Tag Archives: Samuel Dunscombe

BIFEM: Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra, Small Infinities

Review by Lewis Ingham

Performed by the Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra including 21 community musicians, Small Infinities explored massed groups of identical instruments with a realisation of Horatiu Radulescu’s Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets (1972) and a new work by Samuel Dunscombe, Small Infinities Together (2017). As a listener, I felt removed from the communal sound creation that dominates both compositions. However, both works catered to the rare experience of sharing the huge and beautiful Sacred Heart Cathedral with up to 28 clarinetists.

Radulescu’s composition consists of 96 individual sound events that are to be performed by seven identical woodwinds. In the case of this concert, seven clarinets. Each of the 96 events requires the clarinetists to play a multitude of sounds: single pitches, trills, and multiphonics to name a few. Emerging from and receding back into silence, the massed effect of these tones is a complex, pulsating, and dense cloud of sound.

The sound of the seven clarinets in the cathedral is utterly spectacular, particularly when hearing the movement of the upper partials in this spectral work. Due to there only being subtle differences between the sound events, I feel particularly removed from the communal sound creation of the seven performers. The sound is completely mesmerising, but with the 96 sound events being of similar construction and quality, I feel there is a spirituality or experience reserved only for the performers.

In Dunscombe’s composition, the greater number of performers reduces this exclusivity that I feel in Radulescu’s work. The Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra, now featuring 28 clarinetists, is split into four groups of seven players, each with a leader helping to conduct the time-based graphic score. Whereas Radulescu uses specific instructions to achieve his sonic ends, Dunscombe allows each performer greater chance and freedom through his score. This feature of the work is particularly engaging to watch in the community clarinet choir that only began rehearsing on the day of the performance.

Dunscombe exhibits a wonderful control over developing single drones into shimmering harmonic fields, but also allows instability to creep into the piece through various embouchure techniques. In the cathedral, this exploration of dense sustained clusters doesn’t overwhelm the space. But what lacked in the performance was the inclusion of greater percussive elements to utilise a different quality of the space. While Dunscombe does incorporate a number of soft key clicks and tongue slaps in the composition, I feel these are under-utilised as an effect to offset the sustained passages and explore the separate physical spaces each ensemble group occupies, surrounding the audience at the front of the church.

Small Infinities
Argonaut Clarinet Orchestra
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September 2017

Horatiu Radulescu, Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets; Samuel Dunscombe, Small Infinities Together

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