layers, exchange, simultaneities

chris reid: london sinfonietta concerts, adelaide festival
realtime 96


Tract, London Sinfonietta and the Young Wägilak Group
photo Matt Nettheim

TWO SUPERB CONCERTS BY THE LONDON SINFONIETTA AT THE 2010 ADELAIDE FESTIVAL ILLUMINATED SOME SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENTS IN MUSIC IN THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES AND ESPECIALLY SHOWED HOW COMPOSERS CAN BLEND MULTIPLE MUSICAL AND CULTURAL FORMS INTO EXCITING NEW WORKS.

The first concert, titled Pacific Currents, opened with US composer Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study No 7, a musical revelation that set the tone for the evening. In the mid–20th century, US-born Mexican composer Nancarrow created numerous compositions by hand-cutting piano rolls for the player piano, producing works so complex they could not be performed by a single pianist, and characterised by competing rhythmic structures and layered canon forms. Mikhashoff’s realisation involves expanded instrumentation—strings, winds, brass, harpsichord, piano, celeste and percussion—and it brilliantly captures Nancarrow’s breathtaking pace and complexity while adding some extraordinary textures, drawing out the layering to produce a rapturous work.

Silvestre Revueltas’ Ocho Por Radio (1933) followed, a work for octet that evokes the music of radio in his native Mexico, especially the mariachi bands, and which combines multiple genres into a single, increasingly chaotic work. Unsuk Chin’s electrifying Double Concerto (2002) for piano and percussion blended virtuosic solo instrumentals by Lisa Moore and Owen Gunnell into a complex series of cascading musical structures that build and rebuild, drawing prepared and natural piano passages into balanced intensity with the percussion and creating a dialogue exploring all kinds of percussive sonorities. John Cage’s Credo in the US (1942), for piano, percussion and either a radio or a phonograph, was originally written as a dance piece and prefigured Stockhausen’s use of radio in performance. In this realisation, a laptop was used to supply the recorded material, including fragments of Chopin, ragtime and other popular music that dramatically contrasted with the live elements and echoed Revueltas’ concern with the cultural impact of reproduced music.

The first concert concluded with John Adams’ highly rhythmic Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), which has also been choreographed to and includes fragments of his opera Nixon in China. Though less cerebral and more accessible than preceding works, it is complex and absorbing. The program for Pacific Currents was both musically enchanting and intellectually demanding, emphasising the impact of rhythm and showing how multiple forms and alternative musical sources could be integrated. All the works use repeated patterns in various ways, showcasing mid-to late–20th-century approaches to composition and the reactions to dominant and avant-garde cultural forms and aesthetics.

The second concert, Wind and Glass, comprised works by two British and three Australian composers. British composer Tansy Davies’ Neon (2004) is based on urgent offbeat rhythms that recall electronic process music, but with more élan and the richer sonorities of miked acoustic instruments. Gavin Bryars’ elegiac The Sinking of the Titanic (1968) is for an ensemble of strings, winds and percussion with a taped voice recalling the event, and the strings performing the hymn, Autumn, that the Titanic’s band was playing as the ship sank. Opening and closing with the sound of tolling bells, the hymn is played by the strings while the rest of the ensemble produces sounds that evoke the ship itself, creating considerable emotional impact. The work has a theatrical feel, with a dialogue between the strings, portraying the final moments of the ship’s orchestra, and the rest of the ensemble.

The concert included the premiere of Brisbane composer John Rodgers’ Glass, a work for chamber ensemble and improvised trumpet developed from the transcription of the sounds created when using a large sheet of glass as a percussion instrument. These sounds were woven into an elaborate composition for the ensemble, and trumpeter Scott Tinkler, for whom Glass was written, improvised in response to the ensemble, creating a scintillating musical interaction. He produced a wondrous range of sounds, from clarion calls to growling and blaring, adding to the profusion of textures and timbres created by the ensemble. A highlight was Brett Dean’s Dream Sequence (2008), a magical work for the full ensemble, wonderfully orchestrated, expressionistic and densely woven, that expands our musical awareness by taking us on a surreal internal journey.

All this prepared us well for the centrepiece of the two concerts, Errki Veltheim’s compelling new work Tract (2009). Commissioned for performance in the festival by the London Sinfonietta and the Young Wägilak Group, Tract is really two pieces of music that coincide—the orchestra performs Veltheim’s score, with Veltheim as violin soloist, while the four-member Young Wägilak Group perform Manikay, traditional songs of their country in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, powerfully sung with clapsticks and didgeridoo accompaniment. The two strands of music progress sometimes together, sometimes separately, with Veltheim linking them with his own playing. In a forum following the concert, Veltheim said that the Manikay operate as a religious text and that he had written a high modernist score that would match the Manikay performance in structure and intensity but would not imitate it. The Young Wägilak Group has previously worked with the Australian Art Orchestra, and, while such collaboration could appear contrived, the result here is a unique and inspiring musical and cultural form. Tract is not a hybrid but rather a cross-cultural dialogue, with Veltheim’s violin as the catalyst, each strand of music acknowledging the functions, traditions and aesthetics of the other. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive.

Some thoughtful programming went into these London Sinfonietta concerts, the second building on the investigative platform established in the first with more radical examples of the simultaneous use of multiple musical forms. The two concerts showcase many ideas: the layering of music through competing rhythms, structures and instrumentation; the reworking of aesthetics that arise from sampling and electronic manipulation; the impact of mechanical and recorded sources of sound, such as phonograph, tape, radio, vibrating glass and piano rolls; and the juxtaposition of disparate musical cultures and traditions. Brett Dean and Unsuk Chin have explored the expressive possibilities of intricate musical structures. The works of Cage and Revueltas show how popular media can generate a musical melange. Bryars has woven his own composition around an existing composition to convey the sentimental impact of an historical moment. Mikhashoff has dazzlingly transformed Nancarrow’s work. And Velthiem has brought two cultures into a thrilling collaboration. The works of Velthiem, Cage, Rodgers and Bryars are challenging and significant experiments that are engaging conceptually and musically, and mark important developments in musical history. The two concerts greatly illuminate the nature of musical development in a globalising world, showing where experimentation can lead and teaching us how to listen more carefully.

2010 Adelaide Festival, The London Sinfonietta, conductor Brad Lubman, with Lisa Moore, Owen Gunnell, Scott Tinkler, Errki Veltheim and the Young Wägilak Group of Ngukurr, Adelaide Town Hall, Feb 27, 28

A review of theatre and dance works in the 2010 Adelaide Festival will appear in RealTime 97 June/July.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 6