Tag Archives: Elision

2016BIFEM: ELISION, How Forests Think

Wu Wei plays sheng with ELISION, How Forests Think, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

What do free jazz and South American rainforests have in common? Very little, other than being respective inspirations for Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim’s latest world premieres. Joined by international guests Peter Evans and Wu Wei, ELISION ensemble takes to the stage once again to present an extraordinary concert of two radically different works.

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries

In The Wreck of Former Boundaries, Aaron Cassidy is heavily influenced by American multi-instrumentalist, composer and innovator of the free jazz movement, Ornette Coleman. As the composer generously shared in a post-concert chat, his piece is analogous to a work for large jazz combo. Some of the seven segments that make up the work existed prior to its completion, entwining here to deliver an array of innovative, contrasting and often discordant subsections. These modular units are delivered, said Cassidy, much in the vein of Coleman’s inventive 1971 album Science Fiction.

One of the pre-existing works provides material for an opening solo performed by double bassist Joan Wright. The unassuming ELISION veteran is powerful and hypnotic in her realisation of hyper-masculine extended techniques such as striking and grinding the bow on the strings. Trumpeter Tristram Williams joins the incidental bass with soft, squeaky interjections that play out like a musical dialogue between a clumsy elephant and an anxious mouse.

It doesn’t take long for the ensemble to begin pushing ‘former boundaries’ of accepted volume. Enter sound engineer James Atkins, accompanied by a cacophony of extended techniques from the acoustic instruments. Spacey electronics reverberate powerfully around the auditorium while screaming and wailing from the clarinet and alto saxophone becomes almost intolerable for audience members and instrumentalists alike (you know it’s loud when the trumpet players cover their ears).

A sudden spell of conducting from the trumpet section leads in to the work’s next exciting instalment: improvisatory passages from BIFEM guest artist and international trumpet royalty, Peter Evans taking the piccolo trumpet to virtuosic extremes. Appointed with the difficult task of relaying live performance cues to the sound engineer, the composer uses a microphone to apply gradual distortion to the timbre. Following an exhilarating moment of solo electronics–which felt like being inside a crashing spaceship—members of ELISION physically stand back to give way to Evans in an extended experimental passage. Solid foundations in jazz and improvisation are self-evident in his expert navigation around the microphone. Initially standing tall to enjoy the instrument’s natural resonance, Evans repeatedly leans in and away from the microphone, exploring the evolving distortions Cassidy and Atkins place upon his sound. A structurally climactic point of the work sees him place the bell of the piccolo trumpet against the microphone, surrendering the instrument’s acoustic capacity. Warped sounds of churning air and clunking valves now become part of a disconcerting atmospheric sound, like being trapped in the belly of a monster.

Daryl Buckley’s electric lap-steel guitar solo is another exciting feature of The Wreck of Former Boundaries. In a real rockstar moment, Buckley relishes the thrill of the sound, once more challenging the audiences’ tolerance for high volume with visceral pitch bends and ringing chords. A concluding solo in the multichannel electronics leaves a similar impact; several performers can be seen smiling at the audience’s shock and uncertainty as to whether this electrifying, action-packed work has truly come to a close.

While The Wreck of Former Boundaries is an extremely effective collaboration of performers and styles, Aaron Cassidy’s only concern about its future is that it relies heavily on certain performers. At the very front of the stage and in the foundation of the work is an inimitable creative partnership between Peter Evans and Tristram Williams. Such an adrenaline-charged premiere makes it almost impossible to imagine the work played by anyone else.

Liza Lim, How Forests Think

In the second half of the program, ELISION ensemble expands to its full membership for the world premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. Completed in Brazil and inspired by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s book of the same title (University of California Press, 2013 http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520276116), the work explores the relationship between trees within a forest by extending the breath and sound identity of the instruments. In the opening bars, pensive saxophone and rainmaker lay the foundations for a dense, interplaying and evocative sound world.

Lim has fashioned a highly distinctive instrumental texture in How Forests Think with the addition of a sheng to the ensemble. In an intermission interview with Matthew Lorenzon, the composer explains how the traditional Chinese instrument comprises 37 vertical pipes and can be played by both blowing and inhaling. With such a wide range of pitches and tone qualities at his disposal, sheng virtuoso Wu Wei is able to match and bring out nuances in timbre of various instruments in the ensemble. There are countless moments where he effortlessly blends both chords and single notes with low notes from the bass flute, the top register of the oboe and even, at times, with percussion. These criss-crossing timbral interactions peak towards the end of the piece when Wei beautifully mimics a poignant duet between cor anglais and cello.

Wei also theatrically delivers a brief, untranslated text which is followed by percussive grunts and unpredictable rushes of breath from the wind instrumentalists. In these mesmerising passages, the audience senses the heightened awareness and responsiveness to ensemble breathing that Lim’s writing demands from the musicians. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde is exquisite in his control of sound, which consistently balances with the assemblage of high wind instruments. Similarly breathtaking is Paula Rae’s almost inaudible delivery of a tender flute melody, played eerily behind powerful throat singing by the multitalented Wu Wei.

After a sudden, slightly confusing conclusion to the penultimate section where unified quavers are repeated à l’ostinato, we settle back in for an ending full of charm. Percussionist Peter Neville is entrusted with the unusual job of scooping beads out of a bowl with his hands, then slowly pouring them inside a violin and various percussion instruments. A more puzzling moment occurs when conductor Carl Rosman—nothing short of outstanding throughout—relinquishes his duties as leader, walks leisurely to the back row of the ensemble and sits down. With the addition of Richard Haynes and Joshua Hyde (to this point clarinettist and saxophonist) the percussion section is suddenly augmented to four. Gentle shakers and soft whistling from the brass players bring this stimulating work to a close.

For BIFEM’s second double bill of world premieres (the first, Seeing Double featured concerti by David Chisholm and Jack Symonds), Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim certainly delivered the goods. Reaching an astronomical standard of musical innovation and performance this ELISION concert evoked emotion, pushed boundaries, educated and inspired.

How Forests Think
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
3 September 2016

Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries; Liza Lim, How Forests Think

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (2)

ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

It’s reported Mahler once said that one ought not bother looking at the view, as he’d already composed it. Well may Australians say, “save your wonderment at the planet’s richest natural jungle communication network—Melbournian Liza Lim has already composed it.” Take a sneak peek at the view here. The point is vistas and sunsets aren’t ever likely to be passé and Mahler will always enrich our spirits, but Australians are travel-crazy, smart, curious, connected and living in the now, and we need art like Liza Lim’s to help us celebrate our uniquely modern experiences of wonder.

Lim is so hot in the international art music scene, she’s the new-classical-music equivalent of an Oscar-laden actor or an athletic medal magnet. Remember when Boulez’ own Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned and performed Machine for Contacting the Dead? Or when the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and performed the Frank Gehry-inspired Ecstatic Architecture as a highlight for the opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall? The time her song cycle, Mother Tongue, was reviewed—or was it revered?— by the writer art music audiences read: Alex Ross in The New Yorker? If her name’s new to you, or her music doesn’t spring to mind, it’s probably a sign some lagging Australian orchestras and opera companies still need to pull their fingers out of their Rings.

In celebration of Lim’s 50th birthday, the dimpled, unfailing servant of the avant-garde, David Chisholm, programmed both the premiere of How Forests Think—an exquisite and consoling work of unprecedented formal ecology, which my ears are aching daily to hear again—as well as a return performance of the fluid, exploratory, mystically beautiful and heartbreaking Machine for Contacting the Dead.

In the 1970s, in a spectacular archaeological accident, the People’s Liberation Army uncovered the tomb of Marquis Yi and the remains of 21 ritualistically-mutilated women, believed to date back to the third day of the third month, 433 BCE, in Suizhou, Hubei, China. These burial chambers were filled with over 18,000 ancient artefacts including a complete armoury and a trove of gold, bronze, silks, calligraphy and, uniquely for the time, a caucus of 124 musical instruments.

In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim pairs archeology and music through a resplendent diversity of orchestral colours and ritualistic performance directions. Lim’s artistic excavations of the human experience draw on her cultural plurality, and eschew the orientalism of some poorly-aged excerpts of Debussy or Puccini.

Like Stravinsky, Lim amplifies the intimate musician-instrument connection and takes the possibilities of tone colour to the extreme, presenting musical colours from breathtaking, as-yet-undiscovered palettes. In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim again allows the performers to explore the colouristic potentialities of their instruments: the pianist stops directing keys and hammers through the instrument, instead extracting resonance from the instrument’s using a looped string. For a moment, the performer has the direct contact with their instrument normally only afforded to winds and strings. Extreme sul pont, often a compositional source of aggression or ambiguity, is executed with a transparency and choreographed introspective tenderness by the ELISION/ANAM strings.

The ELISION/ANAM concert highlights this as music to be watched. The sound structures are paramount, but Lim’s interest in the performer’s experience and their embodiment of compositional devices and themes is part of the reason the experience of being in a Lim audience changes you. Richard Hayne’s contrabass clarinet is central to the stage, and to the work, as a mystical figure espousing extreme yet lyrical multiphonics and animalistic tongue slaps. The clarinets, oboes and violins are split across stage, enhancing sincere ensemble dialogue from Mena Krstevska in the B-flat clarinets as she vaults thematic messages to her counterpart, Mitchell Jones, uncovering unity across the divide at the culmination of the first section.

ANAM student percussionists Thea Rossen, Hamish Upton and professional percussionist Peter Neville won hearts with discrete totems of sounds written in some of the most beautiful timbral pairings of the idiom. I adored the connection of cello and thundersheet along with bowed vibraphone and woodwind. Some mesmerising rototom twisted through unexpected turns. Maraccas were items of grave punctuation in Neville’s hands. Our archaeological setting was tactile, with the dry, decrepit elicitations of rainstick and geophone. A spectacular modern day ritual was evoked from a raised row of three percussionists, extending offerings of mirrored instruments in each palm, with a freakishly synchronised flexatone theme; a musical message so profound, I felt momentarily moved to carve the transcription into a tablet.

Given conductor Carl Rosman’s long-standing familiarity with the work and Liza Lim’s mentorship of this ensemble, Bendigo experienced an authentic rendering of this work, written in the greatest sincerity by one of Australia’s most-impactful living artists.

Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (1)

ELISION and students from ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

Speaking before the performance of Liz Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000), conductor Carl Rosman drew parallels between the ensemble in its early days and the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) joining them to for this concert. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and recalling how ELISION’s initial approach was to “bite off more than they could chew, and chew like hell,” Rosman praised the young players for their similarly committed attitude towards such a daunting project.

Lim composed Machine for Contacting the Dead for France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in 2000, it coincided with a Parisian exhibition of Chinese archeological treasures recently excavated from a 433 BCE tomb. Among the bodies of the noblemen and concubines were several well-preserved musical instruments, some of which were unidentified. As she so often does, Lim became interested in the link between history and memory, and created this work to imagine female musicians and dancers of the distant past.

Machine for Contacting the Dead received its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2002, performed by ELISION together with members of The Queensland Orchestra; but that’s the last we’d heard of it. A work of many challenges, perhaps its demands have prevented it being programmed elsewhere in the composer’s home country—or the lack of a permanent contemporary music ensemble large enough to tackle such works. ELISION have found a natural match in musicians from ANAM who also joined the ensemble to perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher. Hopefully, the two will recreate this fruitful collaboration to perform similarly ambitious contemporary works in the future.

From the outset of the piece, Lim’s nimble orchestration is on show. With her highly developed ability to craft layers of sounds without overwhelming the piece’s texture, each flutter of high wind and muted brass, wail of string harmonics and punctuation points from the three percussionists helps weave a rich tapestry. While the overall effect is quite visibly and musically raucous, the volume remains understated; recalling a distant memory of imagined music.

Emerging from these memories at various points throughout, the solo cello and bass clarinet assert their presence. Cellist Séverine Ballon’s playing is exceptional. She throws herself into the highly technical and physical part, using extended techniques to make the instrument sound in unfamiliar ways. A brief duet between Ballon and ELISION veteran Peter Veale in the first movement produces some delightful interplay, with Veale’s overblown oboe a perfect match for Ballon’s suitably violent playing.

Equally impressive is Richard Haynes, who doubled on the bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Seamlessly carrying on Ballon’s opening solo in the second movement, the bass clarinet at first matches the tone of the cello before diverting into an energetic and almost jazz-influenced line, punctuated by aggressive tongue slaps and jumps in register. Playing the contrabass clarinet, Haynes brings out a deep and resonant tone, with some frightening low grumbles to underscore the rest of the ensemble.

Each movement contains opportunities for individual musicians to shine. In an interview some years ago Lim hinted that Machine for Contacting the Dead was written with ELISION musicians in mind, despite its commission by another ensemble. Marshall McGuire’s harp with its pitch bends and sustained notes are a great match for the piano, which switches between conventional playing and contemporary techniques including plucking the strings and bowing them with nylon wires. Trumpet flourishes are perfectly suited to Tristram Williams, who precisely executes each one, and Paula Rae’s performance shows her mastery of each of her instruments—in the shrill announcements of the piccolo and the lusty tone of the bass flute.

According to Lim’s specific instructions, the solo bass clarinet, solo cello and contrabassoon are seated front and centre. The remaining musicians surround them, meaning that instrumental families are split up. With Lim’s rich orchestration, this provides some great moments of dialogue and spatial play. A particularly effective moment is shared by the two violinists. Staring down his ANAM counterpart on the other side of the stage, Graeme Jennings’ power is evenly matched by the student in a fiery duet, with a stereo sound effect. The unique arrangement causes some problems with communication and entries, but on the whole the choice enhances the sense of space and drama in the work.

Towards the end of the final movement, attention is drawn to the back of the stage as the three percussionists, harpist and trombonist gather around the piano. With nylon wires, the five bow the grand piano strings, while the remaining percussionist ominously beats on a low bass string with her mallets. Changing the speed and intensity of the bowing wires at different rates, the effect of the pitches emerging and ringing out through the auditorium is magical. The removing of the piano lid is Lim’s own unearthing of centuries-old sonic treasures from the tomb, and a fitting end to a work which demonstrates the composer’s phenomenal ability to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect to hear in a concert hall.

Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016


2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Speicher (2)

©Jason Tavener Photography SPEICHER_MG_1359
ELISION and ANAM students perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Madeline Roycroft

Speicher, the title of Enno Poppe’s 2013 work for large ensemble has a number of translations in English, including reservoir, memory and storehouse. All of these mirror the complex structure within the piece, performed by ELISION ensemble and students of the Australian National Academy of Music. Over the course of 75 minutes, early snippets of thematic material are carried into new and expanded contexts as six individual works weave recurrent ideas and memories. The audience can then draw upon their own memories of the unfolding work to determine why the music becomes increasingly familiar.

Conductor Carl Rosman leads a polished and thought provoking performance of Poppe’s monumental work. Valiant and untiring, Rosman barely takes a second to pause as the six segments (which range in length from three to twenty minutes) move seamlessly onward.

Various sections are infused with popular music styles, allowing us to hear pitch bends and vibrato from the clarinet, snatches of laid-back drumbeats and bluesy influence in the muted brass. Poppe’s use of colourful instrumental pairings is a real highlight of the work. Nothing confirms timbral innovation more than audience members’ eyes darting madly around the stage, trying to determine the source of unusual instrument pairings. Sustained harmonics in the upper strings pass seamlessly to the flute; contrabassoon and bass clarinets deliver solo passages in the very top of their ranges. A sudden, feisty duet between soprano saxophone and accordion is exemplary of the innovative use of timbre. ANAM saxophonist Luke Carbon is show-stealing in numerous explosive solos that jump frantically between top register squeals and robust, overblown bottom notes which display just how well the instrument lends itself to extended techniques.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Speicher though is the impact that listening to microtones for an extended period of time has on the audience’s sense of pitch. From the very beginning of the work there are extensive periods that provide the listener with mere fragments or compressed versions of a melody. Sustained discordant clusters, coloured by members of the high wind section, repeatedly punctuate these passages. Rather than recoiling at the potentially unsettling nature of these chords, the audience is comforted by the rare moments of stillness they provide. There is also a physical dimension to the performance in which the musicians momentarily relax their jerky body language as they lean into sustained dissonances.

Adjusting to the busy, disjointed nature of the opening themes creates an equally unusual sense of rhythmic displacement in the listener. At the sudden appearance of a single coherent phrase, this characteristic becomes strikingly evident. Performed sensitively in the top range of the cello, a melody that spans only several bars is cleverly unprecedented to the point that it is perceived as a syntax error for the human ear.

A feat that the performers execute particularly well throughout Speicher is the evolving role of instrument groups within the ensemble. During the six sections we experience a quiet, playful opening of sliding and seesawing violas, dense chords in the strings and keyboards enhanced by solo wind and brass voices, then a sudden ‘attack of the high winds’ in the supercharged finale.

From the beginning of this concluding section, Poppe has already rewritten the rules of conventional voicing in an innovative exploration of the top register, which members of ELISION and ANAM treat with utmost musicality. Sustained, high-pitched cluster chords from piccolos, oboe, soprano saxophone and clarinet could easily result in a shambles; instead, balance is achieved to the point of borderline aural discomfort. Dissonances ring out across the auditorium, achieving dynamic strength that is seldom heard from woodwinds alone. The brass section adds to the effect towards the end, generating an energised and equally voluminous charge to the finish line.

The texture suddenly becomes sparse for the work’s gripping conclusion, led masterfully by ELISION veterans Paula Rae and Peter Veale. A continuous note from the piccolo and oboe is repeatedly bent up and down, like a wide vibrato played in slow motion. The woodwinds gradually fade, and the conclusion – which is strangely evocative of a fly trapped in a jar – is executed tenderly by Tristram Williams on the soprano trombone, buzzing softly in steady pulsations of the same eerie pitch.

Overall, ELISION and ANAM are to be commended for their outstanding interpretation of Poppe’s multilayered work. Australian audiences should cross their fingers that this premiere performance allows Speicher to find a place in future programming of contemporary repertoire.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Speicher (1)

©Jason Tavener Photography SPEICHER_MG_1304
ELISION and ANAM students perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

Enno Poppe’s Speicher is a play on memory, a greatly expanding field of knowledge for our generation. We know our memories are malleable, largely illusory, constantly mutating, decaying or enriching. In German, the term ‘speicher’, meaning ‘storage’, and refers both to psychological memory storage, and also more specifically as a store of pitch class sets used in a compositional process.

At the opening of the piece there is no memory, only attention. Poppe’s atom of musical thought is the salty sul pont viola paired with bleak sonar-radio emissions from the accordion. These bare elements return recognisable, yet in eloquent settings and manipulated through unexpected readings. Vibrato is Poppe’s justification for challenging our traditional concept of a note as belonging to a fixed pitch. With intervals-wide, pitch-traversing vibrato we learn to reconsider our idea of a musical atom. We’re reminded of the pitch continuum at play in vibrato and reassess our assumption in our perception of the discrete tone.

By contrast, after this hypervibrato and ‘hyperchromatic’ divisions of less than a semitone, late-Romantic string vibrato is introduced only for a moment and suddenly we can hear this normally ubiquitous left-hand string technique as a chaotic, over-stimulating, maelstrom of thousands of incomprehensible musical events. And in these small moments we might experience an appreciation of sounds units on a small order of magnitude and perhaps experience the reverse operation of Schenkerian analysis which looks for the skeleton of a work, not for its biochemistry.

 Conducted by Carl Rosman and performed by a the champion forces of Elision ensemble joined by the fresh-blood of Australian National Academy of Music, the combined ensemble evoked cohesive textural moments, and colouristic effects convincingly. The students clearly delighted in their full-citizenship in any register of their instruments.

 Shout out to a grand-effort Parker-esque solo on alto sax by clarinettist, Luke Carbon. Kyla Matsuura-Miller tag-teamed the second violin part at the 4th movement and knocked it out of the park with rhythmic finesse and delicious tonal ferocity. Props to Eli Vincent in valiantly helming the nucleus of the work as first viola. Applause to the professionals: concertmaster Graeme Jennings who was a consistent and efficient leader, cellist Séverine Ballon, whose early attack on the cello was the first and true expression of musical violence in the work; her solo in section I explores the highest pitches of the deepest strings, creating an innocent, swallowed sob in melody that was reminiscent of the frailty of a child’s voice. Tristram Williams, a strong advocate of this work, played with precision and expression. There were seriously stunningly executed harp treats in the texture from Marshall Mcguire. Best and Fairest goes to James Crabb on accordion. The evolution from harmonics to accordion hums was sublime, and Crabb, master of camouflage, as a foreign species of instrument among the full palette of orchestral instruments. It returns to the fore of the texture evoking its unique voice; an imperceptible transformation before our ears, as if Escher himself could draw sound. Like Escher, Poppe is a numerologist and does not believe the 12-tone technique would have been so successful were it not for the cultural significance of the number 12. This piece appears to be based around the number six on multiple levels. Six movements, each containing six parts, the hyper chromatic use of 6th tones.

Stylistically, most of this work is in Poppe’s own compositional language of clear texture, and microtonal organic development. However, in a potential nod to Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Poppe enters the stylistic world of the foxtrot. Apart from minor technical details, challenge some students struggled to find their groove. Some bebop stomps were finely executed on the drum kit and one wished for similar conviction in the strings. From the ironic use of grotesquely pretty Hollywood strings to tone-dense Mondrian-esque geometric forces in the winds and Debussy’s harmonic-gravity defying language, textural transitions were the most spectacular feature of the ensemble’s interpretation.

A humble woodblock knock, emerging meekly from an apocalyptic orchestral force, elicited a chuckle from the audience, and true, a musical ugly-duckling it was. Our duckling returns as a pluck in the harp and we delight in its glorious transformation into a swan-tone adorned in overtones. Outside of this piece I would have serious doubts as to whether a single harp note held sufficient aesthetic power.

 All these micro-details are essentially developmental links in an 80-minute epic, expansive enough to puff its chest at Beethoven’s 9th. At the close of Speicher, it’s possible to hear the initial opening notes of Beethoven 9’s recitative, a melody symbolic of refusal for new material. One can’t help but feel Poppe reached the precipice of a musical mind verging on new material, only to reiterate and reaffirm the work’s fidelity to singular ideas and their possibilities and thus the piece exits before new material can be spoken, suspended on the trumpeter’s tongue.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Elision

From the circles of Dante’s Inferno to Ethiopian churches carved into rock faces, Elision’s program was inspired by sacred cities both real and imagined. With their almost inhuman virtuosity, the performers took the stage like mythical guardians of each citadel.

The only musical sound Dante hears in hell is a horn belonging to the giant Nimrod. The giants are trapped in the Circle of Treachery for attempting to overthrow the gods. With their intelligence and compassion “in inverse proportion to their size,” the program note for Elision’s Metropolis concert associated them with “thuggish brutality and malevolent military power.” In Giganti John Rodgers attempts to compose the sound of this loud and brutal instrument played by lungs larger than any human’s. Given new music’s addiction to supersized wind instruments, it’s surprising someone hasn’t tried it before. Benjamin Marks’ trombone lays a powerful bed of sound while Tristram Williams adds high overtones on trumpet. Aviva Endean’s contrabass clarinet provides grist and timbre, rumbling and roaring in waves. But even giants run out of breath and eventually this imagined meta-instrument falls silent.

In Richard Barrett’s Adocentyn, Genevieve Lacey and Paula Rae painted another type of sacred city: Tommaso Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun inspired by an eleventh-century textbook of magic. The city has a central castle with four gates guarded by an eagle, a bull, a lion, and a dog. On the summit of the castle is an enormous tower that changes colour, kind of like the Melbourne Arts Centre during White Night. But unlike the feverish crush of White Night, Lacey’s bass recorder and Rae’s bass flute are busy and gentle, playing a sotto voce duet with all the twists and turns of medieval streets.

Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar takes a sledgehammer to the musical architecture of Elision’s history. Treating recordings of past performances as “found material”, they are processed beyond recognition by Daryl Buckley’s effects pedals, forming an immersive sonic environment like tonnes of glass being ground into fine powder. Buckley’s guitar carves lines through this sonic dessication like a finger through dust.

Elision celebrate 30 years of new music this year, making their first commissions not so new any more. Marshall McGuire acknowledged this history with a performance of Vezelay, a solo harp work by Alessandro Solbiati from the 1990s, when the ensemble maintained close relationships with a group of Italian composers. The piece is inspired by an abbey in Vezelay that is constructed to represent “a way from darkness to light.” The piece is satisfyingly ambiguous about what counts as darkness and light. Contrasting use of the harp’s low and high registers is kept to a minimum. Rather, obscurity and clarity seem to be the key distinguishing characteristics. The piece begins with McGuire striking and messily brushing the strings. Dirty glissandi and harmonics jumble together. Tremoli across strings—some of which are muted—creates a sound like rattling beetle shells. Clearer sounds stand out from these obscured tones, like clear harmonics struck simultaneously with a lower fundamental, or whispering high trills.

When the program note to Matthew Sergeant’s ymrehanne krestos said that a superimposed texture of decoupled articulations, valve patterns, and dynamics would be “scrubbed” to reveal its constituent parts I didn’t expect there to be any actual scrubbing. But Peter Neville dutifully raises a scrubbing brush at the beginning of the piece and attacks a pair of bongo drums. Harsher scrubbing seems to coincide with moments of clarity in the brass texture as Williams and Marks focus on elements of articulation or dynamics. The composer associates this distinction between dense surface texture and excavated simplicity with the Ethiopian monastery ymrehanne krestos, which is carved into a rock face.

The trend in complexist music to draw inspiration from ancient history and mythology has found itself at home in this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival’s theme of the city. Of real and imagined cities the festival has so far focused on the imaginary or those of the distant past. I look forward to the festival’s march towards the urban present over the next two weeks.

Sacred Cities
10 May 2016
Melbourne Recital Centre

John Rodgers, Giganti; Richard Barrett, Adocentyn; Aaron Cassidy, The wreck of former boundaries; Richard Barrett, Aurora; Alessandro Solbiati, Vezelay; Matthew Sergeant, ymrehanne krestos