Avant-garde plus and minus

Greg Hooper

I’m off to the Judy for my first experience of Elision. I’d heard about them, I’d heard they were real quality, and I’d heard they were mainstream modernity—the classical avant-garde of the conservatorium. It was all true. The program drew on material from the last decade or two. Most pieces were by composers involved collaboratively with Elision.

The program opened with a solo percussion piece written by Richard Barrett and played on the vibraphone by Peter Neville. The performance was a stunner. He’s playing chords with a couple of mallets in each hand (a bit like playing golf with 4 clubs and 4 balls at once), and the piece must have thousands of notes—all sorts of chords, and it’s really fast. I’d love to see this guy working the chopsticks at a Yum-Cha. Neville made a couple of early mistakes (whoops—missed), but this is a failure rate any machine would envy. It’s easy to get used to the enormous polish that excellent performers have.

Two duets by Michael Finnissy for guitar and voice followed, with Geoffrey Morris on guitar and Deborah Kaiser singing. Great voice, especially low. Lots of medieval-style ornament. The guitar was a bit soft in the first piece, but came into its own in the second. This was followed by a solo piece written by Aldo Clementi. Morris’s guitar was assured, but the piece itself was a little incoherent for me. There’s that whole old school avant-garde thing—which of these two random sequences do you prefer? It’s an approach to composition that runs through the entire concert program. From an information/theoretic point of view, there’s a lot of information in random sequences. From a musical point of view, there’s none.

The first half of the program then finished with a bravura solo performance of a Richard Barrett trombone piece by Ben Marks. Once again the performance was gob-smacking. However, as a compositional strategy I can’t help but think that ‘new sounds for old instruments’ lost its cachet about 20 or 30 years ago.

After the break was the highlight of the concert, Timothy O’Dwyer performing his composition, Sige, for solo bass sax and prerecorded backing. The piece begins with O’Dwyer centre stage—rocker hair and Pelaco shirt—carrying a bass saxophone. Underneath, a low sustained drone changes up a fourth like a sluggish 12-bar blues is about to roll forth. Instead, the drone continues as O’Dwyer fumbles about with the sax, a few fitful noises, classic ‘just can’t get into it’ stops and starts. The drone stops for a brief moment and the process repeats. But with each repeat, O’Dwyer starts to play more, until we’re watching and hearing wild, Jimi Hendrix-meets-Mac-truck multiphonics, trills, grunts and squawks. It’s the archetypal sax solo. And he does this again and again and again. The playing is phenomenal, but it’s totally hermetic, the performer isolated in his own ecstatic space like a caged rat pressing the food bar over and over again, raising the question: Who’s a solo for?

Empire of Sound, Elision ensemble, The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, March 24

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 35

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002