Tag Archives: Damien Ricketson

Metropolis: Ensemble Offspring, Light is Calling

Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy of the artists.
Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy of the artists.

Sydney-based new music group Ensemble Offspring continue the Metropolis festival with a colourful series of works for live ensemble and video. Their programme Light is Calling began with a great example of a minimalist work that uses less to achieve more. Light is Calling for solo violin, electronics, and video is an attempt to “make something beautiful” after the ugliness of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Composer Michael Gordon provides a slow-moving violin part, devastatingly interpreted by Ensemble Offspring’s Veronique Serret. Reverberant and reversed samples form a finely-textured bed of electronic sound. Film maker Bill Morrison, who also contributed to Julia Wolfe’s Fuel in the MSO’s second Metropolis program, brings the piece to new emotional heights. Morrison’s film consists of a reprint of footage from the black and white 1926 movie The Bells. Morrison melts film footage of figures, faces and horses to produce hauntingly distorted images. As the film turns to yellow, brown, and black, the images smear and stretch across the screen. The echoing electronic part, lamenting violin and immolating film all seem mourn a long-lost innocence.

Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying combines live clarinet (Jason Noble) with prerecorded metallic sounds including a kitchen whisk, bells and harmonium. The delicate sound world also includes pre-recorded clarinets that duet playfully with the live performer. The piece is accompanied by a video of stop-motion hair clippings on a white background. The hair slowly coalesces into a face, setting in motion a series of vivid animations including soap suds and metallic shards. Noble transfixed the audience with the hypnotic clarinet part. This was especially strong during the opening abstraction of drifting hair follicles.

Ensemble Offspring’s Metropolis programme included the world première of audiovisual artist Chris Perren’s Dive Process. In Dive Process, Perren builds on his recent experiments with musical and video phasing. Dive Process uses a retro video of a girl diving into water. The video is reversed and replayed at her point of entry into the pool, creating a rhythmic explosion and contraction of bubbles. Three versions of this film are then played side by side at different rates in a mesmerising phasing pattern. Perren’s score for percussion, clarinet, and violin mirrors the visual phasing pattern. Perren builds the intensity of this pattern during segments where dozens of copies of the video are spaced around a sphere. Continuing the theme of rhythmic counterpoint, the ensemble then played Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, a sister-piece to Reich’s Six Pianos, which Zubin Kanga performed in an arrangement by Vincent Corver earlier in the festival.

Ensemble Offspring reserved the second half of the concert for Damien Ricketson’s magnificent Fractured Again Suite. For this large-scale chamber ensemble work, Ricketson draws inspiration from the physical properties and sound of glass. In particular, Ricketson singles out the glass harmonium, a relatively popular instrument in the eighteenth century that has since fallen into obscurity. The closest thing one can hear to its ethereal tone nowadays is a dextrous performance on a row of tuned wineglasses. Ricketson builds the Fractured Again Suite out of fragments of compositions for the glass harmonium by Mozart, Donizetti and others. These fragments are then reflected, distorted and splintered like glass to form the arresting and sparkling surface of the suite. The rapid opening resembles an off-kilter clockwork automaton racing towards self-destruction. The glass-inspired video accompanying the work includes a brilliant array of coloured lights projected upon tubes, panes, and rods of glass. Some of these lights are reflected in repetitive, rhythmic ways, while at others they resemble the more timbral reflections of the piece’s later movements.

Ensemble Offspring
Light is Calling
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
14 May 2015

Michael Gordon, Light is Calling; Nico Muhly, It Goes Without Saying; Chris Perren, Dive Process; Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint; Damien Ricketson, Fractured Again Suite.

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood: Broken Consorts

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha'i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.
Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha’i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.

It is a truth commonly acknowledged that a fan of irrational rhythms, jarring dissonances and difference tones will also  enjoy the rasping timbres and wild gestures of baroque music. In Broken Consorts, Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood explore this subterranean passage between early and new music that passes under the full-to-bursting tone and metrical pomp of the romantic era. What explains the affinity between early and contemporary music? As the composer Damien Ricketson mused during the concert, the groups share “a mutual disregard for vibrato.” Performers of early music will retort that this description only applied in the early days of Historically Inspired Performance Practice and that today they know to use vibrato sparingly as an expressive effect. But neither adepts of early music nor contemporary music are known for their sense of humour.

In early music terminology, a “broken consort” is an ensemble constituted from more than one family of instruments. By playing contemporary and early music on early, modern and bespoke instruments,  Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood bring the notion of the broken consort into the twenty-first century. While some works in the programme were creative reimaginings of old and new works on old and new instruments, a new work by Felicity Wilcox was commissioned especially for the concert. While the reimagined early and modern works provided an engaging comparison of instrumental timbres, Wilcox’s piece went furthest towards a genuine exploration of new and early musics’ shared emphases on gesture and rhetoric.

The concert began with Matthew Locke’s Consort of Fower Parts, which Ironwood played in a historically-inspired fashion. This was the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing Ironwood perform, and I was blown away by Daniel Yeadon’s cello tone and rhetorical expressivity. From a purely early-music performance to a completely new work, Wilcox’s Uncovered Ground was a palimpsest of musical styles. The composer likens the piece to a “a chipped painted wall that partially reveals a forgotten mural.” The piece features begins with a descending figure reminiscent of the lamenting bass of a passacaglia or Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. This baroque gesture is quickly replaced by modern extended techniques, including pianist Zubin Kanga playing inside the piano with a bottle. Other baroque forms can be made out beneath the whispering, scraping string sounds, including a decorative string duet and dance rhythms.

The episodic form of Matthew Locke’s Suite from The Tempest provided opportunities for creative instrumentation. Kanga’s piano was prepared to comical effect, with Blu-Tac on piano strings producing “popping” cadences. Paper in between the piano strings and bulldog clips on Claire Edwardes’ vibraphone brought the instruments closer to the brighter, buzzier baroque sound world. I was pleasantly surprised when the two ensembles stood for a spot of very convincing madrigaling.

Damien Ricketson’s Trace Elements was inspired by a sixteenth-century manuscript, the Cracow Lute Tablature. The manuscript includes musical forms that are unidentifiable within our current knowledge of sixteenth-century music. Ricketson was attracted to the idea of forgotten musical styles, as well as the fact that tablature describes the actions required for a piece to be played rather than how it sounds. Trace Elements is written in an invented tablature that can be performed by a quartet consisting of two wind and two string insturments. The performance will thus be different every time that a different combination of instruments and tunings are used. Due to the tablature, as Ricketson writes, “the underlying gestural identity remains constant.” The ensemble chose a compelling combination of modern flute and clarinet with early viola and cello. This produced startling effects as the undeniably “modern” gestures, using the full range of the instruments, were modulated by the gut strings of the string instruments.

The concert closed with Mary Finsterer’s Silva, which was composed in 2013 for Ensemble Offspring featuring Claire Edwardes on percussion. The title means “forest” and the piece reflects the eerie quiet of forest environments, with scattered fragments of Tallis’ “Spem in alium” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” lighting up the space like birdsong. There were some wonderful timbral surprises, including a sumptuous combination of gut-stringed cello and modern bass clarinet. The tone of Veronique Serret’s modern-strung violin stuck out in the muted forest like an enthusiastic lyrebird. After each instrument was given some time to make itself heard, the piece closed with a beautifully rough gong chime evocative of a rusted bell in a forgotten temple.

Ricketson’s Trace Elements

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood Ensemble

Broken Consorts


23 February 2013

Matthew Locke, Consort of Fower Parts; Felicity Wilcox, Uncovered Ground; Matthew Locke, Suite from The Tempest; Damien Ricketson, Trace Elements; William Lawes, Consort in Six Parts; Mary Finsterer, Silva.