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BIFEM 2016

BIFEM 2016’s unprecedented scale and vision

Matthew Lorenzon: festival overview

James Wannan (viola d’amore), Argonaut Ensemble, Decadent Purity, BIFEM 2016 James Wannan (viola d’amore), Argonaut Ensemble, Decadent Purity, BIFEM 2016
Jason Taverner Photography

The 2016 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music explored extremes of scale, from experiments in the macro-organisation of orchestras to the barely audible micro-sounds of violins. This fourth and largest instalment of the festival included works of unprecedented scale and vision thanks to the involvement of globetrotting new music heroes ELISION, an augmented Argonaut Ensemble, the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra and students from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). Despite the rare and valuable opportunities to hear new works for large ensembles, the festival’s coveted solo showcase recitals and string quartet program were once again the talk of the festival club.

This year BIFEM’s house band the Argonaut Ensemble reached chamber orchestra proportions, a size the festival’s artistic director David Chisholm hopes to sustain independently of the festival when he leaves the directorship in a few years. Argonaut launched the festival with two double concertos by Chisholm himself and the director of Sydney Chamber Opera, Jack Symonds. Though beautiful examples of chamber orchestration, both pieces demonstrated conspicuous imbalances between their solo instruments, with Symonds’ Decadent Purity foregrounding the glorious resonance and string-crossings of James Wannan’s viola d’amore over Kaylie Melville’s percussion part. Chisholm’s Harp Guitar Double Concerto included a brilliant cadenza for harpist Jessica Fotinos that could easily be a standalone piece, while Mauricio Carrasco’s guitar part, already struggling to be heard above the harp, was given a more concise solo statement.

Rehearsal, ELISION Ensemble and Wu Wei, How Forests Think Rehearsal, ELISION Ensemble and Wu Wei, How Forests Think
Jason Taverner Photography

ELISION are celebrating their 30th anniversary in Australia after the better part of a decade working intensively with leading composers in Europe and the US. They are a natural fit for Australia’s most ambitious contemporary art music festival and delivered on their reputation with a world premiere of Liza Lim’s How Forests Think featuring sheng master Wu Wei. Informed by Eduardo Kohn’s book of the same title about the subterranean communications systems of trees, and completed by the composer in the presence of the Amazon rainforest, the piece evokes all the wonder and quiet terror of the natural world. The world premiere of Aaron Cassidy’s The Wreck of Former Boundaries provided a suitably unrestrained counterpoint to Lim’s musical poise. Two concerts presented in collaboration with students from ANAM and conducted by Carl Rosman brought to Victoria much appreciated performances of Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead—featuring some truly hair-raising writing for bowed piano—and Enno Poppe’s musical meditation on memory, Speicher.

Solo showcase concerts have become such an important fixture at BIFEM that this year Peter de Jager’s program of Xenakis keyboard works and Leah Scholes’ performance of choreographic percussion pieces were both performed twice with minimal intervals. Both programs gave the impression of high-wire tightrope acts, with Scholes’ masterful coordination with tape parts and second percussionist Louise Devenish leaving the audience awestruck. As well as courting musical danger, Scholes walked a fine dramatic line between humour and profound fear and anger. In text-based works by François Sarhan and Kate Neal, Scholes not only commanded the audience as a musician, but also as an actor.

If the complexity of Xenakis’ scores prohibited most of the audience from fully appreciating the tightrope of de Jager’s performance (though greater musical minds assured me it was technically almost faultless), they could be in no doubt as to its physical and mental demands. That de Jager was able to perform three hours of Xenakis without breaking a sweat was almost unsettling. Two of the pieces, Khoaï and Naama, were performed on a 20th century harpsichord, an instrument so rare that one had to be imported from Tasmania. The instrument has pedals to change registers and is larger and more robust than the baroque harpsichord, with a rich, almost electronic tone.

Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, BIFEM 2016 Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, BIFEM 2016
Jason Taverner Photography

This year the Argonaut String Quartet (Erkki Veltheim, Elizabeth Welsh, Graeme Jennings and Judith Hamman) spent most of their time in the realm of whispering bowings and harmonics. In the case of Chisholm’s Bound South the restriction to use only the lowest strings of the instruments and the quietest dynamic markings produced a piece of superb focus and discipline. Pedro Alvarez’s Étude Oblique I and Sergio Luque’s Through Empty Space were by turns brooding and metallic meanderings in the meditative spectrum of string quartet writing. Erkki Veltheim’s explosive Glossolalia provided a welcome contrast.

XXXX Live Nude Girls!!, Argonaut Ensemble, BIFEM 2016 XXXX Live Nude Girls!!, Argonaut Ensemble, BIFEM 2016
Jason Taverner Photography

BIFEM continued its commitment to contemporary musical theatre and opera with Irish composer Jennifer Walshe’s junk-opera XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! Promising nudity but delivering a deconstruction of intimate partner violence, XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! dares the audience to laugh at the deadly serious. Using a Barbie mansion as a puppet theatre, a Barbie doll with a beard sends another doll flying from a second-storey window. Rose petals are dropped on her, pooling like blood. A toy ambulance comes to pick up the body. This moment entails a fit of nervous laughter from the audience. When a puppeteer’s booted heel crushes the doll even this laughter dissipates, the line between the toys and human figures all but disappearing. Similarly, an excruciatingly extended rape scene only serves to highlight the reality of intimate partner rape. The dolls are an important conceit in getting the audience to this point. Would an opera marketed without such levity be as enthusiastically attended? But with its snippets of mainstream radio and sitcom accents, it is too easy for a contemporary music audience to dismiss domestic violence as a mainstream issue. It does not hold up a mirror to the contemporary arts world, which is not untouched by intimate partner violence.

Myriam Gourfink, Kaspar Toeplitz, Data_Noise, BIFEM 2016 Myriam Gourfink, Kaspar Toeplitz, Data_Noise, BIFEM 2016
Jason Taverner Photography

Two programs combining noise and dance by Myriam Gourfink and Kasper T Toeplitz pushed the limits of the very slow and the very loud. In Data_Noise and Ascension in Noise, the shifting textures of Toeplitz’s synthesised noise met their choreographic match in Gourfink’s micro-movements. In Data_Noise sensors on Gourfink’s arms and legs controlled sand-blasting granular-synthesis sounds, while in Ascension in Noise hundreds of oscillators made their way from very low to very high pitches over several hours, while Gourfink moved ever so slowly in the space. Toeplitz and Gourfink’s focused simplicity provided moments of respite from the complexity of BIFEM’s program of notated music. The noise duo Sister (Marco Cher-Gibard and Ben Speth) provided a very different experience, blasting the audience with feedback and processed guitar while Matthew Adey improvised lighting design by deploying fluorescent lights and gels around the space. Adey’s creative lighting designs were so affecting that this duo properly deserves to be a trio.

After a weekend of performances by dedicated new music ensembles, it was refreshing to close the festival with the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra performing Michel and André Décosterd’s PHO:TON for orchestra and solo keyboard. The keyboardist (Peter Dumsday) triggers lights above the orchestral performers, with each key lighting up a single instrumentalist. The light is a cue for the performer to play a musical module. Single figures appear and disappear out of the darkness, revealing not the preened homogeneity of a contemporary music ensemble, but the whole range of demographics that make up a community orchestra. The rhythmic patterns of the lights and music are hypnotic, with criss-crossing, diagonal and meandering lines moving across the ensemble. For a festival that receives and gives back so much to its local community I cannot imagine a more fitting ending.

Bendigo Symphony Orchestra & Peter Dumsday (piano), pho:ton, BIFEM 2016 Bendigo Symphony Orchestra & Peter Dumsday (piano), pho:ton, BIFEM 2016
Jason Taverner Photography

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music 2016, Bendigo, 2-4 Sept

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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