Tag Archives: Jeanette Little

Inland 15.3: Your House is the Last Before the Infinite

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Alexander Garsden, Rohan Drape, and Jessica Aszodi perform Garsden’s Four suns and a whole sky on fire. Photo by Lloyd Honeybrook.

The Inland concert series explores a musical interior. Like the blend of properties at the center of a colour graph, Inland explores the gradations between notated, improvised, and electroacoustic performances. Concert 15.3 at the Church of all Nations in Carlton explored a single, focussed point of this hinterland, that of static textures developed through layering live and captured sounds.

Samuel Dunscombe’s Unfinished Piece for 27 Clarinets is performed by only three clarinettists, in this case Dunscombe, Aviva Endean, and Michiko Ogawa. The electronic part quickly swells to an atmosphere of drones and squawks. The effect is like listening to a great crowd of people, with half-heard conversations and choruses arising and subsiding from the dense body of sound.

Rohan Drape is largely to blame for the perfectly balanced sound diffusion throughout the concert. In each piece, the electroacoustic part perfectly matched the live performers to the extent that, from my vantage point at the back of the church, they were difficult to distinguish. This was as true for instruments as it was for voices. The collaborative work Four suns and a whole sky on fire amplified and multiplied phonemes and words uttered by the soprano Jessica Aszodi before Drape and Garsden introduced a droning accompaniment.

Jeanette Little’s Barbaric Yawp for Uilleann Pipes was a highlight of the night and not just because it featured an instrument so little-heard in the contemporary music world. Once again, the focus was on the instrument’s polyphonic texture and Matthew Horsley carefully managed the piece’s microtonal pitch bends and shifting drones. The melody, when it arrives, is a bleating, squealing thing that resonated delightfully in the church with a little help from the sound design.

Judith Hamann’s untitled solo cello performance featured a series of expertly-diffused extended cello sounds, my favourite of which was bowed cello spike. The vibrations of the spike were so slow that they formed a rhythm of sussurating sounds accompanied by maritime creaks.

The stage faintly glowed beneath the cross of the Church of All Nations. The semicircle of speakers and microphones formed a sacred space, like prayer or a pulpit, within which the sounds of the performers were amplified. But no god was intended to hear these performances, nor does Inland espouse any particular cosmology. With the concert closely following the Supersense Festival of the Ecstatic and directly preceding the Ballarat Slow Music Festival, I wondered after the intentions of the audience members scattered around on the floor. Why do audiences so desperately want to doze? The society-wide will to relaxation is not just a symptom of our busy, technology-stuffed lifestyles, but of our increasing infantilisation as consumers who can’t be trusted to go to bed on time without the right app.

I recently photographed this ridiculous Qantas ad in an airport.

Photo by Matthew Lorenzon
Photo by Matthew Lorenzon

Needless to say, a world of entertainment is not much use while you are asleep, much less if you are trying to get to sleep on a full stomach. But Qantas wants you to consume even when you are full and asleep. There is nothing new in this. If the pinnacle of luxury is gorging oneself and falling asleep in front of a television, then a good portion of the population lives the dream on a regular basis. This ideal of luxury also informs contemporary music. Where falling asleep in a concert was once seen as a bad thing, the ambient sound artist Robert Rich has been presenting “sleep concerts” for several decades. In contemporary art music, it seems that every few months an audience is invited to lie on cushions or curl up in pods.

Trance, transcendence, non-knowledge, or inner experience have their place and exploring these states of mind may be extremely beneficial to one’s health and well-being, but can’t this happen outside of the concert hall? Old-fashioned though these Enlightenment ideals may be, society extricated itself from the comfort of religious dogma for compelling reasons. Even though the last couple of hundred years of technological advancement may well lead to the doom of Western Civilisation as we know it, we can’t crawl back inside the womb now. I am interested to see what composers will do next, once they get bored of the ersatz-sacred bubble.

I have written several times about David Toop‘s performance at the 2013 Totally Huge New Music Festival, where he brutally interrupted his soporific, crackling sound design with deafening strikes of a snare drum. While this is one of the most appropriate responses to a society falling asleep at the wheel, I must admit that I too lay down for Jessica Aszodi’s closing performance of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices, hoping to see the light.

Unfortunately I missed Aszodi’s performance of Three Voices at the 2013 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, so I was excited to hear Aszodi’s performance this year. Once again, the projection of Aszodi’s two prerecorded parts was perfectly matched to her live voice, so that one was sometimes at a loss to tell which part she was singing. A short check of the tempo and Aszodi was away, gliding effortlessly through the hour-long performance as though on a cloud. Or perhaps that was the audience, which was utterly transfixed for the duration of a performance that requires such obvious skill and precision. Aszodi’s easy command of such an exposed work made it an otherworldly experience.

Though I finally succumbed to lying on the floor and enjoying the mesmerising refraction of light through half-closed lids, I’m taking a twenty-minute nap before concerts from now on.

Inland 15.3: Your House is the Last Before the Infinite
Church of All Nations, Carlton
24 August 2015

Metropolis: Speak Percussion, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years

Alexander Garsden's Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Alexander Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The title of Speak Percussion’s opening concert sets a playful tone for this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival. The joke was driven home to me when I heard the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years by Speak Percussion will begin in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall … .” I imagine this title came up during rehearsals, as the ensemble worked out how to switch between the three pieces, each with a different seating arrangement or in a different space entirely. Ultimately there was no such intermission. The ushers herded a willing audience around the building, leaving just enough time to consider the three composers’ distinct responses to the festival’s theme: Music and the moving image.

Speak Percussion’s artistic director Eugene Ughetti chose the composers Peter de Jager, Alexander Garsden and Jeanette Little because they are each at a pivotal moment in their careers. Each composer can comfortably forgo the term “emerging” in their biographies, though they are still “young” composers. They inhabit a no-man’s land between the important but largely unpaid opportunities open to students and the networks of commissioners of established composers.  Speak Percussion’s commissions, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, showed each composer settling into and refining their individual style.

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines

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Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The audience took their seats on the stage of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. The gleaming keyboard percussion instruments of Peter Neville, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti formed three sides of a square around De Jager’s piano, with each performer facing inward towards each other. So intimately close were the audience to the performers that they could follow the coordinating glances of the performers and hear the pedals of the instruments moving. Though designed to project sound out into the auditorium, the stage made an excellent chamber music setting, equalising the natural volume of each instrument.

Fractured Timelines is a multi-modal, gestural romp to heaven and back. The piece is structured as a triptych with two roughly inverted movements separated by their “collision.” The first movement moves from ethereal and whimsical arpeggios and melodies down to a rumbling nether-world with highlights of damped cymbals. Instead of avoiding recognisable thematic, tonal and modal materials, De Jager crams Fractured Timelines full of them. Speak Percussion clearly enjoyed shaping the piece’s cellular themes and different instrumental configurations, including many duo and trio passages, shared lines and runs passed between instruments. The third movement moves in the opposite direction, from the dark to the light and back again, ending with a fabulous rolling ostinato in the bass registers of the vibraphone, marimba and piano. The second movement seems less the “collision” of the two exterior movements than its aftermath. Instead of the arching development of the exterior movements, De Jager presents juxtaposed fragments of thematic material, including funereal, plodding piano chords and a whimsical vibraphone solo (I haven’t heard Ughetti play like that for, well, ever). With his thematic riches and multi-modal language, De Jager is like a modern-day Messiaen without god. Like Messiaen, De Jager gives the themes in his scores short descriptions. In De Jager’s case, these descriptions (including “creepy mountain path” and “briar”) are drawn less from sacred imagery than his life-long experience playing video games. Commander Keen is still his favourite.

Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II

The audience retired to the stalls of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Garsden’s beautiful new work Messages to Erice I & II. Four large tam-tams were arrayed along the front of the stage and lit from below by yellow-gold spot lights. Each tam-tam is fitted with a transducer (like a speaker without the cone). Garsden has made recordings of each individual tam-tam. In the live performance, he manipulates these recordings and plays them back through the instrument via the transducer. The four tam-tams stand there like bronze breastplates, or altars, their mysterious sounds emanating not just toward the audience, but filling the high ceiling of the hall with shimmering, insect-like buzzing and clear, brassy tones. The lights suddenly change to a silvery-blue as the second movement (or “process”) of the piece begins. Here the sound signals are further processed, creating an alien sound world of “washboard” vibrations and fierce roaring. Garsden motivated the festival’s theme in several ways. The algorithmic relationship between the sound-processing of the different tam-tams is related to the relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena. The piece furthermore makes use of recordings, which can be considered moving “sound images.” Most strikingly, the performance itself was a moving cinematic gesture.

Jeanette Little, No Optic

Jeanette Little's No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Jeanette Little’s No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Once ushered into the Salon, we were treated to Jeanette Little’s No Optic for four percussionists and live electronics. The piece is accompanied by a video work by the Russian video artist Sasha Litvintseva. The video features a screenshot of somebody exploring high-resolution Google Maps images of various metropolises. In a reference to online and CCTV surveillance, copies of the screenshots are then dragged onto the screen, producing a multiplicity of staggered images. Scrolling cascades of images of roads and cars pass over the screen. The layering process is repeated with a video of somebody taking a photo with a smartphone. I appreciated that this was a video made almost entirely (if not actually entirely) without a camera. The moving image is now omnipresent, with almost every possible setting and activity recorded and uploaded into the cloud (or into some server farm in a desert). However, I was more amused than scared by the “electronic panopticon” (as it was described in the programme). This may be due to Little’s score, which aimed to conjure mixed feelings of “intimacy, discomfort, anxiety and opportunity.” The four percussionists, Ughetti, Kaylie Melville, Anna Camara and Matthias Schack-Arnott, stood behind four almost identical batteries of metal percussion. They produced beds of sound, like the high-pitched rattling of skewers on metal pipes. At other points the ensemble signalled important transitions. For instance, tiled videos of the interiors of trains give way to a single long-range shot of a city with a train passing through it in the distance. The performers stop suddenly, the resonance of car suspension springs ringing out into the calm. The pre-recorded materials, including loud dance music or a sacred classical-era aria, highlighted the omnipresence of recorded sound in our lives as well as recorded images.

Composers often regret the lack of opportunities available to them after their first student commissions. By commissioning three confident young composers, Speak Percussion has brought three fascinating and valuable new works into existence. This year’s Metropolis festival is full of such adventurous and intimate programmes by local and international new music stars. Be sure to grab a ticket or three.

Speak Percussion
Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
4 May 2015

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines; Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II; Jeanette Little, No Optic.

Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Life Story

Pablo Picasso, Musiciens aux masques, MoMA. Photo by Rolf Müller. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006.jpg

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Life Story
Metropolis New Music Festival
11 April

All manner of contrabass woodwind came out for the first of Thomas Adès’ three Melbourne concerts. The comical, murky instruments ensured a night of dramatic vocal accompaniment and idiosyncratic instrumental writing. Almost entitled “Some of my Favourite Things,” the concert highlighted Adès’ lifelong interest in light-hearted and miniature forms.

To open the concert, Adès took the opportunity to conduct a piece he has admired since childhood, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, originally composed for Woody Herman’s band The Herd. Members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided a fine substitute-Herd from the racing, ephemeral time signatures of the opening movement, through the trudging, sorrowful second movement to finale’s pealing sunrise.

From the twentieth-century canon to a contemporary Australian work, Jeanette Little’s Acid Dream had its second charmed outing, this time under Adès’ baton. Inspired by the shifting realities of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the cinematic piece ranges eerie instrumental effects around the fundamental contrast of subterranean contrabassoon with seraphic celesta. The harp contributes a meandering flurry of notes in its highest register like a searching tentacle, over-blown flute notes punctuate the air and I don’t even know where the deflating balloon sound came from.

Two vocal works sung by soprano Hila Plitmann provided the audience with serves of nostalgia and humour. Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh is a retreat into the composer’s memories of childhood, with a series of vignettes from A. A. Milne’s famous children’s stories. Words turn to hums and disappear into clouds of instrumental colour, as though into a dream. At times the transformation is explicit, as when Plitmann sings “Climbing and climbing he climbed and climbed,” singing higher and (remarkably) higher herself, until she strikes a small triangle and the flute takes over the last, impossibly high note. Adès’ Life Story is not nearly so innocent, setting Tennessee Williams’ very different bed-time story of what happens after two people have been “to bed together for the first time, without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance.”

Nancarrow’s Studies no. 6 and 7, played masterfully by Adès and Zubin Kanga,  were accompanied by Tal Rosner’s and Sophie Clements’ geometric visuals. Nancarrow’s uncharacteristically dreamy Study no. 6 inspired bands of cathode-ray pastel colour that slowly revealed landscapes of hills and telegraph wires from a journey to Mexico, where Nancarrow lived in political exile (and then, after a time, just for fun) from the 1930s.

Study no. 6 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by Thomas Adès. www.sophieclements.com

Study no.7 was accompanied by a delightful design of lines, squares, triangles and circles inspired by Nancarrow’s piano rolls.

Study no. 7 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by player piano. www.sophieclements.com

Adès’ Concerto Conciso is, despite its name, a sort of concerto grosso contrasting a jazz band ripieno with a string quartet concertino. Adès played on this ensemble’s ability to shift between the sound worlds of jazz and late romantic symphonic writing, contrasting grooving percussion and instrumental declamation with icy string tremoli and glacial rising brass lines. The piece made me think of Picasso’s Musiciens aux masques, with Adès as the guitar-playing harlequin sandwiched between the singing monk and the clarinet-playing pierrot.