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Eine Brise, Maurice Kagel Eine Brise, Maurice Kagel
photo Jason Tavener
The second Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM) took place over a gloriously sunny weekend in the gold mining town of Bendigo. For those who have not visited Bendigo before (it was my first time), it is one of the best-preserved gold-rush towns in Australia with grandiose public buildings and sprawling parks. The Victorian public works somehow perfectly suited Australia’s most intense contemporary music festival.

It is not easy to ‘dip into’ BIFEM, as one is swept along a schedule of back-to-back concerts, panels, workshops and community events over three short days. The effect is ultimately challenging and stimulating, offering new perspectives on music to audiences, performers and composers alike.

Beyond the guest artists, the festival’s main attraction is its program of new and classic works of the 20th century curated by the festival’s Director David Chisholm. Geneva’s Vortex Ensemble brought an important theatrical inflection to the festival. Their first concert was a symbiotic dance of electronics and flesh as they performed naked in front of infra-red cameras in the Bendigo Art Gallery. The ensemble only performs new work, and usually that of ensemble members, so the next day we were treated to a concert of playful pieces by Swiss-based composers. In a valuable contribution to contemporary music theatre in Australia, Vortex staged Salvadorean composer Arturo Corrales’ piece Bug on Saturday night.

The festival was an opportunity to celebrate the dreamy lucidity of Melbourne’s Golden Fur, before they all rush off to California. Cellist Judith Hamann performed a solo recital combining installation art, lighting design and straight-up cello performance. Samuel Dunscombe teamed up with pianist Peter Dumsday to reboot the first ever piece for the Max program, Pluton. The pianist and composer James Rushford had several pieces performed in the festival, as well as performing a solo recital on the organ of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Together, the group performed a surprisingly diverse and light-hearted program including works by David Chisholm, Anthony Pateras, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and others.

The festival’s house band, the Argonaut Ensemble, tried to inject some string culture and provided audiences with a rare opportunity to hear Grisey’s epic work Vortex Temporum under the baton of the award-winning conductor Maxime Pascal. Pascal’s energy was infectious, especially in Zipangu by the festival’s audience favourite, Claude Vivier.

Elsewhere the French composer Clara Maïda brought her charged electroacoustic atmospheres to the Bendigo Bank Theatre, piano virtuoso Zubin Kanga played a recital to infants and performance workshops were given by international superstar-flautist Eric Lamb and the Perth-based new music virtuoso clarinettist Ashley Smith. For musicology nerds like myself, the presence of Stockhausen’s teaching assistant and wide-ranging musicologist Richard Toop was a thrill. An all-star cast was imported (and retrieved, having flown the Australian coop) for the performance of Stockhausen’s music theatre piece Sirius, namely Nicholas Isherwood, Tristram Williams, Tiffany Du Mouchelle, Richard Haynes, with sound projection by Myles Mumford. Detailed reviews of these concerts can be read on my contemporary music blog Partial Durations.

This year the organisers decided to expand the discursive aspect of the festival with a series of lectures and discussion panels. To begin with, I had misgivings about the old-fashioned themes for the panels. “Duration and Durability” grew out of the performance of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet no.2 last year. “Wired” was to be yet another exploration of the place of electronics in contemporary music. Both were enormous successes, with the panellists and audience (both were convened more as open discussions than panels) quickly finding the contemporary resonance of the given topics.

After dancing around some different philosophical and musical definitions of duration (including some musing on the “adagio decade” of the 1970s by Toop) it became clear that the panel wasn’t very interested in the experience of extreme duration works, but wanted to know how and why one would compose with duration as a key consideration. David Chisholm saw one-idea pieces as fundamentally didactic, as sensitising the listener to a particular technique. Brett Dean raised the issue that a long piece exploring one idea was less risky because one had longer to find something that worked for any given listener. So much for the why, but how? Thomas Reiner brought up competing notions of “outside-in” and “inside-out” compositional strategies and James Rushford countered that either can fail and that what mattered was the intended effect. I would like to know whether composers have extended parts of scores because the ensuing moment didn’t ‘work’ without a longer preparation, much as certain effects in theatre don’t work before an hour or so has passed. The discussion foregrounded duration effects throughout the festival, making me ask what was being explored, what the intended pay-off was and whether the effect was interesting within the context of the piece.

The “Wired” panel quickly recognised the standardisation of music programming languages and technology today. This has led to a more fluid divide between engineers and composers, even though Clara Maïda pointed out that there are still many pieces with new technology and old art (as we were reminded when we heard Pluton). The panel used notions of technique and technology fairly interchangeably, but it is evident that there is often a lag or plain divide between compositional strategy and available music technology. The contemporaneity of technology and technique became a useful frame for evaluating the electronic contributions to some of the later concerts. The final question for the panel, “What do you want in the future?” dashed any hope of a greater integration of the two, with such technology-fetishist answers as “flying speakers” and “morphing nanotech mallet heads” (though both of those would be cool). At 90 minutes the discussions were just beginning to get interesting and I can only hope that these sessions are given two hours next year.

Two wonderful events took the festival outside of the concert halls and into the community. A performance of Mauricio Kagel’s Eine Brise, a “transient action” for 111 bicycles saw a much smaller peloton circle the Tom Flood velodrome whistling, singing and ringing their bells to the cheers of a few dozen supporters. The colourful and ultimately hilarious sonorous sculptures produced during Dale Gorfinkel’s children’s workshop were opened as an installation on Saturday, allowing adults to navigate a maze of interconnected bellows, balloons and bells.

A duration experience in itself, the marathon of BIFEM induces moments of delirious rapture, but also shortens one’s temper enough to provoke important questions such as, “Is this piece really worth my time?” Thankfully David Chisholm’s curatorial nous rarely leaves one with a negative answer.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Bendigo, 5-7 Sept

See Partial Durations for more reviews of BIFEM.

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 41

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

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