Tag Archives: Argonaut Ensemble

BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Neon Pig

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 NEON PIG_MG_9323.jpeg
Matteo Cesari performing Foglio d’Iride by Stefano Bulfon with the Argonaut Ensemble. Elliott Gyger conducting. Jason Tavener photography 

Review by Johannes MacDonald

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.

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 NEON PIG_MG_9420
Fernando Garnero silences Marshall McGuire in Neon Pig. Jason Tavener photography

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.

Neon Pig
Argonaut Ensemble
Ulumbarra Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September, 2017

Stefano Bulfon, Foglio d’Iride; Fernando Garnero, Neon Pig


BIFEM: Argonaut, Plank Rodeo

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 PLANK RODEO_MG_9298
Plank Rodeo. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Joel Roberts

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.

Plank Rodeo
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

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Diptych

Argonaut Ensemble rehearse for Diptych, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Alex Taylor

BIFEM has been notable for its symmetries of programming and its commitment to singular (hardcore) aesthetics. Mirroring the opening concert Seeing Double, which paired double concertos from Australian composers, Diptych put together two substantial electronics-saturated quintets from composers working in Paris: Chilean Jose Miguel Fernandez and Italian Lara Morciano. Both composers have embraced the medium full force, drenching their sonic canvases in swathes of electronic and acoustic colour. This was a celebration of sensual overload, fecundity, excess.

Fernandez’s Amas (which translates as a “heap”, a “pile”, or an “accumulation”) opens with a sustained, glistening electronic texture rich in high partials. Over this, oboist Ben Opie sets out his crucial role from the get-go with piercing, microscopically oscillating trills that will return as a sort of refrain: a central trunk of sound from which the other instruments branch. The smooth oboe tone soon begins to splinter into virtuosic fragments, intersecting and colliding with the ensemble.

The jarring physical movements of both energetic percussionist Madi Chwasta and suave guitarist Mauricio Carrasco trigger live processing elements; soon Opie’s oboe darting arabesques are surrounded by scrunches and flicks of percussive sound. Conversely the violin and double bass parts seem, at least initially, more sympathetic to, even synergistic with the oboe line, hanging off pitch material and short tremolo phrases. But the oboe alone seems immune from electronic interference: all the other instruments are draped in the digital.

Fernandez draws connections between micro and macro forms: structurally the work oscillates, just as the oboe does, between chunks of dense, hyperactive texture and more restrained, relatively static sections. As listeners we’re continuously in flux: machines spin out of control; Liquids seize up. Near the middle of the work, cut-up static and percussion—accompanying a hugely virtuosic oboe cadenza—gives way to nothing but gentle electronic vibrato. But the innate disturbance of this germinal oscillating figure soon precipitates more forceful action. Over the sustained spectral base, a series of striking single sounds emerge: oboe multiphonics, gong strikes with upward bends, exaggerated double bass vibrato. Throughout, the oboe soloist maintains a vital presence, either against a stippled tachisme effect, or on a bed of gentle creaks and sighs.

The last chunk of the piece is notable for its sensitivity: it seems beautifully quaint and nostalgic after so much whirling virtuosity. Though the needling oboe trills return again, this time they herald a point of rest at the end of the work. The texture once again gravitates towards sustained sounds, and Fernandez hints at an underlying tonality with seagull glissandi, guitar harmonics and what to my ears is a simple Lydian mode, delicately adorned.

The periodic violence in Amas didn’t quite prepare me for what was to come: Morciano’s Estremo d’ombra was singularly relentless, primal in its pursuit of sonic saturation.

I found the staging elements (and particularly the lighting) a little tokenistic and heavy-handed. Before the piece began, the room was filled with smoke before being completely darkened. The instrumentalists entered one by one, beginning with bassist Jonathan Heilbron, extracting some wonderfully luminous colours from his instrument. This initial growth of the ensemble, subtly augmenting the existing pulsating sound mass, Morciano managed skilfully. However, often new sections of the work would coincide with stark lighting changes, undermining the sense of continuity and accumulation.

Nevertheless, if Amas might be characterised in geometric metaphor as a sine wave, Estremo d’ombra was a wedge, a shadow that grew from a single point to a huge mass, a trajectory that threatened to overwhelm the listener (or at least this particular listener).

As the other higher-pitched instruments entered one by one, the texture became increasingly jittery, chaotic, unbound from its drone origin. This culminated in a sort of hyper-toccata between flute and viola, almost a tremolo of continuous activity; later on an answering section laid out an intricate heterophonic duet between flute and alto saxophone. Throughout, electronics caught the resonance of the various instrumental techniques, building up wave after wave of gesture with echoes of crunch tones, multiphonics, battuto hits, slap-tongues and snap pizzicato.

With the instrumentalists moving to more and more extreme distortions of their ordinary timbres–the most vicious of viola crunch tones, the extreme high register of the flute, Michael Liknovsky exchanging alto for baritone saxophone–we braced for a final assault. And it came: the players gathered in tight around bassist Heilbron, ditching their scores for pure ecstatic free improvisation.

The physical spectacle of this was impressive, but by this point twenty or so minutes in, Estremo D’Ombre felt somewhat indulgent; where Amas held tension in the interplay of stasis and movement, in the mechanistic and the organic, Morciano’s work held little such tension, only relentless drive and growth. While I admire its bravado and commitment, I would have quite happily left the cramped hall ten minutes earlier.

Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatrette
4 September 2016

José Miguel Fernández, Amas; Lara Morciano, Estremo d’Ombra

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (2)

(C)Jason Tavener Photography HARP G UITAR DOUBLE CONCERTO_MG_1126
Argonaut Ensemble, Maxime Pascal conductor, Harp Guitar Double Concerto by David Chisholm, Jason Tavener photography

Review by Alex Taylor

Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a converted jail, may soon be home to BIFEM’s resident Argonaut ensemble on a more permanent basis. At Friday night’s opening concert Seeing Double, Bendigo festival founder and featured composer David Chisholm waxed lyrical on the “criminal” lack of this kind of permanent new music infrastructure. “All criminals need to be brought to justice, and this is the jail where that can happen.” BIFEM’s opening double bill of double concerti showed us both the possibilities and temptations of that infrastructure, embodied here by large, skilful instrumental forces and consummate soloists and conductors; a veritable toybox for two precocious postmodernists.

Jack Symonds’s Decadent Purity is a work that attempts to blend quite disparate elements. At the outset a cloud of high harmonics hovers over a stop-start grumble of double bass and contrabass clarinet, opening up a chasm of registral space and spectral colour. The two solo instruments, too, carve opposing roles; the viola d’amore draws out its long line against percussive exclamation marks: elaborated argument against decisive punctuation. The first of seven movements also sets out another more uncomfortable dichotomy: two harmonic worlds in combat. A sturdy neo-Baroque tonality, reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, is pitted against the subtle slippage and inflection of microtones and textural nuance. It’s a promising collision.

Both soloists hold the drama of the work in their phrasing and movements. James Wannan sways on tiptoe, his viola d’amore an ornate, many-stringed creature of clear resonance and line, making the most of the acoustic at the front of the Ulumbarra Theatre stage. Wannan’s approach embodies the decadent purity of the title, imbuing Baroque details with a rich, almost Romantic sensibility. Percussionist Kaylie Melville moves with a pixie swagger, each entry dashed off with a cutting, almost sardonic precision. But her role for the most part remains one of commentary and fleeting gesture, unable to enter the harmonic and melodic realms that form the bulkhead of the work.

As captivating as the soloists were to watch and listen to, the dramaturgy and flow of the work itself at times seemed forced, imposed from above rather than extrapolated from the rich materials already at play. You couldn’t help but be seduced by sighing herds of ascending or descending microtones, but these remained as fixed objects rather than catalysts for generating gesture. The restraint and sensitivity of more spacious sections (for example the penultimate movement with its slow-moving scales) was several times undercut by overtly dramatic tropes. High-energy toccatas recurred throughout the work, most forcefully in the final movement where the marimba propelled us, no, forced us, towards cadential release.

The attractiveness of Symonds’s work is undeniable, but the promise of that initial collision of soloists, ensemble and the stylistic strains of both Baroque and modernist Avant-Garde is ultimately left unfulfilled.

David Chisholm’s Harp Guitar Double Concerto seemed a more natural and less masochistic pairing than viola d’amore and percussion: here were two forces of equal dynamism and resonance. A striking, hard-edged opening hints at the diverse gestural possibilities of those two soloists. Rapid pinball glissandi in the brittle high reaches of the harp answer a deep upward sweep in the guitar.

Like a flickbook, the opening cuts rapidly from gesture to gesture, often blurring in the orchestral maelstrom of an expanded Argonaut Ensemble. You get the sense that this is a kind of pastiche, but not of direct quotation, or even of particularly strong stylistic allusion. Occasionally more distinctive slivers poke through: swaggering muted brass recall Miles Davis, and later a frantic viola solo has echoes of Elliott Carter, a haywire cog spinning in the wrong machine. These are relatively rare moments, and you sense there might be a wealth of such detail hidden amidst some ambitiously thick, even clumpy textures. These aren’t helped by an acoustic that threw the soloists into relief at the front of the stage, while damping the intricacies beyond the proscenium arch.

For much of the work, the action continues in postmodern pile-up fashion, impulsive, rather than linear, time hammered out ecstatically. For a time, this was immersive, like those pools of plastic balls you used to get at some adventurous fast food chain playgrounds, a liquid made of solid objects. But as the piece progressed there was a more and more present feeling that these gestures, constrained as they were in a four-square metric scheme, rarely got beyond fragments. You have to say too that the obvious talents of conductor Maxime Pascal were utilised sparingly with so much martial time-keeping. However within the relatively square metric scheme, Pascal was able to draw out a range of bold shapes and colours from the ensemble.

It wasn’t until the fluid, effortless harp cadenza, a dazzling display of delicacy both from Chisholm and from harp soloist Jessica Fotinos, that we glimpsed an interior alternative to the glitzy, pluralistic mass offered by the front half of the work. Even though, like the rest of the piece, it might have benefitted from more space and breath, the finely crafted but rather lengthy cadenza allowed us to pivot towards lyricism and fragility. Out of the cadenza came a positively decadent cor anglais duo from Jasper Ly and Benjamin Opie, foreshadowing their oboe heroics at the exquisite, abrupt ending. In turn the cor anglais led us tag-team into a nostalgic, washed-out kind of texture, strings fluttering between solid pitches and combinations of ethereal partials.

The guitar soloist, Mauricio Carrasco, also had a chance to show off his solo chops, delivering both sheer brutality and lyrical nuance in a much shorter but no less impactful cadenza. In fact, it contained to my mind the evening’s most sensitive, fantastical moment. Out of the resonance of guitar harmonics came a delicate veil of sound, initially difficult to place but revealed as a falsetto vocal hum from Fotinos across the stage. The harmonics and falsetto continued, a true interior world, almost haunting in a fragile continuity against the flamboyance of what had come before. After a brief and brutal swansong in the guitar, we returned to that interior, but more confidently, as if a fresh discovery has been made. Over a breathy mass of sustained string harmonics, the oboes asserted this new, insistent lyricism: at the very end, a way forward.

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016
Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity; David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)


BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Superimpose Cycle

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Alexander Schubert's Superimpose Cycle. Photo by Jason Tavener.
The Argonaut Ensemble perform Alexander Schubert’s Superimpose Cycle. Photo by Jason Tavener.

Review by Delia Bartle

“Splits between real and faked instruments; a hyperactive zapping through styles and stereotypes” is how Hamburg composer Alexander Schubert describes his 2011 Superimpose Cycle for Jazz Quartet and Electronics. This whimsical idea was energetically realised in the work’s Australian premiere by the Argonaut Ensemble, comprising a hybrid instrumentation of piano, saxophone, violin, double bass, electric guitar, drums and electronics. Both the audience and musicians were seated on the dimly lit stage of Bendigo’s Capital Theatre, immersed in a hazy space that became home to disfigured saxophone solos, hammered piano notes and wailing guitar glissandi.

Schubert creates a dense and unpredictable cross-genre sensation by mixing traditional composition elements with the impulsive spontaneity of jazz and electronics. The musicians in Superimpose Cycle were guided by in-ear click tracks—quite a contrast to typical jazz gigs where performers are often reliant on eye contact and gesture to achieve cohesiveness. Even though the individualised click tracks created the appearance of a detached ensemble, the seven musicians maintained a palpable sense of joyous unity. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde and pianist Emil Holmström thundered vigorously through demanding passages of repeated notes, with minimal signalling and absolute synchronicity.

In the second movement, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, Anita Hustas explored the timbral possibilities of amplified double bass by alternating quick pizzicato stabs with weighty bowed tones, her smooth glissandos juxtaposed with electronics that bubbled with tension. Drummer Phil Collings joined in with a laidback jazz rhythm before launching into the complex patterns that propelled the work.

‘Infinite Jest’ exploded with a frenzy of crashing electronic waves that were initially a little confronting. As the floor rumbled with shuddering pulses, this density soon enveloped the audience in a cocoon of sonic experimentalism. Roaring and gnarly chords were driven to the forefront of this wall of sound by electric guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe.

The evolving interplay between the live acoustic instruments and processed electronics was particularly intriguing. In the earlier movements, stuttering sound samples were interspersed with instrumental figures in a back-and-forth manner, like the musical equivalent of a tennis match. This divide became gradually less distinctive as the electronics instead distorted the real-time performance with reverb and effects.

Schubert wrote a series of computer processers to align with the timing sequence of the click track, so that new sound effects are implemented and withdrawn as the musicians reach certain points in the score. Heavily amplified violin featured in ‘Sugar, Maths and Whips’ with audible bow changes of a gritty, textural quality. Violinist Winnie Huang coped exceptionally with an unintentional technology glitch as the violin’s notes echoed in the sound system after a second of delay. Electronic musician Myles Mumford was on stage to control the running of the pre-programmed processors, and he explained afterwards that the unexpected delay was due to a processer adding latency where there should have been none. Although this was a computer error, it also became a functional musical feature that unknowingly embodied Schubert’s philosophy of there being little distinction between scripted sounds and indeterminate happenings.

To superimpose is to place one thing over another so that both items are still evident and identifiable. The Argonaut Ensemble achieved this by balancing myriad diverse sounds and textures as though they were coloured panes in a kaleidoscope. Beautiful textural patterns constantly rotated to create shifting overlaps of colour and sound in a thrilling performance of vibrant musicality.

Superimpose Cycle
The Argonaut Ensemble
Alexander Schubert
The Capital
6 September 2015
BIFEM 2015
Delia Bartle

BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Sur Incises

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez's Sur incises. Photo by Marty Williams.
The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez’s Sur incises. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Jaslyn Robertson

The stage layout for Argonaut ensemble’s performance of Boulez’s Sur Incises sculpts an image of the sound world to come. Three pianos at the front of the stage are shadowed by three harps—extensions of their resonant strings. Behind, three batteries of tuned percussion give physical form to that ringing resonance that hovers above the music. The lush garden of sounds Argonaut ensemble evoke in their performance of the 1998 work reflects with purity Boulez’s orchestration and texture. The eclectic instrumentation may limit performances of the work, but the collection of timbres allows for a distinctive fluidity between instruments, with harps and vibraphones becoming extensions of the piano.

Conductor Eric Dudley and the ensemble were clearly aware of the importance of decay throughout the work, and exploited this thematically. This is epitomised in the final moment of the concert, when Dudley holds the audience in silence until well after the last note dies out. There’s an ethereal harmony heard in the resonance of three separate chords ending each pianist’s run. The ringing tones of vibraphones, crotales and steel drums hang in the air in moments between dense activity. Boulez’s orchestration disguises the attack of one instrument in the decay of others, blurring the distinction between instruments. Dense piano clusters reduce to reveal a gentle harp melody or crotales take over to continue an ascending passage as a pianist reaches the top end of his range.

Alternation between precisely timed rhythmic passages and aleatoric gestures are a defining feature of the piece. At times, the music lingers in one mindset for a while, as in the fast, strict toccata of the first movement. The musicians in this performance perfected both technical rhythms and interpreted grace notes—unmeasured notes which allow for flexibility. On the latter, the conductor signals only a starting point after which each performer decides the timing of the notes, creating a gentle falling away of sound. The smooth contour of the work was not lost in these parts, a credit to the ensemble’s ability to give expression without hesitation while maintaining coherency.

The performers were not only individually virtuosic, but worked well as an ensemble. Moulding the individuality of their playing, the three pianists often worked to create the same kind of timbre, even at times sounding as one instrument. There was also a sense of timbral continuity between different instruments, with the pianists gently caressing the keys to evoke the sound of harp glissandi or playing low rhythmic passages to imitate marimba.

The ensemble lost no expressivity in this accurate performance of a technically demanding piece. The natural cohesion between conductor and all ensemble members was felt by the audience. A well-rehearsed and knowledgeable ensemble held together a piece that relies on moments of chance indistinguishable from strictly notated passages. Argonaut’s interpretation of ‘Sur Incises’ was a highlight of the festival.

Sur Incises
Pierre Boulez
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Capital Theatre
5 September 2015
Jaslyn Robertson



BIFEM 2015

BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Maudite soit la guerre (2)

Argonaut Ensemble perform Olga Neuwirth's Maudite soit la guerre. Photo by Marty Williams.
Argonaut Ensemble perform Olga Neuwirth’s Maudite soit la guerre. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Charles MacInnes

Olga Neuwirth provokes fresh artistic perspectives by combining the new with the old. We see the patchy restoration of the Belgian silent film “Maudite soit la Guerre” (“Accursed be War”, dir. Alfred Machin, 1914), but accept it due to a live music that pits episodic tunefulness against a soundscape of slipping tonal certainty. The trick to understanding this is to place the sound at the focal point of our attention so it becomes the narrative, and the pictures become the incidental.

Music can perform this shift very well because its abstraction leaves you imagining a world beyond the visual. The chamber orchestra replaces the organ accompaniment of old: “You always need to remember the past! That is the only way that we could learn something,” says Neuwirth in an interview with her publisher Ricordi in 2014. As I walk from the Ulumbarra Theatre’s converted gaol toward the Rifle Hotel, I’m already thinking of the Syrians arriving in Europe. Of our collective responsibility. And guilt. Neuwirth is a step ahead because her sound world provides us with a more satisfying ultimate redemption than that of the colourised celluloid.

In the film story itself, Adolph furthers his training as an aviator by visiting a country that looks and feels like Belgium or France. Honky-tonk piano clanks while the harmon-muted brass crack wise and jostle with colleagues as they meet at the airfield. New-fangled flying machines are being inspected, and as the string harmonics are slowly replaced by concentric sustained cowbells, we are taken to the tavern three months hence as Germany declares war.

The declaration means that Adolph and his new friend Sigismond are now enemies. Even though Adolph has fallen in love with Sigismond’s sister Lidia, he must now return to the Vaterland to take up arms. The melodrama thickens; a grave clarinet turns upon itself alongside forward marching brass and above the strata of an elbowing organ and stringed hums. A mistuning of signals is now more pronounced—the sample track and whimsical electric guitar are prompting us to reconsider earlier impressions.

Blood red explosions are sighted through binoculars as the world is turned upside down. Adolph hallucinates that his sweetheart appears as the suddenly more menacing and now armed flying contraptions lurch and veer above. The percussionist stings the enemy with rapid gunfire and a harrowing sequence follows where hot air balloons are attacked, catching fire and eventually caving in on themselves. These are the corpses; war is indeed cursed. Neuwirth tells us with a further splaying of the tonal focus that another pivotal scene is nigh. A telegraph communiqué is sent via elevated strings and leads to the windmill where Adolph is hiding being set ablaze and collapsing. Lover and girlfriend’s brother emerge from the opposing sides and are both slain on the battlefield.

Cut to a year later and the lieutenant who brought the grim tidings to the family is making a play for the now single Lidia. Love is in the air until she spots her lover’s medallion pinned to his uniform. She convulses and contemplates drowning herself but instead retreats to the convent. We hear a veiled Bach chorale (could it be “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”?) and later a Stravinsky-like “Jesu, Joy…”. By now the sample track and the orchestra are worlds apart and the last vocal echoes shimmer a little longer beyond the church and greenery.

Eric Dudley’s conducting magnificently disguised the presence of his in-ear click track and the Argonaut Ensemble was precise and fluid. I was not convinced that the sound design and amplification recognised the subtle internal dynamics of the acoustic ensemble. The strings and bright percussion occasionally dominated in the mix, leaving some of the delicate muted brass and guitar layers behind. The sophistication of the writing and interpretation created an extraordinarily poignant opening to the 2015 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music.

Maudite soit la guerre: A Film Music War Requiem (2014) by Olga Neuwirth
Argonaut Ensemble conducted by Eric Dudley
Friday 4 September
Ulumbarra Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Charles MacInnes

BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Maudite soit la guerre

Argonaut Ensemble perform Olga Neuwirth's live score to Maudite soit la guerre. Photo by Marty Williams.
Argonaut Ensemble perform Olga Neuwirth’s live score to Maudite soit la guerre. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Delia Bartle

Scenes of war flicker across a screen in a darkened hall. Repetitive percussion drills like gunfire and strains of a honky tonk piano emerge from under shimmering strings. This is the sound of Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell), one of the first anti-war films. The 1914 motion picture juxtaposes tradition with the unexpected arrival of a mechanical age of war. Similarly, Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s live score bridges the divide between conventional instrumentation and innovative performance techniques.

The film interprets the turmoil of war through the narrative of a doomed love story and two rival aviators. Neuwirth was commissioned by Ensemble 2e2m in 2014 to compose a soundtrack and the Argonaut Ensemble interpreted the score with a spellbinding balance of delicacy and vigour.

Eric Dudley conducted with subtle gestures to foster an ensemble dynamic that bristled with energy. Neuwirth’s score is unique as far as film music goes in that the image and sound sometimes do not correlate. At one point a windmill crashes to the ground, but there’s no literal effect to signify this. It was intriguing to witness the way in which our reactions were shaped by what we heard more so than what we saw, in particular when comical salon music drew laughter from the audience while characters on screen were departing for war.

Violinist Zachary Johnston, violist Christian Read and cellist Paul Zabrowarny excelled, playing cowbells as well as their usual instruments. Roughly bowed string motifs and airy harmonics created an electric atmosphere. Trumpeter Tristram Williams and trombonist Benjamin Marks delivered crisp notes before shifting into rich echoes of military fanfare. Marks even picked up a melodica to add comic effect to the already diverse world of sound, and electric guitarist Mauricio Carrasco emulated eerie air raid sirens with rising and sinking glissandos.

Neuwirth draws on a range of textures and instrumentations to create a dramatic mix of electronics, classical instrumentation and film. Maudite soit la guerre predominantly features soundscapes over melodic continuity, often with dense passages of limited dynamic range. Neuwirth’s musical theatre works frequently explore the relationship between collaboration and resistance, and that was identifiable in this performance through the overlapping textures and conflicting musical and visual themes.

The film’s director, Alfred Machin, produced this work with the intent to counteract the typically glamorised war propaganda that saturated society leading into the First World War. Neuwirth says of the film, ‘You always need to remember the past! That is the only way that we could learn something’. The Argonaut Ensemble embraced Neuwirth’s philosophy with this performance that honoured the ANZAC Centenary, reminding us of the harrowing emotions generated by war through the frame of an explorative soundscape.

Argonaut Ensemble
Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell) – A Film Music War Requiem (2014)
2015 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
Friday 4 September, 2015

Delia Bartle