Tag Archives: Zoe Barker

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead (1)

ELISION and students from ANAM, Machine for Contacting the Dead, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

Speaking before the performance of Liz Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000), conductor Carl Rosman drew parallels between the ensemble in its early days and the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) joining them to for this concert. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and recalling how ELISION’s initial approach was to “bite off more than they could chew, and chew like hell,” Rosman praised the young players for their similarly committed attitude towards such a daunting project.

Lim composed Machine for Contacting the Dead for France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in 2000, it coincided with a Parisian exhibition of Chinese archeological treasures recently excavated from a 433 BCE tomb. Among the bodies of the noblemen and concubines were several well-preserved musical instruments, some of which were unidentified. As she so often does, Lim became interested in the link between history and memory, and created this work to imagine female musicians and dancers of the distant past.

Machine for Contacting the Dead received its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2002, performed by ELISION together with members of The Queensland Orchestra; but that’s the last we’d heard of it. A work of many challenges, perhaps its demands have prevented it being programmed elsewhere in the composer’s home country—or the lack of a permanent contemporary music ensemble large enough to tackle such works. ELISION have found a natural match in musicians from ANAM who also joined the ensemble to perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher. Hopefully, the two will recreate this fruitful collaboration to perform similarly ambitious contemporary works in the future.

From the outset of the piece, Lim’s nimble orchestration is on show. With her highly developed ability to craft layers of sounds without overwhelming the piece’s texture, each flutter of high wind and muted brass, wail of string harmonics and punctuation points from the three percussionists helps weave a rich tapestry. While the overall effect is quite visibly and musically raucous, the volume remains understated; recalling a distant memory of imagined music.

Emerging from these memories at various points throughout, the solo cello and bass clarinet assert their presence. Cellist Séverine Ballon’s playing is exceptional. She throws herself into the highly technical and physical part, using extended techniques to make the instrument sound in unfamiliar ways. A brief duet between Ballon and ELISION veteran Peter Veale in the first movement produces some delightful interplay, with Veale’s overblown oboe a perfect match for Ballon’s suitably violent playing.

Equally impressive is Richard Haynes, who doubled on the bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Seamlessly carrying on Ballon’s opening solo in the second movement, the bass clarinet at first matches the tone of the cello before diverting into an energetic and almost jazz-influenced line, punctuated by aggressive tongue slaps and jumps in register. Playing the contrabass clarinet, Haynes brings out a deep and resonant tone, with some frightening low grumbles to underscore the rest of the ensemble.

Each movement contains opportunities for individual musicians to shine. In an interview some years ago Lim hinted that Machine for Contacting the Dead was written with ELISION musicians in mind, despite its commission by another ensemble. Marshall McGuire’s harp with its pitch bends and sustained notes are a great match for the piano, which switches between conventional playing and contemporary techniques including plucking the strings and bowing them with nylon wires. Trumpet flourishes are perfectly suited to Tristram Williams, who precisely executes each one, and Paula Rae’s performance shows her mastery of each of her instruments—in the shrill announcements of the piccolo and the lusty tone of the bass flute.

According to Lim’s specific instructions, the solo bass clarinet, solo cello and contrabassoon are seated front and centre. The remaining musicians surround them, meaning that instrumental families are split up. With Lim’s rich orchestration, this provides some great moments of dialogue and spatial play. A particularly effective moment is shared by the two violinists. Staring down his ANAM counterpart on the other side of the stage, Graeme Jennings’ power is evenly matched by the student in a fiery duet, with a stereo sound effect. The unique arrangement causes some problems with communication and entries, but on the whole the choice enhances the sense of space and drama in the work.

Towards the end of the final movement, attention is drawn to the back of the stage as the three percussionists, harpist and trombonist gather around the piano. With nylon wires, the five bow the grand piano strings, while the remaining percussionist ominously beats on a low bass string with her mallets. Changing the speed and intensity of the bowing wires at different rates, the effect of the pitches emerging and ringing out through the auditorium is magical. The removing of the piano lid is Lim’s own unearthing of centuries-old sonic treasures from the tomb, and a fitting end to a work which demonstrates the composer’s phenomenal ability to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect to hear in a concert hall.

Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
4 September 2016


2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (1)

James Wannan performs Decadent Purity, Jason Tavener Photography

By Zoe Barker

The world premiere of two new Australian double concerti was a bold way to open the BIFEM festival. The inherent juxtapositions allowed by the medium, including the relationship between the two soloists, and their interaction with the chamber orchestra, were explored in different ways by composers Jack Symonds and David Chisholm. With both composers writing for unique instrumental combinations, Symonds’ Decadent Purity pairing viola d’amore with percussion, and Chisholm’s work for harp and guitar, there were many opportunities for an absorbing musical dialogue.

 Symonds’ manipulation of range and timbre was one of his work’s most striking aspects. The chamber orchestra was scored for instruments which reflected the extremes of their families—bass flute paired with piccolo, clarinet with contrabass clarinet, and a string section comprising two violins, two celli and a double bass. Opening the work, the viola d’amore soloist James Wannan was joined by the two orchestral violins playing pure dissonant tones at the top of their registers. The addition of bowed vibraphone created an ethereal sound world, and the entrance of the double bass at the depths of its range created a sense of open space ready to be filled by the soloists. This feeling of envelopment continued throughout, with the viola d’amore often given the space to fill in the registral gaps. Not only was this interesting scoring, but a clever move from Symonds. By eliminating instruments of a similar range, the mellow tone of the viola d’amore had no problem cutting through the small orchestra.

The strengths of the performance owed much to the inspired interpretation of the two soloists. Wannan approached sections of the work with the energy of a violinist playing a Romantic concerto, with virtuosic chordal passages and series of string crossings executed with flair. Crucially, he also knew when to pull back and play with a sense of fragility, blending with the small chamber orchestra. Kaylie Melville mesmerised with her dancing movements among the large percussion set-up, and demonstrated an extraordinary ability to impart a sense of musicality to even the smallest gestures. With so much material for Wannan to delve into, the percussion line unfortunately seemed underdeveloped in comparison. Sporadic snatches of marimba and vibraphone played a supporting role to Wannan’s line, as did the work of Melville’s untuned percussion, but the instruments were never an equal partner in the concerto.

Symonds explored many musical ideas within the work, ranging from the delicate opening to the parodic sections underscored by steady percussion beats, and those of a more modernist idiom with alternate agitated stabs from the soloists and orchestra. While each section had merit and interest, the work attempted to draw together too many disparate elements—perhaps inevitable given the task of featuring a baroque instrument alongside the very twentieth century concept of a percussion solo. Those sections which slowly unfurled, exploring the timbral qualities of the unusual instrumentation could have been developed further. The section towards the end using slow scales climbing through the ensemble was one of the most effective in this way, and it was moments such as these where the work’s title, Decadent Purity, was most strongly reflected. These glimpses of purity could be identified at points throughout, coming through especially in the upper strings, providing moments to savour.

For David Chisholm’s new double concerto, the Argonaut ensemble swelled to a 29 piece chamber orchestra, suggesting that this piece might be more decadent than the first. Opening the work with flamboyant gestures from the two soloists, Chisholm launched into a spirited postmodern pastiche, with different musical ideas emerging at once from all sections of the orchestra. The scoring for the solo instruments often enhanced their timbral similarities, heightening the playfulness of the work by adding an element of aural ambiguity. A concern in the opening, and other fairly densely scored sections in the work, was the ability of the guitar to be heard over Chisholm’s sometimes heavy-handed orchestration. While the harp benefitted from its greater natural resonance, the guitar was often lost.

Harpist Jessica Fotinos fully drew out the different facets of the work, excelling in sections of contemporary harp writing featuring extended techniques as well as making the most of more traditional passages with her lyrical playing. The harp cadenza was a point of serenity in an otherwise busy work, with her expressive performance commanding attention. Guitarist Mauricio Carrasco also managed to capture the many different idioms and styles demanded of him, ranging from agitated strummed passages to quasi flamenco chords, traditional classical guitar technique and a humorous passage of slide guitar.

While the cadenzas proved to be great vehicles for demonstrating the talents of the two soloists, their sheer length impaired the flow of the work, the content doing little to distill or clarify the many layers of material presented in the orchestral sections. These often proved overwhelming, with little distinction between the snippets of stylistic allusion layered in the dense score.

While a fuller string section would have benefitted this work, the existing players demonstrated their sound abilities through divisi passages requiring all violinists to act as soloists. A strong woodwind section was headed by oboists Benjamin Opie and Jasper Ly, who impressed in their unusual double cor anglais solo following the harp cadenza, and their unexpected heroic oboe line to finish the work. Interjections from trombonist Charles MacIness added both humour and darkness to the piece, and were supported by a very strong bass woodwind section. The Argonaut Ensemble in its new large format confirmed its position as an exciting voice in Australian contemporary music making.

By Zoe Barker
As part of the 2016 BIFEM Music Writers’ Workshop

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)