Tag Archives: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Episode 4: Sky Jammer


Like all good neo-noir dystopias, the city of Michael Bakrnčev’s Sky Jammer has roots in contemporary urban life. In this episode I speak with Bakrnčev about property speculation, Macedonian folk dances, and conflicting advice in his Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers commission.

Thanks to the ABC and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for giving us permission to use their recording of Sky Jammer from the 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival.

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The Partial Durations podcast is produced with support from RealTime Arts.


Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: MSO, Heavenly Cities; Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata, Visions de l’Amen

With classic works by Olivier Messiaen and forward-looking pieces by living Australian composers, the final night of the Metropolis New Music Festival straddled over 75 years of new music. Building on the festival theme of “the city” with two world premières, Metropolis finally addressed issues of migration and the unique environmental and social predicaments of Australian cities.

Barry Conyngham’s Diasporas placed much-needed emphasis on the migrant populations that make cities thrive. And he did so—thank goodness—without trying to imitate a cultural melting pot of musics. Instead the piece was like watching a world map of population movements. A deep, murky bed of sound depicts the various dangers and “push factors” that encourage populations to pack up their things and move to unknown shores. Textures made up of massed scurrying runs or accented notes pass from desk to desk and from section to section. From the birds-eye view of this composed heterophony we zoom down to the human level as instrumental solos full of bitter-sweet hope rise out of the texture. Moving from statistical abstraction to human detail, Diasporas inverts the dominant narrative of migration in this country, the narrative that says “yes there are human lives at stake, but we mustn’t let that influence our policy.”

Michael Bakrnčev updates the “city scape” piece for twenty-first century Melbourne with Sky Jammer. Sky Jammer has at its base the social and environmental problems arising from urbanisation that have been so absent from the festival so far. In his program note Bakrnčev cites a prediction that by 2056 the population of Melbourne will climb towards ten million. But can the surrounding environment support such a population (especially if Melbourne’s water supply is reduced by up to 35% as a result of climate change)? Bakrnčev also feels that social groups and families will be strained by the growing population. With median house prices at or near one million dollars in Melbourne and Sydney, young people cannot afford to buy property near their families or where they grew up. To Bakrnčev, the sky scrapers being erected around Melbourne are not the beacons of progress and economic vigor as we have heard older composers depict them. He writes:

The term ‘skyscraper’ once implied ‘progress’. To my mind—and thinking not only of my own generation, but of our children’s and their children’s—’progress’ has become a dubious word. So emerges this work’s title, Sky Jammer.

I don’t entirely agree with Bakrnčev. With their stunning density and vacancy,  Melbourne skyscrapers are deservedly symbols of Australia’s inflated housing market and disregard for community health. However, building up is one alternative to Melbourne’s addiction to building out across the countryside. But the more densely a city is developed, the more planning is necessary to ensure the city is healthy. And in Melbourne, home of bike lanes on raised tram stops, I hold out little hope for a renaissance in enlightened civic planning.

Sky Jammer is a local and contemporary piece in more than its program. Its sound so clearly draws on the compositional influences around Bakrnčev. In its dense, rapidly-changing textures one can hear the influence of Australian complexist composers. The instrumental timbres have the grit of a piece by Anthony Pateras. With its attention to instrumental colour and formal cohesion one can hear the influence of Bakrnčev’s teacher Elliott Gyger. Though this description might make him sound like the love-child of dour modernists, Bakrnčev brings his own crowd-pleasing style to the piece, in particular during a virtuosic violin solo for Sophie Rowell, who needs to be congratulated for several incredible solo passages throughout the festival.

 Two works by Olivier Messiaen took the festival theme skyward. Couleurs de la Cité Céleste evokes the jewel-encrusted walls of the Heavenly City descending to Earth after the apocalypse. Scored for a large ensemble of brass, woodwind, percussion, and piano, the sheer volume and violence of the music is more apocalyptic than sublime. For a composer so sensitive to tone colour, the piece has a notable absence of resonance. Only bells ring out across the auditorium. The brass—evoking the seven trumpets of the apocalypse—announce the end-times in gigantic clusters while the keyboard and keyboard percussion piece together a mosaic of dry attacks. It is a flat, medieval representation of the Heavenly City rather than a scene of shimmering fanfare. The MSO’s Guest Conductor Robert Spano did not hold back from Messiaen’s vision. In his interpretation each tutti chord is so loud you can hardly bear to listen to it—like looking into the sun. This is perhaps Messiaen’s idea: to paint the cataclysmic aura around a city that shines so brightly you cannot look directly at it.

The most dedicated audience members stayed on for a precious event: Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata’s late-night performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. Where one can sometimes question individual players’ commitment to new music in an orchestral concert, Go and Kawabata’s performance was positively ecstatic. Locked on to each other’s gaze across the bodies of the two grand pianos, sweat dripping onto the keyboards, each movement was a masterful, sensitive interpretation of Messiaen’s understanding of the polyvalent “Amen”. Returning to this work composed shortly after the Second World War, at the dawn of the experiments in form, rhythm, pitch, and timbre we call “contemporary music,” was the perfect nightcap for a thrilling festival.

Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata
Melbourne Recital Centre
21 May 2016

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

Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, There Will Be Blood

Guest review by David R. M. Irving

The Metropolis New Music Festival, showcasing works associated with film and the moving image, reached its stunning conclusion on Saturday with a program of recent compositions and more ‘classic’ works. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was in fine form, conductor André de Ridder decisive in direction and eloquent in speech, and the Melbourne Recital Centre an ideal locus for a performance that was both extravagant in scope and intimate in experience. For me, the juxtaposition of ‘old-new’ music with ‘new-new’ music spoke volumes of a continuing desire for postmodern assemblages in concert programming – if such an observation isn’t already a mode of criticism long passé. Yet what was particularly striking was that ‘classic’ works such as Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) and Varèse’s Déserts (1954) sounded far more experimental and groundbreaking than the considerably more conservative and self-reflexive works by Jonny Greenwood and John Corigliano. This represented a timely reminder of the non-linear and multicentric flowering of compositional style over the past half-century, but perhaps it also says something about canonisation and the ritualised recycling of repertoire in most art music programming – at least in terms of listeners’ preconditioned ideas of orchestral music and style. (An anonymised program and testing of audience reactions on musical vintage could actually be quite illuminating, not to mention fun.)

The practice of performing suites of film music in orchestral concerts echoes the programming of seventeenth-century theatre music by Purcell and co., but the aural experience of this repertoire seems altogether more divorced from its context if given without the accompanying moving images. It was in this vein that we began the program with Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood suite: a veritable sonic landscape with vivid aural evocations of Californian oil fields. (I haven’t actually seen the film, by way of full disclosure, but learnt the context from the concise and informative program notes.) A special feature was the use of the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument championed by Messiaen, which emitted a luminous melody hovering above the strings. Greenwood was pretty sparing with it, and the ondes were conspicuous for their absence for the rest of the piece, but the audience was clearly thrilled with the experience. The suite was very much a tableau of diverse sounds, and a thoughtful and artful voyage of sonic discovery, making use of many different string textures and techniques. The MSO, reduced in forces for this programme, was a model of excellent ensemble and rhythmic precision, and played as if they were performing chamber music, with a blend of movement and sound rarely seen in an ensemble of this size.

Corigliano’s The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra is a companion piece to the score of the eponymous film. By Chaconne the composer implies a repeated chord progression, but I felt the piece would better reflect the name of “rhapsody” or “romance”. Violinist Sophie Rowell was technically brilliant and immensively expressive in her rendition of the difficult solo part. It featured all the usual late-Romantic characteristics: multiple-stops, big arpeggios and virtuosic scalic passages, sweeping long melodies, and – as the composer points out – the incorporation of difficult études into the solo line. There were certainly some very moving moments. Yet some of the longer orchestral interludes and especially the big orchestral “hits” (large chords) right at the end represented something of a cliché, reinforcing a melodramatic aesthetic that one rarely hears outside the cinema. Still, this piece certainly reflected the subject of the film that inspired it. An impressive feat to perform, and the audience gave it a rousing vote of thanks.

Speaking of associations between film and music, who can forget the terror inspired by Jack Nicholson in parts of The Shining, underpinned by the unsettling whispering, murmuring, and whistling of 48 string players producing Penderecki’s organised cacophony that is Polymorphia, and bringing us to the very edge of our seats? This piece arguably deserves recognition in its own right as a masterpiece of new music in the 1960s. It must have caused a sensation at its original performance in 1961, and it certainly did here. All I could think about, though, was the way in which those extended string techniques – playing below the bridge, bowing the tailpiece, tapping the instrument with flesh and with wood, and so on – have been associated with so many different emotions; here the aesthetic is linked indelibly to terror, thanks to Stanley Kubrick, and yet we hear many of the same kinds of sounds representing the raucous dawn chorus in Sculthorpe’s Kakadu. (Okay, that’s a pretty random binary opposition, and one I won’t explore further, but maybe we can chew some more on the meanings that high frequencies have for human emotions.) The best part of witnessing a concert performance of Polymorphia by 48 string instruments is to recognise gradually the aural and visual order in the seeming chaos, and to watch the director bathe in waves of sound while pointing the cues in rapid-fire succession. The surprise C major chord at the very end jolted us suddenly into (or out of?) an altered reality.

Varèse’s Déserts was for me the calling card of the programme. This was clearly intended as the show-stopping finale, while other works were intended for aural contemplation without the projections of video stimulus. Performed with Bill Viola’s video of 1994, it’s difficult to say whether the music of Déserts was accompanying the moving image, or vice versa, as the synchrony of sound and vision was impressive indeed. The conductor presumably had a click track: the coordination was precise, right down to the live instrumental accompaniment of sudden lightning strikes on the screen. The musicians were split into several small groupings on stage, making for a stereophonic atmosphere that interacted well with the tape-recorded passages broadcast at specific points in the piece. The mesmeric quality of the film lulled us into a transcendent space of seeing, hearing, and being. Perhaps a nice example of a complete artwork, albeit without voice.

The MSO players provided a wonderful visual display in a technically assured and highly expressive performance, within the attractive wood-lined ambiance of the MRC’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. A fitting finale to the 2015 Metropolis New Music Festival.

– David R. M. Irving

There Will Be Blood
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
16 May 2015

Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood; John Corigliano, The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra; Krzystzof Penderecki, Polymorphia; Edgard Varèse, Déserts.