Tag Archives: Syzygy Ensemble

Metropolis New Music Festical 2016: Syzygy Ensemble

A city shapes the people who inhabit it, as was demonstrated in an episode of the Radiolab podcast. The average speed at which people walk the streets is closely correlated to the city’s population size. Syzygy Ensemble took the transformative quality of living in close quarters as the inspiration for their “Cramped Space”  program at the Metropolis New Music Festical. Just as cramped physical spaces transform us as human beings, Syzygy Ensemble showed how artistic restrictions profoundly shape the music we create.

In Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Tatatata cellist Blair Harris walks the virtuosic tightrope of a prerecorded voice: That of the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The voice interjects the odd grainy “ta” as the cello plays rhythmic double-stops. The voice becomes more rhythmic as the two engage in a rapid and humorous duet. The two parts appear equal, but the cellist’s agency is limited by the prerecorded voice.

From a prerecorded duet partner to a live one, Giacinto Scelsi’s duet Ko Lho for flute and clarinet is a balletic study in dynamic and timbral precision. Swelling crescendi and decrescendi overlap in a haunting, shimmering surface. Where Harris was restricted in time by his prerecorded duet partner, the two instruments in Ko Lho are restricted in pitch-space. The swelling dynamics and tone colours of the piece are so many ways to differentiate the instruments within a tight harmonic range. Neither Ter Veldhuis nor Scelsi seem to mind their self-imposed restrictions. Both pieces end in gestures of resignation. The cello slides down into long, exhausted notes, while the flute and clarinet end luxuriating in their close harmonies.

The pianist Leigh Harrold and violinist Jenny Khafagi are tied together by John Adams’ motoric rhythms in Road Movies. Khafagi and Harrold’s rendition of this familiar piece was a tour de force of energetic precision. From the first movement, which races along like a race car driver with a death wish, to the contemplative scordatura of the second and the hectic hoedown of the final movement, the audience was completely transfixed by the Khafagi and Harrold’s unstoppable momentum.

Anna Clyne evokes the restricted space of childhood imagination in 1987. This space is not that of the supposedly unbounded imaginations of children, but our bounded memories of childhood. 1987 seems to have been a sad year for Clyne, judging by the ominous chorale for cello, violin, bass clarinet, and bass flute overlaid with the cranking and tinkling of a music box. Recordings of a fairground melt into a truly apocalyptic movement with gritty cello and bass clarinet.

Charlotte Bray’s Upflight of Butterflies continues the theme of cramped imaginary spaces by pursuing the paradox of loneliness in company. Each movement paints a bitter-sweet pair of words from the poetry of Pablo Neruda’s poetry including “Abandoned Sun,” “Trail of Light,” “White with Space” and “Dazzlement of Butterflies.” The sun is painted with flat, sustained harmonies like a cold and distant star singing to itself. The trail of light implies something leaving or being pursued, just as Laila Engle’s flute haplessly follows Harris’ meandering cello line. One would think that at least a “dazzlement of butterflies” would be unequivocally positive, but even the motoric beating of wings across the ensemble was tinged with acerbic harmonies.

Beyond Syzygy Ensemble’s characteristically thoughtful approach to the festival theme, the concert provided the opportunity to hear each individual performer’s formidable talents in a solo or duo setting, proving once again why Syzygy Ensemble are Melbourne’s most energetic and dynamic contemporary music ensemble.

Syzygy Ensemble
Cramped Space
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 May 2016

Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Tatatata; Giacinto Scelsi, Ko Lho; John Adams, Road Movies; Anna Clyne, 1987; Charlotte Bray, Upflight of Butterflies

Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Undine the Spirit of Water

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Grace Lowry in Agatha Yim’s film Undine: The Spirit of Water.

Feminine water-spirits may be found in diverse mythologies, from Ancient Greek Sirens to the Slavic Rusalka and the Thai Phi Phraya. The “Undine” appears relatively recently,  in the writings of the renaissance Swiss-German alchemist Paracelsus. Paracelsus classes the Undine as a water elemental alongside the airy “Sylph,” the earthy “Pygmy” and the fiery “Salamander.” The Undine is remarkable for being a much more benign creature than its predecessors, the unfortunately-stereotyped women seducing and drowning sailors. Paracelsus was, after all,  a man of science. Syzygy Ensemble’s programme for the Metropolis New Music Festival asked the question “What is the spirit of water in music?” Four composers provided four different answers to this question, interspersed with beautiful and humorous videography by Agatha Yim.

In Yim’s short film, a charming Undine (Grace Lowry) prances about a Victorian rainforest encountering members of the ensemble. Cellist Blair Harris ineffectually chops wood in his concert blacks, flautist Laila Engle wrestles the Undine for a light bulb, and was that a fleeting shot of pianist Leigh Harrold I saw floating in the water? A narrative emerges throughout the concert, with a young man falling in love with the Undine before becoming married to another woman, without ever forgetting the Spirit of Water.

Helena Tulve’s Streams 2 is an experiment in musical current. A current has not only force, but depth. In Stream 2, a single instrument always holds the work together with a smooth, legato line. Tulve favoured the dark tone of the clarinet in evoking the viscous flow of water. The rest of the ensemble resembled flotsam or the play of light on the water’s surface with ricochet bowing, whispering flautando flurries and rubbed woodblocks. Tulve’s streams are not splashing torrents. Instead, we hear the steady stream from within, like the submerged Undine at the end of Yim’s first video.

Syzygy Ensemble rehearse Undine: The Spirit of Water at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Syzygy Ensemble rehearse Undine: The Spirit of Water at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tom Henry’s Time is Another River provides a much more thematic depiction of a watercourse. The work for violin, cello and piano features beautiful counterpoint with long melodic lines that rise, float and fall.

Marc Yeats’ The Half-Life of Facts provides a jarring and welcome contrast to Henry’s mellifluous river. Yeats’ piece is an absolutely unrelenting ten minutes or so of fragmented extended techniques including Bartok pizzicati, string glissandi and bass clarinet grunts. The lights changed from red to yellow and back to red again half-way through the piece, as if to highlight the monotony of the barrage of sound.

After Yeats’ complete fracturing of contour, the audience mustn’t have minded retreating into Niels Rønsholdt’s reassuring use of repetition and rhythmic motifs. Instead of water, Rønsholdt’s Burning is accompanied by a projection of a match catching alight in the dark, albeit reduced to a shadowy black and white image with the tones inverted. The piece features a rhythmic cross-rhythm that is tapped out quietly on the backs of instruments like a post-rock mantra before being howled out in desperate waves (along with some desperate teenage poetry) by the whole ensemble. During these climaxes, the piano part grows from glissandi across the keyboard to vigorous assaults with the palms.

Undine: The Spirit of Water is a magnificent response to the festival’s theme: “Music inspired by the moving image.” As the composers featured in the programme have shown, water and movement go hand in hand.

Syzygy Ensemble
Undine: The Spirit of Water
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 May 2015

Helena Tulve, Streams 2; Tom Henry, Time is Another River; Marc Yeats,  The half-life of facts; Niels Rønsholdt, Burning.

Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Trapped in Darkness

Judith Dodson as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.
Judith Dodsworth as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.

Syzygy Ensemble
Trapped in Darkness (Peter Maxwell-Davies, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Barry Conyngham, The Apology of Bony Anderson)
Metropolis New Music Festival
16 April

Syzygy Ensemble’s double bill at the Metropolis New Music Festival features two one-person chamber operas with sparse instrumentation and disturbing sprechgesang in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire and Eight Songs for a Mad King. With Syzygy’s playful humour and energy you almost forget the themes of death, decay and madness passing over the stage, onto a platform, into the seat next to you and out the door.

The affective amnesia is not all Syzygy’s fault; the themes are tressed up in thoroughly-enjoyable atonal silliness and replete with moments of tonal relief. In Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (a “maggot” being a kind of dance, thank you very much), Peter Maxwell-Davies questionably imagines the inner workings of a deranged spinster left at the altar and still in her wedding dress ten years later. The putrefying metre-tall cake in the middle of the stage (actually, the marzipan looked in pretty good nick but for the cobwebs) does not so much represent the protagonist’s sexual organs as stand in for them. The awe, the panic, the hatred Miss Donnithorne (Judith Dodsworth) feels towards her own body is expressed towards her cake-body in such evocative lines as “for the gatehouse of my cake, all one wound of roses, is the open crimson endless petal throat of a rat. That closes.” In case you didn’t get it the first time she also makes a “v”-gesture towards her groin and shrieks “cake, cake, cake.”

Some audience members may recognise Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations in the character of Miss Donnithorne and ask “why did Maxwell-Davies transplant Miss Havisham to Sydney?” In fact, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne was a real Sydney-sider who, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was allegedly left at the altar by her husband-to-be in 1856 and lived as a recluse beside her rotting wedding feast until her death in 1886. Matt Murphy has since dug around in some archives and found that there is no evidence to suggest that news of Miss Donnithorne reached Dickens in time for the writing of Great Expectations (1860–61), especially considering that Miss Donnithorne’s story doesn’t appear in the media until 1890 and there is no record of Miss Donnithorne’s intended marriage, struck out or not, in the banns of her church or the civil marriage register.

The salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre is an ideal venue for chamber opera. The clear acoustic communicates the minutest vocal articulation, while the intimate space allows performers to get right up in the faces of the audience. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot could have further exploited this opportunity. Dodsworth expressed a “bored child” sort of absurdity rather than the character’s desperation and discomfort. Anything less raises the question of why such a character would be made to writhe around on stage. I suspect this is a question more for Maxwell-Davies than Dodsworth, as there is no doubt that humour is a central requirement of the score.

The Apology of Bony Anderson is a far more sympathetic, earnest piece by Barry Conyngham based on the life of convict Charles Anderson, who was chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour around 1835. Bony (Christopher Richardson) enters complete with raised scars from over 1200 lashes that he received before finally being transported to Norfolk Island under the relatively benevolent watch of prison reformer Alexander Maconochie. Feeding animals better cared-for than himself he retells the story of his transportation to Australia and brutal punishment in a strong, lucid voice full of stoic acceptance and pity.

Syzygy asked that the musicians be integrated into the performance. In response director John Paul Fischbach asked “how far the musicians were willing to go.” The ensemble was placed in a position of authority over the actors, whether as servant-carers in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot or as soldiers in The Apology of Bony Anderson. The usual nods for musical cues were transformed into wary glances and shared disgust. More direct interaction led to Leigh Harrold’s priceless forbearance of Miss Donnithorne’s sexual advances, flautist Laila Engle’s coaxing Miss Donnithorne off of the ground with a fluttering flute solo and Jenny Khafagi’s scaring the advancing woman away with a spiky, flortando ostinato. Having seen such a performance in the salon, a room in which every twitch of a musician’s face is clearly visible to the audience, I cannot imagine a chamber opera any other way.