QBFM review excerpts

Loops & Topology, Australian Art Orchestra, Australian Art Orchestra, Anumadutchi, ELISION, Orkest de Volharding, Lisa Moore, Michael Kieran Harvey, Paul Grabowsky




Loops & Topology: Airwaves

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 24

Seventy-five minutes of radio archive history. FM clarity, AM telephone bandwidth. Old timers scraped out of mouldy shellac grooves. Naïve racists on rusty tapes. Databases of dickheads, geniuses, opportunists, and self-promoters. Arranged in reverse chronology. From now to then, from us to them, a salad of history where before White Australia was Belsen, before Clinton was Ghandi, where men had to walk on the Moon before Cathy could run that great 400. But the vocal text isn’t about cheap moralisms. It’s stochastic history not storyboard history.

And over and under the ‘Voice Portraits’ plays the music. A series of episodes and program pieces to reinforce or foil the text. George Bush whingeing about Saddam and damn that’s some funky bass. The Goons bubble up and Max Geldray lives again. Dad and Dave ride on the back of Click Go the Shears. Sometimes the musical quotes were right there on the staves; cut and paste, a straight up arrangement. But most times the references were oblique, witty, laugh out loud nostalgia. Not that the music was all quotes and ironic degree by a long shot.

…At the beginning I think of a happy John Zorn, then associations disappear pretty quickly as I get caught up in the individual personality of the piece. The sound is excellent, right volume, right balance on the instruments. The performers play to a click track, they’ve each got headphones on. I’m not surprised, the music’s often complex, the timing always precise. Strange, abstract rhythms suddenly synch perfectly to all time favourites. ‘Now is the time.’ ‘I have a dream.’ ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out.’

In Airwaves, music effortlessly holds the mirror to the musicality of language. And it is not just that either. Airwaves is a big piece, chockerblock, a must-have for the collection when the CD comes out. Play it entire or dip in and out. Don’t play it in the car while driving. Too distracting.

Greg Hooper

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Karaikudi R Mani, Sruthi Laya Ensemble

Australian Art Orchestra: Into the Fire

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 24

The AAO musicians were seated in a semi circle, cradling the Sruthi Laya ensemble, who sat at the very front of the stage. A big band in the round with the karnatic musicians in the solo spot. Adrian Sheriff and Sri Mani’s title track from the Into the Fire CD grew out of their 1996 collaboration in India and later in Adelaide. One of the real difficulties in cross-cultural composition is the need to find ways of overlapping the styles, and also of working at a level of depth and respect within the 2 cultures. The composers have taken the basic material of the raag, the karnatik scale, and developed an exhilarating, enthralling performance. With the brilliance and accuracy of some of the best classical and jazz players in Australia flying through the melodic phrases, sparse but warm harmonic material, and the total focus and control of the Indian master musicians, the audience was captivated. At an emotional level I found the performance of this composition deeply satisfying. If there is a definitive list of “classic” cross-cultural compositions and performances, then Into the Fire is definitely on it for me. …Just as we reached the crescendo, the AAO put down their instruments and sat back to listen to the Sruthi Laya. For 20 minutes we were mesmerised by the brilliance and accuracy of their playing. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, the AAO members moved back into position and with the mighty clap of Paul Grabowsky’s guiding hands the orchestra joined in again, thundering through to the coda. Beautiful stuff.

Jim Chapman

The Queensland Orchestra: Turangalîla-symphonie

The Concert Hall, QPAC, July 21

…The end result was both richly textured and wonderfully playful, completely enveloping the audience in the composer’s unique and often unpredictable sound-world. Michael Kieran Harvey particularly seemed to revel in the demanding piano lines. At times he pushed the brassy Stuart & Sons instrument to compete with the full orchestra while at others he interjected with Messiaen’s trademark snatches of birdsong (most prominent in the languorous sixth movement). If anything, perhaps the performance erred more on the raw dynamic side, losing some of the carefully layered harmonies and elements in the overall wash of sound. Some of the blame for this, however, could be levelled at the acoustics of the Concert Hall which at times lacked the clarity required for such a work.

Valérie Hartmann-Claverie’s Ondes Martenot had no such problems with the hall or competition from the orchestra—its pure sound managed to cut through everything. Messiaen gives the main love theme to this instrument and uses its soaring glissando effects to evoke an otherworldly and transcendent space…Hartmann-Claverie’s delicate use of vibrato layered with slow violins in the restrained sixth movement helped produce a haunting crystalline sound that beckoned the audience to gaze into the starry face of eternity while Kieran Harvey’s piano called us back with the earthbound song of birds. It is with this type of beautiful and essentially melancholic moment that Messiaen strives to express the inexpressible and to give us a space to experience a time outside of time. For a moment during the movement I closed my eyes and dreamed of the stained-glass light of Sainte Chappelle which so inspired Messiaen’s musical language.

…In the final acts of the work [conductor] de Leeuw pulled out all stops and let loose the rawness of Messiaen’s orchestration with the tuned percussion and brass sections particularly working frantically to deliver. This had such an overwhelming effect that by the end of the symphony’s epic 75 minutes most of the audience rose enthusiastically for a standing ovation. The overall effect was inspiring and revealed a viscerality and feeling that I had not encountered in recorded versions of Messiaen’s oeuvre. Though this performance may not stand as what some may call a definitive interpretation of the Turangalîla-symphonie it was certainly one to be experienced–tutti con brio!

Richard Wilding

Anumadutchi & The Queensland Orchestra

Brisbane City Hall, July 26

…The performers brought the venerable Venáncio on stage and set up the 8 pieces of the timbila. This was a rare treat for a Brisbane audience. This xylophone-like ensemble is something quite special. Venáncio is a Mozambican man who has led a hard life, like many from this region, but who has managed to maintain the tradition of this music nonetheless. The instruments range from the 19 key sanje to the 12 key dibhinda and the amazing 3 key chikulu. Each instrument is played with a 2-handed, complex polyrhythmic pattern. Imagine hearing them played at breakneck speed, and with each of the different instruments playing different parts, once again interlocking. It is a richly textured kaleidophone. The only way you can hear it is to let it sink into your mind and to focus on any of the hundreds of possible patterns that can be heard. Visually, the playing is exciting, especially watching the chikulu players hurling themselves at the 3 log sized keys of their instruments. Venáncio is an unbelievable player. The counter melodies that he was playing were so deep in the cracks of the other patterns that it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could play them. He is probably the best timbila player in the world. He is regarded as such in Southern Africa, and his performance confirms this.

Jim Chapman

ELISION: Spirit Weapons

Customs House, Brisbane, July 22

…Since its inception, ELISION has excelled in the production of a brilliant palette of sound colours. It is this range which leads me to think in gastronomic terms—the sounds are so physical one can almost taste them. Michael Smetanin’s Vault has this quality, with its gorgeously crystalline sounds made by spiky high notes on the harp combined with viola harmonics, metallic percussion and rushing piccolo runs, along with bottom-register bass clarinet rumblings. The music’s physicality is also expressed in body-based rhythms, played with James Brown tightness by the ensemble.

…Anthony Burr’s robust performance style (on contrabass clarinet) was used to great advantage in an extraordinary new work by Liza Lim. A new piece by Lim is always an event, and she continues to surprise. Spirit Weapons consists of 2 short pieces drawn from Machine for Contacting the Dead. Lim composed this large work for Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain on the occasion of an exhibition of newly unearthed 2,400-year-old Chinese musical instruments. She resisted the obvious choice of composing for replicas of these instruments and instead invented ritualistic music referring to another object found in the tomb—a triple-daggered halberd (cutting/stabbing weapon). Three percussionists, perhaps reflecting the 3 daggers, form a “meta-instrument” with the contrabass clarinetist. This is very serious music, a “radiation of ancient wood and metal”, but I can’t help imagining a sense of fun, perhaps even mischief, in Lim’s use of instruments.

Like Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic, this is music imagined as happening under water, and the Leviathan sound of the contrabass clarinet is a perfect fit. The piece is a “slowed down, submarine version” of the other component of Spirit Weapons, a cello solo, played with miraculous fluency by Rosanne Hunt, in which harmonic overtones continually emerge from sliding notes and the dark sounds of loosened strings.

Robert Davidson

Orkest de Volharding: Andriessen Music Video Program

Brisbane Powerhouse, July 27-29

…Smetanin’s Eternity was musically the most interesting thing on the program, drawing a completely different sound world from the ensemble. Two clarinets were added (Paul Dean and Diana Tolmie, both familiar to Brisbane audiences) which helped even the balance between wind and brass, such that Smetanin was able to play with delicate antiphonal choruses of continually shifting homophonic blocks of sound. Paul Dean’s precise microtonal playing in the upper register was particularly impressive. This strange, symmetrical, microtonal minimalism perfectly distilled a sense of the eternal, the otherworldliness with which Smetanin characterizes his feelings when observing the night sky.

Andriessen and Greenaway have had a fruitful artistic partnership since their first successful collaboration on M is for Man, Music and Mozart (1991). I was in some subtle way disturbed by the live performance of Andriessen’s music alongside a screening of the film. The music, and its performance aspect, was ‘foregrounded’ to an extent inconsistent with how I experience music in Greenaway films. For me it upsets the balance, normally so precise and deftly handled, between the swarming fecundity of Greenaway’s foregrounds and the cool, sparse intellectual rigidity of his background structures. Certainly an interesting idea, and worth trying as a festival event, but ultimately a viewing of the original film gives a more complete and balanced representation of Greenaway’s intentions.

Simon Hewett

Lisa Moore – The Stuart Series

Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre, July 27

American composer Martin Bresnick’s For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (2001) is a musical take on the William Blake poem and 21 illuminated line engravings of the same name (1818). Directed by Robert Bresnick (the composer’s brother), video artist Leslie Weinberg’s DVD projections consist of simple animations and manipulations of Blake’s black & white and illuminated emblems, enlarged onto an on-stage screen above the piano. Moore’s was both pianist and speaker, this time delivering the entire text of Blake’s poem.

As Moore starts to play the pulsing, determined Prologue, we meet the Lost Traveller, our Everyman companion for this 30 minute piece. He zooms on-screen, cane in hand, and hurriedly moves through time and space while trees pan right, sky pans left. Musically this world is built from colouristic expressive recitative, intersticed with pulsing sections of relatively static harmonies which rock unevenly, restlessly. Moore commands a counterpoint of voice and fingers, sometimes speaking the text to a rhythm; sometimes freer; and sometimes sung, as in the Epilogue’s slow and gentle jig addressed to Satan. …In an era of the supremacy of visual literacy, Bresnick’s collaboration with Weinberg is an example of evolution in action, as is the creation of the Stuart piano. A coherent multi-sensorial work, it invites sustained attention from a far wider audience than ‘pure’ concert music can hope to do.

Lynette Lancini

Michael Kieran Harvey – The Stuart Series

Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre July 23

Kieran Harvey explains that Australian composer Laurie Whiffen’s Sonata Mechanical Mirrors is “very loosely based on the Liszt B Sonata” and because it is built on “mirror images of musical cells…is awkward to play.” Well, this might not be Godowsky-does-Chopin, where the melodies at least remain recognisable, but Sonata Mechanical Mirrors is Lisztian in spirit, passionate, even demonic, and an olympian test for player and piano. Great waves of crystalline upper notes cascade against a thundering bass, the Stuart declaring ever greater capacity for volume, its middle range again revealing a bell-like radiance, the whole quaking but without surrender as Kieran Harvey sweeps relentlessly up and down the keyboard, pianist and piano at one. This is an exhausting, cosmos-conjuring 15 minutes. And once again, eruptions are succeeded by calm and afterglow…surrender or grace?

The work that lights up an already enthusiastic audience is Tim Dargaville’s Negra. Kieran Harvey notes its African references, gospel influences, Indian rhythms and distinctive recurrent note row. To my ears this is a great pulsing ragtime fantasia, always hinting at but refusing Joplinesque melody, driven by a pounding, rhythmically familiar left hand style pitted against constellations of upper end trills played at astonishing speed. At times it sounds like a virtuosic cross between Dr John and Jerry Lee Lewis. Is either in the market for a Stuart grand? Kieran Harvey makes a great salesman. In the sublime coda to Negra, as in Andriessen’s Trepidus, as the bottom notes die, the top ones quietly bristle with restless energy…until they too evaporate.

Keith Gallasch

Paul Grabowsky – The Stuart Series

The Auditorium, Queensland Cultural Centre, July 26

…Pivotal to the whole performance was Coal for Cook, dedicated to Ornette Coleman. An audacious nod given the Texan’s key ensemble innovation was the double horn front line quartet with no piano (ie no chordal accompaniment). This in its day freed Coleman’s alto sax into a domain of wild harmonic invention. The alteration of intention and conception was equally profound in the context of Grabowsky’s performance. The tone of the prior pieces, which saw the right hand trying to break free of the constraints imposed by the somewhat repetitive and pendulous walking bass figures, was fractured. This gave way to a much freer section with the pulse merely implied rather than insistently stated and restated and, more than that, feeding on the sheer aggressiveness of the work’s dedicatee. The nicest passage in the piece was perhaps the rapid 2 handed upper register section which mimicked the squally trumpet/alto sax blowing contests of Colemans’ own Prime Time quartet. Rendered on the chimingly bright-toned Stuart piano, these were as coruscations of light on a teeming sea.

Mitch Cunningham

Editor’s Note: RealTime published online reviews during the 2001 QBFM. The full online feature will be re-published in the archive in the future.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 31-

© Greg Hooper & Jim Chapman & Richard Wilding & Robert Davidson & Simon Hewett & Lynette Lancini & Mitch Cunningham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001