Tag Archives: Luciano Berio

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: The Letter String Quartet, MSO: City Scapes

For their second Metropolis concert, the MSO teamed up with The Song Company to take us from sweeping urban vistas right down into the streets of renaissance Paris and London. Emerging from this program was a double-sided view of the city as the source and solution to specifically urban problems. But first Australia’s new music dream team The Letter String Quartet treated the audience milling around the MRC foyer to excerpts from Wally Gunn’s moody work Blood. Perched in a window opening out onto the city night, the foyer concert introduced a welcome buzz to the cultural bunker that is Southbank. If TLSQ’s stylistic range—from artpop ballads to arch contemporary string writing—is anything to go by, then we can expect interesting things from the quartet’s concert on 26 November including new works created in collaboration with Bree Van Reyk, Ned Collette, Yana Alana, Zoë Barry Jed Palmer, and Mick Harvey.

With the MSO ranged expectantly on stage, The Song Company burst into Clément Janequin’s sixteenth-century setting of Parisian street cries. Singing from the gallery high above the audience, the cries of Paris rang out with an eerie clarity, like ghosts haunting the MRC. This haunting effect was even stronger in Orlando Gibbons’ The Cryes of London as the ensemble hummed a viol consort accompaniment. Weaving street cries into polyphonic music was a popular renaissance trope suggesting an awareness of the correlation between the multiple independent lines of polyphonic music and renaissance rationality and individualism. The cries are also a snapshot of the unique problems of urban life, including how to feed such a large concentration of people and how to control the rats and mice that accompany people wherever they go. Luciano Berio updated the trope with atonal polyphony in his The Cries of London in 1974. The Song Company’s lucid and nuanced performance of this modern masterpiece was by far the highlight of the evening.

The composer Michael Kurth also takes the streets as his inspiration in Everything Lasts Forever, which includes three pieces inspired by Atlanta street art. The cartoon feet of the street artist Toes are represented by swaggering slap bass. The pathos of a bird singing on a boarded-up door is conjured in a sadly lyrical movement. A loping movement in an additive meter presents an ironic commentary on the message “We Have All the Time in the World.”

The program contrasted the human interest of Janequin, Gibbons, Kurth, and Berio with pieces depicting cityscapes by Aaron Copland and Jennifer Higdon. These cityscape pieces present another side of the modern city: the city as a symbol of free market capitalism. The twentieth century is perhaps the first time in history where you have a piece like Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape where, in the composer’s words, “steel structures present an image of boldness, strength and growth, teeming with commerce and the people who work and live there.” Higdon wrote these words in 2002 and may think differently now. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed that these steel skyscrapers were in fact images of selfishness and fragile growth, teeming with hedge funds undermining the world economy. The piece’s third movement is another hymn to a road, a “representation of all those roadways and main arteries that flow through cities.”  As I pointed out in my review of the first MSO Metropolis concert, this climate change music is already sounding dated, more a relic of the twentieth century than a music of our time. It’s a pity, because Higdon’s piece really is a virtuosic kaleidoscope of orchestral gestures depicting, as she writes, “the diversity in city streets.” But to contemporary listeners faced with climate change and fragile global economies, the teeming, unregulated economy of the city sounds more like a problem rather than a status quo to be celebrated.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, The Song Company
Conducted by Robert Spano and Antony Pitts
Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Recital Centre
18 May 2016

Clément Janequin, Voulez ouyr les cris de Paris; Aaron Copland, Music for a Great City; Orlando Gibbons, The Cryes of London; Michael Kurth, Everything Lasts Forever; Luciano Berio, Cries of London; Jennifer Higdon, City Scape

Rubiks and Forest Collective: Sunrise

Rubiks set up for Morton Feldman's Why Patterns? on a steaming-hot December evening.
Rubiks set up for Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? on a steaming-hot December evening.

Forest Collective teamed up with their ensemble in residence Rubiks to provide a folk-inflected final concert of 2015.

Michael Bakrnčev’s The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon is a lighthearted piece for narrator and small ensemble based on a Macedonian folk tale. Commissioned expressly for this concert, the piece was an appropriate companion to Berio’s Folk Songs. The narrator (Stefanie Dingnis) tells the story of the ideal married couple receiving visitors, but all is not as it seems. The fussy husband constantly sends his wife back to the market to buy a better watermelon for their guests and the wife simply returns to the kitchen and polishes the watermelon until the husband declares that she has indeed found the very best watermelon in town. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Don’t be a demanding partner? Do make pragmatic shortcuts? “The husband and wife are a team” explained Bakrnčev after the concert, the story hinging on our guessing at the husband’s knowledge of the wife’s actions and the slow transformation of the meaning of the word “virtuous” in the story’s title. Bakrnčev accompanies the story with a mock-military march. A flute trembles stertorously over a snare drum. At one point the narrator vocalises beautifully over a cheery piano tune. Next to the Folk Songs Bakrnčev’s musical accompaniment sounded very light indeed.

There is always time for another performance of Berio’s Folk Songs. In arranging eleven folk songs from the United States and Europe (including two original compositions), Berio sought “a unity between folk music and our music.” I assume that by “our music” he means contemporary art music rather than the classical tradition more broadly. Berio surrounds the folk tunes with an atmosphere of extended techniques evoking natural environments. Thorny instrumental interjections paint a sound-world far removed from the singing tones of a modern orchestra. Does the listener really hear the spirit of ancient music brought alive to modern ears, or a fantasy of a lost world? Whether real or imagined, in 1964 Berio constructed a bridge between pre-modern tones and the overblown, underbowed techniques  of contemporary music. This bridge has since grown to a widely acknowledged superhighway between early and contemporary music. The Folk Songs may have been a striking statement in 1964, but this conduit has now passed over into ideology and is ripe for interrogation.

Today’s culturally-aware listeners are sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. Performers need to carefully balance their preconceptions of ancient and modern music. Too “folksy” a performance and the performance will slide into parody, too straight a performance and the songs will lose much of their appeal. Stefanie Dingnis chose a relatively restrained performance style, letting the beauty of the tunes speak for themselves. Dingnis came alive in the Sicilian song “A la femminisca” with its clashing, explosive opening that cannot be mistaken for anything but an invitation to let loose. The ensemble, conducted by Evan Lawson, provided plenty of colour in their masterfully balanced accompaniment. The sensitive articulation of harpist Samantha Ramirez and thrilling execution of the piece’s signature viola solo by Anthony Chataway deserve special mention.

Listening to and watching old recordings, I wonder whether anyone could or would want to perform the Folk Songs with the same accents and dance moves today as the Songs‘ dedicatee Cathy Berberian.

The concert also included a stunning performance by Nicholas Yates of Berio’s Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone. The piece’s drone was provided by string players spaced around the Richmond Uniting Church. So subtle was their movement and quiet was their playing that I became conscious of the ethereal sound over a minute or so. What a beautiful effect. Yates’ agile execution of the popping, pointillist piece was something to behold! The concert concluded with Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? performed by Rubiks Collective. Jacob Abela (piano), Tamara Kohler (flute), and Kaylie Melville (percussion) move through their sparse parts at their own rate, coming together at certain  vertiginous moments. These meeting-points become moments of great focus as the performers become aware that they are a page or so away from each other. The performers have to make so many decisions in executing their part that I was put in mind of Alistair Noble’s recent lecture on Feldman at the Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School. Noble argued that, given the tight-knit community within which Feldman’s works were composed and performed, he assumed a certain stylistic palette when composing indeterminate elements in his works. For the most part we cannot hope to—and may not want to—recover the assumed stylistic traits of the early performances of Feldman’s works, but there is certainly interesting work to be done in that direction.

Rubiks and Forest Collective
Richmond Uniting Church
19 December 2015

Michael Bakrnčev, The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon; Luciano Berio, Sequenza VIIb, Folk Songs; Morton Feldman, Why Patterns?

Justine Anderson’s Signs and Symbols: The story of a maraca

Signs Still 4
Justine Anderson performs Berio’s Sequenza III. Photo by Rachel Edward.

Curated by soprano Justine Anderson, Signs and Symbols explored three little-heard masterpieces inspired by dreams and the unconscious.

New music fans over the age of fifty may be surprised to hear Boulez’s half-hour long serialist saga Le marteau sans maître described as “little-heard.” The chamber work was played to death throughout the seventies as Boulez’s compositional aesthetic cemented itself in composition departments the world over. The stunning work almost disappeared from Australian concert programs over the following decades, though its temporary absence may have had some benefits. When audiences hear the work today, they are no longer hearing a work on a pedestal, but a historical document free of the partisan baggage that accompanied its first performances. Without extended-technique pyrotechnics or electroacoustic sorcery, Le marteau sans maître sounds rather dated. And yet, like an Ars Nova puzzle, one immediately appreciates the work’s fine-grained understatement. Conductor Elliott Gyger lost none of the piece’s precise rhythmic counterpoint. Even René Char’s surrealist poetry is treated less with Pierrot Lunaire melodrama than as the machinations of an impossibly complex piece of clockwork. Anderson’s accuracy and control proved equal to the challenge.

Some sounds just grab you. As the muted ensemble ticked along, I was drawn again and again to a slithering sound emanating from the back of the hall. It was a maraca. Matthias Schack-Arnott would hold it upside down and make circular movements with his arm, causing the grains inside to shoot around the bulb like cyclists around a velodrome. The resulting ear-massage was part autumn leaves, part rain, part chocolate mousse. When he stopped moving the maraca, the grains would take time to roll to a stop. One seemed to hear each grain rolling over the others until finding its perfect resting place in the percussive microcosm. It turns out that this was not just any maraca, but rather a maraca that the Australian percussionist Barry Quinn used when performing similar repertoire with The Fires of London in the 1970s. Perhaps this was the first ever historically-informed performance of this piece.

The audience returned to a drastically rearranged South Melbourne Town Hall for Morton Feldman’s spatialised performance For Franz Kline. The stark, feathered monochrome brush strokes of Kline’s paintings were evoked by the synchronised attacks and indeterminate endings of pitches in the ensemble. Feldman fans may contradict me here, but it was nice to have a Feldmanesque soundwallow after the highly-strung Marteau.

Justine Anderson concluded the concert with Luciano Berio’s solo vocal tour de force, Sequenza III. The work requires power, agility, and loads of character. Anderson provided all three in abundance, sweeping through the hall in Barking Spider Visual Theatre’s reconstruction of Mrs Matilda Butters’ fancy-dress constume of 1866, which was printed with the mastheads of dozens of Victorian newspapers. It is good to see the dress in movement after its first new music appearance with The Sound Collectors earlier in the year. It was even better to hear this vocal masterpiece performed with such flair by one of Australia’s finest new music sopranos.

Signs and Symbols
Curated by Justine Anderson
The South Melbourne Town Hall
29 May 2015

Pierre Boulez, Le marteau sans maître; Morton Feldman, For Franz Kline; Luciano Berio, Sequenza III.

The Voice Alone 1: Ellen Winhall, My Sister’s Song

This review begins a series on the solo voice that weave together themes from contemporary performances with recent debate on the music, language and physicality of the voice.

Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.
Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.

Ellen Winhall
My Sister’s Song
Richmond Uniting Church
Thursday 11 July

Ellen Winhall’s recital for solo voice was an object lesson in the seamless integration of finely-honed classical musicianship with extended vocal techniques. The concert was also an opportunity to hear a remarkable body of repertoire for solo voice stemming from the English choral tradition including Australian premières of works by James Weeks, David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu.

Aptly sung beneath the starry vault of the Richmond United Church, the concert was centred upon the nocturnal ruminations of David Lumsdaine’s 1974 composition My Sister’s Song. Based on love poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology translated by A. K. Ramanujan as The Interior Landscape, My Sister’s Song features a refrain evoking the calm passage of late-night hours:

The still drone of the time past midnight,
all words put out.
Men are sunk into the sweetness of sleep …

As a blogger has recently argued, the Tamil word originally used for “night” in this second–third century AD poem is related not just to the late night, but to a specific three-hour period, a midnight “watch.” The passage connotes not only the lucid quality of this period, but its quantity, a quantity that is developed throughout the poem in relation to the narrator’s singular loneliness. The author might be thinking of the period of reflective wakefulness some scholars believe divided the night in two before the invention of urban and electric lighting. As Roger Ekirch argues in At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past, long, dark nights encouraged people to go to bed early for a “first sleep” and rise for an hour or so to study, pray, or even visit neighbours before their “second sleep.” I can imagine David Lumsdaine composing the long, ruminative work during such a midnight “watch,” spinning out the slow, disjunct phrases like constellations on the page. So can I imagine Winhall, only the third soprano to perform the work since its composition for Jane Manning in 1974, humming the work’s melismatic decorations to herself during a period of nocturnal wakefulness. Every twist and turn of the atonal piece—part chant, part unaccompanied recitative, part expressive solo aria—was thoroughly internalised by Winhall, whose considered and precise execution was simply astonishing.

In her remarkable performance notes published as the two-volume New Vocal Repertory, Jane Manning writes that Nicola LeFanu’s But Stars Remaining is to be “sung as from a high rock, the voice flung across a spacious valley.” Winhall evokes the kestrel and the dove of Cecil Day-Lewis’ poem with all the exhilaration of the freely-soaring animals described, before retreating to the intimacy of whispers and half-spoken text.

Winhall’s dynamism and character as a performer blazed through the technical demands of Berio’s Sequenza III, where rapid sequences of phonemes are juxtaposed with hums, vowel-shifting tones, sighs and laughter. A similar carefree virtuosity marked Georges Aperghis’ Récitation 13, which concluded the concert with a playful series of mimicked percussion sounds. The only feature impeding the audience’s enjoyment of Winhall’s performance was perhaps the ABC Classic FM microphone stand limiting the audience’s view and Winhall’s physical mobility.

With their roots in the English choral tradition, the compositions of Weeks, Lumsdaine and LeFanu present an inversion of the usual emotional dynamics of contemporary repertoire. Winhall’s programme oscilllates between troubled, inward reflection and outward jubilation. It is such a pleasure to hear music where “loud” does not immediately connote “wrathful” and “quiet” “sensual.”

Winhall’s concert was recorded for ABC Classic FM. When we hear about a broadcast date we’ll keep you posted.