Plexus are prodigious music collectors, racking up one of the, if not the, highest commission-counts of any contemporary music ensemble in Australia. Their Polyphony program at the Melbourne Recital Centre saw the trio inspire not one, but two choirs to join them in performing a program positively stuffed with new music by local and international composers. Already renowned soloists and chamber musicians, the substantial choral works bookending the concert showed Plexus to be consummate accompanists and collaborators as well.
Ed Frazier Davis sets moments from Shakespeare’s The Tempest against a sweeping cinematic background of swelling violin and rich piano harmonies for Melbourne’s adventurous Polyphonic Voices. Davis accents his tonal excesses with some effective and creative word painting, particularly in “Caliban’s Song” where swerving, choir-wide whistling beats in your ears. “A hum about mine ears” indeed. “Ariel’s Song” includes some seriously grave intoning of “Full fathom five my father lies” with a sunken cathedral near by. “Stephano’s Song” transported the audience to 11pm on the last night of choir tour. These finely-crafted portraits left me wanting to hear more of this oratorio-Tempest.
A much younger choir provided a no less brilliant performance of Dermot Tutty’s sprawling moral tale Colours Bleed. The VCASS Choir here take the place of a chorus narrating a story that will be familiar to any gap-year voluntourist: The passage from righteous dismay at global inequalities to a realisation of the complexity of local circumstances and the often problematic role of foreign aid workers. In this work Tutty draws on his experience working with and composing for students at the ABCs and Rice school in Cambodia. I wish the whole work could sustain the energy of its dashing opening, but I was heartened that Tutty saved some of his most dissonant writing for moments of realisation, where heartfelt delusion is peeled back to reveal bitter reality. What to do next is the question, when righteous dismay burns on amid the knowledge of how hard it can be to make a difference, and I think Tutty can be excused for not resolving this question here.
Not wanting to forget Plexus, it should be mentioned that they also tossed off three instrumental world premieres. Sdraulig’s Evocations are my favourite of Sdraulig’s pieces. Delicate and detailed they are, as he writes in his program note, “incantations” with a ceremonial quality that Plexus achieves with extreme focus and coordination across the ensemble. There was something nicely detached in this music, like surveying a model city with its tiny figures painted in bold block colours.
Plexus are always good for a contrast and hearing Andrew Aronowicz’s pointillist Shattering Blooms after the Sdraulig was like hearing music history sped up. After Sdraulig’s masterful linearity it was nice to hear a new line, a wiser, more crooked line with holes and sudden 90-degree turns. Though impactful and savage, this piece didn’t have the depth of character I have come to love about Aronowicz’s writing. It seemed somehow processed through quotation marks. That said, I have never seen a performer so convinced of a young composer’s music as pianist Stefan Cassomenos in the final moments of Shattering Blooms.
From the beginning of Andrzej Karalow’s Through I was worried about the bar chimes. They stood there next to clarinettist Philip Arkinstall like a bad omen. If only people occasionally set up instruments that they never played. To me chimes mean terribly produced children’s music and creepy 80s ABC TV. Fortunately Through quickly develops a murky, sinister texture. It is impenetrably dark for a while, depicting (according to the composer’s note) the topography of physical land and metaphysical dimensions. Arkinstall’s bass clarinet maintains this sense of hushed, nocturnal focus. When the chimes are finally played in the third movement, they do contribute to the “coloristic kaleidoscope” including crotales resounding around the Salon.
Plexus never cease to please with their commitment to new music and deft turns of programming. The inclusion of choral works in this concert adds another few strands to their plexus of musical activities.
Plexus with The Polyphonic Voices and the VCASS Chamber Choir
Melbourne Recital Centre
10 August 2016
Ed Frazier Davis, Tempest Songs; Harry Sdraulig, Evocations; Andrew Aronowicz, Shattering Blooms; Andrzej Karalow, Through; Dermot Tutty, Colours Bleed
For three balmy nights the Forest Collective filled the Abbotsford Convent with film, dance and music. The inaugural Flooding in the Garden festival included improvised extended vocals by Jenny Barnes and Carolyn Connors, dance by Elanor Webber, pop-elf William Elm and an independent film series also curated by Webber. The florid programme also included a series of contemporary notated works as part of Forest Collective’s own multi-disciplinary concert and Benjamin Anderson’s bass trombone recital Mixed Mediums.
Moving between the distressed art-deco rooms of the Convent, each new medium was an unexpected delight. William Elm festooned the Rosina Auditorium with fairy lights and lamps for his set of puckish accordion duets. The breathtaking physicality of Webber’s The Texture of It exploded in the Chapel. The venue was lit from inside and outside the building, recreating lighting effects from different times of the day. Rays of afternoon light streamed in through the stained-glass windows, nocturnal lamp-light lit the contorted bodies of the dancers and a diffuse morning glow filled the space. An ensemble including Benjamin Harrison, Rob McDonald and Jennifer Mills performed instrumental textures in tight coordination with the dancers, leaving one guessing where composition left off and improvisation began. Later that night Webber transformed the hall into the Chapel of the Independent Film, with a series of experimental and cine-dance films exploring shape, colour and texture.
In Benjamin Anderson’s recital, the audience was confronted with a projection of the movie-star face of General MacArthur and a recording of his 1962 speech to the Corp of Cadets. MacArthur declared the dawn of a “new age”: the space age. So too was it a new age for Australia, one defined by the move away from our traditional British defenders and towards tighter military ties with the United States. Perhaps no moment exemplified this shift more than MacArthur fleeing the Philippines to Australia in 1942. A plaque at a disused railway platform in the miniscule South Australian town of Terowie marks the spot where he famously claimed he would return to the Philippines. He quickly assumed control of the Australian Forces as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific Area, setting up his base in Brisbane. So, this digression argues, we have at least some reason to project this speech in a hall in Melbourne today. Anderson walks in dressed in a military parade uniform and begins playing Robert Erickson’s General Speech. Erickson transcribes MacArthur’s speech for the bass trombone, focussing mainly on the pitch of MacArthur’s voice (admittedly he has to exaggerate, MacArthur’s delivery being fairly monotone). There are scored coughs and sips of water, the only relief from what is a fairly dull setting of the text. The piece was composed in 1969 and I can imagine composers today, with their greater familiarity with extended techniques, would make a more inventive transcription. It would be good to hear several different transcriptions of the speech by different composers, or perhaps transcriptions of a more recent speech by an Australian politician. As the musicologist Linda Kouvaras explored in a recent paper at the Musicological Society of Australia’s annual conference, Youtube is already rife with this sort of musical play. With General Speech, Anderson established a theme of the concert: the bass trombone as caricature. Anderson is a tall young performer with loads of character, making him the ideal performer for these works.
The parodic bass trombone reached its zenith with Andrew Aronowicz’s The Physiology of Taste. Here the bass trombone is the nineteenth-century gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as he slurps and degustates his way through his famous treatise The Physiology of Taste. The first movement, “The pleasures of the initial tasting,” consists aptly of tentative, pattering little bursts occasionally punctuated by a sucking smack of the lips. Everything about this movement is about the lips and the tip of the tongue. The second movement, “Relishing the Texture and Composition of the Delicacies” explores longer tones of different timbres, from the purest high note to the instrument’s flatulent bass. It was at this point in the concert that I questioned why I ever go to concerts by established ensembles, younger performers being often more inventive, daring and downright humourous. The third movement, “The Savours,” presents the four tastes: salty, sour, bitter and sweet. Anderson brilliantly executed the dry, shaking, stabbing “puh puh puh” of salt; a puckered and wheezing sourness (exaggerated by a nasal double mute); the cracklingly-low bitterness of espresso coffee (as Brillat-Savarin writes of Melbourne’s favourite way to make coffee: “I have also tried to make coffee in a high pressure boiling apparatus; all I obtained however was a fluid intensely bitter, and strong enough to take the skin from the throat of a Cossack.”). Aronowicz’s depiction of sweetness attempted to reflect “every refinement of temptation” with which, Brillat-Savarin writes, we must use to convince the diner, who has already satisfied their hunger, to indulge. The final movement, “The Irrepressible Urge to Gorge,” represented Brillat-Savarin’s least favourite diner, one who cannot resist overeating and getting drunk. Anderson played higher and louder in between great big gulping sounds. I imagined the waiter in the Monty Python scene (“but it is wafer-thin”) as Anderson finished with a series of tiny toots and then a burp.
In Charles MacInnes’ cirque, “stuck in traffic, an out of work clown tweets about his daily annoyances to a growing audience hungry for the next distraction and amusement.” The impression I got from Anderson’s repeated checking of his phone and restless fidgeting was more of a music student struggling to get down to their daily practice (or perhaps a PhD student writing reviews instead of their thesis).
Character pieces were only one facet of Anderson’s immense programme. Wuorinen’s trio for bass trombone, tuba and double bass ranges between low, pulsing phrases and lyrical episodes exploring the instruments’ baritone registers. The brighter double bass played by Miranda Hill cut through the mellower brass with agile lines. It is a transparent and self-contained chamber work out of place, perhaps welcomely-so, in this character-driven programme.
Elliott Hughes’ Underdogs, with regrets is about iterations of forms, inspired by Jasper Johns’ exhibition “Regrets,” in which he recreated a photograph in multiple mediums. Hughes repeated gestures inspired by Charles Mingus with several different mutes and musical variations. It was not unlike the way one mulls over and replays regrettable moments in different lights. The piece uses subtle and tasteful uses of electronics. The spatialisation of captured trombone sounds expanded slowly over the duration of the piece, subtly producing a chorus of distant-sounding, growling and erupting brass.
Martijn Padding’s Schumann’s Last Procession for bass trombone and harp slowly takes apart a loping, bluesy duet where the two instruments also play a kick drum and a hihat. The piece devolves until all that is left is the percussion and a low, drawn-out note from the trombone. I only learned afterward of the programme: the walks Schumann was allowed to take to the statue of Beethoven in Bonn while he was receiving brutal, experimental treatments at Endenich, Europe’s first psychiatric hospital.
Peter De Jager’s Timescales for solo trombone and lighting design is comfortably dense. I quite liked the choice of hyper-real purple, green and blue lighting for different moments in the piece, not unlike an updated version of Scriabin’s colour organ. In another Scriabin-esque gesture, the piece presents three formal levels depicting cosmic, human and atomic time scales, from drawn-out modal pitches to expressive harmonies to chromatic interjections. In terms of pitch and rhythmic material it was by far the most complex piece on the programme and well deserving (if not requiring) another listen.
The bass trombone rarely receives a whole recital unto itself, though as one audience member mentioned after the show: “I didn’t know what to expect, then I realised it was a music recital.” As the title “Mixed Mediums” further suggests, Anderson’s programme encompassed so much more. Costume, lighting, performative elements and even food (petit fours representing the four flavours were served at interval) contributed to this series of new works by young composers, keeping the audience thinking for the duration of the concert.
The Mingled Yarn
The mixed-medium theme continued with Forest Collective’s theatre-and-music programme The Mingled Yarn. The five contemporary soliloquies based by Samuel Yeo inspired by characters from Shakespeare’s plays were in turns powerful (Sam Lavery’s Caesar) and hilarious (Julia Lamb’s Juliet). Musically, the Forest Collective took a little time to get their ear in. Was this because of the abrupt beginning, where Lawson walked in and immediately started conducting? It was a clever, informal gesture in the streaming afternoon light of the backstage area of the Rosina Auditorium, but intonation issues plagued William Byrd’s “Kyrie” from the Mass for Three Voices, which was played by violin, viola and cello with occasional humming from the vocalists in the style of John McCaughey. By the time of Evan Lawson’s Winter Canticle, however, the ensemble was focussed and responding well to Lawson’s energetic and inspired conducting. the piece is a reworking of previous material, taking the emotional structure of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as a formal basis. An introductory episode of drones and vocalises gives way to an astounding rhythmic explosion. The three vocalists declare “Winter!” as febrile string phrases scurry about. The voices speak and whisper phrases from the play in an emotional polyphony, accompanied by energetic scrubbing in the strings. Lawson has learnt well from his twentieth-century heroes including Britten and Vaughan Williams; even at its dynamic peak the ensemble is always colourful, transparent and mobile. Throughout the concert, the three female vocalists each had their time to shine. Christine Storey’s performance of Flow my Tears was a true interpretation, with an expressive reading of the text and appropriate tempo and use of vibrato. Stefanie Dingnis’ rendition of My Thoughts are Wing’d presented an uncommonly clear and sensitive voice, while Rosemary Ball’s Chant D’Ariel by Arthur Honegger was a tour de force.
The Flooding in the Garden Festival is an excellent way to spend some warm late-spring nights in Melbourne. While the diversity of the programme is appreciated, perhaps the organisation is currently a bit diffuse. A single schedule and map of the Convent would have made planning one’s evenings easier. Here’s hoping this was the first of many.
Flooding in the Garden Festival
11–13 December, 2014
Rowan Hamwood (flute)
Alexina Hawkins (viola)
Jessica Fotinos (harp)
Wednesday 22 May
Petrichor’s recent concert at Conduit Arts found young and established composers alike asking themselves what on earth to do with a harp. Petrichor’s “take no prisoners” style of performance charged the small space of Conduit Arts with an atmosphere of absolute concentration.
Julius Millar’s Two Pieces for Flute, Viola and Harp contrasted a soundscape haunted with apparitions of clusters and string tremoli with a rhythmic piece based around a “ticking” harp ostinato. Sometimes the viola would join the harp in a hocket figure, or soar away on a legato line. Well-developed counterpoint between the flute and viola provided a moment of intense interest that then exploded into a spectacular cacophony on all three instruments.
Barry Conyngham’s Streams cast the harp in a similar role, as the pulsing accompaniment to contrapuntal play between the harp and viola. Conyngham transitions fluidly between such textures and layered trills with swelling dynamics and glorious open chords cut short by the idiomatic harpistic string-clang, which has to be heard to be believed (and if you go to harp concerts, will be believed more often than you wish).
Evan Lawson’s Skinnis for Flute, Viola and Harp (now on its second outing) was the only piece to utilise the harp’s majestic glissandi and full, ringing chords. These kitschy effects were welcome after the crystal-clear articulation and motoric effects of the “bean-counting harp.”
Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Garden of Joy and Sorrow canvassed all of these possibilities for combining flute, viola and harp, then developed many more through a series of vignettes punctuated by spoken German phrases. A particularly fascinating sound was an extremely fast phrase on viola, played with a very fast bow to produce a “squeaky” sound like a tape on fast-forward, above a machine-gun tattoo on the harp with paper woven between the strings.
The program also included a series of solo works including Gordon Kerry’s Antiphon for viola, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Canzona di Ringraziamento for fluteand Suart Greenbaum’s Church at Domburg for harp. In all three cases the skill and conviction of these ANAM-trained musicians was in evidence.