photo Bridget Elliot
Resonance and sonority are the focus for several of the contemporary composers in the program. Many of the works have a sense of looking back to the origins of the harp in order to understand the evolution of the instrument's idioms. The Birtwhistle work Crowd in particular makes use of many extended techniques like slapping and stabbing, scratching and muting. It's a masterpiece study in sound, articulation and texture but never comes across as a sequence of tricks. While the techniques are noticeable and fascinating they are not so important as the way the resultant sound travels outwards, radiating from a source, communicating more about the nature of the room and its occupants than McGuire's dexterity.
The program is punctuated with Five Studies in Radiance, short interludes by Andrew Ford. One of these, Amoroso, has a bell motif, a low chiming jow that tells, “It's Time... this is God speaking.” Then the tolling softens. It resigns to peace and tranquillity. Life goes on and we're still here.
One of the most significant pieces, the Australian premiere of The Pearl Divers by Douglas Gibson, is for prepared harp. Written in memory of pearl divers in Broome in Western Australia, a Japanese aesthetic is present. Not only does it sound Japanese but the process of preparing the harp mimics koto (Japanese table harp) technique. Like a koto player, McGuire uses a pencil to mark the strings at the right ratios for harmonic overtones and pitch bending.
The Harp and the Moon by Ross Edwards similarly features Japanese motifs as well as tying together many disparate themes in the program. Referencing Renaissance style it has Spanishy statements, folk fancy and film soundtrack mystery as well a bit of a cheesy ending. It's a great piece. The magic of Edwards' craft is to merge these genres and elements with such skill, creating a distinctly Australian voice out of fusion while maintaining and expanding harp idioms.
Comfortable and adroit, McGuire gave a stunning performance, engaging the audience with tantalising facts and witty asides. He even explained the construction of his instrument. Different woods are used in each part of the harp for their flexibility or strength. He confessed, “Three trees died to make this harp...it's a total environmental catastrophe!” This drew our attention to our surroundings and made us hear the birds in the trees behind the altar and stained glass.
St Finbar's Catholic Church in Glenbrook, set at the base of the Blue Mountains, is a sensuous modernist space. It's warm in spirit but chilly like any timeless church. Exposed curvaceous sandstone walls merge seamlessly with native wood ceiling. Alternating flat-screened TVs and flat visaged Renaissance pastiches colour the main wall. This building seems to have been designed to house an 1881 ornamental English Organ. The church feels like a cocoon—safe away from the realities of life—the perfect space for Marshall McGuire's intimate reflection.
As the sun came closer to the horizon outside, birds shrieked and squawked as only Australian birds can, without an ounce of song. This concert felt firmly planted in the mountains. Its location was just right for a recital of music that looks back in order to look forward.
Aurora Festival of Living Music: Marshall McGuire, harp recital, St Finbar's Catholic Church, Glenbrook, NSW, May 6; www.auroranewmusic.com.au/
Felicity Clark is a shakuhachi, taiko and recorder player and is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.
RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. web
© Felicity Clark; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org