For their debut BIFEM performance, Brisbane ensemble Kupka’s Piano presented a wonderful program exhibiting restraint and intricacy. The program’s evocative themes were particularly brought to life through the septet’s ability to control and balance sounds at such low dynamics.
Diana Soh’s Incantare:take 2 (2015) explores the multiple meanings of its Latin title: “to sing”, “to repeat with words”, and “to consecrate with spells”. A restrained sonic palette persists throughout the work: in the first movement the soft woodiness of the marimba and ricochet bowing contrast with fragile syllables spoken into the flute and clarinet. The second movement mixes high string harmonics with breathy flute textures and the third movement lets the gong and glockenspiel punctuate grainy bowing textures and soft winds. The lightness and delicacy of these sounds appeared to float, casting a spell over the entire work.
Braneworlds (2016) by Liam Flenady (electric guitar) splits the ensemble into four groups, each group playing to an individual click-track—the composition responding to a Lisa Randall book on multidimensional physics. Repeating gestures within individual groups play with the theme of multidimensionality. The gestures allow the varying tempi of each group to become perceptible within the texture. But Flenady’s control over sparsity, while having so many intricate and individual parts, is a feature. The work often drops away to the paired flutes of Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle, but reincorporates the other ensemble groups at different tempi without letting them overwhelm the overall sonic density.
Hearing from the perspective of ‘entering the fray’, I find myself drawn to the orchestration of Elliott Gyger’s new double concerto for two flutes, Fray (2017). Gyger offers a wonderful dialogue between the two flutes, showcasing each possible combination of piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. There is plenty of mimicking and imitation in the work; not just between the two flutes, but within different configurations of the ensemble, testing whether one entering the fray needs to be different in order to be effective. The most striking aspect of this work is the delicacy and dynamic restraint displayed in the ensemble when neither flute is playing. Whether in the thoughtful harmonic progressions of Alex Raineri’s piano or the regularly sustained phrases of Katherine Philp’s cello, Gyger generates an intricate and quiet sonic landscape which allows any instrument to enter the fray and be impactful, creating friction against the arrangement. The composition’s light ending with two piccolos is fitting for both the piece and the program, highlighting the credit Kupka’s Piano deserve not just for their performance skills, but their programming.
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September 2017
Liam Flenady’s ‘A Book of Migrations’ is a work of microtonal counterpoint for uillean pipes, a traditional Irish bagpipe-like instrument not customarily heard in Western art music. Drawing on a collaboratively devised set of almost 200 specific microtonal fingerings on the instrument, Matthew Horsley simultaneously reads fragments of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne. The piece is marked with stark elliptical extracts of the text that switch mid-sentence between English and mediaeval Gaelic. Fragments such as ‘shelter of a single tree’ and ‘sleeping on a hard couch’ are half-buried in the acoustic and electronic textures and it is often it hard to tell which language is being spoken.
The piece begins with a monophonic mid-register drone with slight microtonal variations played by Horsley and accompanied by a very high electronic hiss. This is a significant opening because it foreshadows the tone of the piece and introduces the dichotomy between the traditional acoustic instrument and the electronic accompaniment. Furthermore, the initial pipe drone with electronic hiss introduces questions about the relationship between discernible pitch material and noise. Are these two seemingly contrasting sonic events discrete phenomena? Or are pitch and noise, as Flenady’s composition suggests, capable of combining into something indefinite, something that is neither of those things? At what point does a multiphonic drone become noise? How many partials does it need to have?
The drone falls into a somewhat traditional monophonic melody, each note preceded by one or several grace notes and the last note of each phrase sustained to create an unbroken line. This brief section is as close to traditional Irish music as Flenady’s piece will get. However, the intricate microtonal textures that characterise the piece are countered by the uillean pipe’s unique sound, which prevents a complete redefinition of the instrument.
Flenady’s piece lies in the liminal space between perceptible tone and noise. While the electronics provide several contrasting textures such as a multiphonic drone reminiscent of traffic sounds, distorted pulsing syncopated noise and an undulating bell-like drone, Horsley’s initially tradition playing-style gives way to octopus-eque virtuosity and Ligetian polyphony. Horsley’s low register multiphonic drones and high pitch frenetic microtonal lines are redolent of train horns and cats having sex, respectively.
The piece takes its name from American writer Rebecca Solnit’s book in which she traces her Irish ancestry, strengthening the meaning of the piece. Despite the seemingly impenetrable atonal textures, the instrument’s distinct sound persists and the fact that one note is often sustained against a melodic line, however atonal, underpins the modal connotations. This is what twenty-first century music of the Irish cultural diaspora sounds like.
A Book of Migrations
Bendigo Trades Hall
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Second-hand musical nationalism emerged as a theme of the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta’s Midnight Songs program at Melba Hall, with composers arranging and imitating musical styles from Bulgaria, China, Russia, as well as the Communist International.
The 153 pieces making up Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos will be familiar to pianists who have jumped through the collection’s graded hoops as students. For this concert the composer and conductor Elliott Gyger gave six of the folk music-influenced tunes an orchestral makeover. Gyger focussed on movements with beats of unequal length, known as “Bulgarian rhythm.” By arranging the pieces for orchestra, it is as though Gyger has “coloured in” the monochrome piano pieces, or enhanced the piano’s limited colour palette. The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonetta, conducted by Gyger, painted the piece in beautiful brush-strokes while bringing the pieces’ rhythmic energy to the stage.
Moving east, James Wade’s Midnight Songs take as their inspiration a collection of Chinese yuèfǔ poems written by an anonymous poet during the Southern Dynasties in the fifth or sixth centuries. The “simple symphonic poem on the changing of the seasons” shows masterful control of tone colour, with overlapping planes of senza vibrato strings melding into clear flute and woodwind tones, all underpinned by the rasping texture of double-stopped cello. The piece appeared to me an orientalist romp, to the extent that the opening, shimmering chords seemed a striking imitation of the Chinese sheng (mouth organ). The Wade explained to me afterwards that it wasn’t his intention at all to imitate the sound of the instrument, which just goes to show how much these interpretations can be in the ear of the beholder.
Julian Yu imitated the style of Shostakovich in Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished). The piece is brimming with clever imitations of Shostakovich’s symphonies, jokes that the ensemble clearly enjoyed performing.
Perhaps the odd one out on this program was Liam Flenady’s Kampflieder. It doesn’t imitate any particular national style, but instead takes as its basic material revolutionary songs from a book given to Conlon Nancarrow when he joined the Spanish Civil War in 1936–7. Nancarrow fought with the International Brigades, an amalgam of liberal-democratic, socialist, and communist anti-fascist soldiers recruited by communist parties around the world. The Kampflieder were also brought together by the Comintern or Third International, even if some of the songs are more obviously communist than others. As was typical of this stage of communism, the book is an attempt to piece together a catholic, international communist culture from diverse nations. Communism, the Kampflieder seem to say, isn’t just something from Russia; it belongs to all.
A selection of these revolutionary songs are given a similarly “generic” treatment in Flenady’s composition. They are not treated with this or that national style, but instead treated with post-serial metrical, harmonic, and structural techniques that were also considered—once upon a time—to hold a certain pan-cultural legitimacy. I’m sympathetic to this idea that the inventions of modernist artists and musicians should be accessible to all (whether people choose to learn about them is another matter), but like communist axioms their adoption in different contexts can have wildly diverging effects.
Modernist works should also be subject to local evaluation and appreciation. So, did Flenady’s process-based composition work in Melba Hall performed by the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta and surrounded by various national caricatures? Yes, for several reasons. The piece was an excellent contrast to the lyrical nationalism of the surrounding works. Like a detailed triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, the orchestra is divided into three sections playing in different time signatures, creating a complex rhythmic counterpoint. Against its more conservative foils, the piece also displays adventurous instrumental writing, with seething masses of high violins, wallowing woodwinds, and gritty bass strings. This grandiosity is punctuated by muted percussion, lending the texture a pathetic intimacy. You can’t make out the individual songs, but certain harmonic colours pass like clouds between the orchestral sections. I began wondering where the fight was in all of this textural refinement when a shred of melody turns into a cluster of notes run wild. Before I knew it the orchestra had exploded into a wonderful, blaring mess with a solo piccolo riding atop it with gentle upward glissandi. Not wanting to be too cliché in his socialist anthem, Flenady makes the piece amble to the end.
Modeled on the London Sinfonietta, the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta are filling an important niche in local musical life. In Midnight Songs they have brought together established and emerging composers for an accessible and challenging program.
The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta
Conducted by Elliott Gyger
18 March 2016
Béla Bartòk, arr. Elliott Gyger, 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm; James Wade, Midnight Songs; Liam Flenady, Kampflieder; Julian Yu, Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished).
Kupka’s Piano are a Brisbane-based new-music ensemble, made up of a core group of intelligent and startlingly adept young musicians supplemented periodically by equally interesting guests. They are committed to the performance of important works by living composers from around the world, alongside a focus on Australian composers. Many of their performances are Australian premieres, which says a great deal about the significance of the group in the cultural life of the nation. Over the past several years in Brisbane, they have built up a well-deserved, devoted following.
In this, the second concert of Kupka’s Piano’s 2015 series at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, the ensemble continues its ‘extra mural’ theme with a notion of sounds from “the other side.” What exactly these walls represent is perhaps something open to individual interpretation (a state of mind? Geographical or cultural distance?), but the conceit does reflect rather well the sense of permeability that characterises much recent and contemporary music, where sounds, styles, ideas, colours, and voices often bleed across old boundaries. Individual musical works (and bodies of work) now seem to talk to each other so freely, even promiscuously, yet we retain some sense of the old lines of demarcation without which such transgressions might seem less thrilling, while at the same time inscribing our own lines upon the conceptual maps of our increasingly strange and estranging world.
New music doesn’t really shock anymore. At worst, it might irritate or, more commonly, simply fail to engage with its listener, like a missed train connection. We no longer talk much about whether a piece is good or bad (let alone great), but rather couch our critiques in terms of whether a work ‘works’, or not, according to mutable criteria of functionality that perhaps have some relation to the ‘mural(s)’ of this series’ theme.
Past Brisbane-resident Liza Lim’s Inguz (fertility) for clarinet and cello was composed in 1996, and the title is a reference to a Nordic rune. This is a lovely work of fluid poetry and organic proliferations; gently melodic, yet thoroughly of its time in terms of technique and colour. Lim handles the two instruments masterfully—the unique colours of each are imaginatively exploited yet contained within a frame of the composer’s imagination, a space that both can inhabit and that informs their interactions. Cellist Katherine Philp and clarinettist Macarthur Clough gave a forensically beautiful performance that made the most of all the subtle gorgeousness of the intricate score.
Jérôme Combier’s Feuilles des paupières (2005) for piano, percussion, flute and clarinet is also a very beautiful work. This piece is one part of a large cycle, Vies Silencieuses, a series of chamber works inspired by painters and in particular the quietly powerful still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Combier approaches the instruments with great aural sensitivity, and a vital sense of orchestration. On the one hand, he writes for piano/percussion as if they form a single, huge instrument. The sounds he conjures from the players are both seductive and exciting, and show a detailed understanding of what the instruments can do and how to bend them to his musical purpose. Against this, Combier has written flute and clarinet parts that are, once again, so well integrated in conception as to seem almost a single instrument, or like a pair of intimately connected human voices. Combier’s music demands both sensitivity and precision to succeed in performance, which certainly works to the strengths of Kupka’s Piano as an ensemble (augmented here by guest flautist, Tamara Kohler). The performance was tightly controlled and colourful—although I felt that in this case the piece might benefit from a more forgiving, resonant acoustic environment. Some of the fragile sounds need a little more reverberation in the room to fully bloom. Is Kupka’s Piano working towards an Australian premiere performance of the full Vies Silencieuses cycle? Let’s hope so.
Philippe Hurel’s Tombeau in memoriam Gerard Grisey (1999) for piano and percussion has, on the surface at least, a lot going for it. It has the name of our sainted Grisey in the title, for a start… yet in many respects it disappoints. Pianist Alex Raineri and percussionist Angus Wilson gave a superlatively virtuosic and dramatic performance of the four movement work, which is so brimming with challenges as to be virtually created to fail. The instrumental combination of piano and vibraphone, upon which much of the work relies, is a highly problematic one. It has all the inherent difficulties of a two piano ensemble (essentially two percussion instruments having to play exactly in time with each other) with the added problem of the oil-and-water timbral (in)compatibility of piano and vibraphone as a duo. Of course, uncommon or peculiar instrumental combinations can be very interesting in the right hands, but in this work Hurel fails to hear a way through the obstacles, and it never quite comes into focus as a genuine duo. In sonority and structure, this is essentially a piano piece, over-burdened with hollowly clichéd gestures at several levels, onto which the percussion parts have been grafted as a kind of lean-to extension. The effect, when it succeeds now and then, is very like a prepared piano.
There are some nice moments—the first movement has an arresting, kinetic excitement, and the slow second movement unfurls an interestingly tense, reflective mood—yet the piece undermines itself too often with unconvincing, unfocused sonorities and empty gestures. One such, if I may labour the point, is an episode of tedious transpositions, in which upper and lower parts move outward from each other, stepping rather aimlessly along a scale. This is a recurrent motif of Messiaen’s technique that in his own work has a relentless, implacable energy but in imitation almost always sounds dull—and, like musical spakfilla, one suspects that its function is to conceal some inherent structural flaw. Raineri and Wilson battled heroically against the inbuilt weaknesses of Hurel’s work (and made it sound in some ways a more interesting piece than it actually is) but in the end one is left with a sense that Grisey deserves a better memorial than this.
Brussels-based Australian composer Liam Flenady’s new work Si el clima fuera un banco (2015), for piano and fixed media (pre-recorded midi-piano and speaking voices), takes its inspiration from Hugo Chavez’ famous 2009 speech in Copenhagen, where he observed that ‘If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it already’. This is very interesting piece, which works with Flenady’s interests in politics and counterpoint to play with seeming oppositions such as refinement versus crudeness, complexity versus directness. The score is certainly fearsomely complex, and makes great demands of the pianist. Here, Raineri projected a very different quality of sound to that heard in the earlier works in the concert: less percussive, richer and warmer. As a result of this very beautiful sonority and Raineri’s confidence with the virtuosic score, Flenady’s music was revealed as luxuriantly poetic, even lyrical.
The combination of live and recorded/artificial piano is an interesting one, and the interactions between the two were intriguing. One cannot help wondering if this would be even more effective if the work was scored for two pianos…? Or perhaps that would be a different piece. I found the recorded voices to be most effective in a musical sense when the words could not quite be heard clearly… then, it felt as though the sounds (not merely words) of voices from another room were intruding, and commingling with the piano music. In a way, this raised another interesting question: does the work really need those voices, or could it succeed as a purely instrumental piano (or two-piano) work? For myself, I felt that the counterpoint of voices, together with the in- and out-of-room pianos evoked exactly that sense of permeability that seems ideally characteristic of music in our times, like an eggshell letting the oxygen in. What stayed with me long after was not the words or even the explicit political messages, but the expressivity of Raineri’s piano playing as the work seemed to breath in and out the fragrance and texture of disembodied voices.
Flenady writes in the program that his work ‘will have little impact on politics’, and in a sense that is true… but perhaps music affects us in a different way, in a different substance, on a different level. I’m not sure that we can measure such impact in the same way we measure political (or, for that matter, market) impacts. The power elites of our world would have us believe that music is just entertainment, thus powerless, but I think we should exercise caution in assuming that this is the case. Flenady’s music raised these final questions in my mind: What if music as an art form actually does have an impact? Would that change the way we do things?
The concert ended with the Australian premiere of Beat Furrer’s Gaspra, a marvellous work for seven instruments composed in 1988. It astonishes me that this piece has not been previously played in Australia—but then very little of this important Swiss-born composer’s work has been heard in this country, to our loss (mind you, the same could be said of Grisey). While there were other very good pieces on this concert program, Gaspra was from the first moment in a realm of its own, like a comet (or rather, a stray asteroid) burning through the sky. Like all Furrer’s music, Gaspra is created from a fusion of electric nervous energy with moments of intense calm; the two in some way feeding each other. There is a powerful yet subtle intelligence at work here, and a wonderful instinct for sonority and colour that is thoroughly integrated with structure—even passages of more-or-less indeterminate pitch, glissandos or extended techniques, move within an iron-strong harmonic frame.
Gaspra is built as an intricate montage-form in terms of its overall architecture, with several motifs recurring and interacting with each other as the work progresses. One of these, some lovely low-pitched rhythms for the piano, seems to be a distilled reference to La Princesse de Bali from André Jolivet’s Mana (a neglected masterpiece of the earlier twentieth century). At other moments we hear little flashes of material that betray Furrer’s interest in the music of Feldman, but such references or allusions are never simply pastiche in Furrer’s music: they are always very integrated with his own distinctive language, and deeply meaningful. Under the direction of conductor Benjamin Marks, Kupka’s Piano gave a splendid performance of great flair and magical subtlety. The ensemble was joined for this piece by the inimitable Graeme Jennings (viola) and Tamara Kohler (flute) as guests.
This was an important concert for both Brisbane and Australia. The immense dedication of the ensemble members is clearly evident, as this is a kind of music that requires a huge effort of preparation to perform well and Kupka’s Piano play very well indeed. Their programming is creative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. The cutting edge of Australian music creation is at present very clearly in the hands of smaller groups or individuals operating independently of large institutions and venues and often on very limited budgets. Kupka’s Piano are one of the best and most exciting of these groups, and one senses as they perform that history is being made.
– Alistair Noble
Extra mural II: Outer Sounds
Friday June 19th
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
Liza Lim, Inguz
Beat Furrer, Gaspra, AP
Phillipe Hurel, Tombeau in Memoriam de Gerard Grisey, AP
Jérôme Combier, Feuilles des paupières, AP
Liam Flenady, Si el clima fuera un banco, WP