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GROWING UP IN SYDNEY’S SOUTH WESTERN SUBURBS I FELT LIKE CONTEMPORARY CULTURE WAS SOMETHING THAT WAS HAPPENING ELSEWHERE: SOMETHING THAT I WOULD ONLY FIND IF I ESCAPED THE ENNUI OF FIBRO AND BRICK VENEER, HOTTED UP CARS AND UNWALKABLE DISTANCES, TO DWELL IN THE RUNDOWN FEDERATION CHIC, COFFEE SHOP INFESTED, WORLD-AT-YOUR FINGERTIPS INNERCITY. HOWEVER AS WE HAVE ALREADY SEEN IN THE PAGES OF REALTIME, SOUTH WEST AND WESTERN SYDNEY ARE CURRENTLY UNDERGOING A RENAISSANCE WHICH EXTENDS TO THE AREA OF NEW MUSIC.

Directed by Matthew Hindson, 2008 marked the second iteration of the Aurora festival (the inaugural event occurring in 2006), and this year it benefited greatly from a new critical mass of arts venues in the West with programs presented at the Campbelltown and Blacktown Arts Centres, Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (Penrith), Parramatta Riverside and the Parramatta campus of the University of Western Sydney. However the Aurora festival is significant not only because of its geographical placement but also due to its endeavour to present new music by living composers, with a healthy number of those being Australian.

Crash, Bang, Swoon

Crash, Bang Swoon by Bernadette Balkus (piano) and Claire Edwardes (percussion) featured the works of six composers, two of whom were so alive as to be present, offering introductions to their pieces. The concert commenced vibrantly with Alex Pozniak’s The Tower of Erosion. Inspired by a rocky cliff face on Sydney’s northern beaches, the piece comprises ‘cells’ of music that build up and disintegrate. The interplay of piano and percussion is fluid, with parallel rhythms breaking up into sharp jazzy syncopations; cymbals and snare rising and crashing like waves, working against the structure, literally and metaphorically. Pozniak spoke of drawing inspiration from noise artists such as Japan’s Merzbow and this contemporary influence came across in his attention to texture, making the work evocative without becoming illustrative.

New Zealand composer John Psathas’ Fragment (2001) is indeed that: short, delicate and sweet. Adapted from a piano duet the piece begins with gentle chords as the vibraphone carries the melodic line, and then the roles are swapped. When asked about the unusual coupling of piano and percussion in one of the made-for-radio introductions (several Aurora concerts were broadcast on ABC Classic FM), Claire Edwardes said that she was particularly attracted to the configuration as it allowed the musicians to be equal partners. Fragment certainly illustrated the lyrical possibilities of this coupling.

Edwardes presented solo pieces for marimba by Japanese composer Keiko Abe. Memories from the Seashore (1986) capitalised on the woody qualities of the instrument—the hollow clatter and deep warm undertones—playing a sweet, almost sentimental motif of rising and falling phrases. The second piece, Vase (1986), was sharper, more intellect than emotion, using harder mallets in an ambivalent ode to a Japanese urn.

US composer Kevin Puts’ Alternating Current (1997) was Balkus’ choice for a solo. Instead of fighting against the weight of the classical piano repertoire, Puts works within the style of three greats—Bach, Beethoven and Prokofiev—but introduces the element of alternating meters and modes. The work is almost pastiche, yet offers far more intrigue—what we think we know and understand is permeated by strange pulses and contemporary melodic phrases that slip around in the work, insistent but hard to catch. It’s also a piece requiring virtuosic skill which Balkus did not fail to deliver.

Cyrus Meurant was also present (along with Pozniak) to introduce the world premier of his piece Ritournelle (2008), interrogating the various musical meanings of that term from a refrain, a song, to an instrumental repeat. The piece played with roles of leading and accompaniment between piano and tuned percussion, with surprising shifts, and dynamic changes from wistful to rousingly robust.

The consummate skills of Edwardes and Balkus were confirmed by the final work, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Axe Manual (2000). This is a difficult to play, some would say difficult to listen to work, spiky and agitated with the percussion and piano joining together through pulses. Edwardes works her way systematically around the range of her instruments from the driving woodblock section to the strident drums, and everything in between, supported and provoked by Balkus’ piano. It was an appropriate conclusion to a smartly curated concert of challenging and beguiling works from two inspiring performers.

Car Orchestra

A truly accessible event in Aurora was the outdoor spectacle of the Car Orchestra, presenting Michael Atherton’s Utility HoRn GrOoVe, a piece for funk band, rap MC’s, a mag wheel gamelan and five fetishised Ford Utilities. Bringing together a range of participants from UWS Macarthur Drum Academy, the Fisher’s Ghost Youth Orchestra and the NSW Ute Club, the event enthusiastically explored the integration of car horns and indeed car ballet into a kind of funky, hip hop, musical melange held together by Atherton as the dancing conductor. A family oriented event, the Car Orchestra certainly broadened the audience demographic for this new music festival.

I couldn’t stay for more of Aurora at Campbelltown Art Centre as I had to hit the highway and flee back into the innercity to catch What is Music? This has been a big month for festivals. Perhaps by the next Aurora, the innercity monopoly on the cultural pulse of the new music and sound art will be well and truly broken. Already in 2008 the NOW now festival relocated itself to Wentworth Falls—maybe the cultural map, (along with many of our assumptions) is finally set to be redrawn.


Aurora, Crash Bang Swoon, Bernadette Balkus, Claire Edwares; Car Orchestra, Utility HoRn GrOoVe, musical director Michael Atherton; Campbelltown Arts Centre, April 12

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 47

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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