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Canto Ostinato Canto Ostinato
photo Virginia Coventry
WHEN ACTRESS AND DIRECTOR JO KENNEDY INTRODUCED DUTCH COMPOSER SIMEON TEN HOLT’S CANTO OSTINATO (1979) TO MELBOURNE COMPOSER ELIZABETH DRAKE IN EARLY 2009, SHE SET IN TRAIN A MUSICAL LOVE AFFAIR THAT SAW AN EXPLOSION OF PERFORMANCES IN ADELAIDE, PERTH AND NEWCASTLE. DRAKE RECENTLY JOINED FORCES WITH RENOWNED AUSTRALIAN PIANISTS LISA MOORE, CAROLINE ALMONTE AND EMILY GREEN-ARMYTAGE AT IWAKI AUDITORIUM FOR CANTO OSTINATO’S MELBOURNE PREMIERE. CAREFULLY CRAFTING THE WORK’S LONG-RANGE STRUCTURE AND MOMENTARY ARTICULATION, THE ENSEMBLE PROVIDED A CONSTANTLY EVOLVING DURATIONAL LISTENING EXPERIENCE.

Concentric staging lent Iwaki Auditorium a charged atmosphere, with the pianists eyeing each other off like gunfighters around their four grand pianos. The performers’ intense concentration was echoed by the audience, seated in the round like townsfolk gathered to witness a bloody ordeal. Finally, Lisa Moore started the limping five-pulse rhythm that drove the piece forward in one form or another for the next hour and a half. The other pianists contributed complementary ostinati: an insistent, dissonant peal; a swaying melody in the middle register; a loping bass line; until the developing harmony filled the auditorium. Sometimes the texture thinned to a solo line, or five parts raced along like a cartoon chase scene, before bursting into a rocking sea shanty theme. The performance’s success as a musical journey hinged on the close attention paid by both composer and performers to the boundaries of improvisation and determinacy in the work’s construction.

The score is divided into short rhythmic cells that the performers may repeat as many times as they wish and with their own articulation, before coming together for through-composed bridge passages. Ten Holt’s score is ingeniously put together, with five interlocking piano parts capable of producing a wide range of musical effects. Previously a composer of atonal and extended tonal music, ten Holt was “mystified when this music started pouring out in the form it took—entirely tonal and gradually evolving texturally, gesturally and harmonically.” Canto Ostinato’s romantic harmonic idiom might also come as a surprise to fans of minimalist composition, distinguishing it from the pale tonality of its immediate predecessor, Steve Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians” (1976). Caught between modernist complexity, romantic melodicism and minimalist duration, the performers challenged themselves to keep the sophisticated musical machine moving while leaving space for the unexpected to occur.

To Drake, the experience of listening to minimalist music is captured in Henri Bergson’s description of sitting by a river in Duration and Simultaneity (1922): “When we are seated on the bank of the river, the flowing of the water, the gliding of a boat or the flight of a bird, the ceaseless murmur in our life’s deeps are for us three separate things or only one, as we choose.”

Like Bergson’s river, boat and internal monologue, Elizabeth Drake wants the listener to hear Canto Ostinato as a unity of disparate elements. She does not leave this synthesis up to the listener, carefully analysing the score and shaping the performance in order to provide the conditions under which the performers may interact. Drake brought her experience composing for film and theatre to the work, storyboarding each section to take advantage of terraced dynamics, extended crescendi and transpositions. The next step was to integrate articulation into the dramatic outlines of the score.

In developing articulation, the performers found themselves confronted with the problem of trying to repeat musical novelty. “We would be playing as though saying ‘this is what this is about now. It’s about this Db to this C,’” Drake remembers. “But if you introduce an idea, you can only repeat it once. You can introduce it, then you can repeat it. But the purpose of repetition is not to introduce material, it is to keep going until something unexpected happens.”

Caught between the possibilities of an evenly articulated but ultimately boring duration piece and an overbearing repetition of musical emphases, the performers looked to interaction to keep the performance interesting. “We had the directive that we could abandon the plan,” remarks Drake. “You can let things open out if you have a very strong structure and a strong sense of interaction. The stronger the structure, the stronger the plan, the better the performers know what to listen for, the further you move away from just reciting a dictionary of possibilities. You can make a new composition.”

The performers’ detailed knowledge of the score came across in their smooth and gripping performance. Beneath their covert nods and the dazzling, ever-changing surface of the music, part-swapping proceeded seamlessly, page turns were managed with military precision and the performers could focus on letting moments of singular beauty appear.






Canto Ostinato, composer Simeon ten Holt, performers Lisa Moore, Caroline Almonte, Emily Green-Armytage, Elizabeth Drake, IWAKI Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne, May 13

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 50

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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