Tag Archives: Metropolis New Music Festival

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.

519672-178_Download-128  Download (15MB)

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


Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Michael Kieran Harvey

An “aporia” is a problem, a state of puzzlement, or a rhetorical gesture based in a lack of information. A few of the reviews in this series on the Metropolis New Music Festival have ended in aporia. I have argued that urban centers present both problems and solutions to environmental and social problems. As such, I am unsure of how to interpret twentieth-century music representing cities. Does the triumphalist evocation of skyscrapers in Copland and Higdon sound optimistic or cynical to me? Maybe it is too early to tell. Maybe it is too late. I was also unsure of how musicians should approach the explosion of sexual norms that urban centers make possible. Is a focus on sexual extremes necessary, or will a potted history of sex in music suffice? Admittedly, I was using aporia to shut down hurriedly-written articles, but to post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, a situation in flux was a creative space. Michael Kieran Harvey’s Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia” also uses this space of uncertainty as a creative tool.

The aporia of Harvey’s piano sonata is the uncertainty between intuitive and systematised writing. Philosophical subtexts of musical compositions can sometimes be disappointingly reductive, such as when a piece tries to depict a concept that lives and breathes in a complex world of abstract language. Consider if Harvey just wrote a piece that meandered about uncertainly for a while to depict the philosophical impasse of an aporia. Instead, Harvey uses “aporia” to describe his compositional process. As any composer or music analyst of systematised music will tell you, this is the musical aporia. A system may give you a series of possible structures, but how do you actually fit them together to make a piece of music? When do you change the results of your system to suit your tastes?

Another reason title “Aporia” is so appropriate is that it captures the audience’s (or at least my) thought process while hearing the piece. Inspired by the incredible sound of the trams that rumble past the home of the piece’s commissioners Graeme and Margaret Lee, “Aporia” is based on the harmonic series and its inversion. One catches snatches of the harmonic series at the beginning of the work, but one largely has to take the composer at his word. Harvey’s brute physicality as a pianist adds to this aporia. The sonata’s thunderous clusters and showers of filigree may well be predetermined, but at times they slip into the realm of sheer physical gesture. At one point Harvey pauses, stares at the keyboard, and begins attacking it with sweeping glissandi. Where is the system? Does it matter? These are perennial, undergraduate questions, but sometimes the most basic questions are the most important and in this case, they actually bring the piece to life.

The rest of the program was occupied by extended prog-rock keyboard solos that a better critic will have to describe. Harvey’s recitation of a poem by Saxby Pridmore about the massacre of Jews by Arrow Cross militiamen provided a moment of supreme gravity amid the synthesized bacchanal.

City of Snakes
Michael Kieran Harvey
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 May 2016

Michael Kieran Harvey, Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia”, City of Snakes, From the Walls of Dis, Deaths Head Mandala, N Chromium, 48 Fugues for Frank (Zappa), The Green Brain; No. 6 ‘Beetles’, Budapest Sunrise, Kazohinia

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Forest Collective, Sensuality in the City

In 2009 the clarinettist Richard Haynes played a piece by Richard Barrett naked but for a feathered head dress, Chris Dench on a surgical table wrapped in glad wrap and wearing a cock ring, David Young while pissing into an amplified 44-gallon drum, and David Lang while climbing a ladder in a hard hat and not much else. The concert, Listen My Secret Fetish, was an Aphids production directed by David Young and Margaret Cameron and it set the bar for explorations of new music and sexuality. Not everyone has to wee into a bucket, but sex and music is a thematic pair with as much room for exploration as, well, sex and music.

Forest Collective’s Sensuality in the City program at the Metropolis New Music Festival began promisingly. The audience was met at the door by a cardboard torso complete with a glory hole for happy-snaps (nobody took full advantage of this). Once in the salon, the audience sat through a tense minute of droning cello and gently pulsating piano clusters while the marvelously hairy bass-baritone Christian Gillett glowered darkly above us. After a while he stated emphatically “I wanna fuck Chris Hemsworth.” The original version of F**k forever by Philip Venables gives George Miles as the object of affection, but I think we can allow this local variation in contemporary performance practice.

From this point on artistic director Evan Lawson conducted a historical survey of urban sexuality divided into brackets addressing desire, sex, and conflict. The “desire” bracket included three sumptuous arrangements of pieces by Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, and Franz Schubert. Soprano Rosemary Ball brought out the budding desire in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” at least so far as singing about birds allows. The ensemble crowded around Rebecca Scully’s double bass, voyeuristically illuminating her visceral performance of Syrinx with torches.

The “sex” bracket approached sex most obliquely indeed. George Aperghis’ Recitation No. 9 received an unprecedentedly powerful performance by Ball. The soprano recites the sentence “Parfois je résiste à mon envie parfois je lui cède pourquoi donc ce désir,” which might be translated as something like “Sometimes I resist my inclination sometimes I give in to it why then this desire?” The phrase is revealed word by word from the end to the beginning, taking on different meanings with each iteration. In terms of suggestion—and Ball’s rendition was wonderfully suggestive—this piece is clearly still in the realm of desire. So too is Lawson’s Himeros, a piece dedicated to the pain in desire. Contorted Wagnerian strings send heart-strings thrumming before a sparse and delicate middle section lulls the audience to sleep. The audience is painfully awoken with a bang from the percussion as the brass begin to cry. If the association of Himeros with sex is obscure, then Marc Yeats’ Lines and Distances is absolutely cryptic. The measured, pointillist tapestry unfolds before the listener like a medieval love story, with clarinettist Vilan Mai carefully managing each turn of the tale. But once again we are in a world of courtship and managed proximities.

For the third bracket dedicated to “confusion, conflict and confusion” the audience heard a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schubert’s “Gefrorne Tränen” performed by Gillett, then music from an opera by Venables where members of a family and their maid “beat a mysterious bandaged figure lurking in the corner while discussing what they’ll eat for dinner.” The program felt like a film that cuts straight from a prolonged scene of flirtatious winking to a scene of domestic violence, skipping over physical sensuality entirely. The program’s lacklustre programming was not aided by some very unsexy intonation. Now I don’t know how you’d actually go about making a good “sexy program.” It seems a bit like someone asking you to “be funny,” you can’t just do it on the spot. I struggle to be half-way presentable most days. But someone out there has got to be able to get this right.

Sensuality in the City
Forest Collective
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
18 May 2016

Philip Venables, F**k Forever; Robert Schumann, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai; Claude Debussy (arr. Rebecca Scully), Syrinx; Franz Schubert (arr. Alexander Morris), Ganymede; Georges Aperghis, Recitation No. 9; Evan Lawson, Himeros; Marc Yeats, Lines and Distances; Franz Schubert (arr. Evan Lawson), Gefrorne Tränen; Philip Venables, Fight Music.

Metropolis: Lisa Moore, A Bigger Picture

Lisa Moore. Photo by Carla Zavala.
Lisa Moore. Photo by Carla Zavala.

Lisa Moore packed out the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon with her programme of well-known piano works by Philip Glass and For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise by Martin Bresnick. From the beginning of Glass’ Etude No. 2 I remembered how characteristically Moore performs minimalist repertoire. She is not afraid of taking pieces a little faster than usual, adding some rubato or hammering out particular lines. After the energetic Etude, Moore invited the audience to sit back and sink into the Glass “sublime” without applauding between works. I took this as a cue to put down my notepad as well. Throughout Metamorphosis I and II I was transported back to undergraduate music, where I first heard Glass. The performance made me wish I could go forget everything and learn about music all over again. While embracing the Glass sublime as well as I could, I also had some niggling thoughts about minimalism’s place in global history that I will save for my discussion of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s minimalism-inflected Metropolis programmes. I suppose you can take the audience out of postgraduate musicology, but you can’t take postgraduate musicology out of the audience.

After an intermission, the audience returned for Martin Bresnick’s musical interpretation of William Blake’s poem For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. The piece combines a piano part with recitations of the poem and animations of Blake’s illustrations by Puppetsweat Theater. The phallocentric panning of Puppetsweat’s animations is completely in tune with Blake’s own worship of sexual—in particular phallic—energy. The superimposition of images and words in the animations are beginning to show their age. Since the work’s creation in 2001 there have been a string of excellently-animated still drawings, from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of The Ring Cycle in Heath Lees’ introduction to the work Wagner’s Ring, to Jessica Yu’s animations of Henry Darger’s illustrations in In the Realms of the Unreal. I occasionally found myself closing my eyes to better appreciate Bresnick’s rich score.

The piano part paints the elements and stages of life described in the poem, which is read and sung by Moore throughout. Sometimes the piano part imitates the rhythm of the voice, sometimes it develops snatches of folk-sounding melodies. At one particularly weird and arresting moment, Moore trails a card over the keys while reciting the book’s poem on death and the grave. Like Blake, Bresnick draws on the most fundamental materials of life and art to produce a complex new mythology.

Lisa Moore
A Bigger Picture
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2015

Philip Glass, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Metamorphosis I, Metamorphosis II, Satyagraha Act III (Conclusion arr. Michael Riesman); Martin Bresnick, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise.

Metropolis: Zubin Kanga, Dark Twin

Zubin Kanga. Image courtesy of the artist.
Zubin Kanga. Image courtesy of the artist.

Zubin Kanga always drags half a dozen new works in his wake as he criss-crosses the globe in search of the bleeding edge of piano repertoire. Kanga’s last tour of Australia entitled “Piano: Inside/Out” explored the inside of the piano, either through playing the piano strings directly with the hands or by preparing the strings with objects like paper and Blu-Tac to change their tone. In his current “Dark Twin” tour, Kanga extends the piano outward through live electroacoustic manipulation and video projections.

Premièring new music necessarily runs the risk of performing a “bad” or “unsatisfactory” work. Saying that a work is “beautiful,” “successful,” or that it “works” would be meaningless if the reverse were not possible. Composers are often their best critics and will revise works after a first hearing. Andrew Ford’s recent book Earth Dances tells of how Stravinsky struggled to find a satisfactory ending to The Rite of Spring. On the other hand—to continue the Rite example—audiences and critics have often failed to appreciate how a work is beautiful or successful upon first hearing. Knowledge of the multiplicity of ways in which a piece can be “good” is perhaps the reason why critics can shy away from negative judgements. However, I feel particularly emboldened to make critical judgements this morning because George Brandis has just funneled $104.8m away from the peer-review-based Australia Council for the Arts and into his own ministry, where who knows what sort of evaluation process will take place. Consider this review a battle-cry for judgment over cronyism. In this review, the success of a work is judged according to how well it achieves what the composer or performer set out to do in writing and performing it. I will try to bring other qualities of the works to light as well, in spite of the creators’ stated intentions.

Stefan Prins, Piano Hero

In Stefan Prins’ Piano Hero, Kanga plays a MIDI keyboard that triggers video samples of a man playing with his hands on a stripped-back piano frame. The minimal gestures of the keyboardist contrast with the full-body movements of his avatar in the video, who strums and strikes the strings. The avatar also uses subtler gestures, including conjuring a smooth tone from the body of the piano with a cork on the end of a stick. He bounces and throws a handful of piano keys onto the strings, scattering them across the frame.

According to Kanga’s programme notes, the work seeks to “explore the modern trend of the virtual replacing the real while deconstructing the relationship between pianist, instrument and observer.” The work achieves the first of these goals, while leaving the second in the air. The starkly-lit, beautifully-textured surfaces of the piano frame make the video seem more real than the poorly-lit keyboardist. The avatar’s movements are also more visceral than those of the keyboardist.

The second goal, to deconstruct the relationship between the pianist, instrument and observer, is barely addressed. Yes, the keyboardist’s gestures and the audience’s attention are decoupled from one another and directed towards the avatar on the screen. To stress this point, the screen occasionally switches to a camera trained on the keyboardist silently playing away. However, to deconstruct is not just to take apart (unless one is ordering a deconstructed polenta stack at a Melbourne café). Literary deconstruction reveals underlying assumptions and arbitrary norms that are inexpressible within the frame of a particular discourse. Piano Hero reconfigures the performer-instrument-observer triangle, but it does not tell us anything about concert conventions that we don’t already know. [EDIT: Kanga has since pointed out that Prins originally used the more appropriate term “recontextualise.” “Deconstruct” was Kanga’s paraphrase.]

One of Piano Hero‘s greatest strengths is the compositional use Prins makes of his technical apparatus, whatever its rationale. The piece begins with the keyboardist triggering only the resonance left after the piano strings are struck. The performer’s hands hover above the strings, seemingly conjuring the resonance out of them. As more violent gestures are introduced, with the performer striking the strings, the speed of the gestures are modulated by the MIDI keyboard. This creates striking contrasts as the physical intensity of the performer attacking the strings contrasts with more balletic, slowed-down gestures.

Julian Day, Dark Twin

Julian Day’s Dark Twin is the result of a long-term collaboration between Kanga and Day. Day describes the piece as stemming from his experience learning the piano as a child. Instead of the solitary experience of piano practice, he imagined a situation where a pianist plays against a ghostly other. As Kanga paraphrases Day’s intentions:

At first [the electronic part] matches the pianist closely, but then begins to slide in pitch and distort in colour –techniques that are impossible on a piano. Over the course of the piece, the electronic part shifts from being an indistinguishable electronic ‘twin’ of the pianist to becoming a grotesque rival.

The piece begins with the minimalist gesture of two rapidly-alternating notes. At this point, the live part does indeed sound almost indistinguishable from the electronic part. As the piece progresses, the electronic part becomes deeper and seems to spread around the room. The timbre of the electronic part also becomes more distorted. The impression is less a “dark twin” of the piano part than an expansion of the piano part. The two parts are indistinguishable in the muddy and saturated air.

Benjamin Carey, _derivations

Benjamin Carey’s _derivations provides a much more convincing example of a pianist duelling with an electronic other. I have previously reviewed a recording of Carey’s _derivations system and it was a pleasure to see it in action for one of the first performances of the system with a piano. _derivations is a program intended to improvise with a live performer. The program listens to and analyses the performer’s musical gestures. These gestures are stored in a database, drawn upon and manipulated to contrast with or complement the live performer. The program may also respond through several voices or channels at once, even responding to itself. In some ways the program’s responses to Kanga were predictable and gave a sense of balance to the performance. When Kanga played high on the piano, _derivations introduced a bassy hum. When Kanga ran his hands over the piano strings, _derivations turned this sound into a glassy cloud of sonic fragments. I had the impression in this performance, as I did when listening to the recording above, that the system was playing material straight back to Kanga rather than strategically introducing large-scale formal contrasts. It would be nice to hear a longer performance where the system was able to exert more control over the course of an improvisation.

Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate

Cat Hope’s The Fourth Estate uses electromagnetic interference in the form of pocket radios and EBows to represent the disruptive and filtering political effects of the free press. As Kanga’s programme (once more a paraphrase of the composer) reads:

As the Fourth Estate is thought to be an element of society ‘outside’ official recognition, here the radios and e-bows (small electromagnets on the strings) act as static sonic barriers, interfering with the mercurial and lively piano part.

What a great idea! Unfortunately it was not one that I found represented in the performance. It seemed to me that Kanga’s runs and key-mashing in different registers were more to “get the strings moving” rather than to provide pianistic gestures that the EBows and radios would then corrupt. I cannot say whether this was the result of the specific directions on the graphic score or its interpretation. The EBows and radios then failed to interfere significantly with the sound of the piano. Occasionally one could hear the jangle of an EBow or a radio physically bouncing on the piano strings, but they did not appear to intermingle with or modulate the piano’s sound. Surely the media is not that ineffectual, bouncing along the titanic reverberations of politicians? Now, I am fully aware that I am about to fly to Perth to review the Totally Huge New Music Festival and will no doubt spend a lot of time in the same room with Hope, but this only goes to show how seriously I take reviewing.

Michel van der Aa, Transit

In Transit by Michel van der Aa, an elderly man fights loneliness through a series of repetitive acts. He struggles to open doors and open the window. He drags a chair back and forth and bottles steam from a kettle that he can barely lift. The noir-like film captures the claustrophobia of physical weakness and the importance of memory. The live piano and electroacoustic parts are integrated into the rhythm of the film. Kanga’s silent movements, such as raising his arms to play, or reaching to one side of the piano but not striking a key, are accompanied by electroacoustic sounds. This gives the impression that Kanga is a magical piano samurai, which is not too far from the truth.

Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline

Blinkhorn’s FrostbYte: Chalk Outline is an audiovisual piece contrasting pristine Arctic waters with industrial infrastructure. The Chalk Outline of the title refers to the climate change, exacerbated by industrial activity, that is rapidly transforming the landscape. Blinkhorn created the piece with video and audio material he collected while travelling in areas of the Arctic. The musical accompaniment to the footage of the Arctic landscape is fittingly tinkly, high and “icy.” Blinkhorn begins to introduce sounds from dubstep, with wobbly bass and dramatic, booming punctuations as the footage moves to cranes, which are processed through abstract mirroring effects on the video. The stunning video footage was inexplicably processed through a filter that broke it up into beveled windows. It seemed to me that this was unnecessary as the beautiful landscape spoke for itself.

Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint

Steve Reich’s Six Pianos is difficult to mount due to the problem of gathering six pianos together in the same space and still having room for the audience. Pianist Vincent Corver has opened the door for more (partially) live performances of the work by arranging it for one live pianist and five pre-recorded parts in the retitled work Piano Counterpoint. Kanga performed the live part with bravado and flair. We will no doubt hear this piece many more times in the future.

See also Charles MacInnes’ thoughtful review.

Zubin Kanga
Dark Twin
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 May 2015

Stefan Prins, Piano Hero; Julian Day, Dark Twin; Benjamin Carey, _derivations; Michel van der Aa, Transit; Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline; Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate; Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint.

Metropolis: Forest Collective, Moonfall

Still from Marcus Fjellström's Odboy and Erordog. Image courtesy of Forest Collective.
Still from Marcus Fjellström’s Odboy and Erordog. Image courtesy of Forest Collective.

Forest Collective’s “Moonfall” programme explored two important aspects of the Metropolis festival’s theme, “Music inspired by the moving image.” Firstly, Forest Collective recognised the importance of computer games to any discussion of music and the moving image today. Secondly, the concert was downright creepy.

Without culturally- and physiologically-ingrained harmonic cues, contemporary music can fall into an emotional binary of anodyne lyricism and anger. Humour and fear are like lyricism and anger’s more sophisticated cousins. Without wanting to be prescriptive (a piece need not aim for any of these emotional modes, nor any emotional mode at all),  humour and fear show that a composer has enough command over their work to shape a complex audience experience. In film, the same distinction could be drawn between a slasher film that relies on loud and sudden noises to disturb the audience and the unnerving qualities of, say, a Tarkovsky film (more about Tarkovsky in a forthcoming review of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s first Metropolis programme!).

Forest Collective built their programme around Marcus Fjellström’s triptych Odboy and Erordog (available on Fjellström’s Youtube channel). Each episode reflects the sequential, task-driven atmosphere of certain nightmares. Odboy and his trusty Erordog embark on foreboding journeys to  perform arduous “chores.” As in nightmares, the imperative to perform the tasks is overwhelming while the meaning of the tasks is obscure. The journeys will be familiar to all retro gamers and light-sleepers, including “finding the big house” and “crossing the spider pit” while “looking out for the wild boar” (echoes of Conquests of Camelot?). The first episode includes an electronic score by Fjellström utilising rhythmic record pops and theatre organ that complement the grainy black-and-white video. The second two episodes include written scores for the ensemble, who provided a sparse layering of extended techniques and musical accents. Fjellström is currently working on what appears to be a sci-fi chamber opera entitled “Boris Christ.” Hopefully we can get it over to Australia (Forest Collective I’m looking at you).

Odboy and Erordog combines black-and-white film aesthetics with 1980s computer-game graphics. Computer games form an essential part of screen culture for anybody under the age of forty. While those who did not grow up with computer games may recognise the burgeoning computer game market, those who spent too long in front of screens as children will understand the emotional resonance of old, lo-fi computer game aesthetics. If I may indulge in some folk-psychology, perhaps this is because an active imagination is needed to turn a few blocky pixels into a whole fantasy-world. On the other hand, the stark colour contrasts and blocky designs of old games have design elements unto themselves that are, for want of a better word, beautiful.

Forest Collective threaded a series of dark and foreboding chamber works between the Fjellström films, beginning with Evan Lawson’s arrangement of Rupert Holmes’ song “Moonfall” from the 1985 musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The musical is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and was the first musical to feature multiple endings, which were chosen by an audience vote. Lawson states in the programme that he wanted to capture the “smoky streets of nineteenth-century London.” He certainly achieves this goal with a murky bed of clarinets (Vilan Mai and Aaron Klein) and shimmering string tremoli.

The concert featured the world première of Evan Lawson’s Orpheus and the Cave. The piece is a study for a large-scale orchestral work featuring two solo sopranos and solo harp. In the study, Lawson’s usual lush sound palette is stripped back and spread about the room. The spatial distribution of the ensemble is some of the most effective that I have heard. The piece begins with a drum roll behind the audience, before Orpheus (Rosemary Ball) sings to Euridice (Teresa Duddy) across the room. The solo violins (Katriona Tsyrlin and Isabel Hede) to the left and right of the audience create a striking stereo effect. At the end of the piece, Mai and Tanya Vincent on clarinet and flute leave the auditorium to play a perhaps too-recognisable excerpt of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers as “the birds calling out on the surface of Earth.”

Forest Collective’s dark programme triggered a series of questions surrounding horror and music. While sudden, high-pitched and dissonant sounds may appeal to our fundamental survival instincts, how do we process subtler unsettling sounds? If we are taught to recognise certain sounds as “creepy,” then how can we access the emotional impact of creepy music from throughout history? What is the first recorded piece of “scary” music?

Forest Collective
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
7 May 2015

Marcus Fjellström, Odboy and Erordog; Rupert Holmes (arr. Evan Lawson), Moonfall; Evan Lawson, Orpheus in the Cave.

Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Undine the Spirit of Water

Grace Lowry in Agatha Yim’s film Undine: The Spirit of Water.

Feminine water-spirits may be found in diverse mythologies, from Ancient Greek Sirens to the Slavic Rusalka and the Thai Phi Phraya. The “Undine” appears relatively recently,  in the writings of the renaissance Swiss-German alchemist Paracelsus. Paracelsus classes the Undine as a water elemental alongside the airy “Sylph,” the earthy “Pygmy” and the fiery “Salamander.” The Undine is remarkable for being a much more benign creature than its predecessors, the unfortunately-stereotyped women seducing and drowning sailors. Paracelsus was, after all,  a man of science. Syzygy Ensemble’s programme for the Metropolis New Music Festival asked the question “What is the spirit of water in music?” Four composers provided four different answers to this question, interspersed with beautiful and humorous videography by Agatha Yim.

In Yim’s short film, a charming Undine (Grace Lowry) prances about a Victorian rainforest encountering members of the ensemble. Cellist Blair Harris ineffectually chops wood in his concert blacks, flautist Laila Engle wrestles the Undine for a light bulb, and was that a fleeting shot of pianist Leigh Harrold I saw floating in the water? A narrative emerges throughout the concert, with a young man falling in love with the Undine before becoming married to another woman, without ever forgetting the Spirit of Water.

Helena Tulve’s Streams 2 is an experiment in musical current. A current has not only force, but depth. In Stream 2, a single instrument always holds the work together with a smooth, legato line. Tulve favoured the dark tone of the clarinet in evoking the viscous flow of water. The rest of the ensemble resembled flotsam or the play of light on the water’s surface with ricochet bowing, whispering flautando flurries and rubbed woodblocks. Tulve’s streams are not splashing torrents. Instead, we hear the steady stream from within, like the submerged Undine at the end of Yim’s first video.

Syzygy Ensemble rehearse Undine: The Spirit of Water at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Syzygy Ensemble rehearse Undine: The Spirit of Water at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tom Henry’s Time is Another River provides a much more thematic depiction of a watercourse. The work for violin, cello and piano features beautiful counterpoint with long melodic lines that rise, float and fall.

Marc Yeats’ The Half-Life of Facts provides a jarring and welcome contrast to Henry’s mellifluous river. Yeats’ piece is an absolutely unrelenting ten minutes or so of fragmented extended techniques including Bartok pizzicati, string glissandi and bass clarinet grunts. The lights changed from red to yellow and back to red again half-way through the piece, as if to highlight the monotony of the barrage of sound.

After Yeats’ complete fracturing of contour, the audience mustn’t have minded retreating into Niels Rønsholdt’s reassuring use of repetition and rhythmic motifs. Instead of water, Rønsholdt’s Burning is accompanied by a projection of a match catching alight in the dark, albeit reduced to a shadowy black and white image with the tones inverted. The piece features a rhythmic cross-rhythm that is tapped out quietly on the backs of instruments like a post-rock mantra before being howled out in desperate waves (along with some desperate teenage poetry) by the whole ensemble. During these climaxes, the piano part grows from glissandi across the keyboard to vigorous assaults with the palms.

Undine: The Spirit of Water is a magnificent response to the festival’s theme: “Music inspired by the moving image.” As the composers featured in the programme have shown, water and movement go hand in hand.

Syzygy Ensemble
Undine: The Spirit of Water
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 May 2015

Helena Tulve, Streams 2; Tom Henry, Time is Another River; Marc Yeats,  The half-life of facts; Niels Rønsholdt, Burning.

Metropolis: Speak Percussion, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years

Alexander Garsden's Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Alexander Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The title of Speak Percussion’s opening concert sets a playful tone for this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival. The joke was driven home to me when I heard the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years by Speak Percussion will begin in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall … .” I imagine this title came up during rehearsals, as the ensemble worked out how to switch between the three pieces, each with a different seating arrangement or in a different space entirely. Ultimately there was no such intermission. The ushers herded a willing audience around the building, leaving just enough time to consider the three composers’ distinct responses to the festival’s theme: Music and the moving image.

Speak Percussion’s artistic director Eugene Ughetti chose the composers Peter de Jager, Alexander Garsden and Jeanette Little because they are each at a pivotal moment in their careers. Each composer can comfortably forgo the term “emerging” in their biographies, though they are still “young” composers. They inhabit a no-man’s land between the important but largely unpaid opportunities open to students and the networks of commissioners of established composers.  Speak Percussion’s commissions, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, showed each composer settling into and refining their individual style.

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines

Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The audience took their seats on the stage of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. The gleaming keyboard percussion instruments of Peter Neville, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti formed three sides of a square around De Jager’s piano, with each performer facing inward towards each other. So intimately close were the audience to the performers that they could follow the coordinating glances of the performers and hear the pedals of the instruments moving. Though designed to project sound out into the auditorium, the stage made an excellent chamber music setting, equalising the natural volume of each instrument.

Fractured Timelines is a multi-modal, gestural romp to heaven and back. The piece is structured as a triptych with two roughly inverted movements separated by their “collision.” The first movement moves from ethereal and whimsical arpeggios and melodies down to a rumbling nether-world with highlights of damped cymbals. Instead of avoiding recognisable thematic, tonal and modal materials, De Jager crams Fractured Timelines full of them. Speak Percussion clearly enjoyed shaping the piece’s cellular themes and different instrumental configurations, including many duo and trio passages, shared lines and runs passed between instruments. The third movement moves in the opposite direction, from the dark to the light and back again, ending with a fabulous rolling ostinato in the bass registers of the vibraphone, marimba and piano. The second movement seems less the “collision” of the two exterior movements than its aftermath. Instead of the arching development of the exterior movements, De Jager presents juxtaposed fragments of thematic material, including funereal, plodding piano chords and a whimsical vibraphone solo (I haven’t heard Ughetti play like that for, well, ever). With his thematic riches and multi-modal language, De Jager is like a modern-day Messiaen without god. Like Messiaen, De Jager gives the themes in his scores short descriptions. In De Jager’s case, these descriptions (including “creepy mountain path” and “briar”) are drawn less from sacred imagery than his life-long experience playing video games. Commander Keen is still his favourite.

Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II

The audience retired to the stalls of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Garsden’s beautiful new work Messages to Erice I & II. Four large tam-tams were arrayed along the front of the stage and lit from below by yellow-gold spot lights. Each tam-tam is fitted with a transducer (like a speaker without the cone). Garsden has made recordings of each individual tam-tam. In the live performance, he manipulates these recordings and plays them back through the instrument via the transducer. The four tam-tams stand there like bronze breastplates, or altars, their mysterious sounds emanating not just toward the audience, but filling the high ceiling of the hall with shimmering, insect-like buzzing and clear, brassy tones. The lights suddenly change to a silvery-blue as the second movement (or “process”) of the piece begins. Here the sound signals are further processed, creating an alien sound world of “washboard” vibrations and fierce roaring. Garsden motivated the festival’s theme in several ways. The algorithmic relationship between the sound-processing of the different tam-tams is related to the relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena. The piece furthermore makes use of recordings, which can be considered moving “sound images.” Most strikingly, the performance itself was a moving cinematic gesture.

Jeanette Little, No Optic

Jeanette Little's No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Jeanette Little’s No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Once ushered into the Salon, we were treated to Jeanette Little’s No Optic for four percussionists and live electronics. The piece is accompanied by a video work by the Russian video artist Sasha Litvintseva. The video features a screenshot of somebody exploring high-resolution Google Maps images of various metropolises. In a reference to online and CCTV surveillance, copies of the screenshots are then dragged onto the screen, producing a multiplicity of staggered images. Scrolling cascades of images of roads and cars pass over the screen. The layering process is repeated with a video of somebody taking a photo with a smartphone. I appreciated that this was a video made almost entirely (if not actually entirely) without a camera. The moving image is now omnipresent, with almost every possible setting and activity recorded and uploaded into the cloud (or into some server farm in a desert). However, I was more amused than scared by the “electronic panopticon” (as it was described in the programme). This may be due to Little’s score, which aimed to conjure mixed feelings of “intimacy, discomfort, anxiety and opportunity.” The four percussionists, Ughetti, Kaylie Melville, Anna Camara and Matthias Schack-Arnott, stood behind four almost identical batteries of metal percussion. They produced beds of sound, like the high-pitched rattling of skewers on metal pipes. At other points the ensemble signalled important transitions. For instance, tiled videos of the interiors of trains give way to a single long-range shot of a city with a train passing through it in the distance. The performers stop suddenly, the resonance of car suspension springs ringing out into the calm. The pre-recorded materials, including loud dance music or a sacred classical-era aria, highlighted the omnipresence of recorded sound in our lives as well as recorded images.

Composers often regret the lack of opportunities available to them after their first student commissions. By commissioning three confident young composers, Speak Percussion has brought three fascinating and valuable new works into existence. This year’s Metropolis festival is full of such adventurous and intimate programmes by local and international new music stars. Be sure to grab a ticket or three.

Speak Percussion
Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
4 May 2015

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines; Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II; Jeanette Little, No Optic.

Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Shadows

Thomas Adès, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 April

Bringing jazz-inspired works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès together with the sensitivity and virtuosity of cellist Steven Isserlis, the final concert in the Metropolis New Music Festival celebrated contemporary compositional finesse.

Adès opened the concert conducting Niccolò Castiglioni’s Inverno In-ver. The wintry dance suite combines post-tonal transformations with the icy orchestral colours of celesta, woodwind, chimes and glockenspiel to create tableaux of racing snow and frosty stillness. Whereas some performers will complain that the results of some contemporary works do not warrant their difficulty, Castiglioni and Adès’ music may be compared in the dazzling surface-effects produced in their complexity.

A case in point being Adès’ jazz-era burlesques for orchestra from the opera Powder Her Face. Dripping with gritty sensuality, the excerpts harkened back not so much to the foxtrots and tangos of the 1930s, but to the sophisticated, self-aware, Weimar-era opera of Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill.

Mark-Anthony Turnage draws on later jazz styles in his tour de force for cello, Kai. Confronting the audience with a deafening wood-clap, Kai proceeds to seduce them with a homage to the romantic cello concerto. A muted trumpet introduces the piece’s theme like a distant bugle call announcing the arrival of the jazz-cavalry. Each time the refrain returns on cello it is more desperate. It is a struggle for the cello to be heard above the ensemble, leading the cellist ever closer to the bridge with an ever-heavier bow and a correspondingly hyper-emotional sound. Then the shredding begins. Isserlis covers the cello, hair and all, like a 1980s speed-metal guitar guru.

Isserlis channeled a different kind of virtuosity for four of György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, repeating each descending mode or two-note phrase as though it were a completely new thought. At times scarcely audible, the meditative whisper of the cello was almost drowned out by the hall’s creaking light fixtures.

Cybec finalist Lachlan Skipworth conjures a “solar drama” (to use a phrase of the Australian Mallarmé scholar Gardner Davies) out of the orchestra in Afterglow. Like the dying rays of the sun, a fanfare on tuba announces shimmering string colours, which build and dissipate in a dense crescendo. The chaos leaves behind a more transparent texture with a lyrical oboe line. Harp and piano can faintly be heard moving across the orchestral surface. It is as though the tuba has dipped behind the horizon of the strings and risen again as a silver moon, lighting the path of two wanderers.

What the Shadows programme gained in stylistic dexterity it lost in innovation. It is remarkable that the most contemporary-sounding work on the programme was by Castiglioni, a dead composer. By contrast, the rest of the works (Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages excepted) presented reworkings of bygone styles for the orchestra and large ensembles. Many works in the smaller Metropolis concerts gave a stronger sense of being not just “current” but “contemporary.”

Metropolis: Mira Calix, Looking for Cowslips

MIra Calix
Mira Calix, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Mira Calix
Looking for Cowslips
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 April

Occupying the 6pm slot before Thomas Adès’ Shadows, there was a welcome informality to Mira Calix’s juxtaposition of her own chamber works with those of four other contemporary British composers. No projections, choirs or crickets: Instead, Calix gathered an intimate council of composers, performers and listeners to consider their relationship to nature with the help of poetry from the nineteenth century and today.

“This is me,” begins the electroacoustic track of “looking for cowslips,” Calix’s work for soprano, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and electronics based on Alice Oswald’s poem. The phrase proliferates in the space before being captured like a thought by soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. In such a simple gesture the multiple identities of nature are realised in a single human being.  The moment of self-awakening does not last long as the air is quickly disturbed by a tremolo on cello (Zoe Knighton) and Betts-Dean frantically calls “no, no, no, no.” Throughout the piece the harmonics, trills and pizzicati of the cello provide an internal, affective countermelody to the soprano’s narrative. Bird and insect calls form an external environment to which the soprano responds, while echoes and transformations of the soprano line reflect the permeability of the natural and human worlds.

Calix and Larry Goves reverse their usual compositional roles in their collaboration “eyepoe.” Calix takes control of the instrumental parts, while Goves is entrusted with the electronics. The piece contrasts melodic string and clarinet parts with short, prerecorded, haiku-like passages for what sounds like harp and steel-string guitar. As the piece progresses the instrumental parts become darker and the electroacoustic track more suffused with a wind-like roar, dissolving the musical into the ambience of natural sound.

The collaborative descent of “eyepoe” prepared the audience for Tansy Davies’ stark vocal setting of lines from the nineteeth-century nature poet John Clare’s autobiography. The soprano evokes cornfields and forests “troubled” by the “destroying beauty” of weeds through Davies’ hypnotic, falling chromatic lines.

The ensemble achieved a perfect balance between electroacoustic and instrumental sound in the intimate acoustic of the Salon. The result was a highly affective performance that drew the audience into the composers’ worlds of cowslips, cornbottles and sunflowers. In withdrawing her book Memorial from the T. S. Eliot prize in 2011 because of the prize’s questionable sponsors, Oswald described poetry as “the great unsettler.” Calix and company’s music provides unsettling settings of unsettling poetry, placing humanity’s relationship to nature on the salon table.