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Bastards do Dad proud

Keith Gallasch

As Harriet Cunningham reported in New Music in Sydney: a lively corpse? (RT 52), contemporary music doesn’t fare too well in Australia’s biggest city and not for want of trying. However, Ensemble Offspring, a project-based collective of musicians with a commitment to new music, is one of a handful of groups that keeps the scene turning over, this one with idiosyncratic programming and keen audiences. Later this year they’re off to take up invitations to perform in the Warsaw Autumn festival, and in Krakow, London and the Netherlands. Then in November, as part of the New Music Network’s New Music Now series they’ll present the ‘imaginary opera’ of Matthew Shlomowitz, The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Show, which is described as “a double narrative singerless opera exploring the (im)possibility of program music.” The same concert will also feature a multimedia work by composer Barton Staggs and digital artist Justine Cooper (see article). In their most recent concert they explored the work and legacy of idiosyncratic American composer Harry Partch (1901-74) with a day long exhibition of musical sculptures and new instruments and a night-time concert. Partch has no obvious musical heir, but his legacy has been widely distributed and appears in part in the work of many, hence the concert title Partch’s Bastards.

Partch’s percussion-oriented, instrumental inventions were influenced by ancient Grecian and Eastern models and were integral to his music theatre works like the magnificent Delusion of the Fury. Believing that Western music was out of tune, Partch proposed tonal alternatives, creating a rich musical vocabulary of his own, often working with voice, spoken, intoned and sung. In his Illegal Harmonies, Music in the 20th Century, Andrew Ford describes Harry Partch as a key precursor to Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. It was appropriate then for Ensemble Offspring’s concert to open with the composer’s Barstow (1941), a droll musical ‘road movie’ of hitchhiker inscriptions (Partch spent years as a hobo and itinerant worker) for voice and adapted guitar. Performer Christiaan van der Vyver ably rose to the demands of the work’s moments of gospel beauty and personal lament, and folk-tune iterations. The work required the guitar frets to be shifted to realise Partchs’ microtonal tuning. Other ‘instruments’ included 60 ceramic tiles (with a surprising range and sometimes bell-like depth) scratched and tapped in Teguala (2002) by Juan Felipe Waller (Mexico/Netherlands) and wine glasses in Amanda Cole’s Cirrus (2003), rung with fingers, tapped and bowed until they vibrated and whistled, evoking fragile violins and theremins.

The second Partch work, Two Studies in Ancient Greek Scales (1950), deftly executed by Jackie Luke (dulcimer) and Julia Ryder (cello), was a more demanding experience, worth a re-hearing to allow the brain to adjust to its strange tonalities. Christiaan van der Vyver’s ensemble piece, Light Flows Down Day River (2003), was a gently marching, bluesy concoction with an Eastern tang and featured the composer’s home-made xenophone with its bright, rounded notes. With characteristic flair, flautist Kathleen Gallagher brought the requisite theatricality to a Partch evening with her performance of William Brooks’ (US) Whitegold Blue, a relatively abstract piece requiring notes to be bent or plucked from the flute, and the voice to speak, hum and whistle. Lou Harrison’s engaging Canticle No 3 for the largest ensemble of the night (5 percussionists) had its welcome gamelan-ish moments and some notable passages for guitar and ocarina (Gallagher again) and ranged through intimate and huge sounds, pauses and delicate hesitancies. The concert lived up to its subtitle, An alternative world of sounds, and although the tonalities of Partch and his bastards sound for the most part more familiar than they did half a century ago—so broad has our collective musical experience become-there was still much to challenge the well-tuned ear. The excellent program notes were by Rachel Campbell.

Ensemble Offspring, Partch’s Bastards, concert coordinator Damien Rickertson, Paddington Uniting Church, Sydney, May 3

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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