Totally Huge contemporary chamber music

Sarah Combes

This year’s Totally Huge New Music Festival featured established artists from opposite ends of the new music spectrum. Putting experimental electronicist KK Null on the same bill as renowned contemporary classical composer Roger Smalley says a great deal about Tura Events Company’s eclectic and inclusive approach to programming. By amalgamating practitioners from various musical practices (who share only instrumental virtuosity and an infatuation with possibilities), the organisers demonstrate a commitment to continually blurring the boundaries that define new music.

Those unfamiliar with Smalley’s contribution to Australian new chamber and piano works might have found scheduling a 60th birthday concert in a ‘new’ and cutting edge festival somewhat contradictory. However when Smalley and the West Australian Symphony New Music Ensemble premiered Kaleidoscope, such preconceptions were quickly erased. The work is defined by short contrasting movements, circulating a divided ensemble (strings, woodwind and a horn, trumpet, percussion and harp group). The music was built up in thirds, creating great variation within a relatively limited space; swarming dynamism against stasis.

Smalley also paid tribute to the influence of 20th century composers, performing Suite No 1 by Stravinsky and a transcription of Scriabin’s 10 Poems, a reclamation that highlighted the continuing significance of work from new music pioneers. Principal oboist Joel Marangella had the perfect vehicle to display his technical talent in Smalley’s Oboe Concerto, his riveting presentation followed by the first performance of Piano Study No 1 (Gamelan). Composed for left hand alone, this was the first in a trilogy of projected pieces that focus on producing sound from the piano’s lower register, exploring the percussive, gong-like qualities of the black keys. The impressive works performed that evening confirmed Smalley’s reputation as a principal innovator among the local and international new musical field.

Belgium’s Rubio Quartet attracted a similar, but not quite as diverse audience to the Perth Concert Hall. Patrons packed into the foyer, an intimate, but perhaps not ideal venue for the Australian debut of Dirk Van de Velde and Dirk Van den Hauwe (violins), Marc Sonnaert (viola) and Peter Devos (cello). The quartet’s inventive programming enthralled the audience with instrumental virtuosity in an intense and refined performance from their modern repertoire. The players clearly revelled in the String Quartet No 4 by Shostakovich, whose music they describe as a “second language.” The audience was then lulled by the gentle ambience of Luc Van Hove’s lengthy Opus 3, before the unexpected outbursts of Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 4. Undaunted by the structurally unusual piece, the players tackled each challenge with emotional energy, revealing their passion for works that manoeuvre at the edge.

However, it was the work of the young composers of Breaking Out that truly reflected the freedom and independence characteristic of new musical approaches and convinced audiences that chamber music is far from an insular form. Among the groundbreaking artists were David Howell with a bold statement in Chipped Chrome, a striking viola and trumpet combination; Nela Trifkovic with the 2nd song-cycle of Give Me Back My Rags and Year 12 Christchurch Grammar student Kit Buckley (the youngest composer in the program) whose String Quartet No 1 explored the sound worlds of an emotional response to architecture.

Chamber music experimentation continued as ethnomusicologist and artist in residence from Hanoi, Vu Nat Tan introduced listeners to the unique timbrel qualities of the Vietnamese bamboo flute. The ethereal music inspired many Perth improvisers to join in with Tan. Ross Bolleter’s improvisation on his famous ruined piano (part-prepared to retain some of its melodic function but mostly fractured by squeaks, groans and the rhythmic tapping of soundless notes) was later joined by Lindsay Vickery on clarinet, infusing the textural palette of sound with a lyrical quality. Then came an unexpected performance by Tos Mahoney on flute and finally Jonathan Mustard, playing a unique variety of wind and percussion instruments, setting the pace for the intense musical ferment to follow.

Relationships between traditional Western, Vietnamese and found instruments were explored in collaborations between Daryl Pratt from Match Percussion, Peter Keelan and members of Tetraphide Percussion. One of the few electro-acoustic collaborations involved Hannah Clemen, using her own invention to manipulate the sound of the bamboo flute. The first of a series of installations, the instrument in Clemen’s Intraspectral, was designed to separate and highlight the sounds that comprise the harmonic spectrum of voice. Back in the gallery, listeners were invited to vocalise into a microphone while a computer analysed the various qualities of their voices and responded unpredictably. This unique discovery challenged audiences to explore the extent of their vocal expressions and discover new ways of listening and responding to sound in daily life.

While the festival had an undeniably acoustic flavour, electronic noise fanatics were not forgotten. Perth’s reputable Lux Mammoth gave audiences one final aural nightmare to remember them by, leaving the senses truly alert for the devastating onslaught of Japan’s KK Null. In a predominantly improvised performance, Null’s pounding techno beats, intricate, dense and fascinating layers of noise and abrasive rhythms interwoven with some heavily distorted vocals, produced moments of juddering physical intensity. Null’s performance completed this year’s diverse conglomeration of local and international artists, in a festival that bristled with an undisciplined intermingling of sounds, instruments, media and music methods, giving greater complexity, new meaning and expanded purpose to the musical arts.

Totally Huge New Music Festival, presented by Tura Events Company, April 4-13

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 31

© Sarah Combes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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