Ensemble Offspring: Down the rabbit hole

Keith Gallasch

Reveries and dreamlike game-playing populated Ensemble Offspring’s Who Dreamed It?, a concert of five fascinating, formula-bending works by female composers. Three of the compositions were inherently theatrical, ensemble members engagingly meeting the demands with their usual casual aplomb, while the other two works were immersively contemplative.

Irish composer Jennifer Walshe’s contribution to the program, titled Everything you own has been taken to a depot somewhere, features flautist Lamorna Nightingale and percussionist Claire Edwardes glitteringly costumed in contrast with clarinettist Jason Noble attired for baseball. The work mysteriously progresses through a series of states in which the performers exercise their arms, variously gesture, speak or sing chorally in short bursts, as in part two, titled “Views On Computerwork Romance” in which, stretching vowels, they deliver the text “OK /Bye/Who.” Elsewhere, cards with words are held aloft while Noble signals, lines from a movie are performed, bubbles blown and, finally, any sense of cohesiveness dissolves, bringing home, if lightly, the sense of loss and delirium prefigured in the work’s title — although the name of the last piece, “His seizures stopped when he started collecting rocks,” is reassuring. I couldn’t possibly deliver a cogent interpretation for this calculatedly discombobulating 10-minute work, one that might have come out of Fluxus and is performed with a conviction that strengthens its evocation of a frustrating dream state. Walshe, a composer-cum-performance artist has made works for herself and others (many available on YouTube) with titles the likes of Language ruins everything, which are well worth a look.

Veronique Serret, James Wannan, Who Dreamed It? Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

Taiwanese composer (educated in Australia and New Zealand) Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh’s Half-Open Beings and Australian Lisa Illean’s Cantor (After Willa Cather) proved to be quite complementary, both long-noted and suggestive of interior worlds. Over 14 minutes, Half-Open Beings, largely soft-edged and abstract, sinuously weaves its way to a rush of vibes, cowbell, high-calling clarinet and, via pizzicato strings and plucked double bass, dips back into a soft musing. I’d need another hearing to grasp its totality, but it stays with me like a half-glimpsed modernist painting.

Illean’s 13-minute Cantor is also ethereal, but warmer, romantic even, in its evocation of twilight via words from three poems by American poet Willa Cather, gloriously sung by Jessica Aszodi entirely at one with a large instrumental ensemble. Vowels are sensually extended, the voice glides up from mezzo depths to moments of passion and down, in the end, to lingering sadness. It’s a memorable work, not least for the “infusion” (as Illean calls it and reflecting the call-and-response cantor-led choral singing that inspired her) of sounds between instruments and between instruments and voice. I was surprised that I could barely detect the audio file of folk song, commentary and radio broadcast Illean had told me about when I interviewed her. I heard nothing other than a rustling and another distant soprano voice. Perhaps the ABC recording of the concert will reveal more; I wasn’t sure if I’d experienced the work in its totality.

Zubin Kanga, Who Dreamed It? Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

Incipio, Bibo for soprano, clarinet and percussion by US-based Iranian composer Anahita Abbasi — performed between Half-Open Beings and Cantor — was another work for trio: Edwardes, Noble and Aszodi, each additionally equipped with a small bell with which they rang for tea, in the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books which had inspired the composer and provided the work’s text. Aszodi exuded child-like excitement in tightly scored, witty vocal and instrumental exchanges that climaxed existentially with Alice’s “Who in the world am I?”

Berlin-based Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay) shared the playfulness of the works by Walshe and Anahita Abbasi, and like Illean and Abbasi’s provided Aszodi with wonderful challenges, here not only with nonsense words (“a tool for singing,” and largely minus consonants, says Chin) but also with demanding flights across registers and styles of utterance — snarky, aggressive and supremely high-flying soprano. The large ensemble provided multiple contexts — ripplings running from harp to piano, mandolin and percussion; fabulous outbursts and deep song glides akin to falling into Abbasi-Carroll’s rabbit hole; and rapid rustlings in an eerie night-time soundscape (to Aszodi’s half-whispering). The wonderfully romantic 5th movement comprises a repeated sung motif descending in steps and taken up by the harp and others, the long notes drawn out by bowed vibraphone. In “A Game of Chance,” a rattled-off alphabet seemingly evoked a child learning with gritty gusto, while the final wild movement brought with it a voice rising from the depths, a trumpeting clarinet and a surging ensemble.

The 16-minute Akrostichon-Wortspiel — full of play and reverie — was an apt finale for an embracingly cogent concert, one too that premiered commissioned works from Abbasi, Hui-Hsin Hsieh and Illean. Ensemble Offspring performed superbly, playing the game with Aszodi with observable watchfulness between members, whether as a trio or, wonderful to witness, a sizeable team admirably coached by Roland Peelman.

Read a RealTime interview with composer Lisa Illean.

Carriageworks & Ensemble Offspring, Who Dreamed It?, soprano Jessica Aszodi, conductor, Roland Peelman, violin Veronique Serret, viola James Wannan, cello Blair Harris, double bass Kirsty McCahon, mandolin Michael Hooper, percussion Claire Edwardes, clarinet Jason Noble, piano Zubin Kanga, flute Lamorna Nightingale, oboe Ngaire de Korte, harp Rowan Phemister; Carriageworks, Sydney, 23 Sept

Top image credit: Who Dreamed It?, Ensemble Offspring, Carriageworks, image Zan Wimberley

10 October 2017