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AS CHRIS REID WRITES IN HIS REVIEW OF THE SOUNDSTREAM NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL (P49), SOME MUSIC HAS TO BE SEEN AND NOT JUST HEARD. BRISBANE-BASED TOPOLOGY’S EAST COAST TOUR GAVE US A LIVE, WORKING BAND WITH A CASUALLY THEATRICAL AND JAZZY SPONTANEITY YOU MIGHT NOT BE EXPECTING FROM THEIR NEW CD, BIG DECISIONS, WHICH OFFERS OTHER PLEASURES. SYDNEY’S HALCYON DELIVERED A MORE FORMAL CONCERT WITH AN OPERATIC INTENSITY IN WORKS WITH BIG AMBITIONS AND VISIBLY COMPLEX INTERPLAY BETWEEN PERFORMERS.

Robert Davidson aside, Topology’s musicians are an unassuming bunch onstage, but the bassist’s amiable mc-ing, occasionally miming to the voices of Australian politicians in his Big Decisions: The Whitlam Dismissal (2000) and having the audience chant “We want Gough!” on cue, add fun to the occasion. The concert opened with Bernard Hoey’s Chop Chop which briskly marshalled a big band sound from small forces. After John Babbage’s lyrical tenor sax realisation of a Pat Nixon aria from John Adams’ Nixon in China (from the Topology CD Perpetual Motion Machine), Hoey’s viola improvisation on Davidson’s Exteriors (a response to Southern Indian temple architecture) ranged through meditative warblings to passionate flourishes supported by tabla-ish taps on Davidson’s double bass. Babbage’s witty arrangement of Cold Chisel’s Cheap Wine starts out 50s cool jazz and then proves Topology can rock.

The concert centrepiece, Big Decisions, was at once entertaining and chilling (it never fails to vividly remind me of that fateful November 11th). Other works on the program were not familiar but excited interest: Babbage musing on the genome (X174; 2003); Davidson dextrously exploiting the Australian-American rhythms and twang of an ex-Brisbane Christian fundamentalist, Ken Ham, who’s now big in the USA (Generation after Generation; 2008); and another Davidson work, Round Roads (2008). The latter was triggered by a bicycle ride in Canberra that recalled childhood life there including a bushfire, the music oscillating between sweet reflectiveness, potent piano-bass propulsion and some dramatic sax interpolations.

The Sydney duo, Halcyon (soprano Alison Morgan, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong) gather composers, instrumentalists and other singers around them to create distinctive, inventive concert programs. Extreme Nature featured bold new works from expat composers recently returned to Australia, Elliott Gyger and Nicholas Vines.

Gyger’s From the Hungry Waiting country (2006) draws on Australian poems (mostly of an older generation: Harwood, Stow, Riddell, Hart-Smith, Buckley, Hope) and Near Eastern religious texts in response to “a profoundly ethical dimension to the emerging ecological crises” (Gyger, program note). Morgan and Duck-Chong were joined by soprano Belinda Montgomery and mezzo Jo Burton to execute the demanding interweaving and layering of texts, surprising glissandi and humming, buzzing insectile vocal noise. Genevieve Lang’s harp entwined beautifully and at times dramatically (buzzing too and twanging) with the singing, making the instrumental interplay with the four superb voices the highlight of the work. It was fascinating to watch the exchanges between these artists, heightened by the various re-groupings of the singers, with the harpist a logical extension of the line-up rather than as sidelined accompanist.

Save for the final text, AD Hope’s Australia (an odd choice, Gyger admits, but deployed to target political rather than intellectual poverty), making sense of the poems is hard work and best left until a recording is made available. Countering Hope’s bitterness, the work ends moving from an almost staccato rendering of lines that then flow into neat harmonies, with an almost Swingle Singers’ jazziness, and a final, musing lyricism. From the Hungry Waiting Country is a complex, consuming work, at once grim and beautiful.

In their onstage intermission dialogue, Gyger and Vines discussed the relationship of their music to “large masses of text.” There was agreement that their approach is “not directly semantic...not every word will be understood, but the work will be ‘semantic’ from a different direction [as] a lattice of reference, starting with poetry that is already complex.” It was suggested that “words are musical regardless of meaning” and that “the poem is a kind of music.”

Nicholas Vines writes that his Torrid Nature Scene (2008) “is at its core a squelchy, lusty romp” but one intended to counter the technologising of our lives and values. In the dialogue with Gyger, Vines said he thought “lush” was not a word typically associated with Australia, but that he wanted to create “a febrile density” in his work, and so he does. The text, a poem by Andrew Robbie, is already dense with ideas and images, and Vines adds nine instrumentalists to engage with Morgan and Duck-Chong. After the opening Wagnerian flourish we are introduced to a sonic world that is certainly lush, rich in operatic soaring, quackings, glides, post-orgasmic gasps, relished words chewed over, and ringing, starry bursts of voices and ensemble as one. In memorable, intense, sustained passages for one singer, the other counters with an undercurrent of noises evocative of nature and the body’s own musical otherworld. Torrid Nature Scene is almost overwhelmingly dense on a first hearing, but its strange beauties are many (its hyper-literary text best left impressionistic). Extreme Nature was an exhilarating if demanding concert, its cogency in no small part the contribution of conductor Matthew Coorey.


At the 2009 Classical Music Awards, Topology picked up the prize for Outstanding Contribution by an Organisation for its inventive 2008 series of collaborations at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Topology will appear with Taikoz and Karak at the Enmore Theatre, November 27, www.enmoretheatre.com.au.

Topology, Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre, Sydney, Aug 20; Halcyon, Extreme Nature, Verbrughen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 7.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 52

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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