Tag Archives: Morton Feldman

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?

Inland 15.3: Your House is the Last Before the Infinite

Alexander Garsden, Rohan Drape, and Jessica Aszodi perform Garsden’s Four suns and a whole sky on fire. Photo by Lloyd Honeybrook.

The Inland concert series explores a musical interior. Like the blend of properties at the center of a colour graph, Inland explores the gradations between notated, improvised, and electroacoustic performances. Concert 15.3 at the Church of all Nations in Carlton explored a single, focussed point of this hinterland, that of static textures developed through layering live and captured sounds.

Samuel Dunscombe’s Unfinished Piece for 27 Clarinets is performed by only three clarinettists, in this case Dunscombe, Aviva Endean, and Michiko Ogawa. The electronic part quickly swells to an atmosphere of drones and squawks. The effect is like listening to a great crowd of people, with half-heard conversations and choruses arising and subsiding from the dense body of sound.

Rohan Drape is largely to blame for the perfectly balanced sound diffusion throughout the concert. In each piece, the electroacoustic part perfectly matched the live performers to the extent that, from my vantage point at the back of the church, they were difficult to distinguish. This was as true for instruments as it was for voices. The collaborative work Four suns and a whole sky on fire amplified and multiplied phonemes and words uttered by the soprano Jessica Aszodi before Drape and Garsden introduced a droning accompaniment.

Jeanette Little’s Barbaric Yawp for Uilleann Pipes was a highlight of the night and not just because it featured an instrument so little-heard in the contemporary music world. Once again, the focus was on the instrument’s polyphonic texture and Matthew Horsley carefully managed the piece’s microtonal pitch bends and shifting drones. The melody, when it arrives, is a bleating, squealing thing that resonated delightfully in the church with a little help from the sound design.

Judith Hamann’s untitled solo cello performance featured a series of expertly-diffused extended cello sounds, my favourite of which was bowed cello spike. The vibrations of the spike were so slow that they formed a rhythm of sussurating sounds accompanied by maritime creaks.

The stage faintly glowed beneath the cross of the Church of All Nations. The semicircle of speakers and microphones formed a sacred space, like prayer or a pulpit, within which the sounds of the performers were amplified. But no god was intended to hear these performances, nor does Inland espouse any particular cosmology. With the concert closely following the Supersense Festival of the Ecstatic and directly preceding the Ballarat Slow Music Festival, I wondered after the intentions of the audience members scattered around on the floor. Why do audiences so desperately want to doze? The society-wide will to relaxation is not just a symptom of our busy, technology-stuffed lifestyles, but of our increasing infantilisation as consumers who can’t be trusted to go to bed on time without the right app.

I recently photographed this ridiculous Qantas ad in an airport.

Photo by Matthew Lorenzon
Photo by Matthew Lorenzon

Needless to say, a world of entertainment is not much use while you are asleep, much less if you are trying to get to sleep on a full stomach. But Qantas wants you to consume even when you are full and asleep. There is nothing new in this. If the pinnacle of luxury is gorging oneself and falling asleep in front of a television, then a good portion of the population lives the dream on a regular basis. This ideal of luxury also informs contemporary music. Where falling asleep in a concert was once seen as a bad thing, the ambient sound artist Robert Rich has been presenting “sleep concerts” for several decades. In contemporary art music, it seems that every few months an audience is invited to lie on cushions or curl up in pods.

Trance, transcendence, non-knowledge, or inner experience have their place and exploring these states of mind may be extremely beneficial to one’s health and well-being, but can’t this happen outside of the concert hall? Old-fashioned though these Enlightenment ideals may be, society extricated itself from the comfort of religious dogma for compelling reasons. Even though the last couple of hundred years of technological advancement may well lead to the doom of Western Civilisation as we know it, we can’t crawl back inside the womb now. I am interested to see what composers will do next, once they get bored of the ersatz-sacred bubble.

I have written several times about David Toop‘s performance at the 2013 Totally Huge New Music Festival, where he brutally interrupted his soporific, crackling sound design with deafening strikes of a snare drum. While this is one of the most appropriate responses to a society falling asleep at the wheel, I must admit that I too lay down for Jessica Aszodi’s closing performance of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices, hoping to see the light.

Unfortunately I missed Aszodi’s performance of Three Voices at the 2013 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, so I was excited to hear Aszodi’s performance this year. Once again, the projection of Aszodi’s two prerecorded parts was perfectly matched to her live voice, so that one was sometimes at a loss to tell which part she was singing. A short check of the tempo and Aszodi was away, gliding effortlessly through the hour-long performance as though on a cloud. Or perhaps that was the audience, which was utterly transfixed for the duration of a performance that requires such obvious skill and precision. Aszodi’s easy command of such an exposed work made it an otherworldly experience.

Though I finally succumbed to lying on the floor and enjoying the mesmerising refraction of light through half-closed lids, I’m taking a twenty-minute nap before concerts from now on.

Inland 15.3: Your House is the Last Before the Infinite
Church of All Nations, Carlton
24 August 2015

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 Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”

The Crowd
ACO, ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne
Concept by Richard Tognetti
Cinematography by Jon Frank
Directed by Matthew Lutton

In 1960 Elias Canetti published Crowds and Power, a taxonomy of the crowd drawing on anthropology, sociology, philosophy and psychology couched in a stream of lucid, aphoristic prose. Writing in the wake of the Third Reich, Canetti considered the relationship of the spontaneous crowd to the demonic-charismatic leader. He explored, in an unprecedented way, the survivor whose hidden satisfaction provides a new germ of despotic power.

Waving the book around in interviews, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti and the cinematographer Jon Frank promised a fusion of video and music that would address “the gamut of the crowd experience from alienation to the reinforcement of humanity” (to quote the programme). You can imagine my excitement. Finally, Australia’s premier chamber music ensemble would develop a multimedia programme around some historically significant and eminently relevant intellectual grist.

The ACO, students from ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne proved themselves versatile interpreters of the exciting and diverse programme. In perhaps the most interesting exploration of crowd dynamics (because the exploration is immanent to the compositions and the musicians on stage), the orchestra in Ives, Tognetti, Sibelius, Crumb, Schubert, Dean and Shostakovich is whittled down to the intimate quartets, trios and solos of Debussy, Feldman, Leifs and Chopin.

The music aside, the concert was deeply disappointing and even troubling, given the status and resources of the ACO and the Melbourne Festival. Ives’ The Unanswered Question opens beneath Frank’s beautiful, slow-motion footage of street scenes in New York. Faces and gestures emerge from the crowd in high definition and high frame rate detail. The mise-en-scène situates the fundamental antimony of the crowd as that between the unindividuated mass and the feeling individual. The gently emerging voices of Ives’ piece suits the images, but the cinematic gesture is a cliché, giving the impression one is watching Koyaanisqatsi with better music.

Tognetti’s suite (which sounds like something between the Carmina Burana and the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings) breaks in with thumping timpani beneath a quote from Nietzsche: “In individuals madness is the exception, in groups it is the rule.” Cue footage of Nazi rallies and bodies in concentration camps. The message is clear: Crowds are dangerous. There is nothing in the concert to suggest otherwise, no emancipatory crowd to contrast with the despotic ruler or contemporary political example to put the message into context.

The film then vacillates between interminable footage of football matches, street scenes and images of water, providing a pessimistic and narrow vision of the crowd today. After the tokenistic reference to the political crowd, the real axis of The Crowd is football and nature.

But between the show’s creation in 2010 and reworking in 2013, two important crowd-related events have taken place: The Arab Spring in all its complexity and the increased media hysteria around asylum seekers in all its banal horror. It says something about Australia, about our wilful ignorance of the rest of the world and fear of the crowd that the closest one gets to a spontaneous crowd is a football match or a mosh pit.

We like to talk about crises. Here’s one: The ethico-aesthetic crisis of Australian art music. It is revolting to trot out footage from Nazi Germany and the holocaust in the first five minutes of a concert to demonstrate the violence of the crowd upon the individual—and the charismatic leader upon crowds—and then leave the issue aside for an hour of comic relief. You can’t drop half an H-bomb. The use of images from the Third Reich also suggests that violence is only something that happened overseas and a long time ago. Today it is impossible not to know, despite the current government blackout on the issue, that thousands of people escaping their own crowd-related conflicts are held in woefully inadequate conditions in detention centres in and around Australia. If anything, this issue resonates with Canetti’s ideas about our fear of being touched, the distances we create around ourselves, “invisible crowds” and the self-aggrandising effects of “survival” psychology. Even if it appears impossible to film within these detention centres, surely a clever cinematographer would find ways of referencing the demonisation of this crowd by a few politicians and the media for their own ends.

But wouldn’t that be risky? Wouldn’t that be what crowds are all about?

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

Callum G’Froerer, Wrong Answers

Kaylie Melville
Kaylie Melville, photo by Aviva Endean

Wrong Answers
Callum G’Froerer (Curator)
He & Eve & The Big Apple
Monday 3 June

There was a charmed quality to the second concert of Callum G’Froerer’s ANAM fellowship, where solo and small ensemble works for trumpet, violin, voice, double bass and percussion flowed past as seamlessly as the Merri Creek just outside the warehouse venue’s door. The carefully-curated and -staged programme gave rise to a rarefied sound world of delicate and uncommon extended techniques. More familiar techniques were given new life in the resonant environment by an ensemble of dedicated performers.

G’Froerer began the concert with the ominous rising tones of Morton Feldman’s Very Short Trumpet Piece, hidden behind the audience in the offices overlooking the warehouse floor. Instruments at the ready, the double bassists Jon Heilbron and Rohan Dasika stared each other down behind a curtain of fairy lights like a pair of dueling mythical creatures. This cinematic superposition gave way to Rebecca Saunders’ Blue and Gray, where the double bassists sprang to life with groaning crescendi. The gritty, grinding attacks echoed around the room as the beasts of wood battled.

Eres Holz’s MACH for solo trumpet set a new tempo for the space alternating rapid, mincing steps and short lyrical flights. A parrot also took flight outside, briefly adding its squawking counterpoint to Holz’s mysterious calculations, by then obscured behind a trumpet mute. G’Froerer’s deft manipulation of the first valve slide in the third section of the piece left all the trumpet-players breathless and the rest of the audience confused and impressed by the timbral spectrum opening up before them.

The most remarkable moment of the concert was also its quietest: Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina for solo violin, performed with casual precision by Amy Brookman. The piece is true to its name, deriving from the Italian toccare “to touch,” in the diminutive. Brookman lightly touched the screw of the bow to the violin strings, bringing out pinpoints of sound with this subtlest of articulations. This technique developed into a sort of double pizzicato with the screw passing back and forth past the string. Once the note was released, the screw rejoined the string with the wiry jangling of a guitar-slide. This dynamic climax of the piece was followed by toneless bowing on different parts of the instrument and rapid ricochets with the back of the tip of the bow near the bridge. Brookman’ performance was a frank statement of what can be achieved before one even reaches mezzo-piano.

Abel Paúl’s Wrong Answers to Robert B’s Wrong Question continued the investigation into novel instrumental techniques, this time focusing on a single sheet of metal. Fingers, a tuning fork, a hacksaw and finally the ubiquitous superball mallet were all brought to bear on the clanging, springing, singing piece of metal. The piece has no interest past its catalogue of eyebrow-raising techniques, which are each carefully displayed like exotic artefacts in a museum by the gloved performer (Kaylie Melville).

Covering stage changes, short pieces by Feldman and Carter descended upon the audience from the offices above the audience. Of note was Jenny Barnes’ rendition of Feldman’s Only for solo voice. Barnes’ tone is unlike any other emerging singer in Melbourne, combining an untrained-sounding simplicity with technical precision and a flair for improvisation and timbral exploration. This voice came to the fore in an improvised set at the end of the concert, where G’Froerer, Heilbron, Barnes and electronics artist Jon Smeathers deployed their precise and innovative musical craftsmanship in an utterly transporting musical soundscape.