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Soloist Graeme Jennings, Elision Ensemble Soloist Graeme Jennings, Elision Ensemble
photo Marc Grimwade
RICHARD HAYNES MAKES THE E-FLAT CLARINET TALK IN HIS ENCHANTING RENDITION OF MICHAEL FINNISSY’S MARRNGU. IN THE YOLGNU DREAMTIME TRADITION MARRNGU IS THE POSSUM MAN, AND FINNISSY’S WORK IS ABOUT MARRNGU’S STORY, A STORY TOLD IN MUSIC RATHER THAN SPOKEN WORD.

Finnissy’s 1982 composition resembles speech in its lilting, dramatic tones, gathering in intensity and emotion as the story unfolds, the linear phrasing mimicking an emphatic story-teller. Though smaller and higher pitched than the more common B-flat clarinet, the E-flat clarinet has a rich, creamy sound that is particularly evocative in suggesting the human voice. Haynes builds deep, complex character into the music, and his playing of this demanding work is effortless and beguiling.

Elision concerts are like no others—showcases of exquisitely crafted works for solo instruments or small ensembles that push the limits of instrumental performance. This evening was set out as two one-hour concerts, each of five short works written between 1981 and 2009. The selection especially showed how instruments can express the human voice and tell a story.

The first concert opened with Tristram Williams’ solo trumpet performance of Liza Lim’s Wild Winged-One (2007), which Lim reworked from her opera The Navigator. The trumpet represents the Angel of History, which, according to the program notes, is a “half-human half-animal bird figure of prophecy and witness.” Williams creates a language of sound forms, combining breathing through the trumpet with scatty motifs to form a kind of declamatory speech. This was followed by Richard Barrett’s inward (1994-95), a kind of dialogue that opens with gently tinkling percussion (Peter Neville) followed by a long, lyrical exposition for flute (Paula Rae). Again the performer’s own voice is heard through the instrument. The dialogue is ultimately an internal one, a troubled soliloquy culminating in a long, high exclamation.

For Jeroen Speak’s Silk Dialogue VI (2007), scored for string quartet, E-flat clarinet, flute and five snare drums, the six performers are seated in a semi-circle, and between each is a drum they beat periodically to mark each section of the work. These forceful junctures frame the music as a series of discrete, almost visibly geometric shapes, culminating in a drum crescendo as if concluding a story told in exquisite drawings. The E-flat clarinet part leads the work, and Speak’s writing for it is persuasive—it was commissioned by Haynes, who is again brilliant, and, for me, Silk Dialogue VI is the centrepiece of the evening. The writing is finely crafted and the threads are densely woven yet light and airy, creating musical forms that swirl around. The conductor, Hamish McKeich, holds it all together wonderfully.

The first concert concluded with another extended solo work—Roger Ramsgate’s Ausgangspunkte (1981-82), a very intense piece for oboe that requires a herculean effort from the performer, Peter Veale. The work is complex and detailed, requiring almost as much concentration from the listener as from the performer.

The second concert opened with Benjamin Marks’ Perdix (2009) for trumpet and vibraphone, though the latter comes in only towards the end, gently cooling a very heated trumpet solo. The writing is agitated but quizzical, again a kind of soliloquy, but calm is restored at the conclusion. This is followed by Graeme Jennings performance of Liza Lim’s Philtre (1997) for solo Hardanger violin, a more introspective piece that exploits the unique resonances that emerge from the violin’s sympathetic strings.

Richard Barrett’s Wound (2009), for violin, cor anglais, E-flat clarinet and cello, was evidently influenced by the paintings of Francis Bacon in which the action is framed within the canvas. The violinist stands opposite the other performers in animated exchange with them, and, for me, the composition posits the violin as interviewee and the other instruments as inquisitors, or perhaps the violin as a bird and the others as its cage. The human voice proper reappears in Robert Dahm’s absorbing work the flesh is grammar (2009), for a wind and brass septet that includes contraforte, a reed instrument that produces the deepest notes. The text in the work is whispered or spoken by the performers, combining with densely layered instrumental textures to produce a juicily corporeal effect. Your attention shifts back and forth between the compositional structure and the instrumental timbres and resonances, with the personality of each instrument becoming a character in a play.

In many works, the performer complements the composer by developing novel techniques to realise new musical forms and new aesthetics. Elision concerts are precious opportunities for the creation and performance of innovative music by the best composers. They demand virtuosic playing and reward committed listening.


Elision Ensemble in Session, live broadcast, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Centre, Southbank, Melbourne, July 28

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 51

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

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