Tag Archives: Helen Gifford

Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble: Eighty Plus!

Not only European composers come in generational clusters. The Australian composers Nigel Butterley and Helen Gifford were both born in 1935 and went on to become two of the country’s most recognisable compositional voices. The composers also share stylistic traits, emphasising the ritualistic and ecstatic side of the human voice in works drawing on antiquity. Both composers are well at home in atonal pitch space, even if they navigate it with differing degrees of systematicity. Players from two great champions of Australian music, Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, came together to celebrate the composers’ eightieth years at the Church of All Nations.

Desperation for solo viola opens with microtonally detuned motoric rhythms. Phoebe Green, for whom the piece was written, pursued the anxious bowing with an intensity worthy of the work’s title. The piece explores not only moments of desperation but also the stupor that follows. The violist has to nimbly attach and remove a heavy practice mute in moments of creepy stasis, before launching back in to the ruminative acrobatics.

Highly-charged physicality also featured in the second solo piece by Gifford on the program.  Siva: the Auspicious One was composed for the virtuoso pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and demands positively divine energetic resources. Siva, the Hindu god of destruction and recreation, is conjured in this epic piece by thunderous bass chords, ascending scales, and hammered-out tremoli. Pianist Peter Dumsday put his entire body into the twists and turns of the work, reminding us all that he is—in his spare time—a racing-car driver. The piece raises the abstract dialectical question: Can you really destroy anything in music? Once a note is played it cannot be undone, only opposed by a new note. The violent chords of Siva: the Auspicious One seem to rail against this musical limitation, straining to bring real destruction into music but only making more music in the process.

Laudes and Forest I by Nigel Butterley plunged the audience into environments of delicious variety. Both pieces are inspired by spaces, the four movements of Laudes being inspired by four different churches and Forest I sketching a woodland scene. The dense writing never lapsed into monotony thanks to the sensitive interpretations of the performers and conductor Timothy Phillips.

Justine Anderson shined a light on the composers’ love of text and myth with two vocal works: Nigel Butterley’s Three Whitman Songs and Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia. The Whitman settings are gems of twentieth-century art song, nimbly bringing the tip-toeing text of “O you whom I often and silently come,” the spiralling incandescence of “Not heat flames up and consumes,” and the hallowed tones of “I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ” to musical life.

Gifford’s Music for the Adonia is remarkable within the program for showing just how much Gifford’s music has changed over the past twenty years or so. Her interest in Ancient Greece provides her with a masterfully-imagined sound world that is at once raw and refined. The text for the piece is sound-based, painting with ecstatic power the Adonia, a festival where women mourned the death of Adonis.

Six Degrees and Arcko have once again provided audiences with informed and refined interpretations of some of Australia’s finest contemporary music. If only Gifford and Butterley could turn 80 more often.

Musicians from Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Eighty Plus!
Church of All Nations
11 December 2015
Nigel Butterley, Laudes; Helen Gifford, Desperation for solo viola; Nigel Butterley, Three Whitman Songs, Forest I; Helen Gifford, Siva: The Auspicious One, Music for the Adonia.

Peter Dumsday: Ultra-Romantic

The view from Kew. You can’t see them very well, but the fruit bats are stepping out for the evening.

Throughout 2015 the virtuosic Peter Dumsday will be exploring the piano sonatas of Aleksandr Skryabin. Of the entire romantic repertoire, this body of work has had perhaps the greatest influence upon twentieth-century music. Skryabin’s later works explore an almost axiomatically-founded harmonic world with an imaginative gift for texture. His earliest sonatas, composed in the early 1890s, show him prodding the boundaries of tonal harmony. In his first programme of the Ascent series, Dumsday separated Skryabin’s first two sonatas with the Bagatelles of that other great alternative to Wagner, Béla Bartók. At the centre of the programme, destroying and recreating the romantic gestures surrounding it, was Australian composer Helen Gifford’s Shiva the auspicious one.

The Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. Note the extended range, fourth pedal and striking grain of the sassafras timber.
The Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. Note the extended range, fourth pedal and striking grain of the sassafras timber.

Dumsday followed in the footsteps of Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera in performing within a domestic setting rather than a concert hall. While this is always refreshing for the audience, the real draw card to Tony and Fiona’s remarkable modernist home in Kew was their Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. The banded, blond-wood piano has an extended range and a fourth pedal that brings the hammers closer to the strings for softer playing. The instrument is also not cross-strung allowing, so the theory goes, for a more sustained, singing tone. The silvery treble was particularly noticeable in the first Scriabin sonata, while the end of the Bartok Bagatelles showed off a growling bass.

I must confess that I am eminently unqualified to review this show. First of all I rode to the concert and the enormous hill on Studley Park Road delayed my arrival, meaning that I missed the beginning of the Allegro con fuoco of Scriabin’s first sonata. Then, as Dumsday ventured into the pensive depths of the final Funebre movement, my phone rang at top volume and, startled, I leapt through the nearest door, which proceeded to slam behind me. Cowering in shame behind a garden wall, I missed the applause at the end of the movement and had to sit out the first bracket of Bartók Bagatelles.

Even from my vantage point by a water feature, I could tell that Dumsday’s focus and clarity came to the fore in Bartók’s miniatures. Dumsday brought out a humour in the sprightly Allegretto molto capriccioso too often missed. The highlight of the concert was by far Skryabin’s second sonata, and not just because I heard all of it. From the opening questioning phrases to the andante movement’s glittering, cascading finish (thank you Stuart & Sons!), Dumsday exerted breathtaking control and craft. The Presto gave Dumsday a chance to display what he sees as the key to Skryabin’s music: An especially dextrous left hand; the result of an injury sustained two years before the composition of the second sonata that required the composer to focus exclusively on left-hand technique. In the middle of all this, Gifford’s Shiva stood as a reminder that this tradition of bold, demanding piano music is alive and well today. I’m looking forward to following Dumsday down the Skryabin rabbit-hole over the next twelve months.

Peter Dumsday
Ascent concert series
Concert 1: Ultra-romantic
A private location, shh.
9 December, 2014

Programme: Skryabin, Sonata no. 1 in F minor, Op. 6; Bartók, Bagatelles, Op. 6; Helen Gifford, Shiva the auspicious one; Skryabin, Sonata no. 2 (Sonata-Fantasy) in G-sharp minor, Op. 23.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

Metropolis New Music Festival: Six Degrees, Garden of Earthly Desire

Garden of Earthly Desire
Six Degrees
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
9 April, 2014

Three works of immense clarity and character filled the program of Six Degrees—a new ensemble including some of Melbourne’s best-known contemporary musicians—at the Metropolis New Music Festival.  Somei Satoh’s The Heavenly Spheres are Illuminated by Lights began with the almost mystical experience of Justine Anderson’s voice filling the room from everywhere and nowhere. An improvised-sounding piano part plays around Anderson’s phrases, which hang in the air like mist. Peter Neville wrought sustained tones from the percussion battery with superballs, bows and soft mallet tremoli.

Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia was an opportunity (after Deborah Kayser’s performance of Iphigenia in Exile in 2010) to revisit the composer’s musical world inspired by ancient Greek mythology. An elemental anakrousis (thankyou Nick Tolhurst for this term) of clanging percussion, grunting cello and erupting winds gave way to a gentler texture of rattling percussion and plucked strings. Anderson’s vocal line is an imagined ancient language. She chants repeated consonants and vowels against the bone-dry ensemble, reimagining the Feast of Adonis celebrated exclusively by women.

I recently spoke with Liza Lim about The Garden of Earthly Desire, her first work for the ELISION Ensemble. Though the piece was originally intended as music for a puppet show by Handspan Theatre, it retains its sense of drama and character without attendant theatrics. Moreso than other complexist works of the eighties, one has the sense of sitting amongst a crowd of detailed characters. There is a sense of discovery in focussing on one instrument of the ensemble at a time. Sections also differentiate themselves with fluttering string textures and keening, seagull-like flocks of winds. Lim’s language of the time—with a preference for declamatory, speech-like instrumental lines—lends a certain rhythmic monotony to the proceedings. The wild energy of the piece was sustained, however, by semi-improvised sections allowing for much slap-bass and bass-slapping by Miranda Hill. Charlotte Jacke’s cello also returned several times in different duo and trio combinations, sporting a truly virtuosic range of colours across the entire pitch range of the instrument.