Tag Archives: Giacinto Scelsi

Metropolis New Music Festical 2016: Syzygy Ensemble

A city shapes the people who inhabit it, as was demonstrated in an episode of the Radiolab podcast. The average speed at which people walk the streets is closely correlated to the city’s population size. Syzygy Ensemble took the transformative quality of living in close quarters as the inspiration for their “Cramped Space”  program at the Metropolis New Music Festical. Just as cramped physical spaces transform us as human beings, Syzygy Ensemble showed how artistic restrictions profoundly shape the music we create.

In Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Tatatata cellist Blair Harris walks the virtuosic tightrope of a prerecorded voice: That of the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The voice interjects the odd grainy “ta” as the cello plays rhythmic double-stops. The voice becomes more rhythmic as the two engage in a rapid and humorous duet. The two parts appear equal, but the cellist’s agency is limited by the prerecorded voice.

From a prerecorded duet partner to a live one, Giacinto Scelsi’s duet Ko Lho for flute and clarinet is a balletic study in dynamic and timbral precision. Swelling crescendi and decrescendi overlap in a haunting, shimmering surface. Where Harris was restricted in time by his prerecorded duet partner, the two instruments in Ko Lho are restricted in pitch-space. The swelling dynamics and tone colours of the piece are so many ways to differentiate the instruments within a tight harmonic range. Neither Ter Veldhuis nor Scelsi seem to mind their self-imposed restrictions. Both pieces end in gestures of resignation. The cello slides down into long, exhausted notes, while the flute and clarinet end luxuriating in their close harmonies.

The pianist Leigh Harrold and violinist Jenny Khafagi are tied together by John Adams’ motoric rhythms in Road Movies. Khafagi and Harrold’s rendition of this familiar piece was a tour de force of energetic precision. From the first movement, which races along like a race car driver with a death wish, to the contemplative scordatura of the second and the hectic hoedown of the final movement, the audience was completely transfixed by the Khafagi and Harrold’s unstoppable momentum.

Anna Clyne evokes the restricted space of childhood imagination in 1987. This space is not that of the supposedly unbounded imaginations of children, but our bounded memories of childhood. 1987 seems to have been a sad year for Clyne, judging by the ominous chorale for cello, violin, bass clarinet, and bass flute overlaid with the cranking and tinkling of a music box. Recordings of a fairground melt into a truly apocalyptic movement with gritty cello and bass clarinet.

Charlotte Bray’s Upflight of Butterflies continues the theme of cramped imaginary spaces by pursuing the paradox of loneliness in company. Each movement paints a bitter-sweet pair of words from the poetry of Pablo Neruda’s poetry including “Abandoned Sun,” “Trail of Light,” “White with Space” and “Dazzlement of Butterflies.” The sun is painted with flat, sustained harmonies like a cold and distant star singing to itself. The trail of light implies something leaving or being pursued, just as Laila Engle’s flute haplessly follows Harris’ meandering cello line. One would think that at least a “dazzlement of butterflies” would be unequivocally positive, but even the motoric beating of wings across the ensemble was tinged with acerbic harmonies.

Beyond Syzygy Ensemble’s characteristically thoughtful approach to the festival theme, the concert provided the opportunity to hear each individual performer’s formidable talents in a solo or duo setting, proving once again why Syzygy Ensemble are Melbourne’s most energetic and dynamic contemporary music ensemble.

Syzygy Ensemble
Cramped Space
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 May 2016

Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Tatatata; Giacinto Scelsi, Ko Lho; John Adams, Road Movies; Anna Clyne, 1987; Charlotte Bray, Upflight of Butterflies

The Voice Alone 1: Ellen Winhall, My Sister’s Song

This review begins a series on the solo voice that weave together themes from contemporary performances with recent debate on the music, language and physicality of the voice.

Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.
Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.

Ellen Winhall
My Sister’s Song
Richmond Uniting Church
Thursday 11 July

Ellen Winhall’s recital for solo voice was an object lesson in the seamless integration of finely-honed classical musicianship with extended vocal techniques. The concert was also an opportunity to hear a remarkable body of repertoire for solo voice stemming from the English choral tradition including Australian premières of works by James Weeks, David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu.

Aptly sung beneath the starry vault of the Richmond United Church, the concert was centred upon the nocturnal ruminations of David Lumsdaine’s 1974 composition My Sister’s Song. Based on love poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology translated by A. K. Ramanujan as The Interior Landscape, My Sister’s Song features a refrain evoking the calm passage of late-night hours:

The still drone of the time past midnight,
all words put out.
Men are sunk into the sweetness of sleep …

As a blogger has recently argued, the Tamil word originally used for “night” in this second–third century AD poem is related not just to the late night, but to a specific three-hour period, a midnight “watch.” The passage connotes not only the lucid quality of this period, but its quantity, a quantity that is developed throughout the poem in relation to the narrator’s singular loneliness. The author might be thinking of the period of reflective wakefulness some scholars believe divided the night in two before the invention of urban and electric lighting. As Roger Ekirch argues in At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past, long, dark nights encouraged people to go to bed early for a “first sleep” and rise for an hour or so to study, pray, or even visit neighbours before their “second sleep.” I can imagine David Lumsdaine composing the long, ruminative work during such a midnight “watch,” spinning out the slow, disjunct phrases like constellations on the page. So can I imagine Winhall, only the third soprano to perform the work since its composition for Jane Manning in 1974, humming the work’s melismatic decorations to herself during a period of nocturnal wakefulness. Every twist and turn of the atonal piece—part chant, part unaccompanied recitative, part expressive solo aria—was thoroughly internalised by Winhall, whose considered and precise execution was simply astonishing.

In her remarkable performance notes published as the two-volume New Vocal Repertory, Jane Manning writes that Nicola LeFanu’s But Stars Remaining is to be “sung as from a high rock, the voice flung across a spacious valley.” Winhall evokes the kestrel and the dove of Cecil Day-Lewis’ poem with all the exhilaration of the freely-soaring animals described, before retreating to the intimacy of whispers and half-spoken text.

Winhall’s dynamism and character as a performer blazed through the technical demands of Berio’s Sequenza III, where rapid sequences of phonemes are juxtaposed with hums, vowel-shifting tones, sighs and laughter. A similar carefree virtuosity marked Georges Aperghis’ Récitation 13, which concluded the concert with a playful series of mimicked percussion sounds. The only feature impeding the audience’s enjoyment of Winhall’s performance was perhaps the ABC Classic FM microphone stand limiting the audience’s view and Winhall’s physical mobility.

With their roots in the English choral tradition, the compositions of Weeks, Lumsdaine and LeFanu present an inversion of the usual emotional dynamics of contemporary repertoire. Winhall’s programme oscilllates between troubled, inward reflection and outward jubilation. It is such a pleasure to hear music where “loud” does not immediately connote “wrathful” and “quiet” “sensual.”

Winhall’s concert was recorded for ABC Classic FM. When we hear about a broadcast date we’ll keep you posted.