Tag Archives: Juliana Hodkinson

Phoebe Green and Leah Scholes: The Arrival

While viola and percussion were traditionally supporting parts of the orchestra, the twentieth century saw composers rediscover their unique musical possibilities. If the viola came a little later to the contemporary music party, it has certainly received recent attention in Melbourne with Xina Hawkins’ series of commissions for multiple violas and Phoebe Green’s own solo recital at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music last year. With Leah Scholes preparing a solo recital for BIFEM this September, the time is ripe for a viola and percussion duo commissioning works by some of Australia’s most inventive composers.

Taking place less than two weeks after the Orlando shooting, Green and Scholes’ duo concert was an opportunity for shaken souls to come in from the cold and share a moment of creative unity. Scholes and Green dedicated their performance of David Chisholm’s The Arrival (one of Chisholm’s “requiem” pieces) to “the LGBT community and the lives lost in Orlando.” It is a piece that aims at remembrance “with love, not tears.” This is a particularly painful form of remembrance. The piece plunges you into darkness. Dipping, wounded double-stops fray and fall into the lower register of the viola. Chisholm then gives the audience space for their own thoughts with a thin texture of whistling and occasional glockenspiel. When a more lively texture returns it does not reflect our own feelings of loss in a sentimental, cathartic climax. Instead it offers a snapshot of a personality. The viola line is speech-like, coloured by Scholes’ percussive rim shots. It is uncomfortable to hear a personality conjured so matter-of-factly. But we have to move beyond our personal experience of grief or else we cannot hear the departed voice clearly. Hearing a departed voice without tears is perhaps how we do that voice justice.

Cat Hope’s The Sinister Glamour of Modernity (after Ross Gibson) arranged for viola and vibraphone is an insect-like exploration of clusters picked out of the vibraphone with thimbled fingers. It is an exceptionally creepy, spidery sound underpinning the viola’s drunken, careening lines.

Liza Lim’s viola solo Amulet motivates the instrument’s full range of bow pressure, angle, and speed. Green’s deft control of Lim’s demanding bowing instructions was matched ambidextrously by her left hand, which works both independently and interdependently with the right.

Scholes and Green performed Juliana Hodkinson’s enigmatic performance piece Harriet’s Song last year at BIFEM. The duo lull the audience into a false sense of security with a long, hushed duet. The audience is no doubt wondering what is going to happen to the array of bells, feathers, chimes, and sand bags suspended from microphone stands with fishing twine. Suddenly Scholes’ arm darts out and cuts an object off with a pair of scissors. The attacks become gradually more violent as she picks up pliers and finally, sharpens a knife and lets several bells crash to the ground at once. Without offering any spoilers, I have seen the piece twice and am still hoping to hear certain objects fall, but I suspect the score is specific about which objects are cut (or perhaps Scholes just doesn’t want to clean up afterwards).

Leah Scholes with the set-up for Juliana Hodkinson’s Harriet’s Song. Photo by Matthew Lorenzon.

The concert also featured the world premiere of Alistair Noble’s  hauteurs/temps. With sparse bass drum and declamatory viola, the piece has a ritualistic air. There is nothing monolithic or imposing about this ritual thanks to a certain harmonic softening around the edges. This harmonic thread draws the listener closer to the work, especially when the texture is filled out with resonant crotales. Another sonic highlight was the introduction of a second viola played by Scholes with mallets. While composers and performers will often treat string instruments percussively in improvisations and solo compositions, this is the first time that I have heard this technique effectively integrated in a duo.

I have been reading about Cretan palaces and Noble’s ritualistic sound world transported me into a fantasy of the ancient past. Speaking with Noble over some of Green and Scholes’ home-baked cakes after the concert I was surprised to find that he was also thinking about Cretan palaces while composing it. Or maybe we have both seen Women in Love.

Phoebe Green, Leah Scholes
The Arrival
Chalice, Northcote
24 June 2016

BIFEM: Phoebe Green, Iti Ke Mi

Phoebe Green. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Phoebe Green. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

The intimate solo recitals at the Old Fire Station have become a BIFEM tradition. The prestigious afternoon and late-night slots are a recognition of a performer’s unique contribution to new music in Australia. Violist Phoebe Green has been commissioning new work from some of the most distinctive voices in Australian music since 2005. She marked a decade of commitment to new music with a dynamic program of new works and modern masterpieces for her instrument.

Violists also have a way of adding an extra dimension to their performances, whether it’s Alexina Hawkins performing an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in her recent ANAM recital or, in this case, performing one of Iannis Xenakis’s athletic works while eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The extra dimension in question here has heard every moment of Green’s concert preparation, from the whispering bows of Luke Paulding’s Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light to the metallic churning of Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Green is definitely the queen of multitasking.

The Melbourne-based composer Luke Paulding is known for his complexly sensuous palette. It was therefore surprising to hear the stripped-back second outing of his viola work Repose and Vertigo in Diluvial Light. The work’s electronic part has been removed, leaving only the viola’s breath-like muted bowing and vertiginous harmonics. Variations of bow pressure save the piece from being entirely schematic. The performer must still lean in to certain delicious tones, like a distant memory of human feeling after the flood. The piece is a hushed song at the end of the world, a faulty remembrance of things past.

Standing imperious, proud, and definitely pregnant, Green launched into the muscular double-stops of Xenakis’ Embellie. Embellie is a unique work within Xenakis’ output, being his only solo viola work and his last solo piece. Embellie also exhibits the folksong-like quality of parts of his later works. Green brought out the lyricism of Xenakis’ bespoke microtonal mode, a difficult feat given the work’s proliferation of double-stops and leaps.

Dialling Xenakis’ elemental energy down a notch, Green was joined on stage by percussionist Leah Scholes for the première of Juliana Hodkinson’s touching and humorous Harriet’s Song. The piece seems to be a musico-theatrical meditation on familial relationships. Scholes and Green play ethereal, almost inaudible tones on vibraphone and viola. Then suddenly, Scholes darts out a pair of scissors at one of the many objects dangling by fishing wire from a microphone stand. A bell clashes to the ground, or a feather lightly floats away. At one point Scholes sharpens a knife and cuts three objects off at once. One’s eye lingers expectantly on the small glass hanging precariously from the fishing wire. The process could continue until all of the objects have shattered on the ground, but Green saves us from this antagonistic fate. Green detaches a music box from the stand and starts humming along to its tune. The piece concludes with Scholes gently accompanying the lullaby on the vibraphone and the rest of the hanging objects.

Green swapped violas for Pierluigi Billone’s Iti Ke Mi. Played with sweeping circular bows that pass from the fingerboard, past the bridge, and onto the tailpiece, the piece therefore requires a tailpiece without fine tuners. Green conjured incredible, shifting tones out of the viola. The wood of the bow on the fingerboard sounds metallic, while the tailpiece emits a deep groan. These sounds are not clearly delineated, but swept up in a whirling timbral vortex. Making broad circles with her arm across the whole instrument and sliding her left hand up and down the fingerboard, the piece begins completely fluidly. There are no static pitches or timbres, only movement. As the piece progresses, the performer’s movements slowly become tighter. Very slowly. The piece is extremely long and I fail to see the waypoints that justify it being so. Eventually the sounds occasionally stop “in the throat” of the instrument and about ten minutes later the piece ends with a whimper.

I am a viola convert. With its larger dimensions and deeper range, the viola is an ideal instrument for extended techniques. Creaks, scratches, and harmonics resonate that little bit longer and are that little bit richer than the violin. After Green’s recital I questioned why anyone would ever again write an extended-techniques work for the violin.

Phoebe Green
Iti Ke Mi
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Old Fire Station
6 September 2015
Matthew Lorenzon

Turbulence: Responses in poetry and video

In 2013, I reviewed Juliana Hodkinson’s new Living Room Opera Turbulence. Staged in a small apartment in Melbourne, the opera explored the claustrophobic magic of air travel and familial relationships. The compact work has since taken flight in the form of two artistic responses. Peter Humble and Linda Edorsson have produced a beautiful video based on the opera, which has been published in the digital magazine LIGE. Meanwhile, the poet David Maney has written a perceptive poetic response, which he has kindly allowed me to post below. Check out the video, read the response, and enjoy.


Chamber Made Opera: Turbulence

Anneli Bjorasen in Turbulence. Photo by David Young
Anneli Bjorasen in Turbulence. Photo by David Young

Chamber Made Opera
Composed by Juliana Hodkinson
Libretto by Cynthia Troup
Melbourne Festival of the Arts
A living room in Northcote

Despite being the closest any of us will come to experiencing a miracle, air travel is marked by boredom and sustained physical discomfort. With its staging of the explosive relationship between a mother and daughter in an apartment only wide enough for five seats and an airline trolley, Chamber Made Opera’s latest Living Room Opera Turbulence explores this banal sort of magic that frames and controls our lives. Composed by Juliana Hodkinson and featuring the versatile voices of Deborah Kayser and Anneli Bjorasen (in her first Chamber Made Opera role), the work is a “first” several times over for the company in its 25th year.

A row of fans along one wall generates a drafty hum that is amplified into an ambient drone by Jethro Woodward’s ever-understated sound design. The audience take their seats, the front row facing a white wall. I wondered where the performance would take place until Bjorasen began to hum, “pshh” and “khh” like the pneumatics of an aircraft beside me. This opening is the first duration piece that I have experienced in a Living Room Opera, providing a welcome contrast to the enchanting kaleidoscopism of previous works. It is also the best environment in which to hear Woodward’s minute control of transparent textures, even in a sound world as saturated as a series of amplified fans. Kayser and Bjorasen’s stereophonic sound effects were a delight, making the central seats the best in the house.

Other sounds endemic to airplanes begin to fill the cabin, such as a baby crying (live and recorded), 1950s cabin announcements and Bjorasen struggling with a packet of nuts. Bjorasen leans as the plane banks to the right, leaving me in an awkward position for several minutes.

Against this background of whirrs, cries and muffled announcements, the opera continues as a duet between mother (Kayser) and daughter (Bjorasen). The couple share text drawn from academic literature on turbulence, the mother singing graciously against a Pocket Piano synthesiser and the daughter growling impetuously into a vintage microphone. The texts provide an underlying theme of chaos and order, along with the observation that “normal times are when disorder wins.” But the opera is set in the 1950s, shortly after the dawn of commercial passenger aviation. Air travel is now more common and accessible than ever before and the world is on average half a degree warmer. We are now faced with the task of explaining the workings of the reading lights and seat levers inside the cabin rather than the turbulent air outside: Why in fact do things work the way they do and why is it so difficult to change our orderly progression towards ecological disaster? Faced with the desertion of our future, are we condemned to sing a solo aria, as does the Kayser when her daughter walks out on her, reminiscing about a “sea as blue as a baby’s eye?” With the sensitivity and warmth of her voice, which it is worth the ticket price just to hear up close, you could imagine Kayser was lamenting the loss of oceans.

As well as introducing a new performer and a new style of chamber opera to Chamber Made fans, the opera is the first Living Room Opera under the new Creative Director Tim Stitz, who made everybody feel welcome before and after the show with a pre-flight talk and post-flight refreshment. Most importantly, Turbulence is the first Living Room Opera to fulfill the company’s claim that the series need not only take place in opulent  living rooms of the Eastern Suburbs. The space is perfectly suited to the opera, or the opera to the space, revealing the incredible power of chamber opera to unite disparate environments through artistic aims.

Turbulence runs until 12 October.