BIFEM’s own Argonaut Ensemble opened their first concert of the festival with a performance of two pieces by international composers—Stefano Bulfon’s Fogli d’Iride (Iridescent Sheets, 2015) and Fernando Garnero’s Neon Pig (2017).
The Australian premiere of the flute “micro-concerto” Fogli d’Iride by the Italian composer Stefano Bulfon was conducted by Elliott Gyger with solo flute by Matteo Cesari. A string harmonic glissando sighed the piece into existence, interrupted by the entrance of the other instruments of the ensemble. Cesari weaved in and out of the ensemble’s skittering, shifting texture, building to a dynamic intensity before the music suddenly ceased. The last gesture played was repeated, and cut off again. Again and again, each time Gyger’s limber whole-body conducting freezing in place. These obsessive repetitions saturated the piece down to the smallest element, materialising most intensely in sequences of extremely virtuosic microtonal flute arpeggios. The overall effect of the piece was the continual consumption and regurgitation of its own material. Not only was Cesari the focal point of the performance—his extremely fluid and natural execution of the material also served as a stylistic catalyst for the other players.
The second piece on the program was the world premiere of Neon Pig, by the Paris-based Argentinian composer Fernando Garnero, conducted by Elena Schwarz. Garnero himself appeared in front of the stage’s curtain while the ensemble was preparing and introduced the piece with a heartfelt reflection on the recent disappearance of the Argentinian indigenous-rights activist Santiago Maldonado while in police custody. After holding Maldonado’s picture before the audience, Garnero disappeared behind the curtains, which raised to an ensemble of thirteen. A kaleidoscope of noises suddenly shuddered through the hall: string glissando scratches, abortive woodwind and trumpet half-tones, the contrabassist and harpist holding transducers to the bodies of their instruments, transforming them into chambers for the resonance of electric distortion, and a recurring oboe multiphonic reminiscent of a banal dial-up tone, all swelling, developing and looping around, creating a constantly shifting but fatalistically static texture.
In a moment of spontaneous dramatic intensity, the lights of the hall dimmed, leaving spotlights located on the pianist, bassist, harpist, percussionist, and the composer himself, who had emerged from behind the ensemble and uncannily eclipsed the conductor. Garnero gently reached out into the air and slowly grabbed in each performer’s direction, withdrawing them from the sound one by one, until only his own electronic burblings remained, concluding the piece. Garnero’s framing of the work certainly led the final moments to be heard as a striking analogue for the silent disappearance of Santiago Maldonado. Neon Pig’s concluding performer-abduction was a terrifyingly incomprehensible and disturbing lens through which the earlier parts of the piece had to be redefined in retrospect.
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September, 2017
Stefano Bulfon, Foglio d’Iride; Fernando Garnero, Neon Pig
As the opening performance of BIFEM 2017, Jenna Lyle’s Plank Rodeo was a brief apéritif to a night of diverse musical events. The concept behind the piece is simple and beautiful: a group of four performers physically support each other while they ‘ride’ on top of a precarious pile of boards. The sounds of creaking and popping are captured by transducers and microphones as the boards give in to the performers’ weight and movement. Processed in real time by the composer, then amplified, the sounds created an inviting imaginary landscape as they reverberated through the halls of the Bendigo Art Gallery.
The sonic impression of the work was that of a geological soundscape, reminding me of a painting in the Tasmanian Museum where an Antarctic icebreaker gouges a path through sheets of sea ice. The work’s connection with landscape was also reinforced by its placement within a hall of nineteenth-century paintings of people and places. The juxtaposition of new music among old paintings was perhaps tongue in cheek, as this environment is typically reserved for performances from the classical canon.
For audience members who were familiar with these musicians, this was an opportunity to witness vulnerable musical exploration outside the instrumental and vocal specialisations that these performers are highly regarded for. This conjunction of human movement with wooden ‘instruments’ provided a fresh perspective to our conventional expectations of what instrumental performance is, or should be.
As the musicians indelicately clung to each other while fulfilling the physical and listening tasks of the work, they experienced and expressed ‘ensemble’ in its most primitive form. They were literally ‘together’ and physically dependent upon each other. In this sometimes painfully close proximity, they played and explored the sounds available to them as the piece swept from delicate moments of tiny creaks and crackles to outrageously loud moments where the musicians’ stomping generated explosive sounds that shocked the audience. In one moment of relative quiet, Jessica Aszodi delicately tickled the base of the ‘instrument’ with her toes, stimulating a subtle audio response from the soundscape.
While a performance of this work by dancers could have exploited a more refined approach to human movement, this performance of Plank Rodeo was an opportunity for the audience and musicians to experience aspects of music making and sound generation at their most fundamental level, and provided a re-examination of what instrumental performance can, or could be.
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Art Gallery
Friday 1 September, 2017
Jacob Abela, performer
Jessica Aszodi, performer
Matteo Cesari, performer
Jenna Lyle, electronics
Jane Sheldon, performer
These five emerging writers will be working with the Partial Durations mentors Matthew Lorenzon and Alistair Noble to cover every concert of the 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Check here for their informed, independent, and critical reviews from 1 September.
Simone Maurer is a flautist, researcher, educator, and passionate advocate for inclusive music education. Simone graduated from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music (Brisbane) with a Bachelor of Music with Class I Honours in Advanced Flute Performance degree in 2013, and then relocated to the United Kingdom for two years. She completed an MPhil in Music Studies (specialising in Music Performance) at the University of Cambridge and received flute lessons from Michael Cox, flute professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Having returned to Australia, Simone is now undertaking a PhD in Music Performance at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Her doctoral research will investigate how expressive body movements in solo contemporary flute performance are generated and perceived.
Melbourne-based composer Lewis Ingham is passionate about the presentation of new music by Australian composers. A recent graduate of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Lewis seeks to present his own texture and timbre driven compositions in unique and immersive performance environments. Lewis is a regular contributor to CutCommon Magazine and places a particular emphasis on sharing and reviewing new music performed by Australian ensembles or composed by Australian composers. Lewis has also written for Re:hearsal Magazine and was recently a composer-in-residence at the 2017 Charlotte New Music Festival, NC (USA).
Jessica Lindsay Smith
Jessica Lindsay Smith is a Melbourne-based composer who is passionate about music that crosses the boundaries of genre. Holding a Bachelor of Music (Honours) from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Jessica has worked with ensembles within local and international contexts to create music with a focus on vivid colours and unusual sounds. Jessica’s work has been performed in a variety of venues such as Arts Centre Melbourne, Ian Potter Museum of Art, The Paris Cat Jazz Club, and Melba Hall. As part of her Bachelor of Music (Composition) at Monash University, Jessica studied chamber music in Italy at the Prato Centre and Verdi Music School. Jessica is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne majoring in creative writing and art history to further inform her compositional work.
JohannesMacDonald (b. 1996) is a composer raised in and local to Sydney. Johannes was accepted into the Conservatorium High School in 2009, majoring on flute. In 2012 he switched to majoring in composition, studying under Jack Symonds, In 2013 was accepted into the Sydney Sinfonietta Composition Project under Richard Gill, and his 2014 HSC extension composition Anxiety was selected for performance in Encore. in 2015, Johannes began his bachelor in Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium, and has since studied under Michael Smetanin and Anthony Pateras, having compositions premiered by both the SCM Wind Symphony and Ensemble Nouveau. Johannes continues to play in the Sydney new music ensemble Spiral, and is currently studying with Liza Lim.
Joel Roberts is an emerging composer with an extensive background in guitar, including studies in classical guitar at the Victorian College of the Arts and Jazz Studies at the University of Tasmania. Joel recently completed his Bachelor of Music at the UTAS Conservatorium, with a Major in Composition.
Joel is currently developing his own compositional language through an exploration of the works of twentieth and twenty-first century composers including Bartok, Ligeti, Hosokawa and Saariaho. Over the course of his degree, he has established an interest in writing works that connect with, or reflect on, issues of climate change, species loss and other contemporary political issues such as the plight of refugees. He has a passionate interest in working on collaborative projects with other practitioners such as visual artists, scientists, historians and writers.
The musicologist Richard Toop passed away in Sydney on 19 June 2017. Born in 1945 in Chichester, England, his desire to study contemporary music at the postgraduate level (then a radical proposition) soon gave way to complete immersion in the topic as Stockhausen’s teaching assistant at the Köln Musikhochschule, 1973–74. In 1975 he moved to Sydney to lecture at the New South Wales Conservatorium (now the Sydney Conservatorium), where he is remembered by generations of students as an inspiring and generous teacher. Abstract and impersonal questions about some giant of the 1970s were inevitably answered in the first person with pearls of detailed musical insight. Not that he limited himself to study of the twentieth century, his expertise reaching back to renaissance repertoire.
Once in Australia, his engagement with international movements in contemporary music hardly ceased and he is widely (though incorrectly, as he was the first to admit) credited with coining the term “New Complexity”. His books and articles, including a series of lectures from the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten from 2002, testify to a depth of culture that lifts music off the page and transposes it into a living sphere of ideas. He will be sorely missed.
In 2011 I invited Richard as the keynote speaker of the student colloquium “Music and Time” at the ANU School of Music (25 November). His talk, “Judging The Quick and the Dead (and analysing them too)” was a wide-ranging reflection upon his career and I feel it is appropriate to share it at this time. I apologise for the poor quality of the video, though it does improve in the first couple of minutes. If anyone objects to me sharing this, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Ensemble Offspring presented their Arc Electric program of works by women composers at the Melbourne Recital Centre. An all-woman program is not unusual for Ensemble Offspring because their entire year’s programming has been dedicated to music by women. As Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director Claire Edwardes explained, the challenge in putting the program together was deciding between the wealth of excellent contenders. Ensemble Offspring were in fine form, presenting some of their most scintillating performances yet.
Two works from very different traditions showed a sophisticated minimalist sensibility. Kate Moore’s Velvet takes folksy romanticism to new heights of sensuality while inflecting it with obsessive pulsation. Cello and piano intertwine in an insistent 5/8 rhythm. The cello, played with bravado by Blair Harris, reaches ever higher and louder in swelling espressivo lines. While Moore studied with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands, Cassie To studied in Australia. Her Avialae weaves the calls of endangered bird species into a sweeping, pulsating texture.
From the overblown to the microscopic, Melody Eötvös’s Tardigrade conjures the microscopic realm of some of the world’s most divisive creatures. The tardigrade, also known as the “moss-piglet”, looks like an eight-legged vacuum bag and is almost invincible. They can survive in boiling water, ice, deserts, and the depths of the sea all thanks to their ability to change form to suit their conditions. Edwardes played bowls filled with rice to produce a texture of tiny particles, Lamorna Nightingale played flitting, darting lines on flute and piccolo. The grotesque appeal of the tardigrade was not lost on the composer, who treated the audience also to a series of wet munching sounds.
Liza Lim’s Turning Dance of the Bee consists of a daytime and a nocturnal tableau. During the day, bees perform the figure of eight “waggle dance” oriented towards the sun. At night the bees remain in the hive. Lim’s daytime tableau is full of darting gestures and athletic rhythms, but the nocturnal tableau is truly magical. The solo flute line, performed with the utmost serenity by Nightingale, is transformed over a string drone into a graceful meditation before being joined by a sumptuous bass clarinet line.
Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ Horizontals is so-called for its focus on form and texture over vertical harmony. Sandpaper blocks, saucepans and chopsticks inserted between the piano strings provide groups of timbres. Zubin Kanga’s prepared piano was particularly effective with its muted, gong-like tones. True to the piece’s name, each timbre group is presented before moving on to the next and I found myself wanting to hear some of these sound groups superimposed in new combinations.
Possibly the most well-known living female composer, Kaija Saariaho would be hard to pass by in any celebration of contemporary art music by women. Her work Cendres (ashes) here received a sensitive performance. The sounds of breath and hair on strings conjured images of ash and dust like the cremated remains of the musical patriarchy raining down around us.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Melbourne Recital Centre
The ensemble Eighth Blackbird have championed the brighter side of contemporary American music since forming in college in 1995. Their energetic stagecraft has earned them global fame (at least as far as contemporary music ensembles go), including several tours to Australia. They also enjoy collaborative relationships with composers, often learning repertoire by heart and interacting in ways a music stand-bound performer cannot. During this tour, the ensemble collaborated extensively with the young Australian composer Holly Harrison on a rocking new work.
Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak” is a homage to American minimalism and was composed for Philip Glass’ 75th birthday. Featuring a quotation from Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, the piece includes a string of bitter-sweet instrumental pairings (especially effective when played with all the energy of the ensemble’s cellist, Nicholas Photinos), which build to moments of sinister intensity punctuated by kick-drum.
Bryce Dessner looked even further back in time to inspire his Murder Ballads. The seven reconstructions of folk songs displayed a stunning array of moods and textures, including some galloping wood-block effects by percussionist Matthew Duvall and even actual thigh slapping. The extended version of the Murder Ballads performed for the tour includes movements not included on the ensemble’s recording. The movement “Underneath the Floorboards” is recognisable as Sufjan Stevens’ incredibly creepy—and in this context entirely appropriate—song about the “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Eighth Blackbird worked intensively on Holly Harrison’s new work Lobster Tales and TurtleSoup commissioned by Musica Viva with support from Geoff Stearn and the Hildegard Project. The piece is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The hybrid gryphon and mock turtle in the story are musically figured with bombastic energy in a musical amalgam of rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop, blues, and funk. Dazzling riffs and solos are punctuated by fragments of text interjected by the musicians. The piece is driven by a powerful groove that has its apotheosis in an unlikely and spectacular bass clarinet and flute duo performed by Michael J. Maccaferri and Nathalie Joachim.
The program contained two works from Eighth Blackbird’s Hand to Eye project. For this series of compositions, composers were asked to respond to works in a private collection of visual art. Ted Hearne’s By-By Huey is inspired by Robert Arneson’s painting “By-By Huey P.” The painting is a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, who murdered a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, in 1989. The portrait features a praying mantis superimposed over Robinson’s face. As the program states, “A guide at the Frankel Gallery told me Arneson included the mantis in the portrait because ‘they eat their own.'” The music is similarly self-destructive, with a variety of strategies aimed to silence the music including muting, instrument preparation, and sudden, sharp attacks resulting in vanishing splashes of tone colour. Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade takes as its point of departure the pen-and-ink “(variegated spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby, a picture consisting of just that, thousands of spirals of different thicknesses. The piece, likewise, is an elaboration of one see-sawing rhythm that is shared around the ensemble in rich overlapping textures.
Though Eighth Blackbird interact more on stage than most contemporary music ensembles, I would have liked to have seen them perform from memory and get away from their iPads. The program was an excellent insight into contemporary music from the States and a great opportunity to nurture a new Australian work.
Melbourne Recital Centre
The Tilde festival is named after the symbol “~” used to identify objects in the sound processing environment MSP, which is a staple for composers, sound artists, and experimental musicians. This year the festival demonstrated how far it has expanded beyond its namesake. Welcomed to the blazing aluminium and hot-pink stages of Southbank’s Testing Grounds were musicians from experimental, improvisational, notated, and world music traditions. Testing Grounds have also grown around Tilde. From a field of temporary structures made from recycled wooden pallets, Testing Grounds is now a fully-equipped venue with four highly customisable stage areas and a bar. Just the sort of place to spend a hot day in January.The Tilde Academy that takes place leading up to the festival graces the schedule with high-quality student work that has been workshopped with leading composers and practitioners. A true double bass virtuoso, Patrick Lyons, played new works by the composers Jaslyn Robertson and Sam Wolf. With the help of a whispering electronic part in her work Imposter Syndrome, Wolf helped draw the audience’s focus away from the hulking solo instrument to contemplate sonic minutiae. Another student highlight was the performance of John Zorn’s Cobra by the academy students directed by the experimental guitarist Gary Butler. Part of the fun is working out what on earth is going on as the students respond to incomprehensible directions held up by Butler.
A Tilde festival wouldn’t be complete without some impressive home made sonic gadgets and John Ferguson’s Circles did not disappoint. A box containing a single-board computer (maybe a Raspberry Pi and two Arduinos) sequence live samples in an intelligently random way that the performer then has to respond to and negotiate with. The device gives the impression of having a life of its own. Its dials and lights are thankfully turned towards the audience, who can watch the performer react as the device throws up autonomous changes.
From hacked electronics to hacked guitars, Chris Rainier performed songs by Harry Partch on his modified microtonal guitar. Rainier’s medley of readings, tape recordings, and songs make his program a complete theatrical performance.
Jacques Soddell’s electroacoustic work In the Park was a timely exploration of Australian nationalism, including field recordings of nationalist chanting and speeches. It was followed by the multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Scully’s performance of solo works on double bass, cello, viola, and violin. While Scully can certainly play all of these instruments, a more confident performance on one would have sufficed. Scully was joined on stage by Mirren Strahan for her work “Gratitude,” an ironic juxtaposition of violent frotting on violin and double bass with shouted exclamations of gratitude.
Flutes featured heavily this year, with performances by Hannah Reardon-Smith, Melanie Walters, and Laura Chislett Jones. Chislett Jones’ recital was a particular delight, taking the audience on a finely curated tour through works for flute and electronics of the past few decades. Taking place days after the murders on Burke St, Michael Smetanin’s at times violent and gentle Backbone was thoughtfully dedicated “to those who are suffering”.
The open stage in the middle of the Testing Grounds hosted a kaleidoscope of acts, making the experience of queuing for an artisanal burger all the more enjoyable. A highlight was Bianca Gannon’s solo gamelan with loop pedal performance, which brought a meditative tone to the balmy evening.
After a long day of new music it was refreshing to hear Nunique Quartet, a complexist super-group turned jazz band. It’s great to know people can have so much fun counting their irrational rhythms. Definitely hire for your next party.
As tiny festivals of sonic exploration, interdisciplinarity, and improvisation, the Liquid Architecture and Inland concert series are natural partners. For one of the year’s first concerts they teamed up to bring the world’s foremost experimental cellist Okkyung Lee, to Melbourne. The concert’s title suited the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration. “Nothing but disaster follows from applause” is a quotation from the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, who consistently criticised nationalism and religious hypocrisy in post-war Austria. While there is some uncertainty as to whether populism will develop into fascism under Trump, the election of a climate change denier to the White House all but seals the fate of our natural environment. Far from relaxing or soul-cleansing, the ecological theme that ran through “Nothing but disaster” was a “dark ecology” tinged with the melancholy knowledge of our contribution to the destruction of our own ecosystem.
Alexander Garsden and Ida Duelund-Hansen are better known to Partial Durations readers as a post-spectralist composer and a Scandinavian avant-garde chanteuse. These musical personalities find a magical synthesis in the folk-revival duo True Strength. Switching between Danish and English, Duelund-Hansen’s light and pure voice sings of waves, tussocks of grass, and terraced hillsides over Garsden’s floating acoustic guitar harmonies. Duelund-Hansen’s double bass part journeys along in melodic counterpoint. The overall sound is reminiscent of Alela Diane and Ryan Francesconi’s album Cold Moon, albeit denser and with a greater rate of textural change. True Strength’s songs are series of reflective tableaux, but they never let you linger too long. You can and should hear True Strength on Spotify (though don’t mistake them with the christian metal band), or live in Hobart and Melbourne over the next week.
Having last heard Oren Ambarchi perform a richly-textured noise set through a hulking battery of amplifiers at the Aurora Festival in 2011, I brought my earplugs to the Abbotsford Convent. These turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Crys Cole and Ambarchi’s principal source of amplification were networked smartphones. Cole used an iPad to send nocturnal field recordings to the phones spaced around the hall. Croaking frogs and chirping insects wafted through the room while Ambarchi repeated a single note on an acoustic guitar. Throughout the set, Cole’s sound design shifted into man-made analogues, including what sounded like rustling paper and vocal whispers. I found this set no less affecting than a full-body immersion in noise. Who can innocently listen to the sounds of nature any more? Every environmental sound is now an indictment of our custodianship of it. Once the purview of dollar-bin relaxation tape manufacturers, recording a cicada is now a radical act.
The synthesiser and tape collaborations of James Rushford and Joe Talia have long stretched the limits of the audible, but their whisper-soft set for “Nothing but disaster” gained a new poignancy from the ecological preludes of True Strength and Cole and Ambarchi. Among the Lynchesque synth drones I heard distant wolf-howls and crickets, all suffused in an electromagnetic, static glow.
Okkyung Lee’s set heralded from the other side of the world and the opposite end of the dynamic range. Playing behind the audience and in complete darkness, Lee let us know what an efficient noise machine the cello is. Growling, grinding, and never still, Lee savaged her instrument in new and remarkably dexterous ways, though this was only evident to me when I craned my neck to catch the shadow of her bow arm. We’ve all heard a cello getting murdered, but it would have been good to see how Lee does it. For the most part her technique was lost on the audience.
Liquid Architecture and Inland are the products of an adventurous and discerning experimental music community with the ability—more or less unique in the contemporary music community—to attract audiences from other art forms. Such curatorial vision has the power to develop powerful artistic responses to the social and environmental disasters of our age (take your pick).
Liquid Architecture and Inland
Nothing but disaster follows from applause
The Abbotsford Convent
20 January 2017
True Strength, Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi, James Rushford and Joe Talia, Okkyung Lee
Opening this week as part of the Sydney Festival, Mary Finsterer’s new opera Biographica presents a satisfying opportunity to hear some splendid performers (in what, by some measures, might be considered to be Australia’s leading opera company) presenting a major new work by one of our finest living composers.
Like Elliott Gyger, whose first opera Fly Away Peter was heard in Sydney and Melbourne during 2016, Finsterer has come to the writing of opera in mid-career. Indeed, she has written very little vocal music of any kind since the 1980s, so Biographica represents a new turn for her in several respects—as vocal music, as a theatre work, and as a large-scale piece. The duration is an interesting new development as many of Finsterer’s best-known works are relatively short, while the only piece longer than 30 minutes in her published catalogue prior to Biographica was the sound-track for Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary.
So, it would seem logical that Finsterer’s approach to composing a large-form (90-minute) opera would be informed by her experience as a composer for cinema. This does seem to be the case, and Biographica benefits from a cinematic sense of timing—but also, more importantly, from the composer’s filmic skill with pulling focus. Her strong musical personality is such that it easily takes the foreground—indeed this arresting quality has always been a key characteristic of Finsterer’s work. But here she shows a deep, 3-dimensional capacity for shifting the musical material to the middle-ground of the theatrical experience, and even at times to the full background, thus allowing space for the subtlety of a dramatic moment or gesture to be seen and felt by the audience.
Biographica is a staged meditation on the life and work of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), a Renaissance polymath whose abilities and life-story make someone like Leonardo Da Vinci seem rather dull. In many ways, Cardano’s legacy is much more important—while Da Vinci left us the Mona Lisa, Cardano’s intellectual legacy (to mention just a few things) includes pioneering work on mathematical probability, theories of how to win at card games, and designs for complex universal joints that are still used today in your car. When it came to gambling, Cardano was known to be a violent player; he always set out to win by applying his mathematical theories, so card-swapping interference from old-style cheats sent him into a rage—one imagines because they upset his calculations even more than his finances.
And then there was his personal life… hell’s bells. To say that Cardano had a dysfunctional family would be a kindly euphemism. His biography begins with an illegitimate conception and his mother’s failed attempts at abortion (she is played here by Jane Sheldon). It goes downhill from there, and in the opera we witness a few select low-lights: his beloved eldest son (Simon Lobelson) was executed for poisoning his own wife; his second son (Andrew Goodwin) ended in prison for theft (but not before Cardano Sr. cut his ear off); his daughter (Jessica O’Donoghue) died of syphilis… one sad case the master physician could not cure.
How does one present a tale like this in operatic form? How does one compose an opera at all in the 21st century? The answer, as discovered by Finsterer, is in a carefully designed set of twelve tableaux, and a main character who does not sing. The part of Cardano is played by the actor Mitchell Butel with sincerity and gravity. Here is a man of towering genius, misdirected passions, and personal tragedy… yet in the end his passing is radiant. Opera, of course, was a historicist art-form from the beginning (developed in the years just following Cardano’s own lifetime) in its concerns with reinventing a lost theatrical sensibility of some imagined golden age, and in the use of historical or mythological tales as a thinly veiled means for engaging with contemporary issues. So, while it was always concerned with the past, it has never been about the past. This deep reflection on Cardano’s work and life is really about us… you and I and our magnificent, disturbing world.
To some extent, Biographica is also a more universal reflection on the relation of work to life. Cardano’s personal life is sensational in a tabloid sense, but ultimately his intellectual work is surely more important. Or maybe not? Can we separate work from life, and if so, how? As a consulting doctor to a dying archbishop, Cardano delivers a lecture on hygiene, arguing that the man himself does not require treatment, “…it is the room around him that must be cured!”. This and other insights grew from his belief in the inter-connectedness of things. The heavenly bodies, he noted, drag entire oceans in their wake as they dance through space. How could they fail to exert an equally overwhelming influence upon tiny creatures like us?
In the music for Biographica, Finsterer re-processes Renaissance musical language but not simply as pastiche, this is something more profound… and in fact the composer has been working on this opera for quite a few years, developing her thinking about this musical world through several ‘satellite’ pieces (to borrow Larry Sitsky’s phrase), such as Angelus (a 2015 trio for clarinet, cello and piano) and Silva (a concerto for percussion and ensemble composed in 2012). In these pieces, we find Renaissance materials (melodic, harmonic, and gestural) filtered through a 21st century sensibility and technique.
How does a non-tonal composer assimilate diatonic and triadic materials meaningfully? This is not as simple a question as it sounds, and I suspect that it is in this area that the composer has made full and effective use of the several years spent developing this work. At the same time, we now notice through the filter of Biographica that intervals of 3rds (perhaps especially minor 3rds) have always been strongly present in Finsterer’s music, even in her more abstract pieces of the 1990s—as also is a tendency to build music structures around drone-like pedal points and long-held centric tones. Both of these have been made to serve as points of linkage for the incorporation of the Renaissance-inspired materials. In terms of orchestration, Finsterer is a composer who has always used extended playing techniques fluently as very natural sonorities alongside more conventional sounds, they never seem like mere effects in her music. The score for Biographica is full of lovely colours, both dramatic and subtle. The result is captivating, intelligent, and theatrically powerful.
The libretto by Tom Wright is complex and subtly nuanced, with layered textures that are an effective way to present some of the complexity of the stories and characters. The text spoken by Cardano (Mitchell Butel) is strong and offers a fine vehicle for the actor. Jane Sheldon is consistently excellent as Cardano’s mother, the special instrument of her higher register used to great effect. The omni-talented Jessica O’Donoghue (a wonderful pop singer-songwriter as well as classical performer) finds an elegant awkwardness for the tragic daughter of Cardano. One hopes to see more of her on the opera stage in future. The splendid mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser almost steals the show, both in the sense of her wonderful lower register playing a crucial part in Finsterer’s ensemble writing, and also in that her aria (tragi-comically sung as she takes a pause in dying from poison) somehow forms the dark heart of the opera, like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy.
The production is poetic, creative, and effective. Directed by Janice Muller (with support from Danielle Maas as Assistant Director), the staging is minimalist but with dark depths and surprising angles, making full use of the huge floor-space at Carriageworks. Designer Charles Davis has succeeded in creating a Renaissance effect, without the over-blown sense of a historical drama… it’s subtle enough to be almost a taste, or a philosophy, rather than a mere representation. The performance is gorgeously lit (by Matt Cox)—and the few moments in the later scenes where the lighting seems less convincing coincide with moments where a little dramatic momentum is lost generally (such as in scenes 10 and 11, and the transition to the final scene, ‘Day of Death’), suggesting that some additional rehearsal time might have been useful.
Opera is in its very nature a collaborative art-form, and this performance of Biographica is certainly the result of a very impressive and imaginative team-effort. Unlike a film or a play, however, this is a staged work that very clearly could only have been conceived by a composer, and in this sense it seems fair to give the final tribute to Mary Finsterer. Biographica is a beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work from an important composer of our time.
Music composed by Mary Finsterer
Libretto by Tom Wright
Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring.
Carriageworks, 7-9 & 11-13 January 2017
Review by Alistair Noble
Like all good neo-noir dystopias, the city of Michael Bakrnčev’s Sky Jammer has roots in contemporary urban life. In this episode I speak with Bakrnčev about property speculation, Macedonian folk dances, and conflicting advice in his Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers commission.
Thanks to the ABC and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for giving us permission to use their recording of Sky Jammer from the 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival.