Tag Archives: Clara Iannotta

BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Dead Oceans

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 DEAD OCEANS_MG_9959
The Argonaut String Quartet in Dead Oceans. Jason Tavener photography.

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

Each year BIFEM reserves box-office takings to commission new works for the following year. By commissioning works from Australian and international composers, BIFEM has become a globally recognised hub for new music. This year’s closing concert foregrounded BIFEM’s culture-building mission by juxtaposing world premieres from the emerging Australian composers Caterina Turnbull and Samuel Smith with Australian premieres by Clara Iannotta and Anahita Abbasi. The Argonaut String Quartet handled the challenges thrown at them with apparent ease, whether Turnbull and Smith’s palettes of extended string techniques or Iannotta and Abbasi’s blocks of styrofoam, aluminium foil, and desk bells.

Last year Turnbull participated in the Monash University Composers’ Workshop at BIFEM. Her string quartet attracted the attention of the festival organisers and ultimately a commission from Julian Burnside, QC. Burnside’s support gave Turnbull the opportunity to return to her short piece, extending and refining it into a series of tableaux of delicately layered instrumental effects. In Eminulos (a latin adjective describing a slight projection), masses of bird-like chirps, imitative call and response, booming down bows, tremolos, harmonics, and whispering circular bowing tumble into one another like folded geological layers. Turnbull’s heterophonic effects seem to augment the string quartet into a string orchestra.

Those familiar with Smith’s music will recognise his dynamic musical gestures in Dead Oceans, one of this year’s BIFEM Box Office Commissions. Throughout the work’s 18 minutes these gestures are built into breathtakingly dense and fluid textures. Growling notes evaporate into indeterminately high harmonics; glissandi careen around the instruments, turning corners with screeches of gritty bow pressure. From masses of mercurial lines emerge staggered legato bowing from Elizabeth Welsh and Erkki Veltheim’s violins. These rafts of timbral respite drift atop Graeme Jennings and Judith Hamann’s busy viola and cello parts like flotsam bobbing on the ocean. The work’s general movement from dissonance to consonance lends a sense of nostalgia or repose to the second half. The bobbing legato tones sound like parts of buildings floating on the ocean after being swept out to sea by a storm. The work’s environmental program is suggested by its subtext, “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans” from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But Smith insists, like Dylan, that it is just that, a subtext.

Clara Iannotta’s A Failed Entertainment was similarly not inspired by the dark comedy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for which “A Failed Entertainment” was the working title. A Failed Entertainment is the beginning of the composer’s process of exploring longer and more complex forms, which Wallace achieved with extended, digressionary footnotes. A Failed Entertainment is a similarly masterful combination of finessed writing and awkward interruptions, including “footnotes” played by stamping on desk bells.

Abbasi’s Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis shines a spotlight on the timbral possibilities of the cello, which the rest of the quartet frames and accompanies while drawing nearer to its timbre. In the beginning, Hamann ceremonially strums the prepared cello with wide movements of her arm, the aluminium foil between the strings emitting a deep and resonant buzz like the chains on the back of a Persian daf drum. Hamann’s uneven, declamatory rhythms break the tension of the other instruments’ groaning and creaking overbowed strings. Sometimes the cello moves closer to the sound of the other instruments, as when Hamann flicks the edge of the cello with the hair of the bow (a swashbuckling move as effective to see as to hear). Meanwhile, the other instruments emit gentle “puffs” by bowing the sides of their instruments. At other times the other instruments move closer to the cello’s sound, as when the viola’s strings are prepared with blu-tac to change their pitch and timbre. The piece is just one of a series of “Distorted Attitudes” exploring distorted social perspectives and social attitudes towards distortion. I hope we have the chance to hear the rest of them live.

At the end of the day, who doesn’t love a string quartet? It’s an approachable genre that can gently prise open even the most unadventurous ears. The Argonaut String Quartet’s deft execution of microtones, extended techniques, and instrument preparations provides Australian composers and listeners with an invaluable musical resource. With the Argonaut String Quartet, everybody can rest assured that bespoke pitch systems will be accurately reproduced, while non-traditional performance techniques will be treated with the utmost musical sensitivity.

Dead Oceans
Argonaut String Quartet
Capital Theatre
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017

Caterina Turnbull, Eminulos; Samuel Smith, Dead Oceans; Anahita Abbasi, Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis; Clara Iannotta, A Failed Entertainment

BIFEM: soundinitiative, Made in France

soundinitiative perform Faction by Raphaël Cendo. Photo by Marty Williams.
soundinitiative perform Faction by Raphaël Cendo. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Angus McPherson

The lurid orange hoses worn around the necks of soundinitiative’s performers in D’Après flamboyantly illustrate Clara Iannotta’s dictum that ‘music should be seen as well as heard.’ The opening is atmospheric, players running their fingers around the lips of wine glasses, the percussionist gripping a bow between his teeth. Pitches warp and contort and sudden flourishes create spikes in the smooth soundscape. The orange pipes produce whistling harmonics and the music evolves, refulgent shimmers giving way to dryer sounds: tapping and short articulate wind entries, and finally, the sounds become gongs and bell-like attacks from the winds. The Italian Iannotta is the only composer on the program who isn’t French, but D’Après was composed in Paris, in keeping with the theme Made in France.

Christophe Bertrand’s Aus sees small cells of music undergo gradual metamorphoses. A heartbeat from the piano builds and mutates, new notes emerging like growths. On first impression the music seems to have echoes of Minimalism, but it is soon clear that the figures never repeat exactly, they roil and spread, shifting like sand. The rolling figures become pointilistic: staccato in the winds and pizzicato in the strings, culminating in a vigorous crescendo of scrubbing harmonics from Julia Robert’s viola.

‘Berceuse’ from Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold) is tranquil and introspective, the instrumentalists providing a lush, undulating accompaniment to Fabienne Séveillac’s flexible mezzo-soprano. In Grisey’s Quatre chants…, this lullaby is the reflective finale following apocalyptic scenes with text taken from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. The composer said of ‘Berceuse’, ‘it is not intended to lull one to sleep; instead it is meant to awaken one to the dying of humanity, finally liberated from its nightmare’. Heard here in isolation, ‘Berceuse’ gives us a sense of peace, but not the catharsis that would have followed the first three of Grisey’s songs.

Grisey died of an aneurysm at 52; Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold was the last piece he completed. Phillipe Leroux’s homage to Grisey Un lieu verdoyant, for mezzo-soprano and soprano saxophone, was written the year after his death. Séveillac and Joshua Hyde shine in this heartfelt performance, their delicate timbres almost indistinguishable as their voices come together and move apart. The balance between singer and saxophone is exquisite, the sighing glissandos and shaking tremolos evoking the grief of the text, which is based on the Book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Scriptures. Hyde turns his back to the audience as Un lieu verdoyant descends into Séveillac’s whispering, ‘mémoire pour Gérard’.

Séveillac is centre-stage again for Gérard Pesson’s setting of poetry by Marie Redonnet Cinq chansons, scored for voice and a quintet of viola, cello, flute, clarinet and piano. Séveillac’s voice entreats over the ambiguous, unstable moods of the accompaniment in ‘La chanteuse des rues’ (The street singer). ‘La stripteaseuse du Mac Doc’ (The stripteaser of Mac Doc) combined upbeat striking of the wood of cello and piano with humorous slides and twists from the winds. The lyrics translate as ‘without a hat/without a coat/without panties’ and so on. ‘La merchande de sable’ (The sand merchant) is a dark miniature, the soft jagged music reflecting the madness of a woman collecting sand and rocks, mistaking them for gold.

Soundinitiative’s finale for Made in France is Raphaël Cendo’s Faction, a wildly joyful piece in the composer’s self-described style of ‘Saturationism’, opening with loud, energetic ‘shredding’ on all three instruments. Faction requires electric guitar, prepared piano, prepared vibraphone (and hopefully prepared vibraphonist, quips Hyde, entertaining the audience during the stage change). Soistier’s preparations seem to involve several kinds of tape stuck to various parts of the instrument. Kobe van Cauwenberghe’s guitar dominates, but vibraphone and Gwenaëlle Rouger’s piano emerge and recede from the almost constant wall of sound.

Cendo’s music is incredibly physical and Soistier embraces this, throwing his body around the percussion section, leaping from the vibraphone to bow a cymbal, and diving over the open piano. He scrapes the piano strings with what appears to be a pink ruler, metallic sweeps mingling with the distortion of the electric guitar.

Consisting entirely of Australian premieres, soundinitiative’s Made in France provided a fascinating taste of contemporary French music by an ensemble thriving on a wide array of sonic worlds and musical styles.

Made in France
Saturday 5 September
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
Angus McPherson