Cosmic views; new music in Sydney

Keith Gallasch


Among new music events in recent months the one that lit me up was Raising Sparks from sopranos Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong who, as Halcyon, gather skilled musicians around them to present rare contemporary compositions and commissions. The standout in this truly daunting program was Harrison Birtwistle’s 9 Settings of Celan (1996) from his Pulse Shadows series. One of the enduring great late modernists, there is a monumentality about this British composer’s work, a sense of vast movements of nature and thought even when writing for small forces, here sublimely integrated soprano, 2 clarinets, cello, double bass and the requisite pulsing viola (Nicole Forsyth). Sensibly, Halycon reproduced translations of the Celan text in the program allowing for reflection on the poet’s brooding imagery. Morgan, in great voice, enunciated with clarity and in the challenging Todtnauberg, displayed eerie ease in the rapid alternations between the octaves of text spoken and sung.

In an hermetic reverie on the divinity scattered throughout creation, the Scots composer James Macmillan’s polystylistic Raising Sparks (to a poem by Michael Symmons Roberts) blends and juxtaposes chant, folk tune, flares and bursts of hurried sound, operatic passion and passages of simple tonal beauty. It’s music that is accessible but that also manages to formally challenge. Equally, Macmillan allows his Catholic faith to open up to Jewish mysticism, musically realised in the opening and recurrent chanting of ‘zimzum.’ (“In the Hasidic tradition the moment of creation can be understood as a divine act of self limitation [zimzum], where God held back his own power and light to make space to create something other than himself”; program note.)

By comparison, Australian composer Jane Stanley’s Aunts (2003) to a poem by David Malouf seemed modest fare, rather too literal at times in its enactment of the text, but nonetheless a fine vehicle for the entwining voices of soprano Morgan and mezzo Duck-Chong who seem to become the aunts while at the same time observing them at a distance both ironic and sympathetic. Also on the program, Paul Stanhope’s Shadow Dancing (2001) has a Ravelian summery ease, clarinet jazziness and, in the second movement, an (almost excessive) eastern edge on the viola, all held together by an engaging and finally mellow dancerly propulsion.

Raising Sparks was a big concert yielding striking resonances and contrasting visions between the Macmillan and the Birtwistle, from the low chant of ‘zimzum’ in the one as the light of creation shatters across the universe and, in the other, the final, hugely sustained last note on the word “light” following on from Beckettian angst glowing with hope, dimly (the same passage bluntly utters: “Art pap”). This was an exemplary concert—musically brave, thoughtful and meditative.

ensemble offspring

Back from Poland and beyond, ensemble offspring continued its adventurous programming with a collection of idiosyncratic compositions in a multimedia context. Ever a risky business, the engagement of music in concert with new media is littered with failures, while dance, for example, seems to me to be making a pretty good go of it. In Lucy Guerin’s Melt or the best work of Company in Space, there’s a meticulously crafted and balanced relationship between projected images, sound score and the live body. There were moments in Testimony, the Sandy Evans/Nigel Jamieson/Paul Grabowksy tribute to Charlie Parker, where all media coexisted in a thrilling dynamic. In this concert however the projected imagery didn’t always enjoy such a relationship, the conjunction between media simply being too loose, one or other element in danger of becoming mere background, and sometimes it was best to just shut the eyes. That said, it was still a pretty interesting concert which ever way you didn’t look at it.

Justine Cooper’s videos, Moist and Excitation, have been exhibited internationally, making beautiful a red and blue microscopy flow of “blood, phlegm, pus, cervical mucus and tears…transformed into images of interstellar geographies” (program note). Silence would do justice to these images, but Barton Staggs’ composition guarantees the reverie starting with bowed vibes and mellow piano rhythmically attuned to the ebb and flow of the bulging liquid image in Moist. The ensuing Excitation video tryptich suggests an eternity of living and the music is an empathetic mix of movement and stasis as if the instruments are resonating with the images, calling back to them, a bizarre music of the spheres, of micro and macrocosms. The associations seem casual, but they work.

Unfortunately, White Call, the James McGrath interpretative images meant to be teamed with Morton Feldman’s Instruments 1 had been impounded, we were told, by terror-nervous customs officers. Feldman had to stand on his own which, of course, he did admirably. Rarely heard in Sydney (Adelaide’s the place) there is much in Feldman to love and linger with and little to fear: an unpredictable linearity, theatrical moments, beautiful textures shades of ritual and evocations of the delicious rattle of the gangaku orchestra.

The concert’s main work, The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Show, Imaginary Operas in Three Acts didn’t cut the new media mustard. This over-narrated lumbering juxtaposition of a tale of yore and trendy Manhattan arts scene fused with the disparate work of a trio of visual artists is in desperate need of editing on every front, as well as some serious aesthetic reassessment. Matthew Shlomowitz’s score needs more aural attention than most with its relentless modernist angularity let alone having to stand up against scrolling text inexpertly voiced and images that are either too far removed from the content of the tales or too obviously illustrative to be effective partners to the music. Occasionally there are visually inventive moments, for example when scattered sentences fall into a heap of words across the bottom of the screen. Musically it’s a seriously demanding work served well by the ensemble, especially in Adam Yee’s virtuosic performance on oboe, in fact this is the strongest visual element in this opera without song.

Ensemble 24

The highlight of this double bill was Australian composer George Lentz’s Caeli Enarrant… IV. Informed by the composer’s mysticism (it would have fitted Halcyon’s Raising Sparks program more than comfortably), the adoption of instrumental techniques that evoke the music of Tibetan Buddhism and the careful deployment of silences, Caeli Enarrant… is an engrossing work and not an easy one to describe in its many shifts of pace, tone and pitch. As Gordon Kerry writes in his excellent sleeve note on the CD of Caeli Enarrant… III & IV (Ensemble 24, Naxos, 8.557019), Lentz’s “harmony ranges between strident density and radiant consonance.” Passages of hard-edged modernism co-exist with a postmodern penchant for a sublime melody; a loud, starry burst of cymbals (pre-recorded) sits beside a silence that can surprise with its fullness, and the cosmos is evoked in all its strangeness. Presented essentially as a string quartet interpolated with pre-recorded passages (presumably to bring bigger forces into play, but making for an awkward fit) and very occasional live percussion, this was a truly memorable performance.

The audiophonic work, Derelict Woman (writer Susan Rogers, director Richard Buckham, composer Barton Staggs) was a less satisfactory experience regardless of its meticulous realisation and aural production values. Staggs’ contribution, realised live and on tape, musically and as soundscape, was assured and enveloping. Occasionally it revealed a distinctive compositional voice, most evident in the mellifluous piano part (Tamara Anna Cislowska) reminscent of his writing for Moist and Excitation in the ensemble offspring program (see above).

As for a relationship between Rogers’ text (intoned by Kerry Walker) and Staggs’ score there seemed little to it except in the very broadest sense as one would expect, say, of much movie music. Of course there were moments without words when spaces were opened up and there was a glimpse of a potential dialectic that could have driven what seemed to settle into stasis. The central problem was the text, a whimsical, sentimental evocation of a bag lady who narrates an account of her life, a world of velvets and perfumes and feathers and poetry, and encounters with other eccentrics. For the most part it’s numbingly ethereal, largely devoid of the specificity of personality and place that might have earthed it. Well into this epic of recollection when the woman finds 2 plastic bags, one full of body parts, the other of money, things liven up a little. The woman develops an affection for an ear and a penis and hangs onto them, and some of the money, when she turns over her find to the police. There’s suddenly an edge and wit to the writing (and some eerie plot possibilities) but it’s in such disjunction with the rest of Rogers’ reverie that by then it doesn’t really matter.

Halycon, Raising Sparks, conductor Matthew Wood, Verbruggen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium, Nov 7

ensemble offspring, The Imaginary Opera Project, Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium, Nov 2

Ensemble 24, New Music Network & The Studio, A Derelict Woman, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Nov 16

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 44

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003