To celebrate International Women’s Day, Ensemble Offspring presented their Arc Electric program of works by women composers at the Melbourne Recital Centre. An all-woman program is not unusual for Ensemble Offspring because their entire year’s programming has been dedicated to music by women. As Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director Claire Edwardes explained, the challenge in putting the program together was deciding between the wealth of excellent contenders. Ensemble Offspring were in fine form, presenting some of their most scintillating performances yet.
Two works from very different traditions showed a sophisticated minimalist sensibility. Kate Moore’s Velvet takes folksy romanticism to new heights of sensuality while inflecting it with obsessive pulsation. Cello and piano intertwine in an insistent 5/8 rhythm. The cello, played with bravado by Blair Harris, reaches ever higher and louder in swelling espressivo lines. While Moore studied with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands, Cassie To studied in Australia. Her Avialae weaves the calls of endangered bird species into a sweeping, pulsating texture.
From the overblown to the microscopic, Melody Eötvös’s Tardigrade conjures the microscopic realm of some of the world’s most divisive creatures. The tardigrade, also known as the “moss-piglet”, looks like an eight-legged vacuum bag and is almost invincible. They can survive in boiling water, ice, deserts, and the depths of the sea all thanks to their ability to change form to suit their conditions. Edwardes played bowls filled with rice to produce a texture of tiny particles, Lamorna Nightingale played flitting, darting lines on flute and piccolo. The grotesque appeal of the tardigrade was not lost on the composer, who treated the audience also to a series of wet munching sounds.
Liza Lim’s Turning Dance of the Bee consists of a daytime and a nocturnal tableau. During the day, bees perform the figure of eight “waggle dance” oriented towards the sun. At night the bees remain in the hive. Lim’s daytime tableau is full of darting gestures and athletic rhythms, but the nocturnal tableau is truly magical. The solo flute line, performed with the utmost serenity by Nightingale, is transformed over a string drone into a graceful meditation before being joined by a sumptuous bass clarinet line.
Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ Horizontals is so-called for its focus on form and texture over vertical harmony. Sandpaper blocks, saucepans and chopsticks inserted between the piano strings provide groups of timbres. Zubin Kanga’s prepared piano was particularly effective with its muted, gong-like tones. True to the piece’s name, each timbre group is presented before moving on to the next and I found myself wanting to hear some of these sound groups superimposed in new combinations.
Possibly the most well-known living female composer, Kaija Saariaho would be hard to pass by in any celebration of contemporary art music by women. Her work Cendres (ashes) here received a sensitive performance. The sounds of breath and hair on strings conjured images of ash and dust like the cremated remains of the musical patriarchy raining down around us.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Melbourne Recital Centre
What do free jazz and South American rainforests have in common? Very little, other than being respective inspirations for Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim’s latest world premieres. Joined by international guests Peter Evans and Wu Wei, ELISION ensemble takes to the stage once again to present an extraordinary concert of two radically different works.
Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries
In The Wreck of Former Boundaries, Aaron Cassidy is heavily influenced by American multi-instrumentalist, composer and innovator of the free jazz movement, Ornette Coleman. As the composer generously shared in a post-concert chat, his piece is analogous to a work for large jazz combo. Some of the seven segments that make up the work existed prior to its completion, entwining here to deliver an array of innovative, contrasting and often discordant subsections. These modular units are delivered, said Cassidy, much in the vein of Coleman’s inventive 1971 album Science Fiction.
One of the pre-existing works provides material for an opening solo performed by double bassist Joan Wright. The unassuming ELISION veteran is powerful and hypnotic in her realisation of hyper-masculine extended techniques such as striking and grinding the bow on the strings. Trumpeter Tristram Williams joins the incidental bass with soft, squeaky interjections that play out like a musical dialogue between a clumsy elephant and an anxious mouse.
It doesn’t take long for the ensemble to begin pushing ‘former boundaries’ of accepted volume. Enter sound engineer James Atkins, accompanied by a cacophony of extended techniques from the acoustic instruments. Spacey electronics reverberate powerfully around the auditorium while screaming and wailing from the clarinet and alto saxophone becomes almost intolerable for audience members and instrumentalists alike (you know it’s loud when the trumpet players cover their ears).
A sudden spell of conducting from the trumpet section leads in to the work’s next exciting instalment: improvisatory passages from BIFEM guest artist and international trumpet royalty, Peter Evans taking the piccolo trumpet to virtuosic extremes. Appointed with the difficult task of relaying live performance cues to the sound engineer, the composer uses a microphone to apply gradual distortion to the timbre. Following an exhilarating moment of solo electronics–which felt like being inside a crashing spaceship—members of ELISION physically stand back to give way to Evans in an extended experimental passage. Solid foundations in jazz and improvisation are self-evident in his expert navigation around the microphone. Initially standing tall to enjoy the instrument’s natural resonance, Evans repeatedly leans in and away from the microphone, exploring the evolving distortions Cassidy and Atkins place upon his sound. A structurally climactic point of the work sees him place the bell of the piccolo trumpet against the microphone, surrendering the instrument’s acoustic capacity. Warped sounds of churning air and clunking valves now become part of a disconcerting atmospheric sound, like being trapped in the belly of a monster.
Daryl Buckley’s electric lap-steel guitar solo is another exciting feature of The Wreck of Former Boundaries. In a real rockstar moment, Buckley relishes the thrill of the sound, once more challenging the audiences’ tolerance for high volume with visceral pitch bends and ringing chords. A concluding solo in the multichannel electronics leaves a similar impact; several performers can be seen smiling at the audience’s shock and uncertainty as to whether this electrifying, action-packed work has truly come to a close.
While The Wreck of Former Boundaries is an extremely effective collaboration of performers and styles, Aaron Cassidy’s only concern about its future is that it relies heavily on certain performers. At the very front of the stage and in the foundation of the work is an inimitable creative partnership between Peter Evans and Tristram Williams. Such an adrenaline-charged premiere makes it almost impossible to imagine the work played by anyone else.
Liza Lim, How Forests Think
In the second half of the program, ELISION ensemble expands to its full membership for the world premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. Completed in Brazil and inspired by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s book of the same title (University of California Press, 2013 http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520276116), the work explores the relationship between trees within a forest by extending the breath and sound identity of the instruments. In the opening bars, pensive saxophone and rainmaker lay the foundations for a dense, interplaying and evocative sound world.
Lim has fashioned a highly distinctive instrumental texture in How Forests Think with the addition of a sheng to the ensemble. In an intermission interview with Matthew Lorenzon, the composer explains how the traditional Chinese instrument comprises 37 vertical pipes and can be played by both blowing and inhaling. With such a wide range of pitches and tone qualities at his disposal, sheng virtuoso Wu Wei is able to match and bring out nuances in timbre of various instruments in the ensemble. There are countless moments where he effortlessly blends both chords and single notes with low notes from the bass flute, the top register of the oboe and even, at times, with percussion. These criss-crossing timbral interactions peak towards the end of the piece when Wei beautifully mimics a poignant duet between cor anglais and cello.
Wei also theatrically delivers a brief, untranslated text which is followed by percussive grunts and unpredictable rushes of breath from the wind instrumentalists. In these mesmerising passages, the audience senses the heightened awareness and responsiveness to ensemble breathing that Lim’s writing demands from the musicians. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde is exquisite in his control of sound, which consistently balances with the assemblage of high wind instruments. Similarly breathtaking is Paula Rae’s almost inaudible delivery of a tender flute melody, played eerily behind powerful throat singing by the multitalented Wu Wei.
After a sudden, slightly confusing conclusion to the penultimate section where unified quavers are repeated à l’ostinato, we settle back in for an ending full of charm. Percussionist Peter Neville is entrusted with the unusual job of scooping beads out of a bowl with his hands, then slowly pouring them inside a violin and various percussion instruments. A more puzzling moment occurs when conductor Carl Rosman—nothing short of outstanding throughout—relinquishes his duties as leader, walks leisurely to the back row of the ensemble and sits down. With the addition of Richard Haynes and Joshua Hyde (to this point clarinettist and saxophonist) the percussion section is suddenly augmented to four. Gentle shakers and soft whistling from the brass players bring this stimulating work to a close.
For BIFEM’s second double bill of world premieres (the first, Seeing Double featured concerti by David Chisholm and Jack Symonds), Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim certainly delivered the goods. Reaching an astronomical standard of musical innovation and performance this ELISION concert evoked emotion, pushed boundaries, educated and inspired.
How Forests Think
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2016
Aaron Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries; Liza Lim, How Forests Think
It’s reported Mahler once said that one ought not bother looking at the view, as he’d already composed it. Well may Australians say, “save your wonderment at the planet’s richest natural jungle communication network—Melbournian Liza Lim has already composed it.” Take a sneak peek at the view here. The point is vistas and sunsets aren’t ever likely to be passé and Mahler will always enrich our spirits, but Australians are travel-crazy, smart, curious, connected and living in the now, and we need art like Liza Lim’s to help us celebrate our uniquely modern experiences of wonder.
Lim is so hot in the international art music scene, she’s the new-classical-music equivalent of an Oscar-laden actor or an athletic medal magnet. Remember when Boulez’ own Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned and performed Machine for Contacting the Dead? Or when the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and performed the Frank Gehry-inspired Ecstatic Architecture as a highlight for the opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall? The time her song cycle, Mother Tongue, was reviewed—or was it revered?— by the writer art music audiences read: Alex Ross in The New Yorker? If her name’s new to you, or her music doesn’t spring to mind, it’s probably a sign some lagging Australian orchestras and opera companies still need to pull their fingers out of their Rings.
In celebration of Lim’s 50th birthday, the dimpled, unfailing servant of the avant-garde, David Chisholm, programmed both the premiere of How Forests Think—an exquisite and consoling work of unprecedented formal ecology, which my ears are aching daily to hear again—as well as a return performance of the fluid, exploratory, mystically beautiful and heartbreaking Machine for Contacting the Dead.
In the 1970s, in a spectacular archaeological accident, the People’s Liberation Army uncovered the tomb of Marquis Yi and the remains of 21 ritualistically-mutilated women, believed to date back to the third day of the third month, 433 BCE, in Suizhou, Hubei, China. These burial chambers were filled with over 18,000 ancient artefacts including a complete armoury and a trove of gold, bronze, silks, calligraphy and, uniquely for the time, a caucus of 124 musical instruments.
In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim pairs archeology and music through a resplendent diversity of orchestral colours and ritualistic performance directions. Lim’s artistic excavations of the human experience draw on her cultural plurality, and eschew the orientalism of some poorly-aged excerpts of Debussy or Puccini.
Like Stravinsky, Lim amplifies the intimate musician-instrument connection and takes the possibilities of tone colour to the extreme, presenting musical colours from breathtaking, as-yet-undiscovered palettes. In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim again allows the performers to explore the colouristic potentialities of their instruments: the pianist stops directing keys and hammers through the instrument, instead extracting resonance from the instrument’s using a looped string. For a moment, the performer has the direct contact with their instrument normally only afforded to winds and strings. Extreme sul pont, often a compositional source of aggression or ambiguity, is executed with a transparency and choreographed introspective tenderness by the ELISION/ANAM strings.
The ELISION/ANAM concert highlights this as music to be watched. The sound structures are paramount, but Lim’s interest in the performer’s experience and their embodiment of compositional devices and themes is part of the reason the experience of being in a Lim audience changes you. Richard Hayne’s contrabass clarinet is central to the stage, and to the work, as a mystical figure espousing extreme yet lyrical multiphonics and animalistic tongue slaps. The clarinets, oboes and violins are split across stage, enhancing sincere ensemble dialogue from Mena Krstevska in the B-flat clarinets as she vaults thematic messages to her counterpart, Mitchell Jones, uncovering unity across the divide at the culmination of the first section.
ANAM student percussionists Thea Rossen, Hamish Upton and professional percussionist Peter Neville won hearts with discrete totems of sounds written in some of the most beautiful timbral pairings of the idiom. I adored the connection of cello and thundersheet along with bowed vibraphone and woodwind. Some mesmerising rototom twisted through unexpected turns. Maraccas were items of grave punctuation in Neville’s hands. Our archaeological setting was tactile, with the dry, decrepit elicitations of rainstick and geophone. A spectacular modern day ritual was evoked from a raised row of three percussionists, extending offerings of mirrored instruments in each palm, with a freakishly synchronised flexatone theme; a musical message so profound, I felt momentarily moved to carve the transcription into a tablet.
Given conductor Carl Rosman’s long-standing familiarity with the work and Liza Lim’s mentorship of this ensemble, Bendigo experienced an authentic rendering of this work, written in the greatest sincerity by one of Australia’s most-impactful living artists.
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
4 September 2016
Speaking before the performance of Liz Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000), conductor Carl Rosman drew parallels between the ensemble in its early days and the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) joining them to for this concert. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and recalling how ELISION’s initial approach was to “bite off more than they could chew, and chew like hell,” Rosman praised the young players for their similarly committed attitude towards such a daunting project.
Lim composed Machine for Contacting the Dead for France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in 2000, it coincided with a Parisian exhibition of Chinese archeological treasures recently excavated from a 433 BCE tomb. Among the bodies of the noblemen and concubines were several well-preserved musical instruments, some of which were unidentified. As she so often does, Lim became interested in the link between history and memory, and created this work to imagine female musicians and dancers of the distant past.
Machine for Contacting the Dead received its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2002, performed by ELISION together with members of The Queensland Orchestra; but that’s the last we’d heard of it. A work of many challenges, perhaps its demands have prevented it being programmed elsewhere in the composer’s home country—or the lack of a permanent contemporary music ensemble large enough to tackle such works. ELISION have found a natural match in musicians from ANAM who also joined the ensemble to perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher. Hopefully, the two will recreate this fruitful collaboration to perform similarly ambitious contemporary works in the future.
From the outset of the piece, Lim’s nimble orchestration is on show. With her highly developed ability to craft layers of sounds without overwhelming the piece’s texture, each flutter of high wind and muted brass, wail of string harmonics and punctuation points from the three percussionists helps weave a rich tapestry. While the overall effect is quite visibly and musically raucous, the volume remains understated; recalling a distant memory of imagined music.
Emerging from these memories at various points throughout, the solo cello and bass clarinet assert their presence. Cellist Séverine Ballon’s playing is exceptional. She throws herself into the highly technical and physical part, using extended techniques to make the instrument sound in unfamiliar ways. A brief duet between Ballon and ELISION veteran Peter Veale in the first movement produces some delightful interplay, with Veale’s overblown oboe a perfect match for Ballon’s suitably violent playing.
Equally impressive is Richard Haynes, who doubled on the bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Seamlessly carrying on Ballon’s opening solo in the second movement, the bass clarinet at first matches the tone of the cello before diverting into an energetic and almost jazz-influenced line, punctuated by aggressive tongue slaps and jumps in register. Playing the contrabass clarinet, Haynes brings out a deep and resonant tone, with some frightening low grumbles to underscore the rest of the ensemble.
Each movement contains opportunities for individual musicians to shine. In an interview some years ago Lim hinted that Machine for Contacting the Dead was written with ELISION musicians in mind, despite its commission by another ensemble. Marshall McGuire’s harp with its pitch bends and sustained notes are a great match for the piano, which switches between conventional playing and contemporary techniques including plucking the strings and bowing them with nylon wires. Trumpet flourishes are perfectly suited to Tristram Williams, who precisely executes each one, and Paula Rae’s performance shows her mastery of each of her instruments—in the shrill announcements of the piccolo and the lusty tone of the bass flute.
According to Lim’s specific instructions, the solo bass clarinet, solo cello and contrabassoon are seated front and centre. The remaining musicians surround them, meaning that instrumental families are split up. With Lim’s rich orchestration, this provides some great moments of dialogue and spatial play. A particularly effective moment is shared by the two violinists. Staring down his ANAM counterpart on the other side of the stage, Graeme Jennings’ power is evenly matched by the student in a fiery duet, with a stereo sound effect. The unique arrangement causes some problems with communication and entries, but on the whole the choice enhances the sense of space and drama in the work.
Towards the end of the final movement, attention is drawn to the back of the stage as the three percussionists, harpist and trombonist gather around the piano. With nylon wires, the five bow the grand piano strings, while the remaining percussionist ominously beats on a low bass string with her mallets. Changing the speed and intensity of the bowing wires at different rates, the effect of the pitches emerging and ringing out through the auditorium is magical. The removing of the piano lid is Lim’s own unearthing of centuries-old sonic treasures from the tomb, and a fitting end to a work which demonstrates the composer’s phenomenal ability to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect to hear in a concert hall.
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
4 September 2016
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).
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
24 June 2016
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
Judith Hamann Solo recital Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music Old Fire Station 11:30pm, 5 September
In Saturday’s Argonaut Ensemble matinée, the composer James Rushford used the term “penumbra” in describing his work. A penumbra is an area of diffuse light around a shadow. It describes something half-concealed and the peculiar lucidity of half-sleep. It is also an excellent term with which to describe Judith Hamann’s solo recital on Friday night, and not just because it began around midnight and was the last of some six hours of contemporary music the audience had experienced that day.
Hamann has long been recognised as one of Australia’s foremost contemporary-music cellists, though her artistic interests extend far beyond the instrument to the presentation and performance of contemporary music more generally. Her solo recital for BIFEM consisted of five pieces that incorporated projection, lighting and the most non-trad uses of a cello imaginable. In the first piece a thread was drawn through the strings of a carbon fiber cello. The simple but arresting procedure was lit by only a small torch light and one could just make out the thread as Rushford drew it to the other side of the stage. The moving thread lightly activated the strings, which Hamann stopped into various chords. Towards the end of the piece the fibrous thread disintegrated into spider-web strands, making a coarser, louder sound.
Hamann then moved over to a seat lit by a spotlight for Rushford’s The Mourning Panthers, which included a notable effect produced by muting the strings close to the bridge and playing in the small length of string between the fingers and the bridge. One finger is on each string, so that by lifting a finger from a string the resonance of that string was momentarily released. This was one of my favourite sounds of the performance, after perhaps the muting of the bow in Helmut Lachenmann’s Pression.
Wojtek Belcharz’s The Map of Tenderness plays on the eternal theme of the likeness of the cello to the human body. The cello is held upright, with the spike retracted, between the legs of the performer, who peers out from between the pegs. The instrument is thus a mask as well as another being, lending weight to the performer’s whispered words “I was not myself last night.” The piece would be a hit with connoisseurs of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (look it up on YouTube), which can be triggered by tactile rustling sounds and whispering. The cello is equipped with a sensitive piezo pickup and the instrument is tapped and frotted all over, from the pegs to the tailpiece. The bridge makes a particularly bodily, scratchy sound.
A visual cognate of tactile sound is analogue film artefact, which features in Hamann and Sabina Maselli’s collaboration Melting Point. Hamann and Maselli sit behind scrims on which are projected a video of a woman tossing and turning as she tries to get to sleep. Armed with microphones, Hamann and Maselli produce a sleepy soundscape by emptying packets of Pop Rocks into their mouths. Evoking a warm fire, the sound had the same somnambulent effect on me as David Toop’s work at the Totally Huge New Music Festival last year. Eventually the video transforms into a video of a photograph of the sleeping woman, which then catches fire (you should never leave your electric blanket on at night). The use of tactile and visual artefacts is a wonderfully evocative alternative to that other brain-massaging technique of contemporary composers: binaural beats. Where the grain of film artefacts or the saturation of VHS tape is nostalgically evocative to us today, binaural beats will always remain devoid of poetry.
The concert ended, perhaps one piece too long after that excellent nightcap, with Liza Lim’s Invisibility. In this piece the cellist uses two bows, one haired in the usual style and the other with the hair wound round and round the bow shaft. At the end of the piece both bows are used at the same time, creating a timbral polyphony that you can’t believe is coming from one instrument.
Opening Concert Argonaut Strings The Capital Theatre Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music 8:00pm, 5 September
Given that so little new music for strings is performed in Australia, a major concert dedicated to the genre was well overdue. BIFEM’s private stash of instrumentalists, the Argonaut Ensemble, was gradually augmented as the concert progressed from a violin solo to a work for thirteen players. This poetic gesture was coupled with a progressive exploration of the range of sounds and techniques available on the instruments, ranging from simple timbral studies to expansive works combining the wide range of colours of the string orchestra with thematic writing.
The concert opened with the oldest piece in the festival, Jean Barraqué’s Sonate pour violon seul from 1949. With trance-like serenity, Graeme Jennings brought the sonata to the stage of the Bendio Capital Theatre like an apparition from the past. Written in the composer’s early serialist style, the piece seems to speak a long-lost language of attacks and articulations. Though composed while Barraqué was a student of Olivier Messiaen, it was thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 making it a paradoxically contemporary work. The festival was dotted with such curiosities that helped one take stock of the breadth of the last century of music that we still like to call “contemporary” or “new.”
Back to the twenty-first century and Francisco Huguet’s Damora was the first of many “one-idea” pieces that would become a point of contention in Saturday’s discussion panel “Duration and Durability.” Like Barraqué’s sonata, Damora‘s inclusion has a certain pedagogical intent. The piece distils the two extremes of bow pressure that dominate contemporary string writing: shimmering, whispering light bowing and creaking, crunching heavy bowing. To begin with, the double bass and violin duo trill while scrubbing back and forth across the strings, producing a complex warbling effect. This sound transitions into a more strident chordal texture including many chiming harmonics. The overall effect is dirty and fragile, full of the fruity bow sound that the nineteenth century worked so hard to conceal and that composers revel in today.
The almost inaudible scraping of bow on string or grinding pressure would become familiar introductory sequences throughout the festival and Marielle Groven’s trio Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenêtres [I see only infinity through all of the windows] was no exception. Groven explored the techniques up and down the strings, from the fingerboard to the bridge. Three little flutters in unison in the middle of the piece provided a focal point around which the complex of sound coalesced.
Expanding the ensemble’s forces to a septet, the Parisian conductor Maxime Pascal (recently lauded by a chocolate company in Salzburg) entered to conduct David Chisholm’s Jonestown Threnody. Jonestown Threnody is one of the composer’s many “requiem” pieces, though rarely does a requiem depict in quite so chilling a manner the death of its subject. The initial chaos of moans and squeals from the strings is shockingly similar—possibly even more shocking in its aesthetic amplification of the sounds—to the existing recordings of the mass suicide (many would say mass murder) of 918 people in 1978. Chisholm’s morbid fascination with the sound leads to variations with wide vibrato, disintegrating descending lines and some thematic imitation.
Liza Lim’s Gothic follows nicely from Chisholm’s because both composers use melodic material as one of many techniques in their incredibly dense musical environments. Lim is without doubt the contemporary master of declamatory, melodic invention. Pascal brought out the dynamic shapes Lim uses to bring her lines to life, giving the ensemble more than enough to work with in terms of physical gesture.
Then came the standout work of the concert, perhaps even of the festival: Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. As Pascal explained to the audience, the piece is characteristic of Vivier’s work with its ceremonial or ritualistic form, its exploration of colour and its development from a single melody (a technique adopted from Stockhausen, one of Vivier’s teachers). Zipangu was one of the names for Japan at the time of Marco Polo and the string orchestra is divided into two sides, who take turns invoking (Pascal mused) the spirit of Marco Polo with their incantations coloured by varieties of bow pressure and position. The addition of violinist Rada Hadjikostova-Schleuter seemed to have an electrifying effect on the orchestra, especially when she would launch into her muscular rendition of the piece’s recurring violin solo.
Garden of Earthly Desire
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
9 April, 2014
Three works of immense clarity and character filled the program of Six Degrees—a new ensemble including some of Melbourne’s best-known contemporary musicians—at the Metropolis New Music Festival. Somei Satoh’s The Heavenly Spheres are Illuminated by Lights began with the almost mystical experience of Justine Anderson’s voice filling the room from everywhere and nowhere. An improvised-sounding piano part plays around Anderson’s phrases, which hang in the air like mist. Peter Neville wrought sustained tones from the percussion battery with superballs, bows and soft mallet tremoli.
Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia was an opportunity (after Deborah Kayser’s performance of Iphigenia in Exile in 2010) to revisit the composer’s musical world inspired by ancient Greek mythology. An elemental anakrousis (thankyou Nick Tolhurst for this term) of clanging percussion, grunting cello and erupting winds gave way to a gentler texture of rattling percussion and plucked strings. Anderson’s vocal line is an imagined ancient language. She chants repeated consonants and vowels against the bone-dry ensemble, reimagining the Feast of Adonis celebrated exclusively by women.
I recently spoke with Liza Lim about The Garden of Earthly Desire, her first work for the ELISION Ensemble. Though the piece was originally intended as music for a puppet show by Handspan Theatre, it retains its sense of drama and character without attendant theatrics. Moreso than other complexist works of the eighties, one has the sense of sitting amongst a crowd of detailed characters. There is a sense of discovery in focussing on one instrument of the ensemble at a time. Sections also differentiate themselves with fluttering string textures and keening, seagull-like flocks of winds. Lim’s language of the time—with a preference for declamatory, speech-like instrumental lines—lends a certain rhythmic monotony to the proceedings. The wild energy of the piece was sustained, however, by semi-improvised sections allowing for much slap-bass and bass-slapping by Miranda Hill. Charlotte Jacke’s cello also returned several times in different duo and trio combinations, sporting a truly virtuosic range of colours across the entire pitch range of the instrument.