Tag Archives: Nigel Butterley

Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble: Eighty Plus!

Not only European composers come in generational clusters. The Australian composers Nigel Butterley and Helen Gifford were both born in 1935 and went on to become two of the country’s most recognisable compositional voices. The composers also share stylistic traits, emphasising the ritualistic and ecstatic side of the human voice in works drawing on antiquity. Both composers are well at home in atonal pitch space, even if they navigate it with differing degrees of systematicity. Players from two great champions of Australian music, Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, came together to celebrate the composers’ eightieth years at the Church of All Nations.

Desperation for solo viola opens with microtonally detuned motoric rhythms. Phoebe Green, for whom the piece was written, pursued the anxious bowing with an intensity worthy of the work’s title. The piece explores not only moments of desperation but also the stupor that follows. The violist has to nimbly attach and remove a heavy practice mute in moments of creepy stasis, before launching back in to the ruminative acrobatics.

Highly-charged physicality also featured in the second solo piece by Gifford on the program.  Siva: the Auspicious One was composed for the virtuoso pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and demands positively divine energetic resources. Siva, the Hindu god of destruction and recreation, is conjured in this epic piece by thunderous bass chords, ascending scales, and hammered-out tremoli. Pianist Peter Dumsday put his entire body into the twists and turns of the work, reminding us all that he is—in his spare time—a racing-car driver. The piece raises the abstract dialectical question: Can you really destroy anything in music? Once a note is played it cannot be undone, only opposed by a new note. The violent chords of Siva: the Auspicious One seem to rail against this musical limitation, straining to bring real destruction into music but only making more music in the process.

Laudes and Forest I by Nigel Butterley plunged the audience into environments of delicious variety. Both pieces are inspired by spaces, the four movements of Laudes being inspired by four different churches and Forest I sketching a woodland scene. The dense writing never lapsed into monotony thanks to the sensitive interpretations of the performers and conductor Timothy Phillips.

Justine Anderson shined a light on the composers’ love of text and myth with two vocal works: Nigel Butterley’s Three Whitman Songs and Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia. The Whitman settings are gems of twentieth-century art song, nimbly bringing the tip-toeing text of “O you whom I often and silently come,” the spiralling incandescence of “Not heat flames up and consumes,” and the hallowed tones of “I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ” to musical life.

Gifford’s Music for the Adonia is remarkable within the program for showing just how much Gifford’s music has changed over the past twenty years or so. Her interest in Ancient Greece provides her with a masterfully-imagined sound world that is at once raw and refined. The text for the piece is sound-based, painting with ecstatic power the Adonia, a festival where women mourned the death of Adonis.

Six Degrees and Arcko have once again provided audiences with informed and refined interpretations of some of Australia’s finest contemporary music. If only Gifford and Butterley could turn 80 more often.

Musicians from Six Degrees and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Eighty Plus!
Church of All Nations
11 December 2015
Nigel Butterley, Laudes; Helen Gifford, Desperation for solo viola; Nigel Butterley, Three Whitman Songs, Forest I; Helen Gifford, Siva: The Auspicious One, Music for the Adonia.

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble: Chamber View 4

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Chamber View 4
Richmond Uniting Church
10 May, 2014

Every time a conservative party wins an election in Australia, or a social-democratic party sinks to new lows of cruelty in the treatment of asylum seekers, one would judge from social media that Australia were in danger of immanently losing its youth to New Zealand. Something of the sort did actually take effect in the late nineteenth century, when hundreds of disillusioned Australian workers set off to found William Lane’s socialist utopia, New Australia, in Paraguay. Showing that Australian progressives did not have a monopoly on racist national policy, the colonists beat them by some six years to the founding of a society based on racial exclusion. The collective floundered, split, and was eventually dissolved by the Paraguayan government. As does, quite intentionally, George Dreyfus’ setting of the settlers’ anthem “The Men of New Australia.” This opening of The Arcko Symphonic Project’s latest chamber music concert took us back a century to the brash marching rhythms, woodwind and brass of colonial music. The more resigned ending provides some wonderful antiphony between a lilting cello line and a mournful trumpet. It sounds like film music because it is, composed for Caroline Jones’ documentary And Their Ghosts may be Heard.

There are so many pieces about sounds of the Australian environment that they constitute a genre to themselves with their own history, forms, sonic palettes and, indeed, compositional clichés. As it happens, I lived in the Blue Mountains until I was seven years old, so feel particularly sympathetic to the genre, in particular to Wendy Hiscocks’ Rainforest Toccata for solo piano. Hiscock articulates soft thunder in the bass with chiming clusters in the treble reminiscent of bellbird song. Pianist Elizabeth Watson’s fluid, light touch lent the piece all the presence of the rainforest’s ozone-charged, pre-rain atmosphere.

After Hiscocks’ clusters, Elliot Gyger’s Threshold struck out across the piano into broader harmonic fields. The piece is a duet for two hands, with the rhythms and pitches of the two voices moving gradually together and apart. As probably the most romantic post-serial solo piano work, morse code messages representing Gyger’s name and that of his wife Catherine are written into the rhythmic material of each hand.

Nigel Butterley’s Laudes is a quietly busy work for mixed octet, reminiscent of the hushed, decorated interiors of four European churches and cathedrals visited by the composer. The piano, counting away in one corner, contrasts with the fluidity of gestures moving through the rest of the ensemble. The figures slowly coalesce into distinct instrumental sections like a religious procession at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare. The Apse, Norwich Cathedral is represented by a consistent movement from loud, staccato gestures to legato, piano textures. This foundational movement is punctuated by isolated outbursts like the building’s pillars and arches. The ensemble only truly awoke in the third movement when painting the vibrant stained glass and trumpeting angels of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

The relative lack of instrumental colour in Laudes was highlighted by the novel instrumental groupings of Tim Dargaville’s Invisible Dances. The composer doesn’t hide the piece’s dance rhythms quite so much as he claims in the programme, which keeps things lively (with the help of a drum kit). First the cello and piano play in duet, before focus moves to the flute and harp. All the while a mysterious whistling sound keeps the audience guessing (I still don’t know who was making it). The duets swept my corner of the audience away, digging deep into the bass registers of the instruments before shooting back up. It was a delight to end the concert on such a mosaic of finely-balanced, jewel-like miniatures.