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Percusive wonders

Christine McCombe

Isorhythmos, Un/Cage[d] Version 1.1 Isorhythmos, Un/Cage[d] Version 1.1
photo Chris Osborne
Un/Cage[d] Version 1.1 was the latest live offering from Brisbane-based percussion ensemble Isorhythmos. The title gives a clue to the creative impetus behind the event: the words, music and ideas of John Cage providing the performance’s conceptual framework. The show was interspersed with recitations of texts by Cage and Gertrude Stein (a kindred spirit and influence on the composer). These effectively functioned as a structural and theatrical device during transitions, shifting the focus from energetic ensemble playing to the whimsical, obscure and profound words from these sages of 20th century art and thought. The characteristic ‘stream of consciousness’ approach and poetic deftness of both Cage and Stein set the pace for a performance that was rarely predictable and often surprising.

Cage’s Living Room Music for percussion and speech quartet (with text by Gertrude Stein) opened the performance. Members of Isorhythmos eased on to stage and made themselves comfortable in a make-shift lounge set up behind the main performance space. True to Cage events, the audience were disconcerted. “Has it started?” “Should we listen?” “Should we keep talking?” And then the music commenced. Clever speech rhythms, tightly rehearsed, soon had all of us enthralled.

Gerard Brophy’s Songo, a percussion composition influenced by Cuban drumming rhythm and style, was performed with great energy, precision and joy, the structure of the work allowing for high levels of interaction and improvisation among the players.

Guest artists Topology joined forces with Isorhythmos for Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Bartok arranged by David Montgomery) and the wittily titled Six Bulges in Dancerian Rhythm composed by Montgomery. The Six Dances, originally composed as piano studies for Bartok’s son Peter, were transformed into something altogether different, fleshed out and rendered in Technicolour through Montgomery’s arrangements.

Six Bulges represented something of a world tour of drumming traditions: West African, Brazilian, Senegalese, Turkish, Cuban and jazz styles all got an airing. Montgomery’s very clever creation of an ‘uber’ work gave Isorhythmos and Topology ample opportunity to show off their considerable talents. High energy performing alternated with moments of calm and delicacy, skilfully demonstrating the range of this 8 piece percussion ensemble.

Although it was difficult to pick one highlight, the performance of Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was stunning. The text on which the piece was based, Kenzaburo Oé’s poem The Ingenious Raintree, was projected on the overhead screen. Even without the text, the piece is mesmerisingly beautiful. The keyboard percussion and especially the vibraphone with the added quality of crotales created a delicate shimmer and resonant raindrops of sound. Isorhythmos’ attention to detail and subtlety, the careful shading and interaction between parts and the precision of their playing reflected a ‘chamber music’ aesthetic in the best sense of the term.

The final work for the evening, Imago (Montgomery/Scholes/traditional) was another large scale multi-section piece designed to showcase the talents of Isorhythmos and Topology. Once again the strong influence of West African drumming was present, the work incorporating a mix of rhythmic cells and motifs. There were some very effective sound gestures, utilising the spacing of the performers to create waves of sound moving around the semicircle of drummers. Having sat comfortably in the ‘living room’ at the rear of the stage, Topology returned to the main performance space and joined with Isorhythmos for the final section of Imago. After an extended piece of drumming, Topology’s line up (strings, sax and piano) was a welcome addition to the sound world, with some lovely spots for soprano sax and viola woven into the piece. Imago was perhaps a little on the long side, diverging from the formula of carefully paced material that characterised the rest of the evening.

The audience’s enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance confirmed that Isorhythmos are doing something right. They are attracting large audiences to contemporary music and keeping them entertained, not just through their considerable skill as musicians, but also through the enthusiasm and imagination with which they present the music.

Isorhythmos, Un/Cage[d] Version 1.1, guest artists Topology; Brisbane Powerhouse, March 26-27

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 54

© Christine McCombe; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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