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A VITALLY IMPORTANT CHAMPION OF NEW MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA FOR 21 YEARS, THE ELISION ENSEMBLE STAGED THREE
Marilyn Nonken, Elision Ensemble Marilyn Nonken, Elision Ensemble
photo Sharka Bosokova
CONCERTS IN MELBOURNE AS PART OF AN EXTENSIVE NATIONAL TOUR, INCLUDING WORKS BY REGULAR COMPOSERS LIZA LIM, JOHN ROGERS, RICHARD BARRETT AND CHRIS DENCH, AND ESPECIALLY FOREGROUNDING THE WORK OF US COMPOSER AARON CASSIDY AND POLISH COMPOSER (AND SOMETIME AUSTRALIAN RESIDENT) DOMINIK KARSKI.

ELISION players are renowned for bringing off difficult and inaccessible work, often in association with visual and other art forms. As well as showcasing some demanding new composition, this season emphasised clarity and virtuosity in instrumental performance.

vca, university of melbourne

The VCA concert comprised mainly solo performances of works that emphasised playing technique. This was evident from the opening work, the premiere of Dominik Karski’s ethereal open cluster M45 (2003), which was inspired by the constellation Pleiades. For amplified bass flute, it explores fully the instrument’s sonority and timbre, receiving an enchanting performance from flautist Liz Hirst. John Rodgers’ fiery Ciacco (1999), personifying the hog from Dante’s Inferno, is no less demanding, and bass clarinettist Richard Haynes was superb, ably shifting from the highest to the lowest pitches in consecutive notes and producing the multiphonics and overtones that evoke the snorting, squealing and howling of the monster of hell.

Violinist Susan Pierotti gave us Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina—Study for the Violin (1986), which requires the performer to pluck, poke and prod the instrument—everything but conventional bowing. Composer Liza Lim’s two works—Ming Qi (2000) for oboe and percussion, and Shimmer (2004) for solo oboe—make great demands of the oboist. Ming Qi, inspired by a Chinese tomb, is an intense but engaging work with a forceful oboe line, wonderfully carried by Peter Veale, which overlays the measured percussion. ELISION’s Artistic Director Daryl Buckley suggested that the VCA concert was intended to emphasise the timbre of the instruments and solo virtuosity. The recital had the flavour of a masterclass, demonstrating the musicality that can be achieved through unconventional playing techniques. Listener attention shifts back and forth between the composition, the playing and the resonance and character of the instrument itself.

australian national academy of music

Buckley introduced ELISION’s ANAM concert by coining the word ‘hypervirtuosic’ as an appropriate descriptor, and it is. The two performers—Haynes, on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Carl Rosman, on clarinet and contrabass clarinet and, in two works, singing a falsetto alto—brought extraordinary dynamism to their performances. Such music couldn’t work without this level of musicianship. They opened with venerable US composer Elliott Carter’s Hiyoku (2001), an engaging clarinet duet with intertwining melodic lines. The evening also included the premiere of Chris Dench’s absorbing new work The Sum of Histories (2006/7), for bass and contrabass clarinets, which was inspired by physicist Richard Feynman’s term for the multiple ways in which sub-atomic particles can decay. Scored for the two largest of wind instruments, which are rarely used for solo performance, The Sum of Histories is a poetically lyrical work, stentorian but finely controlled.

Two knockout works were those in which Rosman exercised his vocal showmanship: Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (2006/7), another premiere, and Richard Barrett’s Interference (2000). Cassidy’s piece, for unaccompanied high male voice, requires the performer to monitor a computer-generated random pitch line through an earphone and sing that line while pronouncing fragments of words derived from texts by Arthur Rimbaud and Christian Bök. Cassidy’s work addresses their translation and, in the absence of conventional verbal meaning, Rosman’s declamatory voice delivers a powerful emotional impact, extending the consideration of verbalisation and sound poetry since Kurt Schwitters and the Dadaists. The randomness of the pitch line ensures the work is never rendered the same way twice. Barrett’s Interference (2000) is based on a text by Lucretius and is set for falsetto voice alternating with contrabass clarinet and accompanied by kick-drum, and Rosman’s theatrical one-man-band effort is electrifying.

abc iwaki auditorium

This ABC live-to-air concert opened with Genevieve Lacey’s rendition of Liza Lim’s delightful weaver-of-fictions (2007), written for the Ganassi recorder which was popular in Renaissance Venice. The recorder is a larger than conventional one, with a sound approaching that of the shakuhachi. It can render gentle, mediative lines with a rich sonority and support compositional gymnastics including clearly articulated multiphonics. The instrument used is an Australian made alto and hopefully its revival will stimulate further compositional interest. The concert also included Cassidy’s asphyxia (2000) for solo soprano saxophone (Haynes), a physically demanding work that incorporates into the musical material playing techniques such as breathing through the instrument and fingering notes without breathing, and legendary US-based UK composer Brian Ferneyhough’s dramatic and highly complex La Chute d’Icare (1988) for clarinet (Rosman) and the Ensemble.

The central work was the premiere of Karski’s larger ensemble composition, The Source Within (2006). Commissioned by ELISION, The Source Within is, in effect, three quintets performed sequentially, each of which comprises three different quartets of instruments together with piano (Marilyn Nonken)—firstly, flute, guitar, harp and violin; then clarinet, contrabass clarinet, horn and cello; and finally, trumpet, trombone, oboe and percussion. Karski’s work is intense, evocative and demanding for performers and audience, each movement establishing four instrumental lines that build independently on the piano element. The complex and often contrasting voicing produces some unique sonorities and textures. The ensemble works draw together the extreme techniques of the solo works, demanding virtuosic playing to realise their musicality, and under French conductor Jean Deroyer, ELISION carry off these pieces wonderfully.

Concerts such as these consolidate the musical languages that emerge from compositional and performance development, and, especially when supported by radio broadcasting, strengthen public appreciation. Buckley’s thoughts behind the programming for this series were to bring together the musicians (many of whom are often overseas) and the composers, and to showcase particular instrumental combinations and techniques—an interweaving of musical ideas. The new works from Karski, Lim, Dench and Cassidy are terrific, and contrasting them with the more established Ferneyhough and Carter works identifies some current directions in composition, Cassidy for example incorporating unconventional performative techniques and Karski devising elaborate formal structures. With the predominance of wind instruments, the compositional use of controlled instrumental multiphonics and the emphasis on timbre are consistent threads.


ELISION Ensemble, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, May 22; Australian National Academy of Music, May 24; ABC Iwaki Auditorium, May 26

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 52

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

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