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on the tightrope of audience judgement

matthew lorenzon: ensemble offspring, new radicals


ENSEMBLE OFFSPRING’S NEW RADICALS PROGRAM PROMISES TO INTRODUCE NEW AND INSPIRING ART MUSIC TO AUSTRALIAN AUDIENCES. BEYOND THE THREAD OF LO-FI, DIY SOUND SOURCES LINKING THE WORKS, AN AIR OF RISK-TAKING PERVADED THE CONCERT. THE UNUSUAL SOUND SOURCES SUCH AS MEGAPHONES, 78RPM RECORDINGS, BUCKETS, BOTTLES AND SANDPAPER WERE BETTER APPRECIATED IN SOLOS AND DUOS WHERE THE AUDIENCE COULD CLOSELY WATCH THE PERFORMERS STRUGGLING TO CONJURE MUSICAL SOUND FROM THEIR MATERIALS.

Yannis Kyriakides’ Zeimbekiko 1918 is a palimpsest of nostalgia from its eponymous folk tune, through its composed realisation on violin and electric guitar, to the mind of the rapt reviewer sitting in the audience. Kyriakides’ patchwork of slow-attack guitar tones and pealing violin harmonics is based on an old recording of the zeimbekiko aivaliotiko he found while exploring his Cypriot roots. The tune from the town of Ayvalik in Turkey has its own history of memory and loss as Ayvalik’s primarily Greek population was displaced during the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923. To the musicians recording the zeimbekiko aivaliotiko in 1918 New York, however, the tune may have been a more positive organ of memory.

Kyriakides plays on this and his own history of imperfect remembering by cutting up and reordering the phrases of the tune into disjointed gestures and reeling decorative passages. The figures rise out of the hiss of the 78rpm record and repeat indeterminately or disappear never to be heard again. The bright tones of the recording jar against the violin and guitar, which are occupied with painting the past with a wash of long harmonic tones and chords. Already a dated work, the sound world of Kyriakides’ composition held its own nostalgic quality for me.

Written in 1995 and revised in 2001, Zeimbekiko 1918 bears the lo-fi aesthetic, combined classical and rock instrumentation, ponderous tonal minimalism and aching sincerity of its time. In fact the work slightly pre-dates the most successful bands making music in this vein like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Veronique Serret on violin and Zane Banks on guitar matched the sincerity of the music without lapsing into sentimentalism, leaving the work’s emotion to the persistence of each ringing note.

The peculiar thing about Kyriakides’ aesthetic is that it not only paints a picture of nostalgia, suspending you in indefinite dreamy concern, but it is nostalgic to me insofar as I used to listen to an awful lot of this music around the time it was written. Having made this comparison, Kyriakides’ use of fluid meters demonstrates his distance from post-rock reverie and sustains an arresting peculiarity throughout the entire work.

If Kyriakides looks back to a lost time then Turkish-born and Sydney-based Ekrem Mülayim looks forward to one. Having previously invented a culture with a history, language and scripts so that he could imagine the relevant music, Mülayim here invented a new instrument, notation and choreography for percussionist Claire Edwardes. Each of the hand-crocheted gloves has three bells hanging from the tips of the fingers. Seated at a black table Edwardes endeavoured to dextrously strike and dampen each bell according to a unique form of notation combining choreography and sound. The result was beautiful in its simplicity and use of movement, with occasional silent gestures—an upheld hand or a wipe of the forehead—adding to the ceremonial focus of the performance. To watch Edwardes strain to keep the bells from inadvertently striking each other was like watching a shaman conducting a dangerous rite. The magical aura of the performance was only increased by the kick-drum hidden under the table that suddenly began to punctuate the spell.

At the other end of the New Music spectrum was the world premier of New Zealand composer Michael Norris’ Save Yourself, which the composer writes is based on sonic analogues of colour fields over-written with gestures and articulations. This description immediately brings to my mind that terrifying 80s TV show The Mulligrubs, or the seats on public transport. However, instead of Norris’ idea, I heard the timbral washes of the melodica and accordion ‘picking out’ sounds from the ensemble’s tutti chords, sustaining them for inspection like a ninja pulling out his opponent’s heart and presenting it to him as he dies. The struggle with unconventional instrumentation continued with valiant efforts to play the melodica pianissimo. As an ensemble work Save Yourself is a lesson in the economy and honesty of beauty. Nothing falls into the background and the audience follows every step of the way.

The unreliability of Mülayim’s glove-bells made me think of how safe our concert experiences are and how little we expect to go wrong. There is no sense that the virtuoso violinist is really walking a tightrope in that cadenza, or that the ensemble might miscount that 16:23 bar to disastrous effect. Bringing a bit of danger into the concert hall was Ensemble Offspring’s great triumph. Watching a performer struggle with an unusual sound source was the same as listening to a contemporary composer baring his sonic reasoning and putting it on the tightrope of the audience’s open judgement.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 48

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

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