Tag Archives: Kate Neal

2016BIFEM: Leah Scholes, Simulcast

Review by Alex Taylor

Amid a concentrated festival program, Leah Scholes’s Simulcast concert was scheduled simultaneously with a Xenakis keyboard marathon by Peter de Jager, the afternoon a kind of meta-simulcast of scheduling by BIFEM director David Chisholm. Thankfully these performances were repeated for those wanting to experience both; though the Xenakis program might have looked on paper the more intensive of the two, Simulcast was its true equal in quality and presentation, no less of a physical feat and with its own singular aesthetic. All five percussion pieces shared a concern with the uncomfortable interaction, the friction, between sound and meaning, and the slippage and failure of language.

Marc Applebaum’s Aphasia enlists his percussionist not as a maker of sounds, or even as a striker of objects, but as a practitioner of a kind of fake sign language. There’s something absurd and yet sublime about the juxtaposition of mundane domestic signs—manipulating a rubix cube, swimming breaststroke, turning a vehicle’s ignition—with totally unfamiliar, otherworldly sounds, distortions of a human voice in the pre-recorded tape part. The voice is both synchronised with the signs and semantically alien to them: this is a form of puppetry more than any kind of meaningful sign language.

Scholes combines the substantial repertoire of hand gestures with an entirely deadpan expression. There’s impressive counterpoint not only in passages of simultaneous and rapidly alternating gestures (all memorised in sync with the complex and rhythmically irregular tape part) but also between this highly animated, angular physical virtuosity and the deliberate blankness of the performer’s face and body. Furthermore, despite the heavy processing, the taped voice is clearly recognisable as a deep male one. In this version of the piece, the disjunction between the sound of that voice (Nicholas Isherwood’s) and the physical appearance of the female performer heightens the sense of ventriloquism, an operatic alien puppeteer loading the performer’s semantic capacity with unfamiliar sounds, to be translated and performed as familiar but contextually meaningless gestures. What begins as a stream of audio-visual objects that could form meaningful language is revealed as a kind of expressive paralysis.

All the pieces on the program shared Applebaum’s interest in spoken language, and perhaps in questioning its communicative function. However some works took a less cynical viewpoint.

Far from deadpan, the emotional tone of Vinko Globokar’s Toucher was highly energetic, switching quickly between characters and conversations in an imaginary series of dialogues with the mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Toucher presented a kind of formalised musical lesson. After a short solfege-style key to the sounds we were about to hear (each specific syllable associated with a unique pop or swish of a percussion gesture), Scholes launched full speed ahead into these aphoristic encounters. Each section was clearly numbered and announced, including the pauses, much to the amusement of the audience. From what I could make out of the French, these sections were arranged in a non-linear order, and the spoken language came in and out of the texture while the percussive simulacra remained a constant, such that our focus (particularly for non-Francophones) was not on deciphering direct semantic meaning, but on observing the inner logic of inflection and phrasing.

Such was her familiarity with the material, so well ingrained was the cadence in her voice and hands, that Scholes was a perfect foil for the potentially didactic structure: nonchalant, incisive and theatrically convincing in embodying a whole cast of characters.

Francois Sarhan’s Homework #1 (part of a series of music-theatre works by the composer) has neither historical figures nor universal signs to tie it to the concrete. Instead Sarhan employs the jargonistic language of instructional manuals to imagine a seemingly innocuous mechanical object which the performer is involved in building or fixing (“take the lip of the pipe” etc.). What begins as a cheerfully optimistic charade (think daytime children’s television) soon dissolves into concern and then panic, as the exterior pragmatic world of systems and details comes into conflict with an interior emotional world—“no, not like that!”—and gets altogether out of control.

At its climax Homework recalls Georges Aperghis’s Le corps à corps, in a complex groove of hitting, twisting and ragged breathing. Although some of the tiniest sounds—the facial percussion, for example—may have needed amplification, the increasingly urgent trajectory carried the listener’s attention right through to a silent, hollow coda.

The longest and most texturally complex work on the program was Rick Burkhardt’s Simulcast, a riot of translation, miscommunication and fragmentation. Scholes was joined by fellow percussionist Louise Devenish, seated at a sort of radio announcers’ table and armed with microphones, suspended cymbals and a range of unusual percussion instruments, including harmonica and clickers. The pair were precise and in sync, down to the matching pitch and inflection of their voices in a dreamlike unison episode. Scholes and Devenish began as a kind of bilingual sports commentary team, but as the empty language of management speak intruded and complex interference patterns emerged, the narrative sense started to unravel. By the end of the work language was being described not in communicative terms but as a kind of interrogation or torture. “Most of what is happening now is shouting.”

Rounding off a sleek and satisfying concert was Australian composer Kate Neal’s declamatory Self Accusation. Like the Globokar, Neal’s work conflated language and percussion gestures, but in a more insistent pulsation, a list of self-reflections that ranged from neutral observations to descriptions of restriction and conflict. Peter Handke’s 1966 text had an appealing Beatnik quality, reveling in repetitive grammatical structures: it might invite comparison with Ginsberg’s seminal anti-establishment poem America.

The whispered control and formality of the opening, with its delicate metallic sounds and tentative self-discovery, opened out into a joyful looseness, proclaiming a rebellion against all the arbitrary constraints of society: “I did not husband my sexual powers! […] I CROSSED ON THE RED!”

In the course of these five works (mirroring the structure of the Xenakis concert), Scholes revealed not only an attention to the finest details of complex percussion music (with the exception of the Rick Burkhardt duo that gave the concert its title, Scholes’s entire program was memorised, to an extreme degree of precision), but also a theatrical flair in spades, a special combination required to pull off such ambitious works. In this regard the expert contribution of director Penelope Bartlau should be specially acknowledged. Scholes used her own body and voice as a site of crisis and discovery, a site for a fascinating interplay of emotional and intellectual currents, interior and exterior worlds. It must be mentioned too that both the works and their interpretation were serious fun, the concert an unashamedly flamboyant and engaging vision of what music can be.

Leah Scholes
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
3 September 2016

Vinko Globokar, Toucher; François Sarhan, Homework; Mark Applebaum, Aphasia; Rick Burkhardt, Simulcast; Kate Neal, Self Accusation

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, X-ray Baby

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, photo by Langdon Rodda
Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, photo by Langdon Rodda

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
X-ray Baby
Northcote Town Hall
2 November 2013

Framed by the quirky trompe-l’oeil interior of the Northcote Town Hall, X-ray Baby is a testament to the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble’s philosophy of performing new works by its own members, re-presenting old works from its own repertoire and giving previously premiered works a new lease on life.

Most new orchestral works are never heard beyond their premiere due to the prohibitive cost of convening a large ensemble. Composers, audiences and critics alike risk a shallow appreciation of these nuanced compositions and—unless something goes astonishingly wrong or right—judging individual performances is difficult. Arcko are committed to remedying this situation by giving new large-scale works a second hearing. If a second hearing helps audiences and performers better understand a piece—to hear what has stayed the same—it also provides an opportunity for audiences to tune into what has changed around the piece since its last performance.

Of all the orchestral works premiered in Melbourne recently, Annie Hsieh’s Icy Disintegration is probably the least in need of repeated performance to be understood. The piece is explicitly programmatic, rallying swelling tam-tam rolls, blaring brass sections and shimmering strings to paint the serenity of the Ross Sea, the appearance of cracks and fissures in the Ross Ice Shelf, the immense calving event that produced B-15 ( the largest free-floating object in the world), the break-up of the iceberg into smaller bergs and floes and a scene of nostalgic calm. But never has a piece sounded so urgent in the Northcote Town Hall. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Environment Program have reiterated what we have known for a long time now—that there’s a rather high chance the climate is warming helped along by human-caused carbon emissions—with the addition of some startlingly short time frames for urgent action to avoid widespread, catastrophic damage to human and animal life. With a binding international agreement on carbon emissions unlikely to be reached any time soon, Hsieh’s earsplitting timpani and brass calving event sounds more like the projected cries of hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Her racing, diverging string “fissures” mimic the current political prevarication around this fairly reliable threat to civilisation. But anyway, Hsieh is being bombastic because, as everybody knows, most of the lost ice actually silently melts away from underneath the Antarctic ice shelves.

From the global to the minuscule, Kate Neal’s Particle Zoo II draws inspiration from the mysterious world of subatomic particles. Like the scientists at CERN researching the Higgs boson, composers know that notes cannot easily be reduced to a single point on a page. A note is at once a a point and an envelope of different characteristics. Neal plays with this ambiguity in Particle Zoo II, contrasting a pointillistic piano part with legato accompaniment in the chamber orchestra. The consonant orchestral texture of polyrhythms and arpeggios provides a space within which the virtuosic solo piano (performed by Joy Lee) wanders. Short, tumbling lines and small clusters provide a dazzling array of clashing musical trajectories. The effect would have been improvised or speech-like  were it not for Lee’s poise and concentration, which left no doubt that she was dealing with a challenging and precisely notated score.

In Caerwen Martin’s X-ray Baby performers are asked to interpret graphic scores based on x-rays and ultrasounds of her baby. An episodic construction made the pocket-sized piece a gratifying study in graphic score interpretation. Sul tasto string glissandi conjure the curves of the womb and foetus in an ultrasound. Key clatter and toneless breath from the winds and brass sounds like static interference in the image. Trilling glissandi sound like a nausea I shall never experience and a climax on tam-tam leaves behind a single, pure flute tone. The ensemble evidently enjoyed playing—and playing with—a work celebrating an important event in the life of one of their fellow players.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime project.