out with clear lines of time marking and a gradual increase in intensity, tempered by skipping rhythms. The insistent metallic power chords lead from a controlled robotic waltz, to ironic anthem, and then return. De Jager pounds the low register to the limit and gives serious anchorage to frenetic rhythms. This motif then leads to cascading right hand passages.

For the final work, the epic Herma, de Jager uses a sensitive touch and a tempo that allows the space to breathe. He employs formal rigour and thematic pitch sets, with weighted meaningful legato contrasting with the stamping resonances of the final grandly integrated super-pitch-set. De Jager chokes the final chord and springs away from the keyboard so abruptly that these musical models keep pounding away in the listeners’ minds long after the rounds and rounds of standing ovations and cheers and whoops subside.

Alternating between piano and harpsichord was perhaps a kindness to the marathan-related-risk of audience timbral saturation, and the instrument swap every piece is testament to Peter de Jager’s physical dexterity and adaptability. The symmetrical programming of the works seemed a little classically formed but I guess a stochastic method could still result in this same form. But this wouldn’t bother Messiaen… I happily promulgate the event of the local bird-life resonantly chirping accompaniment to de Jager’s performance of Mists as a cheeky, symbolic nod of approval from Messiaen.

Peter de Jager
Marathon
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Trades Hall
3 September 2016
Iannis Xenakis, Evryali, Khoaï, Mists, Naama, Herma

2016BIFEM: Sister, Work

©Jason Tavener Photography WORK_MG_1424
Sister, work, Jason Taverner Photography

Review by Claudine Michael

 Promising the audience an “exceptional, immersive and transcendental experience” with not much else said about the elusively titled Work, collaborators Marco Cher-Gibard and Ben Speth created a piece that displayed not only the connection between performer and medium (laptop processing and guitar) but between the network of performers themselves. I would go so far as to say that with the inclusion of artist Matthew Adey on light design and smoke machine, this work represented the synergy of a collaborative trio. The improvisatory nature of their performance, the lighting design, the use of the space—and some free whiskey—made for an absorbing and at times deliciously antagonistic sonic experience for both audience and performer.

The work opens with an unapologetic cacophony of audio feedback as Cher-Gibard swings a microphone back and forth in front of his bass amp. The feedback sits on a layered sound of electric guitar (pitched up) which sound like distant bells and carillon looped and processed. These harmonics become a feature, emerging in various sections of the work. In quieter sections they evoke an ethereal mood when juxtaposed with the droning bass. The lighting design in the beginning burns red, engulfing the space. Once the audience settles into this meditative sound bed, the improvisation begins with Speth alternating between single tones, chord shapes, noise and scraping strings. These licks/riffs are picked up by Cher-Gibard on his mixer, processed on his amp emulator and fed back into the loop. The loop undulates ceaselessly followed by scraping of the guitar strings and the hiss of the smoke machine processed as white noise on the laptop. The lighting design reflects this as the coloured gel is removed to expose white light. White noise escalates into thunderous amp feedback and unexpected explosive crackles. Using a drumming algorithm to trigger the drum rack, Cher-Gibard sets off a series of drum patterns that add to the animalistic frenzy of the loop.

Adey scurries around the space, swapping the coloured gels, unplugging and re-positioning lights, taking part in the sonic conversation through the medium of light. In a transcendental moment the illumination of yellow light on purple gel evokes a sunset. In the second section, the light design turns green, signifying a renewal of energy. The guitar drone emerges again from Cher-Gibard but this time more like a cascading glockenspiel, which Adey then deploys as a rhythmic device for introducing a flickering light pattern. This gradually becomes red alternating with darkness and juxtaposed with a thumping techno-like bass (pitched down guitar) and the sigh of Speth’s guitar as he moves closer to his amp for acoustic feedback. This felt like the climax of Work. The three artists had worked till that point to create this energy around the space by swinging microphones to amps, creating feedback and creating a loop current. It felt like a culmination of the deep synthesis between the three of them within the context and outcome of the sound and light dialogue they had created through their improvisation.

Towards the end, things got more eardrum shattering. At one point Cher-Gibard seemed to turn down the level but I suspect that was only so he could highlight the introduction of a new sound idea (a sample of guitar harmonic) to the mix. The end was abrupt but effective, almost like a pull of the plug or a minor explosion, audience leaving with trails of smoke still in the air.

Work, being improvisational, was hard to predict and, safe to say, the feeling was mutual among the performers. At some points, Speth appeared visibly surprised at the direction of their discourse, as was Cher-Gibard’s when selecting his guitar noise motifs to process.

The alchemical energy generated by the three performers was built from the pulse Cher-Gibard created through his foundational soundscape. He moved to the meditative drone, reiterating the idea of looping sound energy in the space. It became a reference to the Larsen effect or acoustic feedback, which is a sound loop in itself: a sound loop between audio input and output. This relationship between the loop of listening, feedback, reaction and reflection demonstrated an effective sonic partnership, the chemistry developing a piece that was resonant, electric and loud.

SISTER
WORK
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
2 September 2016
Marco Cher-Gibard, Laptop
Ben Speth, Electric Guitar
Matthew Adey, lighting designs/installations

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.

Speicher
ELISION/ANAM
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.

Speicher
ELISION/ANAM
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)