So far Metropolis has explored the theme of “the city” through urban music, ancient and sacred cities, and architecture. All nice, creative approaches to the theme. With Press, Play’s program Crashing Through Fences, Metropolis got political. And it is high time, too, since whether we like it or not (mostly not) we are in the middle of an election campaign through which we decide what our society—and cities—will look like. Will they be divided into gated communities and slums or will we stop widening the gap between the rich and everyone else? Will we invest in services that will reduce homelessness? Will the roads be choked by car fumes or will public transport decongest arterial motorways? Will parts of the city be under water in half a century? The poet Sean Whelan joined pianist Sonya Lifschitz and flautist Lina Andonovska to show that politics can be as appropriate a subtext to a contemporary music concert as ancient architraves and turntabling.
Whelan’s laconic, Melbourne-inspired poems heightened the concert’s political relevance by stealth. I assume they were written for this occasion as they were read for the first time in this concert. Icon describes the city covering the natural vegetation, a perfect preface to Steve Reich’s pastoral Vermont Counterpoint. Andonovska highlighted the piece’s twittering and popping textures while deftly swapping between flutes of different sizes.
Whelan’s Shadow described the memories intermingling behind our backs before the fluid rhythms of Erik Griswold’s In Patterns of Shade took us on their dappled journey.
With Other People’s Houses Whelan approaches the lived reality of cities more directly and intimately. He speaks of a home that “knows too much,” this time accompanied by the mysterious swirling flute of Timo Andres’ Crashing Through Fences.
Lifschitz retook the stage alone for three “City Portraits” by Robert Davidson. Each portrait is based on the speech patterns of a figure who has shaped our urban environment. “Free Architecture” uses Frank Lloyd Wright’s interview with Mike Wallace. Wright’s vision of “an architecture that would be a grace to its landscape not a disgrace” is reflected in Walter Burley Griffin’s original and much-departed-from designs for Canberra. “Not Now, Not Ever” is a piano arrangement of Davidson’s famous choral arrangement of Julia Gillard’s even more famous “misogyny speech,” a speech that for one glorious moment crushed the persistent, casual misogyny that is so often tolerated in silence beneath a mighty, righteous fist.
In the third “City Portrait” a voice says “I am a young man of 71 years old, I built my first house when I was 17 1/2.” It is particularly affecting that we do not have an image of the speaker this time. Who is this man? He describes himself as a poet “working with my eyes and hands,” venturing into nature, speaking from “the heart of man.” Footage of children playing in a park flickers past as he describes his dream of “sun, space and green” for all. But to have sun, space, and green, the voice tells us, 2000 people must live together joined by a single vertical road. It is the voice of Le Corbusier, the modernist architect who we have to thank for every reinforced concrete tenement built after the Second World War. But when described in his voice and accompanied by Davidson’s expansive piano, played with Lifschitz’s commitment and sensitivity, one begins to understand his utopian vision. Against this bitter-sweet piano part we see his buildings torn down like so many democratic post-war innovations.
The image of thousands of people coexisting in neat blocks is given musical form in Beat Furrer’s Presto con Fuoco. The motoric flute and piano parts interlock precisely, filling each other’s silences. Bent at the knees, ready to spring at the dense score, Andonovska’s charged, athletic performance keeps the entire audience on the edge of their seats.
Politics being out of the bag, Whelan’s When Everything Falls likens shopping to looting and criticises our diminishing sense of value in a world where anything can be bought. He imagines climbing Eureka tower and breaking a window, only to turn away from the “best view of Melbourne” to the face of his lover. After this, the amplified Sigur Rós-like chords of Chris Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn are a devastating love song.
Whelan’s final poem Don’t Break My Sky poetically lists elements of our society that unpoetically slap us in the face every day: Draconian immigration policies, $6000 toasters, “the orange-tinted supervillain of the US Presidential primaries,” and so on. Confronted with all this Whelan says we “turn inward, turn outward,” and crash on through. It is so easy to switch off from politics when it is presented to us as a stream of unrelenting point-scoring imbecility. But a powerful program by these incredible artists is just enough to make you care again.
Crashing Through Fences
The Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
14 May 2016
Sean Whelan, Icon; Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint; Sean Whelan, Shadow; Erik Griswold, In Patterns of Shade; Sean Whelan; Other People’s Houses; Timo Andres, Crashing Through Fences; Robert Davidson, City Portraits; Beat Furrer, Presto con Fuoco; Sean Whelan, When Everything Falls; Chris Cerrone, Hoyt-Schermerhorn; Sean Whelan, Don’t Break My Sky
Kupka’s Piano are a Brisbane-based new-music ensemble, made up of a core group of intelligent and startlingly adept young musicians supplemented periodically by equally interesting guests. They are committed to the performance of important works by living composers from around the world, alongside a focus on Australian composers. Many of their performances are Australian premieres, which says a great deal about the significance of the group in the cultural life of the nation. Over the past several years in Brisbane, they have built up a well-deserved, devoted following.
In this, the second concert of Kupka’s Piano’s 2015 series at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, the ensemble continues its ‘extra mural’ theme with a notion of sounds from “the other side.” What exactly these walls represent is perhaps something open to individual interpretation (a state of mind? Geographical or cultural distance?), but the conceit does reflect rather well the sense of permeability that characterises much recent and contemporary music, where sounds, styles, ideas, colours, and voices often bleed across old boundaries. Individual musical works (and bodies of work) now seem to talk to each other so freely, even promiscuously, yet we retain some sense of the old lines of demarcation without which such transgressions might seem less thrilling, while at the same time inscribing our own lines upon the conceptual maps of our increasingly strange and estranging world.
New music doesn’t really shock anymore. At worst, it might irritate or, more commonly, simply fail to engage with its listener, like a missed train connection. We no longer talk much about whether a piece is good or bad (let alone great), but rather couch our critiques in terms of whether a work ‘works’, or not, according to mutable criteria of functionality that perhaps have some relation to the ‘mural(s)’ of this series’ theme.
Past Brisbane-resident Liza Lim’s Inguz (fertility) for clarinet and cello was composed in 1996, and the title is a reference to a Nordic rune. This is a lovely work of fluid poetry and organic proliferations; gently melodic, yet thoroughly of its time in terms of technique and colour. Lim handles the two instruments masterfully—the unique colours of each are imaginatively exploited yet contained within a frame of the composer’s imagination, a space that both can inhabit and that informs their interactions. Cellist Katherine Philp and clarinettist Macarthur Clough gave a forensically beautiful performance that made the most of all the subtle gorgeousness of the intricate score.
Jérôme Combier’s Feuilles des paupières (2005) for piano, percussion, flute and clarinet is also a very beautiful work. This piece is one part of a large cycle, Vies Silencieuses, a series of chamber works inspired by painters and in particular the quietly powerful still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Combier approaches the instruments with great aural sensitivity, and a vital sense of orchestration. On the one hand, he writes for piano/percussion as if they form a single, huge instrument. The sounds he conjures from the players are both seductive and exciting, and show a detailed understanding of what the instruments can do and how to bend them to his musical purpose. Against this, Combier has written flute and clarinet parts that are, once again, so well integrated in conception as to seem almost a single instrument, or like a pair of intimately connected human voices. Combier’s music demands both sensitivity and precision to succeed in performance, which certainly works to the strengths of Kupka’s Piano as an ensemble (augmented here by guest flautist, Tamara Kohler). The performance was tightly controlled and colourful—although I felt that in this case the piece might benefit from a more forgiving, resonant acoustic environment. Some of the fragile sounds need a little more reverberation in the room to fully bloom. Is Kupka’s Piano working towards an Australian premiere performance of the full Vies Silencieuses cycle? Let’s hope so.
Philippe Hurel’s Tombeau in memoriam Gerard Grisey (1999) for piano and percussion has, on the surface at least, a lot going for it. It has the name of our sainted Grisey in the title, for a start… yet in many respects it disappoints. Pianist Alex Raineri and percussionist Angus Wilson gave a superlatively virtuosic and dramatic performance of the four movement work, which is so brimming with challenges as to be virtually created to fail. The instrumental combination of piano and vibraphone, upon which much of the work relies, is a highly problematic one. It has all the inherent difficulties of a two piano ensemble (essentially two percussion instruments having to play exactly in time with each other) with the added problem of the oil-and-water timbral (in)compatibility of piano and vibraphone as a duo. Of course, uncommon or peculiar instrumental combinations can be very interesting in the right hands, but in this work Hurel fails to hear a way through the obstacles, and it never quite comes into focus as a genuine duo. In sonority and structure, this is essentially a piano piece, over-burdened with hollowly clichéd gestures at several levels, onto which the percussion parts have been grafted as a kind of lean-to extension. The effect, when it succeeds now and then, is very like a prepared piano.
There are some nice moments—the first movement has an arresting, kinetic excitement, and the slow second movement unfurls an interestingly tense, reflective mood—yet the piece undermines itself too often with unconvincing, unfocused sonorities and empty gestures. One such, if I may labour the point, is an episode of tedious transpositions, in which upper and lower parts move outward from each other, stepping rather aimlessly along a scale. This is a recurrent motif of Messiaen’s technique that in his own work has a relentless, implacable energy but in imitation almost always sounds dull—and, like musical spakfilla, one suspects that its function is to conceal some inherent structural flaw. Raineri and Wilson battled heroically against the inbuilt weaknesses of Hurel’s work (and made it sound in some ways a more interesting piece than it actually is) but in the end one is left with a sense that Grisey deserves a better memorial than this.
Brussels-based Australian composer Liam Flenady’s new work Si el clima fuera un banco (2015), for piano and fixed media (pre-recorded midi-piano and speaking voices), takes its inspiration from Hugo Chavez’ famous 2009 speech in Copenhagen, where he observed that ‘If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it already’. This is very interesting piece, which works with Flenady’s interests in politics and counterpoint to play with seeming oppositions such as refinement versus crudeness, complexity versus directness. The score is certainly fearsomely complex, and makes great demands of the pianist. Here, Raineri projected a very different quality of sound to that heard in the earlier works in the concert: less percussive, richer and warmer. As a result of this very beautiful sonority and Raineri’s confidence with the virtuosic score, Flenady’s music was revealed as luxuriantly poetic, even lyrical.
The combination of live and recorded/artificial piano is an interesting one, and the interactions between the two were intriguing. One cannot help wondering if this would be even more effective if the work was scored for two pianos…? Or perhaps that would be a different piece. I found the recorded voices to be most effective in a musical sense when the words could not quite be heard clearly… then, it felt as though the sounds (not merely words) of voices from another room were intruding, and commingling with the piano music. In a way, this raised another interesting question: does the work really need those voices, or could it succeed as a purely instrumental piano (or two-piano) work? For myself, I felt that the counterpoint of voices, together with the in- and out-of-room pianos evoked exactly that sense of permeability that seems ideally characteristic of music in our times, like an eggshell letting the oxygen in. What stayed with me long after was not the words or even the explicit political messages, but the expressivity of Raineri’s piano playing as the work seemed to breath in and out the fragrance and texture of disembodied voices.
Flenady writes in the program that his work ‘will have little impact on politics’, and in a sense that is true… but perhaps music affects us in a different way, in a different substance, on a different level. I’m not sure that we can measure such impact in the same way we measure political (or, for that matter, market) impacts. The power elites of our world would have us believe that music is just entertainment, thus powerless, but I think we should exercise caution in assuming that this is the case. Flenady’s music raised these final questions in my mind: What if music as an art form actually does have an impact? Would that change the way we do things?
The concert ended with the Australian premiere of Beat Furrer’s Gaspra, a marvellous work for seven instruments composed in 1988. It astonishes me that this piece has not been previously played in Australia—but then very little of this important Swiss-born composer’s work has been heard in this country, to our loss (mind you, the same could be said of Grisey). While there were other very good pieces on this concert program, Gaspra was from the first moment in a realm of its own, like a comet (or rather, a stray asteroid) burning through the sky. Like all Furrer’s music, Gaspra is created from a fusion of electric nervous energy with moments of intense calm; the two in some way feeding each other. There is a powerful yet subtle intelligence at work here, and a wonderful instinct for sonority and colour that is thoroughly integrated with structure—even passages of more-or-less indeterminate pitch, glissandos or extended techniques, move within an iron-strong harmonic frame.
Gaspra is built as an intricate montage-form in terms of its overall architecture, with several motifs recurring and interacting with each other as the work progresses. One of these, some lovely low-pitched rhythms for the piano, seems to be a distilled reference to La Princesse de Bali from André Jolivet’s Mana (a neglected masterpiece of the earlier twentieth century). At other moments we hear little flashes of material that betray Furrer’s interest in the music of Feldman, but such references or allusions are never simply pastiche in Furrer’s music: they are always very integrated with his own distinctive language, and deeply meaningful. Under the direction of conductor Benjamin Marks, Kupka’s Piano gave a splendid performance of great flair and magical subtlety. The ensemble was joined for this piece by the inimitable Graeme Jennings (viola) and Tamara Kohler (flute) as guests.
This was an important concert for both Brisbane and Australia. The immense dedication of the ensemble members is clearly evident, as this is a kind of music that requires a huge effort of preparation to perform well and Kupka’s Piano play very well indeed. Their programming is creative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. The cutting edge of Australian music creation is at present very clearly in the hands of smaller groups or individuals operating independently of large institutions and venues and often on very limited budgets. Kupka’s Piano are one of the best and most exciting of these groups, and one senses as they perform that history is being made.
– Alistair Noble
Extra mural II: Outer Sounds
Friday June 19th
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
Liza Lim, Inguz
Beat Furrer, Gaspra, AP
Phillipe Hurel, Tombeau in Memoriam de Gerard Grisey, AP
Jérôme Combier, Feuilles des paupières, AP
Liam Flenady, Si el clima fuera un banco, WP
Northchote Town Hall
26 February, 2014
“Attacca” will be familiar to musicians as the performance marking to move on to the next movement without pause. Melbourne’s newest contemporary music ensemble Cathexis took the direction as inspiration for an immersive performance experience combining music, lighting, sound design and stagecraft.
Entering the Northcote Town Hall’s West Wing performance space, the audience is surrounded by red light and swirling, pealing tones. Joe Talia’s sound design and Bronnwyn Pringle’s lighting provided continuity between the repertoire.
Joe Talia’s four-channel atmosphere reached a climax and abruptly cut out, at which point Peter de Jager launched into Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions #34. Thundering chords and descending runs alternated with serene counterpoint and a glistening, high melody.
While Hersch’s work rumbled away at one end of the room, the rest of the ensemble crept into a corner and prepared a swift volta into a bar of Valentin Silvestrov’s Trio for flute, celesta and trumpet. No sooner had they stopped than Matthias Schack-Arnott was starkly lit sitting on a balloon.
So began the most anticipated piece of the evening, Luke Paulding’s breath transmuted into words transmuted into breath, a piece based on sounds lifted from gay pornography. Schack-Arnott squeaked and popped balloons to the gentle moaning of an accompanying tape track. He then rubbed, shook and pummeled his array of unconventional percussion instruments as things heated up. The tape track was no match for the colour of the percussion setup, however, and interesting contrasts or correspondences failed to emerge. Considering that they can accompany some of the most sublime moments of our lives, it is remarkable how limited and monotonous the sounds of sex can be. It was perhaps for this reason that the most effective moments were those where the percussionist focused on one, repetitive sound, such as the opening solo or the squelching of a couple of plastic pigs in water at the end.
Cat Hope’s Black Disciples takes the symbol of the Chicago street gang Black Disciples, “III”, and turns it on its side to represent a polyphony of three voices. The work is haunting, with three low voices droning into microphones, their sometimes-distorting, saturated tones melding with the static of radios. Cloaked in hoodies and huddled in the dark, the work raises the issue of cultural appropriation that has recently re-risen (indeed it never went away) in the contemporary art world with an address by TextaQueen at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space. Further urgency is given to this topic by the fact that people in Australia will soon have the perfect right to appropriate whatever they want to whatever offensive ends they wish. The use of “primitivist,” African-American and orientalist musical tropes by white, western composers is as common and uninterrogated today as it was at the dawn of the twentieth century.
However, having cried “appropriation” at every opportunity ever since I learned the word, I now try to distinguish between engagement and appropriation. Learning is a process full of gauche mistakes and I would hate to see someone’s attempts to understand another culture stifled because of their unknowing misuse of that culture’s symbols. Musicians adopting another culture’s symbols need to make a few things clear: What do they think they are appropriating and how and why are they altering it? How do they think members of the appropriated culture would respond to the work? Hope’s borrowings are in fact minimal and, while offering her an inspiration, do not necessarily add to the audience’s enjoyment of the work. It seems to me that Hope adopts only the symbol “III” from the Black Disciples. The close-held microphones are taken from hip-hop culture more generally, though they produced a distinct musical effect, and the costuming and manner of presentation was probably an addition by Cathexis. Hope then transforms these appropriations through her own noise art aesthetic into a sort of metal/fantasy Gregorian chant, the effect of which is transfixing, whether one knows about the Black Disciples or not. As to the community’s response and the musician’s eventual edification, this would requires a dialogue that members of the appropriated cultures may prefer not to engage in. As TextaQueen points out, people of colour shouldn’t have to dish out this education for free.
Beat Furrer’s Presto for flute was a tour de force for Lina Andonovska, who stalked the score like a lioness. The mosaic patterns between the piano and flute, where the flute “filled in” the piano’s rests, were coordinated to produce a single, carefully-honed, variegated surface. The voices found their independence joyful abandon and Andonovska seemed to relish the opportunity to blast out a series of impossibly loud, long notes.
Cathexis contribute to a tendency in contemporary music for ensembles to adorn their performances with production values that create a sense of continuity and spectacle. While this is often welcome, I am not sure that a seamless performance is always a better one. Nor do the gravitas sound and lighting provide the desired continuity. This is ultimately a job for the concert’s curator in finding convincing links and contrasts between works, an excellent example of which was the unity in variety of the Elision Ensemble’s recent concert at Melba Hall.