licence to imagine

felicity clark: sunwrae, eavesdropping tour

Sunwrae String Quintet

Sunwrae String Quintet

THERE WAS THE SMELL OF PEPPER CHAI AND DAMP JACKETS AT COLBOURNE AVENUE FOR SUNWRAE’S SYDNEY LEG OF THE EAVESDROPPING TOUR. COSY SOFAS AND RED WINE MADE US AT HOME WHILE ICONIC WONKY LAMPS LIT THE PLAYERS OF SUNWRAE QUINTET. USUALLY A NINE-PIECE, SUNWRAE ENSEMBLE IS A PREMIER NU-CHAMBER GROUP THAT BLENDS MELODIC PHRASES AND INTERWEAVING RHYTHMS, CREATING FLOWING MUSIC WITH FAR REACHING APPEAL. ARTISTIC DIRECTOR AND TRIPLE-THREAT PIANIST, PERCUSSIONIST AND COMPOSER RAE HOWELL LEADS THE GROUP FROM THE PIANO WITH PASSION.

Howell’s compositions are explorations of texture, where melodies arise from group-created shapes. Even when a solo tune is clear it’s the harmony that’s in focus. Howell’s music is often described as cinematic and is charged with emotion and potential for imagery. Her sound flaunts a complex understanding of classical music but is delivered with the natural simplicity of popular music. If her lilting ostinati don’t hypnotise you at first, her engrossed head bobbings will.

Minus an alto flute, vibraphone, harp, double bass and percussion, Sunwrae Quintet was destined for reduced sound, but the Sydney performance suffered from other factors. Playing their guts out, the musicians’ energy was greater than the sound they impelled. The great little venue in Glebe did not do any acoustic favours for the non-amplified group. Fuzzy, directionless sound forced intimacy as the slouchy-couched audience leaned in to hear, but left a strange feeling of communal deafness. Is it possible for a room to suck so much sound away?

The most characterful piece of the night, “Mmm, Good Question,” let Sunwrae fool around with vaudevillian snippets lifted from every cliché you’ve known and loved. Creepy clown, scratches from the grave, a gate that needs oiling, those screeching trills near the bridge of a violin that elicit a physical reaction: your skin crawls with the memory of that pesky kid from school who clawed the chalkboard. The quintet’s answer to the fairground zombie vampire apocalypse craze is yet a spacious music that makes a listener hear the sounds of the room. It breeds hyper-awareness as it slinks into a warped corpse-bride’s tango, then deflates as the strings put on the shifty eyes—left right, left right—removing any doubt that this music is comedy, before returning to the fair.

Two world premieres were received well but didn’t jump out of the program. The best performances were of tried and tested hits like “Autumn Never Fall,” where Sculthorpe seagulls flew by (a technique on cello popularised by Peter Sculthorpe where harmonics in close succession sound like flying sea rats). We were given further license to imagine with “Far Away Castle” (soundtrack to a children’s film) as its Chinese-fantasy-esque love theme emerged. Rachel Kim on first violin realised key themes while second violinist Zac Johnston danced in his chair. The stoic bass section, viola player Phoebe Green and cellist Tim Blake, gave nuanced performances that made up for occasional blips in the upper parts. The most exciting offering of the evening was “The Machine,” a favourite piece that might have had a love affair with a Tenori-On, or this digital version at http://mandaflewaway.tumblr.com/post/2057242738

Chugging, cogs chipping, driving pistons, “The Machine” grinds away. Spurts of sound are left behind as the music reproduces conditions for further outputs. This machine seems to borrow its climaxes from the choral works of Stanford or Herbert Howells, only to disjoint them, cut them short, move on. Containing many complete musical ideas, like a mash up of distinct quotations, the work’s cogs really shouldn’t engage with such cohesion, but do. “The Machine” manufactures landscapes for the listener, ones that pan in and out, at stages zooming so far out of the wheeled workings that the contraption’s business is made invisible and insignificant with distance. This piece has been part of Sunwrae’s repertoire for a few years and has conjured similar images for others including Tom Fraser, whose animation of turning wheels, dripping taps and racing scenery now illustrates the track’s video clip.

Howell’s relaxed between-song chat heightened the family vibe in the crowd, but reinforced the sense that this gig in the tour was like a dress rehearsal: that show where the bumps are ironed out before the more important overseas appearances. On their way to Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, we forgave them. The crowd loved the performance and applauded for an encore that the freshly formed quintet could not provide, saying apologetically, “We don’t have anything else prepared.” They’d given us everything they had. Finishing off with a repeat of “Rainlessness” written by Howell during a cold stay in Canada, they created a new moment from material we’d already heard. It’s perhaps this quality of ‘being’ that makes Sunwrae’s performances so memorable: they play each piece as though for the first impassioned time.

Sunwrae String Quintet, Eavesdropping Tour, Colbourne Ave, Glebe, Sydney, May 5,www.sunwrae.com

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 43

© Felicity Clark; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011
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