Tag Archives: mnmf16

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: 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: MSO, City Lives

Occasionally you read a pithy description of a piece in a program and immediately have an idea of how the piece might sound. As the piece begins, however, it takes you places you couldn’t have imagined. Your two-dimensional expectation becomes a teeming microcosm, a city unto itself. Like a poem, the architecture of the piece defies paraphrase. This was the impression I had listening to Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Spano. Graffiti opens with strings scrubbing near the bridge, a play (despite the composer’s claim that the piece is neither illustrative nor programmatic) on the origin of graffiti in messages “scratched” into the walls of ancient cities. This lone scratching expands into a scurrying chorus, depicting the “Palimpsest” of the movement’s title. I would say that the piece is not only illustrative (if any music is), that it is just as enjoyable without any program. The second movement, “Notturno Urbano,” manages to be both spacious and grotesque thanks to a plethora of extended woodwind techniques that deftly escape cliché, while the epic “Urban Passacaglia” is an immersive journey firmly held together by Spano.

If you are going to do something, do it well. This might the be ethos of the young Perth-based composer Alex Turley. When I first met Turley at the 2015 Tura Totally Huge New Music Festival, he told me he wrote unapologetically pretty music. This year he brings his refined sense of texture and atmosphere to the Metropolis New Music Festival as one of the three finalists of the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program. His piece, City of Ghosts, depicts a city shrouded in mist, devoid of people. Modal melodies arise from a subtly-thunderous bed of pianissimo tuba and double bass. The melodies move wraith-like across the ensemble, describing towering buildings and arches. With its profound palette, City of Ghosts is testament to Turley’s musical imagination and honed talents as an orchestrator.

Michael Daugherty’s Sunset Strip depicts a drive down Sunset Strip from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. It is also a journey in time, evoking the sounds of “swank restaurants, private eye offices, tattoo parlours, Mexican restaurants, motor inns, discos, bilboards, parking lots, gas stations, burlesque halls, piano bars and jazz lounges.” As with so much music from Daugherty’s generation, I wonder how the next generation will hear it. As conflict breaks out over resources and oceans rise, will they hear in Sunset Strip a metropolis teeming with cultural activity, or an engine of environmental destruction? The piece is, after all, literally a homage to a road.

Composed only four years earlier, Steve Reich’s City Life seems more critical of the technological basis of our urban lives. The piece foregrounds recordings of cars and pile drivers, but surrounds them with an uncomfortable harmonic atmosphere. The piece even includes an extended recording of an alarm, signalling that all is not right with the city. But just as the consumerist urban lifestyle fêted in Sunset Strip increases our carbon footprint, population density reduces the fossil fuels used in transportation of goods and electricity. A theme emerging from Saturday night’s two concerts is the city as both problem and solution. As Le Corbusier told us earlier in the evening in Davidson’s City Portraits, we have to learn to live close together to enjoy “sun, space, and green.”

City Life
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
14 May 2016

Unsuk Chin, Graffiti; Alex Turley, City of Ghosts; Michael Daugherty, Sunset Strip for Orchestra; Steve Reich, City Life