Giants Behind Us: German Music and its Discontents
Review by Jocelyn Wolfe
On Friday night Kupka’s Piano’s series of expeditions seeking innovative works from different countries led them back to the ‘spirit realm’, the place of geniuses, the land in which the great colonisation of western classical music originated—Germany. The title “Giants Behind Us” of course echoes Brahms’ trembling in the shoes of Beethoven. All the composers in Kupka’s “Giants” program are touched in one way or another by this history in presenting new works (including Australian and world premieres) in a new century, which, in Lilienstern’s words, has them all living in an internationalised, individualised world, learning from each other, trusting in their own musical ideas and perception. There was no trembling in the air in this concert. These were strong, confident statements of musical futures for all concerned, composers and performers alike. But there was nonetheless a sense of the long arm of tradition no matter what disaffection may reside in the creators. Flenady, in the program notes, describes this as a diverse expression unified in integrity and intent. For Rosenberger, it’s the “connective tissue” of events, actions, and people; and for von Lilienstern, it’s the connective tissue of Constructivism.
Before the concert, I was reminded in a conversation of the play currently showing in Brisbane—Red. It’s all about Rothko. Yes, Kupka is the painterly inspiration for the ensemble, but it’s to Rothko that I look for what the connective tissue was all about in this concert. His rectangular fields of colour—predominantly one colour—and the play of light open up to inquiring eyes. Just look—so much detail in fragments, layers, and textures within; and yet, after all, you can say that the painting is red. Across the pieces heard in this concert, there is this kind of canvas. Even gestures in the playing bespoke brush strokes of a painter, Rothko not Pollock—decisive, disciplined, and vigorous.
The opening piece by Wolfram Shurig (2005), a trio for piano (Alex Raineri), sax (Samantha Mason) and percussion (Angus Wilson), is a vibrant layering of relations between instruments, embedded in a rhythmic flux held firm in the hands of Wilson’s skillful mallets. It moves to a slow moving, pared down piano solo conveyed by Raineri with gossamer precision, until the return of the sax in a new guise—a melodic fragment ever so poetic. And the music simply breathes a few last breaths and is gone.
Brisbane-based Peter Clark, forging a future in composition and conducting with scholarships in conducting at Lucerne Academy under his belt, offers a piece for flute (Hannah Reardon-Smith), clarinet (Macarthur Clough), violin (Alethea Coombe), cello (Danielle Bentley) and vibraphone (Wilson), in what the composer calls version I of In Lines, in Time (2013). We are invited by Clark, who also conducts the piece, to consider whether the 5 instrumental lines, each rendered in a different meter, intersect or are heard each in their own right in a layering of sound. I find a weaving line, usually led by one of the five with its different timbres, melodic fragments, and rhythmic positioning, making a whole—sometimes broken, sometimes sparse, and at times rich and dense, but utterly coherent. The different underlying meters seem not to intrude in the sense of wholeness and there are definitive moments of absolute metric unity in the score, nicely articulated.
Before we hear version II, Isabel Mundry’s piece (1999) simply called Composition for Flute and Percussion, comes as a kind of intimate interlude. This is clever—nice programming. Its timbres of flute, (its percussive qualities are astutely teased out by Reardon-Smith) and various percussion, under the bandaged mallets of the inventive Wilson (yes, he found bandages to provide the best timbral qualities for the percussion palette of this piece) takes us into the surface textures of our canvas. This is a beautifully articulated interplay between the two, a lacy infrastructure with suspended moments and motivic patterns, attended by the ‘ching’ of a triangle.
And now the return of In Lines, in Time, this time version II, again conducted by Clark. This is more expansive, bringing back the piano, and has the quixotic vertical definition of harmony without harmonic definition. There’s a great balance in the ensemble, so many finely tuned ears and eyes focused on Clark’s brush strokes.
Soprano, (Tabatha McFayden, in splendid red), clarinet (Clough) and triangle (Clark) take to the stage in vehement conversation with Gerald Resch’s Splitter (2002). The composer’s note, hoping that the listener will not perceive the strict skeleton underlying the structure of the piece, which is based on a text by Austrian avant-garde poet Waltraud Seidlhofer, but will simply feel that “the musical things that happen have a certain logical alliance” is barely needed. The ear is completely tuned to the conversation—the clarinet resounds emphatically in short bursts and the soprano’s vocalisation shimmers, shouts, and whispers in retaliation. Clark’s scintillating triangle almost steals the show.
Katharina Rosenberger describes her solo for saxophone Phragmocone (2006/10) as having contours of melodic lines and overarching rhythmic incidents closely following the “logarithmic spirals” of a nautilus shell”. The effect is introspective of those spaces and lines, feeling the raw surface of unprocessed acoustic sound, thanks to Mason’s sensitive interpretation. But this is not the only time that I need to close my eyes for the full effect, as new music notations tend to require a great presence of paper and stands on stage.
On to the end–von Lilienstern’s The Severed Garden (2009) brings the core group of Kupka’s Piano together along with the fine bow of Danielle Bentley. This piece prompts me to wonder what Schoenberg, rather than Beethoven, would make of all of this now. I recall Alex Ross’s comments in The Rest is Noise: “Schoenberg’s atonal music is not all sound and fury. Periodically, it discloses worlds that are like hidden valleys between mountains, a hush descends, the sun glimmers in fog, shapes hover …” . While this piece is not a legacy of Schoenberg, it at the same times evokes things hidden and heard, there and not there, things that expand and shrink. It’s all there in the red canvas. So Lilienstern’s initial fury gets mellowed, the bass clarinet is genuinely grounding and the music takes on, as the composer describes, a more singing, symbolic quality. There is an unmistakable funereal finish, prescient with the sound of the bass drum.
Canvas complete. Context painted. Six composers writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century sharing to some extent a pedigreed genealogy that is fundamentally German—a genealogy not lost even on Australian Peter Clark. How does their canvas differ yet resonate with something implicitly German? Rosenberger has her finger on it saying:
I realised that for many years I was trying to run away from a Germanic contemporary approach to composition, which I perceived as overly rigid and kopflastig (‘top-heavy, overly intellectual’). I wanted to involve the body more, the senses, the physicality of sound … but I also recognise that I never shook off an obsession over details and how these relate to the entirety of a piece, and passing out the inner logic of a composition. (From Interview with Katharina Rosenberger)
Kupka’s Piano, still in their youthful twenties, bring a discerning maturity to their program and performance.