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
3 September 2016
Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries; Liza Lim, How Forests Think