|Leah Scholes, Eugene Ughetti & Matthias Schack-Arnott; Speak Percussion, MaerzMusik Festival|
photo Yvonne Mohr
In March, Australian ensemble Speak Percussion came to Berlin to present a program as part of Maerzmusic—one of Germany’s largest and most diverse festivals of new music. Before the festival, I met with Eugene Ughetti, the artistic director of Speak (the ensemble also includes Leah Scholes and Matthias Shack-Arnott), to talk about how it sounds to be Australian on an international stage. “I’m wanting to offer a fresh language,” says Ughetti. “I don’t want something any European ensemble could duplicate.”
Speak’s program presented pieces by four of Australia’s premier composers, Anthony Pateras, Thomas Meadowcroft, Matthew Schlomowitz and Rohan Drape (it’s worth noting, however, that only Drape still lives in Australia). What united Speak’s program, other than being simply works by Australian composers, was the focus on novel orchestration taken by each of the four. “There’s a playfulness in the program that is quite Australian,” says Ughetti. “There are risks, but not calculated, Stockhausen-esque risks. Fun risks.”
Drape’s See, Hearer, Clearer (2012) showed remarkable economy of orchestration. All three members of Speak huddled around a single vibraphone, teasing out tones and chords to hold the middle voice between prerecorded piano material and sine-tone shading. In Schlomowitz’s Popular Contexts Vol. 6 (2013), a sampler, vibraphone and drum kit provided an impossible collage of gestures from jazz, rock and daytime television. In Hypnagogics (2005) by Pateras and two pieces by Meadowcroft (Cradle, 2013 and The Great Knot, 2011) much of the orchestration centred on everyday objects from suburban Australia as well as shot glasses, espresso cups, two beautiful Revox tape-machines etc. In Pateras’ Hypnagogics, these ready-mades were abstracted to pure sound but in Meadowcroft’s pieces they doubled as cultural trigger points. These broader associations are an important part of his music, lending it a beautiful, private quality. There was a real joy in being able to exactly picture Meadowcroft sitting at home, tuning wine glasses or shaking tins of marbles to ensure that every sound sat just so.
Fittingly for Speak, this year’s Maerz festival had a particular focus on percussion. The festival opened with two percussion concerts back-to-back: Dutch group, Slagwerk Den Haag performed Michael Gordon’s Timber (2009) before Robyn Schulkowsky and Joey Baron performed pieces by Christian Wolff and several of their own improvisations. This was a nice piece of programming. Both performances were immediately identifiable as American and yet sounded nothing alike. In Timber, six percussionists stood in a tight circle, summoning thick brambles of cross rhythms from a set of simantras (resonant planks of wood). Though Slagwerk’s performance was exceptional, and the piece has some interesting ideas, at an hour’s duration there was a feeling that Timber’s limited materials weren’t enough to support its hefty structure. Where Slagwerk was static and minimalist, Schulkowsky and Baron were vigorous and loaded with ideas. Baron’s playing is jazzy and angular, Schulkowsky’s classily poised and teeming with energy. Their two languages are more interesting at the points where they veer away from one another rather than where they converge.
Two days later Christian Dierstein delved further into percussion’s theatrical possibilities. In Lucia Ronchetti’s Helicopters and Butterflies (2012), Dierstein climbed ladders, yelled monologues and spilled loose objects over drums. In Daniel Ott’s questromung 2 (2011), he swung cymbals suspended from industrial-looking ropes. Here, one could find those “Stockhausen-esque risks.” They may not be ‘fun’ per se, but there is magnetism.
Robyn Schulkowsky made a second appearance later in the festival as percussion soloist with the Konzerthuas Orchestra performing Air (1968) by German composer Helmut Lacheman. Air’s key concerns were spatial—percussion sounds skittered through the orchestra while harmonic colours smeared gradually across the stage. The Konzerthaus Orchestra’s program finished on US-resident British composer Brian Ferneyhough’s orchestral behemoth, Firecycle Beta (five conductors, 10 percussionist, four keyboardist and string orchestra, 1969-71) Despite its many moving parts, Firecycle Beta is an elegant machine and the five conductors worked the orchestra like interlocking gears to dizzying effect.
Though Mearz was held mostly in concert halls, the festival (somewhat surprisingly) also hosted three concerts at Berghain, Berlin’s most (in)famous Techno club. When it’s not hosting pansexual, free-for-all dance parties, Berghain is a spectacular venue for new music. The retro-futuristic PA system in a hollowed out former power plant makes it feel like a missing scene from Blade Runner. There, I caught Thomas Ankersmitt’s Stress Patterns (2012). Ankersmitt performed on a modular synthesiser (“a dinosaur of the digital age,” declared the concert program), working masterfully through the carcass of this early machine, extracting squealing high tones and liquid rushes of noise.
On the second Friday night, the festival got its moment of new music rock-stardom with Steve Reich and Beryl Knot’s 1993 video oratorio The Cave (1990-93). The piece is a modern re-interpretation of the biblical tale of Abraham, with Hagar recast as a jilted black woman and Ishmael becoming ‘the James Dean of the Old Testament.’ The oratorio takes a documentarian approach, with fragments of recorded interviews looped and reinforced by the acoustic ensemble—the same technique Reich used on Different Trains and WTC 9/11. Repetition is, of course, the central trope of Reich’s music and he’s certainly not shy about repeating himself between pieces as well. In The Cave, however, there wasn’t much learned in this repetition and the use of video served mostly as a distraction, heightening the disconnection between the interviews and the acoustic ensemble.
Perhaps it’s anachronistic to think of music as having a national voice. Certainly, any composer today with a decent internet connection is no longer limited to any one country’s influence. It’s a hard notion to shake though, and since leaving Australia I’ve become increasingly aware of some element of Australian new music that I seldom hear in Berlin. Ughetti calls it “a casual multiculturalism”—this willingness of Australian new music practitioners to strip some of the purist underpinnings from classical, jazz, noise, visual art etc and to allow these conflicting narratives to intermingle without inhibitions. Australia is a big place, there is room enough for contradictions.
Maerzmusik 2013: various venues, Berlin, 15-24 March; berlinerfestspiele.de
Henry Andersen is a composer and sound artist from Perth, Western Australia. He currently resides in Berlin where he is studying with composer Peter Ablinger.
RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 43
© Henry Andersen; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com