Beauty of a greater logic

Robert Lloyd

One of the great delights for a composer, and indeed any music lover, is to hear a great work of art live, having previously only heard it on CD. Ensemble Offspring’s fine Australian premiere performances of Phillip Glass’ early work at their concert at The Studio are a case in point. To hear the sheer beauty of these sounds live is an exhilarating experience. Imagine electric keyboard, vibes, flutes, clarinets, soprano saxophone, viola and marimba all played with enormous drive and precision to create a great whirlwind of pulsing, organic energy.

Roland Peelman did a masterful job in putting the ensemble members through their paces, himself playing electric keyboards and nodding the group through the many repetitions. Music in Fifths (1969) for electric organ, soprano saxophone, viola and 2 vibraphones created the unique sound world of repeating parallel fifths. This process is derived from 2 melodic lines moving at the musical interval of a fifth. The aural result is somewhat like a very fast Gregorian chant and creates an open, abstract, contemplative quality. Here the musicians listened, felt together and worked like the best Olympic team. One slip and you’ve lost your place in this process. This kind of physical playing reminded me of the best modern jazz from the same era as the composition; John Coltranes’ famous Quartet and the Miles Davis band of the late 1960s come to mind.

Piece in the Shape of a Square (1968) for 2 flutes worked like a kind of installation piece. Musicians Kathleen Gallagher and Michael Sitsky walked slowly around a square made from erected music stands, slowly following each other and ending where they had begun, all the time reading and playing the many musical patterns that make up the piece. The work had the whimsy of the best of Erik Satie’s work, but lacked the precision and drive of the other 2 Glass compositions performed on the night.

Music in Similar Motion (1969) for electric organ, 2 flutes, soprano saxophone, clarinet, viola and marimba was the piece de resistance. One has to give oneself to this music to get something in return. Here the rewards are many: an incredible sense of life and affirming power, drive and energy, all in the service of a greater logic.

Like Music in Fifths, the music is based primarily on repeated, added and subtracted melodic patterns in parallel motion. The musicians gave of themselves to create a wonderful throbbing engine, motoring to a sudden stop at the end. Having Roland Peelman on keyboard out front to nod in the pattern changes created a concentration that only intensified the groove.

This Ensemble Offspring Concert was a tribute to the foresight of the director/programmer in choosing these highly influential early minimalist works. It is hard to listen to these compositions in 2004 and not be reminded of Brian Eno, David Bowie, Robert Fripp and other composers who caught this bug from 1970 onwards and made it their own, helping to build a whole genre of creative, accessible new music that we now take for granted.

To complement the 3 Glass pieces, in the first half of the concert, we were treated to glass playing of a different kind. Sydney composer Damien Ricketson’s A Line Has Two for soprano, aulos, 2 clarinets, 2 percussion and electronics, also included the exquisite sound of bowed wine glasses. A Line Has Two explored the beauty and very sensual nature of created sounds. Watching this performance reminded me of wonderful nights in the theatre seeing the plays of the French absurdist writer Eugene Ionesco, where actors move chairs around from place to place, much like the musicians moved around in shoeless feet, bowing wine glasses and vibraphones. The work had a very static quality and many sounds seemed to hover in the air before they landed exquisitely in one’s ear. Of particular richness here was the voice of soprano Alison Morgan and the sound of the aulos, a nasal sounding reed instrument that created a sense of erotic longing, blending with the more contemporary metal vibes, wine glasses and electronics.

Written in collaboration with the Australian poet Christopher Wallace-Crabbe and based on the poem The Alignments, A Line Has Two created a spaciousness and an ever-elusive sense of resolution. This work is like a wooden box of very small compartments full of delicious treats for the ears and eyes.

Ensemble Offspring Play Glass, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, July 29

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 50

© Robert Israel Lloyd; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004