Tag Archives: Erkki Veltheim

2016BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Glossolalia

©Jason Tavener Photography GLOSSOLALIA_MG_1692
Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, Jason Taverner Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

The back-to-back presentation of four string quartets which rely near exclusively on extended string techniques is perhaps a risk, lest audiences tire of the continuous glissandi and harmonics which have become almost a cliché in modern works of the medium. However, the finely crafted compositions presented by the Argonaut Quartet each worked on a level beyond using these techniques arbitrarily, demonstrating different approaches to writing in this idiom.

David Chisholm’s Bound South opened tentatively with a delicate sequence of extended techniques shared across the quartet. A soft tapping of strings with the wood of the bow provided the percussive backdrop to the harmonic glissandi and soft tremolo gestures which each player executed in turn. This sequence formed the basis of the work’s material, gradually extending and developing as the instruments overlapped. The overall effect was icy and fragile, reflecting the work’s title and positioning itself in complete opposition to Chisholm’s flashy double concerto premiered the previous evening.

A point of sudden agitation burst from the viola, seemingly unable to continue with the glacial pace of development. Joined by the second violin for the shortest moment, both quickly retreated and continued with the work’s established slow trajectory. This fleeting release of built-up tension seemed to foreshadow a coming section in a more agitated style, yet this was never reached. Instead, Chisholm continued to taunt and whet the appetite with intensity only built within a narrow schema. A dynamic peak was reached towards the end with three tremolo chords played in unison, before a return to the short fragments of the opening material, this time presented with more cohesion.

Through Empty Space continued the delicate sound world established by Chisholm, opening with all four parts playing glassy pure harmonics. Mexican composer Sergio Luque scored much of the work in a close range, blending the sounds of the four string instruments to make the quartet act as one entity. Pitch material played with semitone dissonances spread over an octave, sliding in and out of consonance. The work embarked on a smooth descent through the empty spaces left in the scoring, with Luque demonstrating immense restraint in seeing his musical idea through.

The smooth veneer of the work’s surface was only momentarily broken in a fragment which called for bouncing the bow across the strings. It was almost unexpected to hear the conventionally bowed long tones, but their presentation without vibrato ensured that they worked within the established context. Ending the work the viola and cello traded these long gliding strokes, emerging and disappearing from the violins’ atmospheric bowing over the bridge.

The muted bouncing opening of Chilean composer Pedro Alvarez’s Etude Oblique I immediately announced a shift in gear, moving away from the highly austere first half of the program while still presenting similar sounds and techniques. The pace of development in Etude Oblique was the fastest of any of the works presented so far in the concert, and the dialogue between the instruments was the most contested. Agitation and flashes of urgency were hinted at in the wailing high pitched glissandi and the ricochet bowing gesture which formed the basis of the work’s rhythmic fragments, but yet again these remained contained within a small dynamic structure.

Erkki Veltheim’s Glossolalia was a natural conclusion to the concert. Establishing some violent string playing from the outset, this was the opportunity to fully release the tension so finely built up throughout the program. Reflecting the work’s title, the score was often frenzied, jumping from one idea to the next in rapid succession, with techniques used to create sounds far removed from the traditional capabilities of a string quartet. Aggressive bowing south of the bridge created great noise tones, and the tapping of the bridge with the base of the bow produced a satisfyingly resonant percussive sound. Veltheim fully explored the bass range of the cello, requiring some grungy playing from Judith Hamman who skillfully tuned down during the performance.

The physicality of playing a string instrument suddenly burst to the fore in Glossolalia. Shedding the high control required for the light bowing and isolated gestures in the other works, Hamman’s acrobatic glissandi and Veltheim’s dynamic leading providing a welcome visual change. It was in this final work that the arrangement of the quartet, all four facing inwards on the corners of a square platform, made sense artistically; it was a delight to watch chains of reactions set off by fragments and move around the players.

In a different context, Glossolalia could have come across as a little too uncontrolled and wild, given its length and jerky movement between ideas. But within this program, it seemed to be the continuation along a smooth path, Veltheim’s composition ultimately fulfilling the hints of outburst promised by Chisholm, Luque and Alvarez. The Argonaut Quartet is lucky to have three such versatile and experienced upper string players in Veltheim, Graeme Jennings and Elizabeth Walsh, who rotated roles throughout the performance to play to individual strengths. Together with Hamman’s cello playing, the Quartet is a fine interpreter of new music.

The Argonaut String Quartet
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Town Hall
3 September 2016

David Chisholm, Bound South; Sergio Luque, Through Empty Space; Pedro Alvarez, Etude Oblique I; Erkki Veltheim, Glossolalia

Another Other: A self-fulfilling prophecy about the death of art

Image 1_Chamber Made Opera –Another Other_Caption – Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras_Credit – Jeff Busby.jpg
Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras in Another Other. Photo by Jeff Busby

Waiting in line at the North Melbourne Meat Market, I spot the corpse. A humanoid shape lies wrapped in black plastic bags. The sound of clocks (or are they shovels?) emanate from it. A program essay by Ben Byrne tells us it is the body of art. He quotes Ingmar Bergman (The Snakeskin, 1965) who claims that art is basically unimportant, deprived of its traditional social value. Like a snakeskin full of ants, art is convulsed with the efforts of millions of individual artists. Each artist, including Bergman himself, is elbowing the others “in selfish fellowship,” in pursuit of their own insatiable curiosity. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bergman’s film Persona, Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, and Erkki Veltheim have crawled inside the film’s 79-minute skin.

The four artists sit facing each other beneath red digital clocks counting down the opera’s duration. Pateras works his Revox B77: a machine with a loop of tape and multiple heads that can be manipulated live to produce a stunning array of sounds. Veltheim nurses his violin, which he processes through a laptop running  MaxMSP. Natasha Anderson festoons her Paetzold contrabass recorder with an array of sensors and microphones. Sabina Maselli commands an arsenal of projectors and spotlights, including reels of custom-shot 16mm film.

Once inside the film’s skin, the collaborators throw out its organs of character and plot. The artists instead motivate its mise-en-scène. Maselli’s deeply-textured footage of hands, faces, and landscapes mirror Bergman’s own sumptuous images. The close-miked sounds of violin, recorder, and water echo the conspicuous detail of 1960s foley. Spoken text references monologues in the film, notably Alma’s story of a foursome on a beach. And so the ideas cycle: hands—faces—landscapes—text, interspersed with solo episodes for each performer, until the time runs out.

Image 2_Chamber Made Opera –Another Other_Caption – Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim_Credit – Jeff Busby.jpg
Comparing hands. Don’t they know it’s bad luck? Photo by Jeff Busby

After the third extended shot of intertwined hands, I wondered whether the artists were labouring under a category mistake. Texture and materiality were the bread and butter of contemporary arts throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the structures of plot and character are surely now considered as much part of the artistic “surface” than image and sound. Thanks to the fashion of basing new music on old films, there are counterexamples. For instance, Alex Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II, which uses the familial relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena to structure the algorithmic relationships of four amplified tam-tams.

By throwing out plot and character, the creators of Another Other struggle to address the original film’s themes of identity, motherhood, art, and being. The film’s iconic shot of Elisabet and Alma’s juxtaposed faces is critical of traditional gender roles precisely because the characters struggle with those roles. The repeated superimposition of the artists’ faces in Another Other is less critical than narcissistic.

While stating that art’s traditional social function is dead, Bergman’s essay affirms the personal significance of art, a belief that is reflected in Elisabet’s first scene in Persona. Elisabet is an actress who stops speaking because she harbours a burning will to live authentically and shake off the role of motherhood. She laughs at a radio soap but seems affected by a piece of music. In Another Other no such distinction is made between inauthentic and personally authentic art. Veltheim plays the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s violin Partita no. 2 while the artists’ faces are shown through a day-time soap vaseline lens. I will accept that universally authentic art is impossible, but I struggled to find even an affirmation of personally authentic art in Another Other. Unsure of the artists’ belief in their own work, I failed to commit as an audience member.

After fifty minutes I even started believing that art was dead. Thanks to the clocks high above the stage I could regret every minute left. The saddest thing was that I respect the work of each artist in their own right. But four good artists in a box does not an opera make. At the end of Another Other the artists imagine a different ending to the film. The doctor says that Elisabet’s silence was just another role that she sloughed off in the end, not a real existential crisis. She was perhaps also depressed and infantile. The doctor concludes “But perhaps you have to be infantile to be an artist in an age such as this.” I laughed. It made me particularly glad I trusted them with an hour and a half of my life.

Another Other
Chamber Made Opera
Meat Market
18 February 2016
Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, Erkki Veltheim.