While viola and percussion were traditionally supporting parts of the orchestra, the twentieth century saw composers rediscover their unique musical possibilities. If the viola came a little later to the contemporary music party, it has certainly received recent attention in Melbourne with Xina Hawkins’ series of commissions for multiple violas and Phoebe Green’s own solo recital at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music last year. With Leah Scholes preparing a solo recital for BIFEM this September, the time is ripe for a viola and percussion duo commissioning works by some of Australia’s most inventive composers.
Taking place less than two weeks after the Orlando shooting, Green and Scholes’ duo concert was an opportunity for shaken souls to come in from the cold and share a moment of creative unity. Scholes and Green dedicated their performance of David Chisholm’s The Arrival (one of Chisholm’s “requiem” pieces) to “the LGBT community and the lives lost in Orlando.” It is a piece that aims at remembrance “with love, not tears.” This is a particularly painful form of remembrance. The piece plunges you into darkness. Dipping, wounded double-stops fray and fall into the lower register of the viola. Chisholm then gives the audience space for their own thoughts with a thin texture of whistling and occasional glockenspiel. When a more lively texture returns it does not reflect our own feelings of loss in a sentimental, cathartic climax. Instead it offers a snapshot of a personality. The viola line is speech-like, coloured by Scholes’ percussive rim shots. It is uncomfortable to hear a personality conjured so matter-of-factly. But we have to move beyond our personal experience of grief or else we cannot hear the departed voice clearly. Hearing a departed voice without tears is perhaps how we do that voice justice.
Cat Hope’s The Sinister Glamour of Modernity (after Ross Gibson) arranged for viola and vibraphone is an insect-like exploration of clusters picked out of the vibraphone with thimbled fingers. It is an exceptionally creepy, spidery sound underpinning the viola’s drunken, careening lines.
Liza Lim’s viola solo Amulet motivates the instrument’s full range of bow pressure, angle, and speed. Green’s deft control of Lim’s demanding bowing instructions was matched ambidextrously by her left hand, which works both independently and interdependently with the right.
Scholes and Green performed Juliana Hodkinson’s enigmatic performance piece Harriet’s Song last year at BIFEM. The duo lull the audience into a false sense of security with a long, hushed duet. The audience is no doubt wondering what is going to happen to the array of bells, feathers, chimes, and sand bags suspended from microphone stands with fishing twine. Suddenly Scholes’ arm darts out and cuts an object off with a pair of scissors. The attacks become gradually more violent as she picks up pliers and finally, sharpens a knife and lets several bells crash to the ground at once. Without offering any spoilers, I have seen the piece twice and am still hoping to hear certain objects fall, but I suspect the score is specific about which objects are cut (or perhaps Scholes just doesn’t want to clean up afterwards).
The concert also featured the world premiere of Alistair Noble’s hauteurs/temps. With sparse bass drum and declamatory viola, the piece has a ritualistic air. There is nothing monolithic or imposing about this ritual thanks to a certain harmonic softening around the edges. This harmonic thread draws the listener closer to the work, especially when the texture is filled out with resonant crotales. Another sonic highlight was the introduction of a second viola played by Scholes with mallets. While composers and performers will often treat string instruments percussively in improvisations and solo compositions, this is the first time that I have heard this technique effectively integrated in a duo.
I have been reading about Cretan palaces and Noble’s ritualistic sound world transported me into a fantasy of the ancient past. Speaking with Noble over some of Green and Scholes’ home-baked cakes after the concert I was surprised to find that he was also thinking about Cretan palaces while composing it. Or maybe we have both seen Women in Love.
Phoebe Green, Leah Scholes
24 June 2016
Zubin Kanga always drags half a dozen new works in his wake as he criss-crosses the globe in search of the bleeding edge of piano repertoire. Kanga’s last tour of Australia entitled “Piano: Inside/Out” explored the inside of the piano, either through playing the piano strings directly with the hands or by preparing the strings with objects like paper and Blu-Tac to change their tone. In his current “Dark Twin” tour, Kanga extends the piano outward through live electroacoustic manipulation and video projections.
Premièring new music necessarily runs the risk of performing a “bad” or “unsatisfactory” work. Saying that a work is “beautiful,” “successful,” or that it “works” would be meaningless if the reverse were not possible. Composers are often their best critics and will revise works after a first hearing. Andrew Ford’s recent book Earth Dances tells of how Stravinsky struggled to find a satisfactory ending to TheRite of Spring. On the other hand—to continue the Rite example—audiences and critics have often failed to appreciate how a work is beautiful or successful upon first hearing. Knowledge of the multiplicity of ways in which a piece can be “good” is perhaps the reason why critics can shy away from negative judgements. However, I feel particularly emboldened to make critical judgements this morning because George Brandis has just funneled $104.8m away from the peer-review-based Australia Council for the Arts and into his own ministry, where who knows what sort of evaluation process will take place. Consider this review a battle-cry for judgment over cronyism. In this review, the success of a work is judged according to how well it achieves what the composer or performer set out to do in writing and performing it. I will try to bring other qualities of the works to light as well, in spite of the creators’ stated intentions.
Stefan Prins, Piano Hero
In Stefan Prins’ Piano Hero, Kanga plays a MIDI keyboard that triggers video samples of a man playing with his hands on a stripped-back piano frame. The minimal gestures of the keyboardist contrast with the full-body movements of his avatar in the video, who strums and strikes the strings. The avatar also uses subtler gestures, including conjuring a smooth tone from the body of the piano with a cork on the end of a stick. He bounces and throws a handful of piano keys onto the strings, scattering them across the frame.
According to Kanga’s programme notes, the work seeks to “explore the modern trend of the virtual replacing the real while deconstructing the relationship between pianist, instrument and observer.” The work achieves the first of these goals, while leaving the second in the air. The starkly-lit, beautifully-textured surfaces of the piano frame make the video seem more real than the poorly-lit keyboardist. The avatar’s movements are also more visceral than those of the keyboardist.
The second goal, to deconstruct the relationship between the pianist, instrument and observer, is barely addressed. Yes, the keyboardist’s gestures and the audience’s attention are decoupled from one another and directed towards the avatar on the screen. To stress this point, the screen occasionally switches to a camera trained on the keyboardist silently playing away. However, to deconstruct is not just to take apart (unless one is ordering a deconstructed polenta stack at a Melbourne café). Literary deconstruction reveals underlying assumptions and arbitrary norms that are inexpressible within the frame of a particular discourse. Piano Hero reconfigures the performer-instrument-observer triangle, but it does not tell us anything about concert conventions that we don’t already know. [EDIT: Kanga has since pointed out that Prins originally used the more appropriate term “recontextualise.” “Deconstruct” was Kanga’s paraphrase.]
One of Piano Hero‘s greatest strengths is the compositional use Prins makes of his technical apparatus, whatever its rationale. The piece begins with the keyboardist triggering only the resonance left after the piano strings are struck. The performer’s hands hover above the strings, seemingly conjuring the resonance out of them. As more violent gestures are introduced, with the performer striking the strings, the speed of the gestures are modulated by the MIDI keyboard. This creates striking contrasts as the physical intensity of the performer attacking the strings contrasts with more balletic, slowed-down gestures.
Julian Day, Dark Twin
Julian Day’s Dark Twin is the result of a long-term collaboration between Kanga and Day. Day describes the piece as stemming from his experience learning the piano as a child. Instead of the solitary experience of piano practice, he imagined a situation where a pianist plays against a ghostly other. As Kanga paraphrases Day’s intentions:
At first [the electronic part] matches the pianist closely, but then begins to slide in pitch and distort in colour –techniques that are impossible on a piano. Over the course of the piece, the electronic part shifts from being an indistinguishable electronic ‘twin’ of the pianist to becoming a grotesque rival.
The piece begins with the minimalist gesture of two rapidly-alternating notes. At this point, the live part does indeed sound almost indistinguishable from the electronic part. As the piece progresses, the electronic part becomes deeper and seems to spread around the room. The timbre of the electronic part also becomes more distorted. The impression is less a “dark twin” of the piano part than an expansion of the piano part. The two parts are indistinguishable in the muddy and saturated air.
Benjamin Carey, _derivations
Benjamin Carey’s _derivations provides a much more convincing example of a pianist duelling with an electronic other. I have previously reviewed a recording of Carey’s _derivations system and it was a pleasure to see it in action for one of the first performances of the system with a piano. _derivations is a program intended to improvise with a live performer. The program listens to and analyses the performer’s musical gestures. These gestures are stored in a database, drawn upon and manipulated to contrast with or complement the live performer. The program may also respond through several voices or channels at once, even responding to itself. In some ways the program’s responses to Kanga were predictable and gave a sense of balance to the performance. When Kanga played high on the piano, _derivations introduced a bassy hum. When Kanga ran his hands over the piano strings, _derivations turned this sound into a glassy cloud of sonic fragments. I had the impression in this performance, as I did when listening to the recording above, that the system was playing material straight back to Kanga rather than strategically introducing large-scale formal contrasts. It would be nice to hear a longer performance where the system was able to exert more control over the course of an improvisation.
Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate
Cat Hope’s The Fourth Estate uses electromagnetic interference in the form of pocket radios and EBows to represent the disruptive and filtering political effects of the free press. As Kanga’s programme (once more a paraphrase of the composer) reads:
As the Fourth Estate is thought to be an element of society ‘outside’ official recognition, here the radios and e-bows (small electromagnets on the strings) act as static sonic barriers, interfering with the mercurial and lively piano part.
What a great idea! Unfortunately it was not one that I found represented in the performance. It seemed to me that Kanga’s runs and key-mashing in different registers were more to “get the strings moving” rather than to provide pianistic gestures that the EBows and radios would then corrupt. I cannot say whether this was the result of the specific directions on the graphic score or its interpretation. The EBows and radios then failed to interfere significantly with the sound of the piano. Occasionally one could hear the jangle of an EBow or a radio physically bouncing on the piano strings, but they did not appear to intermingle with or modulate the piano’s sound. Surely the media is not that ineffectual, bouncing along the titanic reverberations of politicians? Now, I am fully aware that I am about to fly to Perth to review the Totally Huge New Music Festival and will no doubt spend a lot of time in the same room with Hope, but this only goes to show how seriously I take reviewing.
Michel van der Aa, Transit
In Transit by Michel van der Aa, an elderly man fights loneliness through a series of repetitive acts. He struggles to open doors and open the window. He drags a chair back and forth and bottles steam from a kettle that he can barely lift. The noir-like film captures the claustrophobia of physical weakness and the importance of memory. The live piano and electroacoustic parts are integrated into the rhythm of the film. Kanga’s silent movements, such as raising his arms to play, or reaching to one side of the piano but not striking a key, are accompanied by electroacoustic sounds. This gives the impression that Kanga is a magical piano samurai, which is not too far from the truth.
Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline
Blinkhorn’s FrostbYte: Chalk Outline is an audiovisual piece contrasting pristine Arctic waters with industrial infrastructure. The Chalk Outline of the title refers to the climate change, exacerbated by industrial activity, that is rapidly transforming the landscape. Blinkhorn created the piece with video and audio material he collected while travelling in areas of the Arctic. The musical accompaniment to the footage of the Arctic landscape is fittingly tinkly, high and “icy.” Blinkhorn begins to introduce sounds from dubstep, with wobbly bass and dramatic, booming punctuations as the footage moves to cranes, which are processed through abstract mirroring effects on the video. The stunning video footage was inexplicably processed through a filter that broke it up into beveled windows. It seemed to me that this was unnecessary as the beautiful landscape spoke for itself.
Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint
Steve Reich’s Six Pianos is difficult to mount due to the problem of gathering six pianos together in the same space and still having room for the audience. Pianist Vincent Corver has opened the door for more (partially) live performances of the work by arranging it for one live pianist and five pre-recorded parts in the retitled work Piano Counterpoint. Kanga performed the live part with bravado and flair. We will no doubt hear this piece many more times in the future.
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 May 2015
Stefan Prins, Piano Hero; Julian Day,Dark Twin; Benjamin Carey, _derivations; Michel van der Aa, Transit; Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline; Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate; Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint.
New Music Beauty Queen is an innovative musical response to an innovative fashion label. In curating the programme, The Sound Collectors Louise Devenish and Leah Scholes were inspired by the 2014 collection of the clothing store, manufacturing company and fashion label New Model Beauty Queen. NMBQ is an ethical and sustainable clothing company stocking products made from recycled fabrics. Rather than contribute to each season’s excess of new fabrics, the labels stocked at NMBQ source fabrics from auction houses and redesign them with the aid of NMBQ’s Ethical Clothing Australia-accredited screen printing facility. With their batteries of percussion instruments spaced around the bright, white basement under a sky of incandescent bulbs, The Sound Collectors achieved a thought-provoking synthesis of materials collected from text, gesture, news and politics.
NMBQ’s 2014 collection was inspired by Matilda Butters’ Press Dress from 1866. Butters was a costume designer and, as wife to the politician James Stewart Butters, a serial fancy dresser. The silk Press Dress was printed with the front pages of fourteen different Victorian papers and the mastheads of eighteen regional papers. NMBQ’s 2014 collection, which was spread around the edges of the basement, features vintage typefaces and images printed over bold, block colours. The original Press Dress was even on display by the door, looking perfectly at home alongside NMBQ’s more recent creations.
Leah Scholes and Louise Devenish complemented the collections with a programme of new and existing percussion repertoire inspired by current affairs, politics, text and gesture. Beyond the thematic similarity between the NMBQ collection and the Sound Collectors’ programme, there is a two-dimensionality to the works by Burkhardt, de Mey, Davidson, Hope, Leak and Applebaum that match the designs by NMBQ. Each piece is a linear sequence of actions, words and percussion events pressed upon silence like the symbols printed on the t-shirts and dresses around the edges of the NMBQ basement.
Simulcast by Rick Burkhardt begins with the two percussionists as news readers or radio announcers, speaking into cow bells to give their voices a distant, muffled tone. The text appears to begin with a stream of consciousness of a sales person or a journalist on a trip, walking unfamiliar streets and taking photographs. Before long the tone turns sinister. There is confusion, the speaker is trying to ask questions and is frustrated with the questions of others. Are they at a press conference? An interrogation? The piece leaves the audience as confused at the end as they were at the start, but set up the text-based and focussed dynamic for the rest of the concert.
Thierry de Mey’s Silence Must Be is a simple and extremely effective exploration of audience expectations in the relationship of sound and gesture. Scholes conducts in silence at one end of the basement. The conducting becomes more stylised, like a sort of martial art (conductors would probably like to think that they are ninjas). The gestures change from open-handed strikes to smooth, swaying lines and figures of eight. Two figures of eight move in and out of phase like sine waves. Suddenly Scholes starts from the beginning, but this time each gesture is accompanied by a sound from Devenish’s battery at the opposite end of the room. Of course that is what the gestures sound like! Just as one is becoming overwhelmed at the cleverness of it all, the percussion stops. The rest of the gestures play out in silence. The lack of sound compels one to imagine what Scholes’ gestures would sound like. Would they be high or low? Rough or smooth? How would they move?
Rob Davidson’s highly politicised music recently went viral with his choral setting of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. Davidson has continued in the same vein with Human Beings as Well, a piece for two percussionists and a recording of a Sky News reporter interviewing an Islamic commentator. After the interviewer asks the commentator whether he condones beheadings by extremist groups such as ISIS, he responds that Islamic people are “human beings too” and “shouldn’t have to justify” themselves against the actions of extremists. “Get over yourself” the interviewer interjects. The percussion parts bolt along beneath the tragicomic interview. Davidson mocks the sensationalism of the Sky News interview with an upbeat groove, while amplifying the intensity of the speakers’ voices by echoing them on skin drums.
In Hope’s Sub Aerial, the performers trace particular patterns with percussion brushes and mallets on pieces of fabric with different textures. Finally, they trace shapes in the air with portable radios tuned to static. The piece is extremely quiet and was unfortunately drowned out by the overhead fans of the basement. Nevertheless, I was put in mind of a conversation I recently had with the composer Cat Hope at a conference. I, defending pitch-class set theory in the analysis of certain notated post-tonal works, made the generalisation that after one discards the rules of harmony, modality and counterpoint as guiding principles of a work “all one is left with is numbers.” I meant by this that one is left with raw, uninterpreted data. The music analyst’s job is then to find some order in the data, either the composer’s or one’s own. Hope rightfully took me to task for this generalisation, as a set of pitch-classes will not necessarily lead one to understand compositional processes or modes of listening based on curves and gestures rather than discrete pitches and durations. We were of course talking at cross purposes. I was talking about the analysis of dodecaphonic, serial and alternative serial works while Hope was talking about post-serial works and graphic scores. I think Hope would also agree that works like Sub Aerial are no less precise and repeatable than a piece that can be reduced to pitch classes. The use of graphic scores is not always about introducing greater uncertainty and scope for interpretation into a work, but is a way of creating scores that demand the same fidelity from the performer as any notated score.
Next to more recent text-based works, Graeme Leak’s … And Now for the News from 1984 still sounds fresh. As Devenish pointed out, the piece was one of the first Australian solo percussion pieces composed by a percussionist-composer. Like Davidson’s piece, the work incorporates a tape part, this time a Vietnamese news bulletin recorded from 2EA radio. The piece combines direct imitation of the rhythms of the spoken language with metrical episodes derived from the transcription.
Thanks to Devenish and Scholes’ sensitivity and precision as performers, the concert was a revelation as to the merits of text and gesture-based works. As the rhythms of … And Now for the News and the gestural curves of Sub Aerial show, there are rhythms and phrases in actions and words that a musician won’t come up with when composing at an instrument or hunched over a piece of manuscript paper. But against the backdrop of these incredibly successful attempts at mining speech and gesture, Mark Applebaum’s Gone, Dog. Gone! appears less convincing. As Scholes explained to the audience, Applebaum is interested in the musical value of gestures abstracted from their contexts and meanings. Gone, Dog. Gone!, like its predecessor Go, Dog. Go!, is inspired by a children’s book. A part of Gone, Dog. Gone! mimes every bizarre action that a group of dogs are performing in a tree during one part of the book. In Applebaum’s piece, one percussionist performs a sequence of gestures while the other plays corresponding punctuations on a table of percussion instruments. Particular gestures do not seem to be accompanied by particular sounds and the sounds themselves are so short (the battery consisting of small glass and metal objects) that their relationship to the gestures beyond signalling their overarching rhythm is obscure. From what, then, is the overarching rhythm of the piece derived? The rhythm, however chosen, seems to drive the gestures rather than the other way around. The piece was nevertheless a joy to watch as the catalogue of gestures are not too literal, leaving one guessing what they could be referring to. Applebaum’s piece was just one part of New Music Beauty Queen as a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable synthesis of repertoire and context.
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.