Tag Archives: Barry Conyngham

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: MSO, Heavenly Cities; Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata, Visions de l’Amen

With classic works by Olivier Messiaen and forward-looking pieces by living Australian composers, the final night of the Metropolis New Music Festival straddled over 75 years of new music. Building on the festival theme of “the city” with two world premières, Metropolis finally addressed issues of migration and the unique environmental and social predicaments of Australian cities.

Barry Conyngham’s Diasporas placed much-needed emphasis on the migrant populations that make cities thrive. And he did so—thank goodness—without trying to imitate a cultural melting pot of musics. Instead the piece was like watching a world map of population movements. A deep, murky bed of sound depicts the various dangers and “push factors” that encourage populations to pack up their things and move to unknown shores. Textures made up of massed scurrying runs or accented notes pass from desk to desk and from section to section. From the birds-eye view of this composed heterophony we zoom down to the human level as instrumental solos full of bitter-sweet hope rise out of the texture. Moving from statistical abstraction to human detail, Diasporas inverts the dominant narrative of migration in this country, the narrative that says “yes there are human lives at stake, but we mustn’t let that influence our policy.”

Michael Bakrnčev updates the “city scape” piece for twenty-first century Melbourne with Sky Jammer. Sky Jammer has at its base the social and environmental problems arising from urbanisation that have been so absent from the festival so far. In his program note Bakrnčev cites a prediction that by 2056 the population of Melbourne will climb towards ten million. But can the surrounding environment support such a population (especially if Melbourne’s water supply is reduced by up to 35% as a result of climate change)? Bakrnčev also feels that social groups and families will be strained by the growing population. With median house prices at or near one million dollars in Melbourne and Sydney, young people cannot afford to buy property near their families or where they grew up. To Bakrnčev, the sky scrapers being erected around Melbourne are not the beacons of progress and economic vigor as we have heard older composers depict them. He writes:

The term ‘skyscraper’ once implied ‘progress’. To my mind—and thinking not only of my own generation, but of our children’s and their children’s—’progress’ has become a dubious word. So emerges this work’s title, Sky Jammer.

I don’t entirely agree with Bakrnčev. With their stunning density and vacancy,  Melbourne skyscrapers are deservedly symbols of Australia’s inflated housing market and disregard for community health. However, building up is one alternative to Melbourne’s addiction to building out across the countryside. But the more densely a city is developed, the more planning is necessary to ensure the city is healthy. And in Melbourne, home of bike lanes on raised tram stops, I hold out little hope for a renaissance in enlightened civic planning.

Sky Jammer is a local and contemporary piece in more than its program. Its sound so clearly draws on the compositional influences around Bakrnčev. In its dense, rapidly-changing textures one can hear the influence of Australian complexist composers. The instrumental timbres have the grit of a piece by Anthony Pateras. With its attention to instrumental colour and formal cohesion one can hear the influence of Bakrnčev’s teacher Elliott Gyger. Though this description might make him sound like the love-child of dour modernists, Bakrnčev brings his own crowd-pleasing style to the piece, in particular during a virtuosic violin solo for Sophie Rowell, who needs to be congratulated for several incredible solo passages throughout the festival.

 Two works by Olivier Messiaen took the festival theme skyward. Couleurs de la Cité Céleste evokes the jewel-encrusted walls of the Heavenly City descending to Earth after the apocalypse. Scored for a large ensemble of brass, woodwind, percussion, and piano, the sheer volume and violence of the music is more apocalyptic than sublime. For a composer so sensitive to tone colour, the piece has a notable absence of resonance. Only bells ring out across the auditorium. The brass—evoking the seven trumpets of the apocalypse—announce the end-times in gigantic clusters while the keyboard and keyboard percussion piece together a mosaic of dry attacks. It is a flat, medieval representation of the Heavenly City rather than a scene of shimmering fanfare. The MSO’s Guest Conductor Robert Spano did not hold back from Messiaen’s vision. In his interpretation each tutti chord is so loud you can hardly bear to listen to it—like looking into the sun. This is perhaps Messiaen’s idea: to paint the cataclysmic aura around a city that shines so brightly you cannot look directly at it.

The most dedicated audience members stayed on for a precious event: Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata’s late-night performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. Where one can sometimes question individual players’ commitment to new music in an orchestral concert, Go and Kawabata’s performance was positively ecstatic. Locked on to each other’s gaze across the bodies of the two grand pianos, sweat dripping onto the keyboards, each movement was a masterful, sensitive interpretation of Messiaen’s understanding of the polyvalent “Amen”. Returning to this work composed shortly after the Second World War, at the dawn of the experiments in form, rhythm, pitch, and timbre we call “contemporary music,” was the perfect nightcap for a thrilling festival.

Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata
Melbourne Recital Centre
21 May 2016

Petrichor, Garden of Joy and Sorrow

Petrichor Trio (at the Abbotsford Convent), photo by Jessica King
Petrichor Trio (at the Abbotsford Convent), photo by Jessica King

Petrichor Trio
Conduit Arts
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 flute and Suart Greenbaum’s Church at Domburg for harp. In all three cases the skill and conviction of these ANAM-trained musicians was in evidence.

Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Trapped in Darkness

Judith Dodson as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.
Judith Dodsworth as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.

Syzygy Ensemble
Trapped in Darkness (Peter Maxwell-Davies, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Barry Conyngham, The Apology of Bony Anderson)
Metropolis New Music Festival
16 April

Syzygy Ensemble’s double bill at the Metropolis New Music Festival features two one-person chamber operas with sparse instrumentation and disturbing sprechgesang in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire and Eight Songs for a Mad King. With Syzygy’s playful humour and energy you almost forget the themes of death, decay and madness passing over the stage, onto a platform, into the seat next to you and out the door.

The affective amnesia is not all Syzygy’s fault; the themes are tressed up in thoroughly-enjoyable atonal silliness and replete with moments of tonal relief. In Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (a “maggot” being a kind of dance, thank you very much), Peter Maxwell-Davies questionably imagines the inner workings of a deranged spinster left at the altar and still in her wedding dress ten years later. The putrefying metre-tall cake in the middle of the stage (actually, the marzipan looked in pretty good nick but for the cobwebs) does not so much represent the protagonist’s sexual organs as stand in for them. The awe, the panic, the hatred Miss Donnithorne (Judith Dodsworth) feels towards her own body is expressed towards her cake-body in such evocative lines as “for the gatehouse of my cake, all one wound of roses, is the open crimson endless petal throat of a rat. That closes.” In case you didn’t get it the first time she also makes a “v”-gesture towards her groin and shrieks “cake, cake, cake.”

Some audience members may recognise Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations in the character of Miss Donnithorne and ask “why did Maxwell-Davies transplant Miss Havisham to Sydney?” In fact, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne was a real Sydney-sider who, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was allegedly left at the altar by her husband-to-be in 1856 and lived as a recluse beside her rotting wedding feast until her death in 1886. Matt Murphy has since dug around in some archives and found that there is no evidence to suggest that news of Miss Donnithorne reached Dickens in time for the writing of Great Expectations (1860–61), especially considering that Miss Donnithorne’s story doesn’t appear in the media until 1890 and there is no record of Miss Donnithorne’s intended marriage, struck out or not, in the banns of her church or the civil marriage register.

The salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre is an ideal venue for chamber opera. The clear acoustic communicates the minutest vocal articulation, while the intimate space allows performers to get right up in the faces of the audience. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot could have further exploited this opportunity. Dodsworth expressed a “bored child” sort of absurdity rather than the character’s desperation and discomfort. Anything less raises the question of why such a character would be made to writhe around on stage. I suspect this is a question more for Maxwell-Davies than Dodsworth, as there is no doubt that humour is a central requirement of the score.

The Apology of Bony Anderson is a far more sympathetic, earnest piece by Barry Conyngham based on the life of convict Charles Anderson, who was chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour around 1835. Bony (Christopher Richardson) enters complete with raised scars from over 1200 lashes that he received before finally being transported to Norfolk Island under the relatively benevolent watch of prison reformer Alexander Maconochie. Feeding animals better cared-for than himself he retells the story of his transportation to Australia and brutal punishment in a strong, lucid voice full of stoic acceptance and pity.

Syzygy asked that the musicians be integrated into the performance. In response director John Paul Fischbach asked “how far the musicians were willing to go.” The ensemble was placed in a position of authority over the actors, whether as servant-carers in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot or as soldiers in The Apology of Bony Anderson. The usual nods for musical cues were transformed into wary glances and shared disgust. More direct interaction led to Leigh Harrold’s priceless forbearance of Miss Donnithorne’s sexual advances, flautist Laila Engle’s coaxing Miss Donnithorne off of the ground with a fluttering flute solo and Jenny Khafagi’s scaring the advancing woman away with a spiky, flortando ostinato. Having seen such a performance in the salon, a room in which every twitch of a musician’s face is clearly visible to the audience, I cannot imagine a chamber opera any other way.

Forest Collective, Shared Sounds

2013 0407 Shared SoundsShared Sounds
Forest Collective
Abbotsford Convent
7 April 2013

For their 2013 season the multi-arts Forest Collective bring chamber music, visual art, theatre and opera to the sprawling Abbotsford Convent. Opening the season is Shared Sounds, a juxtaposition of established and emerging British and Australian composers. Alongside this explicit rationale is the concert’s implicit exploration of the organic and the elemental.

Stephanie Osztreicher transformed the peeling walls of the convent’s Industrial School into a tulgey wood of ladders, music stands, paper flowers and projections as the evening’s autumn storm rolled overhead. Travelling to the concert, the rising smell of “petrichor” (meaning “dry earth,” a term coined by Australian scientists to describe the smell of rain after a dry spell) was an olfactory prelude to the rain-themed music of the Forest Collective’s ensemble in residence of the same name (Jess Fotinos, harp, Alexina Hawkins, viola, Rowan Hamwood, flute).

Fotinos and Daniel Todd (tenor) opened the concert with the spiritual transformations of St. Narcissus into tree, fish, girl and dancer in Britten’s Canticle No. 5 for tenor and harp. Britten’s evocative harp writing was juxtaposed with May Lyon’s own mercurial word painting in A Dream Within a Dream, based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

The ritual continued with Benjamin Harrison’s improvisation for solo trumpet, a masterful exploration of whistling wind, echoing brays and muted flatulence.

A sequence of chamber works by Barry Conyngham, Conyngham’s teacher Toru Takemitsu, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Johanna Selleck and Evan Lawson highlighted the strength of the “collective” as an ensemble, corralled and conducted by Lawson. A highlight for me was Turnage’s Three Farewells for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Lush harmonies and timbres filled the concrete chamber before clearing for a pointed and intimate encounter with Hawkins’ viola solo, with grumbling accompaniment from Ayrlie Lane’s cello.

While not quite the “interactive chamber music experience” promised by the season program, Shared Sounds plunges the audience into a rich atmosphere of water, wind and trees deserving of the collective’s name. The program also demonstrated a continuing interest among young composers in finding new effects and manners of working with text within an extended-tonal style.