Tag Archives: Paul Dean

Metropolis: Melbourne Piano Trio, Delicacies of Molten Horror

The Melbourne Piano Trio brought an intimate programme of film-related chamber music to the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival. Paul Dean’s Threnody for Clara Bow is inspired by the silent film actress Clara Bow, who achieved astronomical fame before sinking into complete obscurity after the introduction of the talkies. Dean’s piano trio seems to find Bow at the height of her fame, with explosive piano chords (Rhodri Clarke) and a muscular cello line in 5/8, a meter intended by Dean to evoke the skipping of early film reels. The ecstatic opening gives way to a singing violin line played by Holly Piccoli as the piece begins to take on a darker tone. A menacing, polytonal climax gives Chris Howlett’s expressive cello playing time to shine. The piece traces Bow’s decline from starlet to her lonely death from a heart attack at the age of sixty. As Dean wonders: “Imagine going from 40,000 fan letters a month to dying alone.” Dean gives Bow a moment of grace at the end of her life, with ethereal arpeggios across the violin and a heartbreaking cello line.

It was nice to hear some film music by Ryuichi Sakamoto arranged for piano and piano trio. Clarke brought out all the gushing sentimentality of Sakamoto’s soundtracks including The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. I was sad to hear that Christopher de Groot’s new work Delicacies of Molten Horror accompanied by the film of the same name by Stan Brakhage was not able to be performed. The Armenian composer Arno Babjanian’s Piano Trio in F-Sharp Minor was performed with plenty of (musical) fireworks as substitute.

Melbourne Piano Trio
Delicacies of Molten Horror
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
5 May 2015

Arno Babjanian, Piano Trio in F-Sharp Minor; Ryuichi Sakamoto, Babel: Bibono Aozora, The last Emperor, Seven Samurai, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence; Paul Dean, Threnody for Clara Bow.

Plexus: Medley Recital Series

Medley Hall Recital Series
1 June, 2014

Jennifer Higdon, DASH
Charles Hoag, SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag
Ian Whitney, Tanzendanses
Iain Grandage, The Keep
Charles Ives, Largo
Paul Dean, Fragmented Journeys

Plexus’ first concert at Medley Hall gives me the opportunity to introduce both a new ensemble and a new venue to Partial Durations. Though new to this site, both have fascinating histories that informed a multifaceted night of contemporary music. Plexus follow the instrumentation of the Verdehr Trio founded in 1972: violin, clarinet and piano. They also follow the Verdehr tradition of commissioning new work for the (now not so) neglected ensemble. The Verdehr Trio commissioned works by some of the most important composers of the late twentieth century, including the well-known Australians composers Peter Sculthorpe and Barry Conyngham.

Now a standard piece of repertoire, Jennifer Higdon’s DASH offered plenty of opportunities for the ensemble to show off. Rushing syncopations between the violin (Monica Curro) and clarinet (Philip Arkinstall) and siren-like rhythmic ostinati in the piano (Stefan Cassomenos) create a charged atmosphere that culminates in hockets between the instruments like the flashing lights of police cars. From the beginning it was evident that Plexus do not hold back, even in a room as small and live as Medley Hall.

After charging the room with this incredible sound, Plexus moved on to an older Verdehr commission: Charles Hoag’s SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag. The piece is absolutely charming, demonstrating a refined compositional culture that plays on tropes and clichés with absolute self-aware mastery. The heads, moments of great jubilation, separate darker, brooding movements.

Iain Grandage provided the ensemble with an excerpt from his opera The Keep, which is partly an attempt to rediscover the folk tales of Grandage’s Anglo-Celtic heritage. Grandage is certainly not the first Australian composer to attempt this reconnection through music (I’m thinking of Fritz Hart and Percy Grainger). Would it be completely amiss to say that we witness this phenomenon at times of great uncertainty about Australia’s future? This is certainly not to say that Grandage shares any of Hart or Grainger’s views, but at times when the contingency of belonging in Australia is laid bare by political or environmental crisis, people start searching inwards as well as outwards for a sense of stability.

Cassomenos, speaking with much character and equal portions of false modesty explained playing Charles Ives’ Largo for violin, clarinet and piano as “like early music.” The funny thing is that Ives’ music can so often sound like the newest thing on the programme. The room really came into its own with this piece. Arkinstall’s perfectly-voiced clarinet line embraced the audience and Curro was able to make the most of the piece’s final, transcendent violin note.

In keeping with the philosophy of the ensemble, the concert included a recent commission by an Australian composer: Paul Dean’s Fragmented Journeys. Originally intended as a joke (is there a more worn-out journalistic cliché than talking about musical “journeys”?), the piece did in fact end up reflecting four journeys that the composer and his friends had variously taken. The first movement, “Fraught,” was particularly welcome as the first example of a “flat” texture in the whole concert. That is to say, the instruments were given equal importance, whereas elsewhere there was generally a principal voice and accompaniment. Here one found a punctum from the piano here, a warble from the clarinet there, or some frenetic scrubbing from the violin. The movement gains momentum, but is spiky from beginning to end, like rolling down a hill of thistles. I think this fits the description Dean provides of the movement depicting “a journey which I just didn’t want to take!” “An Unwanted Disturbance” is really quite iike DASH until the clarinet (piloted expertly by Arkinstall, though you’d want to, playing a piece of Dean’s in front of the man) enters and climbs ever higher and louder. “A Turn for the Worse” depicts a visit to a nursing home, and judging from the creepy piano noodling and see-sawing violin Dean felt a little uneasy from the start. When the booming piano chords and screeching clarinet enter, one knows that the situation only deteriorated. Given these experiences I can only suggest that Dean restrict himself to musical journeys from here on.

Medley Hall could well be the most unique music venue in Melbourne. Since its construction in 1893 on one of the most affluent streets in Melbourne (it was built for the widow of an arms dealer), it has variously been an Arbitration Office, an Italian club (hosting weekly boxing matches), home of a vigneron who graced one of the stained-glass windows with a bullet hole, the set of a Nicolas Cage film and, now, a residential college. Craftsmen and materials for the ornate Victorian Baroque parlor used for concerts, as well as the rest of the mansion, were imported from Italy. Just saying, if you are looking for a space for your next chamber music concert, Medley would be a great place to start. As to Plexus, I can only look forward to their next forty years of activity.


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

Samuel Wagan Watson: Smoke Encrypted Whispers

Samuel Wagan Watson, photo courtesy of the artist
Samuel Wagan Watson, photo courtesy of the artist

Samuel Wagan Watson
Smoke Encrypted Whispers
Melbourne Recital Centre
24 March, 2014

For the first concert of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Australian Voices series for the year, 23 composers wrote two-minute pieces in response to 23 poems by Samuel Wagan Watson, one of Australia’s most important living poets. The composers were all chosen because they had some connection to Watson’s home town of Brisbane during the Bjelke-Petersen years of Watson’s youth. Watson’s poems follow him beyond his childhood, out amongst the hoons, Satan-worshippers and humming electricity pylons of the outer suburbs; deep into the last outposts of rural Queensland; then overseas to Wellington and the Berlin wall.

The format, alternating readings by Watson with musical performances, reflected its original commission for the Music and Words series at the State Library of Queensland. Watson’s poems combine brooding interiority with colourful exteriority. Reflecting the often contradictory mood being evoked and picture being painted tested the versatility and sensitivity of the composers.

Where the mood and images of the poems were aligned, the piece could serve simply as an evocative counterpart. Many of Watson’s poems recall his childhood in “Tigerland,” the area of Brisbane around Mt. Gravatt in Brisbane where Watson grew up. Paul Dean’s piece based on the poem “Tigerland” used racing rhythms worthy of Stravinsky and lush, Gershwinesque harmonies to paint busy street scenes. Two poems about Watson’s childhood fear of the dark rendered strikingly different results. Richard Mills’ “Scared of the Dark,” where Watson remembers “Bjelke-Petersen policemen at [his] parents’ back door” and the shadows of truck headlights on his bedroom wall, was sung in an eerie Brittenesque soprano line by Judith Dodsworth. Stephen Stanfield’s piece based on “Author’s Notes #1” used more traditional horror movie soundtrack trills and angular wind and piano lines. “Author’s Notes #2” reflects upon the act and experience of writing. Sean O’Boyle’s transparent, major-mode miniature captures the liberating moment of blue-sky optimism that Watson writes about when confronted with a blank page.

More complicated poems yielded mixed results. The threatening undertone and final conflagration of Capalaba house was eschewed by composer William Barton in favour of a whimsical (but extremely beautiful) duet for oboe and piano and then a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. Barton was, notably, one of the only composers to compose for less than the entire ensemble. Watson tinges “Ghosts of Boundary Street” with menace, despite the poem describing all people made equal by hangovers on New Year’s Day. Despite the contrast and detail of the poem, Lisa Cheney’s piece paints the poem entirely in asphalt-grey. Similarly, Watson’s ambivalent feelings on visiting Wellington are pasted over by Tom Adeney’s saccharine, filmic setting.

I recently commented on the difference between cultural engagement and cultural appropriation in contemporary music, arguing that we needed the former while being careful not to slip over into the latter. Smoke Encrypted Whispers is a model of such  responsible engagement, where an Indigenous perspective is being offered (rather than assumed) and composers are contributing to the project as equals.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.