Analysing the Firm

Russell Smith

A major shift in the phenomenology of modern listening is marked by the distinction between Swann’s infatuation with the “little phrase” from the Vinteuil sonata in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Hans Castorp’s absorption in gramophone recordings in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. For Swann the evanescent “little phrase” remains always different from itself, not only because of variations in performance, but because the successive occasions on which he hears it are separated by the years of his own existence. For Castorp, on the other hand, the obsessive replaying of his favourite records marks an attempt to escape time, to attain within the temporal flow of music an arrested state in which every note is always played “just so.” In both cases this musical infatuation gradually decays to an intellectual and emotional nullity, not because familiarity breeds contempt, but because the interiorisation of music absolves the listener from the difficult labour of listening.

We might characterise modernity as producing a simultaneous disappearance and proliferation of music in our lives, for if there has been a steady decline in participatory musicianship, at the same time we are more than ever surrounded by music in its recorded forms. The concert form, exemplified by the chamber recital, might be seen as an intermediate stage in this division of musical labour, between the involved listening of musical participation and the distracted listening of a saturated musical environment.

Since 1995 the 4 Adelaide-based composers Raymond Chapman-Smith, Quentin Grant, David Kotlowy and John Polglase, known collectively as The Firm, have been refining a kind of pure and uncompromising musical event. They see themselves as working in the chamber tradition, of a serious intellectual music granted leave from music’s traditional subordination to social functions, where the audience is brought together not to pray or celebrate or even necessarily be entertained, but simply to listen.

In a musical equivalent of the artist-run gallery, The Firm organise their concerts themselves, from the programming of the music to the more mundane details like mailing lists and tickets. Always on a tight budget, they dedicate their resources to hiring the best performers available. They have built up a strong local audience and have featured regularly at the Adelaide Festival and Barossa Music Festival. Through recordings and broadcasts they have gained increasing recognition nationally and overseas, with Chapman-Smith, Grant and Polglase having recently been commissioned to write pieces for the Schoenberg sesquicentenary celebrations at the Vienna Festival.

Chapman-Smith’s work is probably the most austerely intellectual of the four. Although minimalism influenced his earlier work, his primary musical filiation is with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Other inspirations also derive from the German romantic tradition, such as the quasi-mystical abstraction of Klee and Mondrian, or the metaphysical lyricism of Paul Celan’s poetry. Chapman-Smith’s approach is to rework the classical forms of an older tradition, such as Bach’s tautly symmetrical Baroque dance-forms, within the rigorous language of a reinvented serialism. Far from a dry academic exercise, however, the highly restrictive parameters Chapman-Smith sets himself work to temper the extreme expressiveness of his ‘raw material’, giving his music a restrained but powerful eloquence.

Grant’s work is the most diverse. He identifies 3 distinct styles in his music, which he tends to use in alternation rather than trying to draw them together into some reconciled mode of expression. The first is an aggressive expressionism, in which a percussive element derived from minimalism drives a kind of grunge exploration of the dark side of the human psyche. As a psychological antidote to this material, Grant’s second style is more serene, a mystical attempt to achieve what he calls “whiteness”—a spare, open, aesthetic deriving from Eastern Orthodox religious music. Grant’s third style, which has emerged more fully in recent years, is a yearning or nostalgic Romanticism which owes much to central European composers such as Leos Janacek or Pavel Haas, in which the simplicity and openness of the melodic and harmonic elements lends the music simultaneously a great vulnerability and resilience.

Kotlowy’s work is intensely focused on the act of listening. Inspired in part by Eastern meditative traditions, as well as Cage and Feldman, the basic structure of his music is extremely simple, single distinct notes sounded separately between periods of silence. There is no ‘line’, no stepping from one note to another, nor is there ‘development’, in the sense that the middle or the end of the piece is qualitatively different from the beginning. Instead, Kotlowy concentrates a microscopic focus on the character of each note in isolation, making audible its distant delicate harmonic resonances, but also drawing attention to the incidental variations in the act of playing. It resembles Chinese calligraphy, in that the artist’s gestures leave large areas of the canvas untouched. A recent string quartet is a typical example, with each player given a series of sustained notes to be played pianissimo. The notes overlap to create delicate shifts of harmonic texture, but developmental flow is quietly resisted, creating a sense of being in time rather than moving through it.

Polglase describes his primary concerns as “tonal, thematic, developmental.” Fundamentally expressionist, his is a densely textured music, driven by melodic invention and characterised by dramatic contrasts in mood. Although he has recently concentrated on commissions for orchestral works, he sees the chamber form as the quintessential site for exploration and experiment in music, offering more flexibility and potential for expression than larger ensembles.

Grant comments that over the years The Firm have tended to reduce the instrumental colour of the ensembles they work with, preferring the classic chamber groupings of string quartet, piano trio, or solo piano, rather than the larger mixed ensembles that include wind, brass and percussion. This reduction in colour, Grant comments, forces the composer to abandon “rhetorical” effects, relying on a more “conversational” relationship with the audience, in which structures, forms and ideas are at the heart of the musical experience.

Russell Smith is an Adelaide-based writer and teaches in literary and cultural studies at Adelaide University.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 34

© Russell Smith; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001