Tag Archives: Aaron Cassidy

2016BIFEM: ELISION, How Forests Think

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.

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

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Elision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Cities
10 May 2016
Melbourne Recital Centre

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