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stephen whittington: musical renewal

chris reid: composer profile; john cage day


Stephen Whittington with a daruma illustration, Japan Stephen Whittington with a daruma illustration, Japan
courtesy the artist
ADELAIDE PERFORMER, COMPOSER, LECTURER, CRITIC AND DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE’S ELECTRONIC MUSIC UNIT (EMU), STEPHEN WHITTINGTON MARKED JOHN CAGE’S 100TH BIRTHDAY WITH A MAGNIFICENT TRIBUTE CONCERT THAT COMMENCED AT NOON WITH WHITTINGTON’S EIGHT-HOUR PERFORMANCE OF CAGE’S ASLSP (AS SLOW AS POSSIBLE) ON THE UNIVERSITY’S ELDER HALL ORGAN.

Herculean musical performances are not unexpected with Whittington. Most prominent publicly as a performer, he has given some landmark recitals and is internationally renowned for his renditions of the work of Morton Feldman and of Erik Satie’s Vexations.

Whittington’s performance work is broadly of two kinds: firstly, solo performances of significant and often impossibly demanding works, especially of extended pieces such as Vexations; and secondly his multi-dimensional presentations of the work and ideas of some ground-breaking artists and composers, such as Stan Brakhage, John Cage and, again, Satie. The recent John Cage Day embodied both kinds of event, with Whittington centrestage as performer and artistic director.

Whittington’s solo performances typically take the audience, and himself, on a journey. These are about the act of performance as well as about the composer-composition. Often, both performer and audience enter what Whittington suggests is “a certain mental space—you become attuned to a certain state to experience something unusual.” The mental state the audience enters can provide a unique kind of awareness, a possible outcome of which is the reconsideration of the nature of awareness itself, especially musical awareness.

Whittington is also a composer and considers that provides essential insights into the performance of another composer’s work: “Playing like a composer is having a sense of the form and the ideas in the work rather than aiming for technical perfection.” Not that his playing lacks technical perfection—he is a pianist of the highest order, a remarkable achievement given the competing pressures of other work. Im sportantly, his playing reveals the quintessential musicality within the composition. For me, his 1999 performance of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus (RT32, Aug-Sept, 1999) was a musical epiphany.

Christopher Roberts, Stephen Whittington, John Cage Day Christopher Roberts, Stephen Whittington, John Cage Day
photo Justin Phelps


Whittington’s showcase events are more than concerts. Multimedia presentations, such as his The Music of Light, which explored the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (2011, RT102), Mad Dogs and Surrealists (2003) and Interior Voice: Music and Rodin (2006), provide incisive and original analyses of the works of significant composers, artists and artistic movements. In these he is “composer-curator,” as well as performer, in that the design of the event constitutes a unique work greater than the sum of its components. He particularly wants to bring to audiences important but often little-known music.

He considers that his composition, performance, criticism and teaching are all aspects of the same thing: “There is no clear separation between them. In the West, we tend to specialise these days, but, traditionally, they all go together.” He has recently returned from two months in Kyoto where he explored Japanese gardens to inspire new musical composition. Funded by the Bank of Tokyo through Arts SA, the trip involved immersion in Japanese culture, including time spent in temples, in order to think about composition in relation to other artistic forms.

Stephen Whittington, ringing the bell at Miidera Buddhist temple, Japan Stephen Whittington, ringing the bell at Miidera Buddhist temple, Japan
courtesy the artist


His long-standing interest in Asian cultures is reflected for example in his 1999 composition Tangled Hair for voice, flute and piano, four exquisite song settings of poems by Japanese women from the seventh to the 19th centuries. Or there is his string quartet, From a Thatched Hut (2010), an exploration of the Chinese tradition of the poet-scholar. “I’m interested in Chinese poetry and its connection with nature, and the reduction of expression to simple means. Some things look simple but are the result of complex processes and thought.”

At EMU, Whittington teaches composition, performance and the use of electronic media. He feels that composition has become a form of research in which theory is used to justify the content. “I’m not comfortable with this, as it denies the natural process of composition, whereby theory informs but doesn’t dictate the outcome.” Through EMU, Whittington is encouraging consideration of the relationship between sonic and visual material, for example through making animations. “Computers lend themselves to this, as images can be turned into sound using software. EMU is taking advantage of new technology and exploring what is possible artistically. Students are partly concerned with job prospects but they also like to experiment, for example with site-specific work or with performance techniques or interactivity.” In his 2011 concert Psychedelic Rays of Sound (the title borrowed from Damien Hirst), EMU staff (including himself) and students presented compositions responding to the Saatchi exhibition then showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia, using an eclectic array of devices and audio-visual approaches. Importantly at EMU, there is emphasis on the reconsideration and renewal of musical traditions. Cage’s legacy is clearly crucial, and Whittington repeats Cage’s declaration that music will wither and die without renewal.

I was able to listen to ASLSP only for an hour, but still became immersed in the endlessly prolonged tones and vibrant timbres of the cathedral-sized Elder Hall organ, losing all sense of time. Whittington feels eight hours is the right length for a performance of ASLSP, both for himself as performer and for the composition, even though it can be performed over a much shorter or longer period.

Meredith Lane (electronics), Margit Bruenner (drawing), Christopher Roberts (bass), Al Thumm (electronics), Kate Macfarlane (voice), Peter Handsworth (clarinet), Melanie Walters (flutes), Daniel Thorpe (chess), Jesse Budel (cake-making), John Cage Day Meredith Lane (electronics), Margit Bruenner (drawing), Christopher Roberts (bass), Al Thumm (electronics), Kate Macfarlane (voice), Peter Handsworth (clarinet), Melanie Walters (flutes), Daniel Thorpe (chess), Jesse Budel (cake-making), John Cage Day
photo Justin Phelps


ASLSP was followed by a performance of Cage’s Musicircus, which the composer instructed could be performed by any number of musicians and be of indeterminate duration. Whittington determined that it should last an hour. It comprised Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, here performed on flute, clarinet, double bass and piano; Aria 2 and Aria 2B from Song Books, performed wonderfully by soprano Kate MacFarlane; Theatre Pieces/Solos for Electronics, including EMU student Al Thumm’s brilliant electronics, a performer playing chess by himself and another baking a cake with birthday candles; Suite for Toy Piano (Whittington on celeste); Cheap Imitation (Whittington, piano); 0’00” (amplified drawing, remixed); Williams Mix (tape); and a recording of Cage’s lectures I-IV. This theatrical mélange, though much guided by chance and loaded with humour and experimentation, resolved itself into a surprisingly coherent and musical whole, neatly drawing together many of Cage’s ideas.

Musicircus was then followed by Whittington’s performance of the piano version of Cage’s The Seasons (1947), a nine-movement ballet score. To conclude the day appropriately, all the Musicircus performers returned for a rendition of 4’33”, during which Elder Hall was unusually quiet, the audience sitting in reverential silence.

Whittington observes that audiences today are attending concerts of work previously considered difficult or inaccessible. These audiences are young, not always from a classical background but perhaps from an experimental rock background and have no musical prejudices. Crucially important in such audience development has been the educative role of consummate musicians such as Stephen Whittington.


John Cage Day, concept, organ, piano, celeste Stephen Whittington, double bass Christopher Roberts, clarinet Peter Handsworth, flute Melanie Walters, soprano Kate McFarlane, electronics Iran Sanadzadeh, electronics Al Thumm, chess board Daniel Thorpe, food preparation Jesse Budel, drawing Margit Bruenner, electronics Meredith Lane, Elder Hall, University of Adelaide, 5 September 5, 2012

This article originally appeared in RT's online e-dition Sept 18

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 47

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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