Tag Archives: Ensemble Offspring

Ensemble Offspring: Celebrating International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Ensemble Offspring presented their Arc Electric program of works by women composers at the Melbourne Recital Centre. An all-woman program is not unusual for Ensemble Offspring because their entire year’s programming has been dedicated to music by women. As Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director Claire Edwardes explained, the challenge in putting the program together was deciding between the wealth of excellent contenders. Ensemble Offspring were in fine form, presenting some of their most scintillating performances yet.

Two works from very different traditions showed a sophisticated minimalist sensibility. Kate Moore’s Velvet takes folksy romanticism to new heights of sensuality while inflecting it with obsessive pulsation. Cello and piano intertwine in an insistent 5/8 rhythm. The cello, played with bravado by Blair Harris, reaches ever higher and louder in swelling espressivo lines. While Moore studied with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands, Cassie To studied in Australia. Her Avialae weaves the calls of endangered bird species into a sweeping, pulsating texture.

From the overblown to the microscopic, Melody Eötvös’s Tardigrade conjures the microscopic realm of some of the world’s most divisive creatures. The tardigrade, also known as the “moss-piglet”, looks like an eight-legged vacuum bag and is almost invincible. They can survive in boiling water, ice, deserts, and the depths of the sea all thanks to their ability to change form to suit their conditions. Edwardes played bowls filled with rice to produce a texture of tiny particles, Lamorna Nightingale played flitting, darting lines on flute and piccolo. The grotesque appeal of the tardigrade was not lost on the composer, who treated the audience also to a series of wet munching sounds.

Liza Lim’s Turning Dance of the Bee consists of a daytime and a nocturnal tableau. During the day, bees perform the figure of eight “waggle dance” oriented towards the sun. At night the bees remain in the hive. Lim’s daytime tableau  is full of darting gestures and athletic rhythms, but the nocturnal tableau is truly magical. The solo flute line, performed with the utmost serenity by Nightingale, is transformed over a string drone into a graceful meditation before being joined by a sumptuous bass clarinet line.

Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ Horizontals is so-called for its focus on form and texture over vertical harmony. Sandpaper blocks, saucepans and chopsticks inserted between the piano strings provide groups of timbres. Zubin Kanga’s prepared piano was particularly effective with its muted, gong-like tones. True to the piece’s name, each timbre group is presented before moving on to the next and I found myself wanting to hear some of these sound groups superimposed in new combinations.

Possibly the most well-known living female composer, Kaija Saariaho would be hard to pass by in any celebration of contemporary art music by women. Her work Cendres (ashes) here received a sensitive performance. The sounds of breath and hair on strings conjured images of ash and dust like the cremated remains of the musical patriarchy raining down around us.

Ensemble Offspring
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 March


Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring: Exit Ceremonies

Ensemble Offspring and the Australian Art Orchestra perform Alvin Lucier’s Swings. Photo by Mia Forrest

The grand organ is a true feat of engineering. Most concertgoers won’t realise that behind the organs gracing our town halls and churches are chambers containing forests of pipes of different shapes and sizes. Some bass flues are so large you have to climb inside to clean them, while each pipe needs to be meticulously maintained and tuned. The organists who harness this incredible machinery have to contend with baffling lag times and instrumental idiosyncrasies, but the outcome is an astonishing timbral palette. Given the awesome presence of these instruments, their history, and the considerable expense involved in maintaining them, it is surprising that so little contemporary music has been written for them. One thinks of Messiaen, Ligeti, and Xenakis, but there most people’s knowledge of contemporary organ repertoire stops. The Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring’s recent commissioning program for new organ works is therefore of international importance. The AAO and Ensemble Offspring’s performance at the Melbourne Town Hall was the first complete showing of the program, including the world premiere of a work by the “phenomenological music” pioneer Alvin Lucier.

Austin Buckett’s Aisles begins with a stunning, brassy explosion involving the whole ensemble of strings, percussion, trumpet, turntables, voice, and organ. The sound echoes off the back of the hall (or was that the live sound processing?), giving it a wave-like, viscous force. The instruments’ differing levels of decay give the wave a shimmering, multicoloured tail. The piece progresses by looping such gestures and then juxtaposing blocks of loops. The interstellar explosions are replaced by Sonya Holowell’s solo voice singing intimately into a microphone. A cavernous, spacious racket returns for a while before we finally hear the common, pitched sound of the organ. It is a high wail above the ecstatic chatter of ride cymbals played by Claire Edwardes and Joe Talia on either side of the stage. So the dynamic atmospheres of Aisles continue, a ritualistic procession as varied as it is enchanting.

Simon James Phillips’ Flaw begins with Martin Ng performing some of the quietest turntabling that you have ever heard. Breathy hums (from the organ perhaps?) are slowed down to subsonic frequencies then back into a somnambulent mid-range. Edwardes plays a shell chime and the sound is captured and transformed to sound like rain. Among this artificial pastoral scene a prerecorded bird can be heard. This meditation on technology and the natural world continues for half an hour, with swelling, arpeggiating strings and crackling speakers slowly rising and falling in the hazy texture.

Flaw and Lucier’s Swings make for an interesting juxtaposition. Simple ideas and static textures can be either numbingly boring or deeply fascinating. There is a thin line between one and the other, a line that no doubt shifts from individual to individual. Swings is based on one idea: shifting the pitch and timbre of an organ pipe by covering the open end with one’s hand. For the performance at the Melbourne Town Hall, six pipes were extracted from the bowels of the grand organ and mounted on stage, connected to the mothership through snaking black umbilical cords. The overall effect begged comparison with an H.R. Giger illustration. Four performers stood around the pipes, their hands clad in white gloves like surgeons or museum curators (scaaaary museum curators!). The strings and organ provided a steady drone as one by one the performers slowly bent the pitch of each pipe. Subtle beating filled the air. I was mesmerised as each new pipe modulated the sound of the others and the instrumental ensemble. So used to listening for pitch and rhythm, new dimensions of sound unfolded for the listener as the overall timbre became more complex with the introduction of each new pipe. At the central climax of the piece the air becomes alive with what seem aural hallucinations. Mobile, distorting, ringing ghosts of tones fill the hall. Then the sound is disassembled tone by tone. It was fascinating as an audience member to witness the construction of this sound that turned out to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Exit Ceremonies
The Australian Art Orchestra
Ensemble Offspring
Melbourne Town Hall
6 February 2016
Austin Buckett, Aisles; Simon James Phillips, Flaw; Alvin Lucier, Swings

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, Between the Keys

Ensemble Offspring
Between the Keys
The Street Theatre
8 June
Guest review by Veronica Bailey

I have always had a love for chamber music with varied instrumentation. It allows composition to drive what sounds are included rather than being restricted by the instruments that are available to the ensemble. This was beautifully demonstrated in the concert Between the Keys, presented by Sydney based group Ensemble Offspring. Instruments were commissioned for the ensemble for a previous concert. These instruments included a violin like instrument called an Undachin Tarhu, built by Peter Biffin, with an additional set of seven strings under the fingerboard that resonate with different frequencies . These strings are tuned to the centaur tuning system developed by Kraig Grady which was likewise adopted by other instruments in the ensemble. This included a vibraphone, harmonium, the bell-like meru bars, the clarinis and a keyboard.

The concert opened with a work by Arana Li titled Mysteries. The work aptly demonstrated the new sounds of the centaur vibraphone, the undachin tarhu and the clarinis. This was one of my favourite works of the night, the instruments sounding as naturally as if this configuration of instruments was as common as a string quartet.
Next was Music in Similar Motion by Phillip Glass, a minimalist piece conceived to be played by any group of instruments. This piece suited the centaur vibraphone and detuned keyboard perfectly, the ringing of the vibraphone adding a hypnotic quality to the work.

Amanda Cole’s Hydra was written specifically for the clarinis made for the ensemble. The sound was reminiscent of medieval music and the melodic interaction between the two players was enjoyable to listen to.
Some Shades of Blue by the artistic director Damien Ricketson was performed with great style by Anna McMichael on the undachin tarhu. It evoked thoughts of Mongolian nomads wandering vast plateaus. The conclusion to the piece had centaur vibraphone broken chords accompanying undachin tarhu bow scrapes, which were haunting and other-worldly.

Kraig Grady’s pentatonic piece Akashic Torus was often reminiscent of gamelan music. The vibraphone playing of Claire Edwards stood out in this piece and the meru bars, built by Grady, added a wonderful, sonorous quality when struck.

Arvo Pärt is a composer that I love listening to and I greatly enjoyed the Ensemble Offspring version of Fratres. Perhaps not more than the original, but still very much.

The final piece of the evening was a composition by Terumi Narushima. Hidden Sidetracks took the listener on a journey of all the centaur tuning has to offer. Beginning as a very tonal piece, with few centaur tunings evident, the piece quickly changes to take on a more oriental feel, and more notes feel a little strange to western ears. Quick dance-like segments feature regularly, with the work then returning to a more tonal centre.

This was a most enjoyable concert exploring an intriguing and rarely visited sonic landscape. Different, but very accessible, the program proved a hit with barely an empty seat in the house.

Metropolis: Ensemble Offspring, Posh Playground

Photo by Oliver Miller
Lamorna Nightingale. Photo by Oliver Miller

Posh Playground
Ensemble Offspring
Metropolis New Music Festival
8 April

The Metropolis New Music Festival got off to a playful start with Ensemble Offspring in the salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre. Posh Playground explores the work of a circle of UK-based composers deploying minimal pitch and rhythmic material in theatrical and playful ways. For example, the scores of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Letter Piece 8 (Sit up Stand Down) are sequences of letters for which the performer determines the corresponding actions or sounds. Lamorna Nightingale, Jason Noble and Claire Edwardes chose a suitable vocabulary of arm-waves, trills and toots to fill out the score, giving the piece, in keeping with the program’s title, the rhythm and look of a children’s game.

Laurence Crane’s Three Melodies and Two Interludes is an exercise in extended ternary form given a haunting character by the modal melodies of the alto flute and the dirge-like accompaniment of the vibraphone.

Bryn Harrison’s Five Miniatures in Three Parts contrasted planes of soft modal colour, leading well into the gesturally frantic but formally static Reeling for clarinet and hi-hat by Christopher Fox.

The children’s games returned with Jennifer Walshe’s EVERYTHING YOU OWN HAS BEEN TAKEN TO A DEPOT SOMEWHERE, consisting of eleven short theatrical scenes employing party horns, glitter, bubble blowers and a computer game on an iphone. The scenes, with names like “Study Hard & Work Like Killers” and “FACE! HANDS! FACE! HANDS!” reminded me of the UK’s Forced Entertainment, except that Forced Entertainment are funnier and have a knack of giving the seemingly-redundant new meaning throughout the duration of a performance. Perhaps EVERYTHING YOU OWN should be three hours long.

Posh Playground made me question the value of commentary in concerts, which I am usually in favour of. Ensemble Offspring speak well and succinctly, providing commentary on each piece before playing it. Such commentary could be grouped in sections or come after the piece to improve the flow of the program. The program was a welcome introduction to a subtle and beautiful body of work.