Composer and performer (and, declaration, fellow staff member) Lindsay Vickery’s latest project is GreyWing, an ensemble founded last year with a core membership of himself on saxophone, clarinet and electronics, Catherine Ashley on harp and Jameson Feakes on guitar. In Tura New Music’s Scale Variable series, Vickery’s program for a concert titled Rio 1917 drew on artists from his local and international connections and his role as Coordinator of Composition and Music Technology at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Performers and composers included WAAPA staff members (composer Pedro Alvarez, guest keyboardist Stewart Smith), former students (GreyWing members Ashley and Feakes and guest flautist Kirsten Smith) and WAAPA-trained composers Sam Gillies, Alexander Turley, Ellie Cumming and Eduardo Cossio.

Vickery’s starting point for his programming was the visit to Brazil by French composer Darius Milhaud in 1917 where he worked with that country’s greatest composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The latter’s lovely Modernist pastoral, Sexteto Mistico, opens the concert. New works by Gillies, Turley, Cumming and Vickery use details of Villa-Lobos’ piece as the inspiration for new works (although the musical similarities are indirect), and further South American influence is presented in compositions by Chilean expatriate Alvarez, Peruvian expatriate Cossio and Brazilian Felipe Lara.

Kirsten Smith, Rio 1917, WAAPA, photo Bohdan Warchomij courtesy TURA New Music

Given the central place of musical Modernism, Surrealism and Impressionism in the programming, this is definitely not a Latin music concert as the phrase normally suggests. The material is extremely diverse, ranging from the slightly Gothic, Bernard Herrmann-esque feel of the Villa-Lobos sextet, through to some surprisingly approachable pop fusion in the mode of The Necks (Turley’s Nocturnal), while others are virtuosic explorations of formal instrumental challenges (Lara’s fabulous Parábolas na Caverna for flute). There are even pieces which approach acoustic noise-music (the controlled chaos of Cossio’s Ghost). Although several pieces draw on or evoke the pastoral, or music which would seem to suggest landscapes — Villa-Lobos’ sextet and Turley’s contribution, as well as Cumming’s pastiche-like Változó Évszakok, which evokes the repetitive canons of Philip Glass’ minimalism and even something of a John Barry feeling of light classical fusion. Overall however the effect of the programming is of rather extreme shifts in style as we are moved across a wide field of musical approaches.

Within this array, one highlight was Kirsten Smith’s grappling with Lara’s Parábolas, which demanded quick leaps from austerely minimal playing into rapid-fire, tongued sections accompanied by vocal interjections — almost a Berio Recital I (For Cathy) meets Ennio Morricone in its somewhat 1970s ambience. Smith is a physically expressive performer, her seesawing body describing parabolas in space while the music does the same. Still, I’m not quite sure she entirely nailed this very difficult piece, which could have used a dash more charisma and totalising precision. Cossio’s composition, with its intense rolling up and down of energies in a densely textured structure, was also striking, foregrounding the ensemble playing.

The standout work was Vickery’s own Liminario, which closed the program. Much of the composer’s previous work has involved feedback loops with MAX MSP computer processing, in which real time sound is processed, each new sonic addition changing the way sound further evolves or is processed, or sometimes how the score itself unfurls before the performer (Vickery has also reworked the variable scores of Karlheinz Stockhausen and others for notebook display and control; see here).

Ensemble, Rio 1917, WAAPA, photo Bohdan Warchomij courtesy TURA New Music

Liminario though is an acoustic piece, with neither amplification nor computer processing. The music is aggressive and stabbing. The wind instruments especially (flute, oboe and clarinet) smash and squeal in hard strikes of four, which recur to bracket sections. Despite these harsh structural elements, the work is very much an ensemble piece, with material widely shared. The specific tonalities of each instrument — including harp, electric guitar and celeste — all have their stand-out moments as the work moves across drone-like intermissions between the wind interjections. Spaces within the music begin to reduce as volume and harshness increase, bringing us to an almost Penderecki-like explosion at the conclusion.

The presence of amplified guitar and string-bending means that reverberating electronic sounds are present and Vickery’s love of somewhat chaotic yet mathematical structures is certainly still audible. But from my own knowledge of Vickery’s oeuvre, this feels like quite a change. The arch sounds and carefully measured and restrained quality of the quieter sections positions the piece close to New Complexity and other styles which, rather than rejecting the Modernism of Milhaud and Villa-Lobos, have returned to these concepts and extended or transformed them — quite unlike the ostinato-dominated postmodern minimalism of Glass, which Cummings’ piece briefly evokes. I look forward to seeing if Vickery and his collaborators will treat this program as a precedent for future performances, and which of its not altogether compatible components will re-appear.

Tura New Music Scale Variable Concert 2: Rio 1917 by GreyWing: Lindsay Vickery, Catherine Ashley, Jameson Feakes; guest artists Kirsten Smith, Niamh Dell, Stewart Smith; WAAPA, Main Music Auditorium, Perth, 22 July

Writer and freelance art critic Jonathan W Marshall is Coordinator of Research Higher Degrees at the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts.

Top image credit: Jameson Feakes, Rio 1917, WAAPA, photo Bohdan Warchomij courtesy TURA New Music

The influence and the legacy of Roger Smalley (1943-2015) are somewhat legendary in Western Australian new music circles. Having emigrated from his European home to Perth in the early 1970s, Smalley spent over 30 years teaching composition at UWA before retiring in 2007; consequently many of his former students now hold senior positions in Western Australian universities and ensembles. As a young composer myself I feel his influence in many ways, despite having never actually met him, since nearly all of my teachers received his tutelage in some form. A notable ex-student is Cat Hope, Artistic Director of Decibel New Music Ensemble, a superstar of Australian new music and curator of Intermodulations, a recent concert in Smalley’s memory featured in TURA’s Scale Variable series.

In pre-show interviews and at the concert, Hope made a point of explaining how Smalley felt his early music inappropriate for Australian audiences, whose distance from the European scene and general inexperience with new music had cultivated a fear of the unknown and relative distaste for electronic music. This concert was, by and large, dedicated to those early European works, which Hope is adamant today’s Perth audience will enjoy—largely due to Smalley’s lasting legacy. She’s not wrong.

Decibel’s concert comprised four smaller chamber works in the first half featuring members of the ensemble in various iterations, and one large-scale work for ensemble and electronics in the second, for which the full ensemble assembled.

First up was Didjeridu (1974), an electroacoustic work for four-channel tape of samples of Australian Indigenous music from the Mornington Peninsula. The characteristic sound of the didjeridu is at first distinct, but gradually distorted beyond recognition, an unconscious—or was it conscious?—comment on the atrocious treatment by whites of Indigenous culture. Appropriating Aboriginal music for a European electro-acoustic work is at best kitsch and at worst racially insensitive. Today composers understand this (mostly) but in previous decades it was hugely popular, an exciting way to combine different musical styles. Doubtless Decibel leader Cat Hope isn’t blind to this, the work functioning more as a window into the past of Australian composition than as contemporary social comment.

Decibel Ensemble, Scale — Variable, Tura New Music, photo Bohdan Warchomij

Two works for piano and electronics follow: Transformation (1968, revised 1971) and Monody (1971-2). Both use the same electronic technique (ring modulation) to extend the colour palette of the piano and, although composed around the same time, they really sound nothing alike. Transformation is virtuosic and grand, featuring drawn-out sweeps and glissandi and fierce bass notes drawing as much colour as possible from the full range of the piano. It’s almost exhausting to watch guest artist Adam Pinto perform with such depth, from the most intense hammering sounds to suddenly subdued, glassy chords. If this piece is excessive, the second is refined, featuring a sole one-note melody throughout. It’s still extremely technically demanding on the performer but in a different way, as they must play piano with the right hand and control the sine wave frequency with the left, occasionally also moving to triangles and congas. The use of ring modulation in this piece is more melodic and seems to play a more active structural role than in the first. The tonal palette of the composition is unique, almost quirky, as many of the combined frequencies of piano and sine wave don’t conform to equal temperament.

We also hear Impulses (1986), an acoustic work for chamber sextet. This is a rhythmically driven conglomeration of sounds in which percussionist Louise Devenish and cellist Tristen Parr shine as the most assertive performers.

Decibel saves the best for last, assembling onstage to perform the 45-minute-long Zeitebenen. This unique and charismatic work, premiered in Germany in 1973 by Smalley’s new music ensemble Intermodulation, has never been performed in Australia until now, the score spending the past 40 years collecting dust somewhere in the University of New South Wales. It’s immediately obvious that this work draws on influences from each of the four smaller pieces performed earlier, sharing melody with Monody and recalling the electronic soundscape of Didjeridu. Here Smalley’s ideas are given the space they need to be completely aired. The work is politically charged, featuring sounds of warfare alongside those of children, storms, car horns, seagulls and whistles and, at one point, alluding to Tibetan throat singing and featuring colourful conversations between viola, clarinet, vibraphone and piano. This strikingly imaginative piece ends with a definitive thud from Devenish’s bass drum.

Intermodulations was extremely well-received by Perth’s new music audience. The resounding takeaway message was this: let’s not allow Roger Smalley’s music to be forgotten, as has happened to the compositions of so many Australian composers of his generation.

Tura New Music, Scale Variable: Intermodulations, Decibel New Music Ensemble; State Theatre, Centre Studio Underground, Perth, 7 June

Perth-based composer Alex Turley’s City of Ghosts was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival. He was a RealTime-mentored music reviewer at Perth’s 2015 Totally Huge New Music Festival.