Tag Archives: Michael Kieran Harvey

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

Gentleness-Suddenness, Bruce Crossman

Campbelltown Arts Centre
29 June 2013
Review by James Nightingale

Campbelltown Arts Centre brought together four of Australia’s finest exponents of new classical music to perform a program of works by Sydney based composer Bruce Crossman. Crossman’s music brings facets of Asian musical idioms into what is fundamentally a contemporary classical musical language, creating a thoroughgoing cultural dialogue that takes the performers to their virtuosic limits.

Double Resonances, composed in 2008, is a duet for piano, played by Michael Kieran Harvey, and a world of percussion brought to life by Claire Edwardes. The contrasting resonances of the instruments themselves, and of the musics of east and west, form the defining feature of this evocative work. On the one hand, the density and harmonic homogeneity of the piano speaks from the Western concert hall, while on the other, Asian gongs, crotales, tam-tam, bowed vibraphone and cymbals carry the listener into the unique idiomatic sounds of metal—a batterie formed from the sounds of the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indonesian instruments that are now common in Western contexts.

Crossman favours a structural arc on which to pin his musical ideas. In Double Resonances, this arc travelled from a bleak stasis broken only by muted plucked piano through a dialogue between ‘jazz piano’ and ‘gamelan’ and back again. This journey was regularly punctuated by shared ensemble pulses/gestures that carried the weight and momentum of the work. Seeing the performers work with single-mindedness to carry through the complex instructions of the score was fascinating and rewarding for an audience that had made the journey on a rainy night to the CAC.

Violinist James Cuddeford joined Edwardes and Harvey for Not Broken Bruised Reed (composed in 2010), a work that also moved through an arc shaped structure. Here, the structure felt like Crossman had established a sound world based upon the natural fundamentals of the tones that was disrupted by the drama and journey of the work. The return of the original timbres of the work underlined the ritual space that the work inhabits, a sensation highlighted by the players speaking and whistling as they played.

After the interval Harvey, Cuddeford and Edwardes were joined by mezzo-soprano Lotte Latukefu for the premiere performance of Gentleness-Suddenness. This song cycle expands the artistic palette of the instruments with text, pictures and live electronics. As the title implies, the piece is about contrasts, although gentleness and suddenness are by no means antonyms of each other. Consisting of two parts—‘Water and Fire’ and ‘Spirit’—which again utilized the arc structure which framed the musical drama. The musical content in this piece, however, was directed more particularly at the task of giving colour and nuance to the texts. The text, which was assembled by Crossman from fragments of the Bible and Chinese Opera (specifically from the Peony Pavilion), was in effect a love poem, brought to life by Latukefu’s voice which travelled effortlessly through a joyful range of colours and textures.

The visual element of the performance, featuring photographs by David Cubby and film by Iqbal Barkat, attempted to provide a context to the musical discourse, however, I for one found it difficult to take my attention away from the performers. Perhaps the musical details and language of the work were more obvious to my ears than to others? The experiment should be persisted with, as I’m sure that this kind of creative collaboration will lead to further artistic insights for all involved.

Hearing several of Crossman’s pieces in succession provided a clear window into his aesthetic—space, clarity, action and reaction—and language, one that incorporates aspects of Asian music expressed through the idiomatic sounds of Western instruments. Harvey, Edwardes, Cuddeford and Latukefu took painstaking care to bring out the ensemble and individual details that cram Crossman’s scores. The works were recorded during the week prior to the concert and there will be many among the audience, like myself, who will be keen to have a second listen to the performances of these mysterious and subtle pieces. This was an engrossing and satisfying concert of music that displayed the highest artistic ambition and craft on the part of composer and performers.