Tag Archives: Charles Ives

Plexus: Medley Recital Series

Medley Hall Recital Series
1 June, 2014

Jennifer Higdon, DASH
Charles Hoag, SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag
Ian Whitney, Tanzendanses
Iain Grandage, The Keep
Charles Ives, Largo
Paul Dean, Fragmented Journeys

Plexus’ first concert at Medley Hall gives me the opportunity to introduce both a new ensemble and a new venue to Partial Durations. Though new to this site, both have fascinating histories that informed a multifaceted night of contemporary music. Plexus follow the instrumentation of the Verdehr Trio founded in 1972: violin, clarinet and piano. They also follow the Verdehr tradition of commissioning new work for the (now not so) neglected ensemble. The Verdehr Trio commissioned works by some of the most important composers of the late twentieth century, including the well-known Australians composers Peter Sculthorpe and Barry Conyngham.

Now a standard piece of repertoire, Jennifer Higdon’s DASH offered plenty of opportunities for the ensemble to show off. Rushing syncopations between the violin (Monica Curro) and clarinet (Philip Arkinstall) and siren-like rhythmic ostinati in the piano (Stefan Cassomenos) create a charged atmosphere that culminates in hockets between the instruments like the flashing lights of police cars. From the beginning it was evident that Plexus do not hold back, even in a room as small and live as Medley Hall.

After charging the room with this incredible sound, Plexus moved on to an older Verdehr commission: Charles Hoag’s SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag. The piece is absolutely charming, demonstrating a refined compositional culture that plays on tropes and clichés with absolute self-aware mastery. The heads, moments of great jubilation, separate darker, brooding movements.

Iain Grandage provided the ensemble with an excerpt from his opera The Keep, which is partly an attempt to rediscover the folk tales of Grandage’s Anglo-Celtic heritage. Grandage is certainly not the first Australian composer to attempt this reconnection through music (I’m thinking of Fritz Hart and Percy Grainger). Would it be completely amiss to say that we witness this phenomenon at times of great uncertainty about Australia’s future? This is certainly not to say that Grandage shares any of Hart or Grainger’s views, but at times when the contingency of belonging in Australia is laid bare by political or environmental crisis, people start searching inwards as well as outwards for a sense of stability.

Cassomenos, speaking with much character and equal portions of false modesty explained playing Charles Ives’ Largo for violin, clarinet and piano as “like early music.” The funny thing is that Ives’ music can so often sound like the newest thing on the programme. The room really came into its own with this piece. Arkinstall’s perfectly-voiced clarinet line embraced the audience and Curro was able to make the most of the piece’s final, transcendent violin note.

In keeping with the philosophy of the ensemble, the concert included a recent commission by an Australian composer: Paul Dean’s Fragmented Journeys. Originally intended as a joke (is there a more worn-out journalistic cliché than talking about musical “journeys”?), the piece did in fact end up reflecting four journeys that the composer and his friends had variously taken. The first movement, “Fraught,” was particularly welcome as the first example of a “flat” texture in the whole concert. That is to say, the instruments were given equal importance, whereas elsewhere there was generally a principal voice and accompaniment. Here one found a punctum from the piano here, a warble from the clarinet there, or some frenetic scrubbing from the violin. The movement gains momentum, but is spiky from beginning to end, like rolling down a hill of thistles. I think this fits the description Dean provides of the movement depicting “a journey which I just didn’t want to take!” “An Unwanted Disturbance” is really quite iike DASH until the clarinet (piloted expertly by Arkinstall, though you’d want to, playing a piece of Dean’s in front of the man) enters and climbs ever higher and louder. “A Turn for the Worse” depicts a visit to a nursing home, and judging from the creepy piano noodling and see-sawing violin Dean felt a little uneasy from the start. When the booming piano chords and screeching clarinet enter, one knows that the situation only deteriorated. Given these experiences I can only suggest that Dean restrict himself to musical journeys from here on.

Medley Hall could well be the most unique music venue in Melbourne. Since its construction in 1893 on one of the most affluent streets in Melbourne (it was built for the widow of an arms dealer), it has variously been an Arbitration Office, an Italian club (hosting weekly boxing matches), home of a vigneron who graced one of the stained-glass windows with a bullet hole, the set of a Nicolas Cage film and, now, a residential college. Craftsmen and materials for the ornate Victorian Baroque parlor used for concerts, as well as the rest of the mansion, were imported from Italy. Just saying, if you are looking for a space for your next chamber music concert, Medley would be a great place to start. As to Plexus, I can only look forward to their next forty years of activity.


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

The Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”

The Crowd
ACO, ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne
Concept by Richard Tognetti
Cinematography by Jon Frank
Directed by Matthew Lutton

In 1960 Elias Canetti published Crowds and Power, a taxonomy of the crowd drawing on anthropology, sociology, philosophy and psychology couched in a stream of lucid, aphoristic prose. Writing in the wake of the Third Reich, Canetti considered the relationship of the spontaneous crowd to the demonic-charismatic leader. He explored, in an unprecedented way, the survivor whose hidden satisfaction provides a new germ of despotic power.

Waving the book around in interviews, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti and the cinematographer Jon Frank promised a fusion of video and music that would address “the gamut of the crowd experience from alienation to the reinforcement of humanity” (to quote the programme). You can imagine my excitement. Finally, Australia’s premier chamber music ensemble would develop a multimedia programme around some historically significant and eminently relevant intellectual grist.

The ACO, students from ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne proved themselves versatile interpreters of the exciting and diverse programme. In perhaps the most interesting exploration of crowd dynamics (because the exploration is immanent to the compositions and the musicians on stage), the orchestra in Ives, Tognetti, Sibelius, Crumb, Schubert, Dean and Shostakovich is whittled down to the intimate quartets, trios and solos of Debussy, Feldman, Leifs and Chopin.

The music aside, the concert was deeply disappointing and even troubling, given the status and resources of the ACO and the Melbourne Festival. Ives’ The Unanswered Question opens beneath Frank’s beautiful, slow-motion footage of street scenes in New York. Faces and gestures emerge from the crowd in high definition and high frame rate detail. The mise-en-scène situates the fundamental antimony of the crowd as that between the unindividuated mass and the feeling individual. The gently emerging voices of Ives’ piece suits the images, but the cinematic gesture is a cliché, giving the impression one is watching Koyaanisqatsi with better music.

Tognetti’s suite (which sounds like something between the Carmina Burana and the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings) breaks in with thumping timpani beneath a quote from Nietzsche: “In individuals madness is the exception, in groups it is the rule.” Cue footage of Nazi rallies and bodies in concentration camps. The message is clear: Crowds are dangerous. There is nothing in the concert to suggest otherwise, no emancipatory crowd to contrast with the despotic ruler or contemporary political example to put the message into context.

The film then vacillates between interminable footage of football matches, street scenes and images of water, providing a pessimistic and narrow vision of the crowd today. After the tokenistic reference to the political crowd, the real axis of The Crowd is football and nature.

But between the show’s creation in 2010 and reworking in 2013, two important crowd-related events have taken place: The Arab Spring in all its complexity and the increased media hysteria around asylum seekers in all its banal horror. It says something about Australia, about our wilful ignorance of the rest of the world and fear of the crowd that the closest one gets to a spontaneous crowd is a football match or a mosh pit.

We like to talk about crises. Here’s one: The ethico-aesthetic crisis of Australian art music. It is revolting to trot out footage from Nazi Germany and the holocaust in the first five minutes of a concert to demonstrate the violence of the crowd upon the individual—and the charismatic leader upon crowds—and then leave the issue aside for an hour of comic relief. You can’t drop half an H-bomb. The use of images from the Third Reich also suggests that violence is only something that happened overseas and a long time ago. Today it is impossible not to know, despite the current government blackout on the issue, that thousands of people escaping their own crowd-related conflicts are held in woefully inadequate conditions in detention centres in and around Australia. If anything, this issue resonates with Canetti’s ideas about our fear of being touched, the distances we create around ourselves, “invisible crowds” and the self-aggrandising effects of “survival” psychology. Even if it appears impossible to film within these detention centres, surely a clever cinematographer would find ways of referencing the demonisation of this crowd by a few politicians and the media for their own ends.

But wouldn’t that be risky? Wouldn’t that be what crowds are all about?

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.