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Elision Elision
photo Malcolm Batty
The Elision ensemble’s 20th birthday offering was presented in Brisbane, Sydney and on ABC Classic FM in a concert of Australian works, each exhilarating, challenging and consistently realised in virtuosic performances from various permutations of the ensemble in partnership with musicians from Germany, USA, France and Finland.

Chris Dench’s Agni-Prometheus-Lucifer (2006) for a 15-strong ensemble, celebrates the immortals, those figures in mythology (Vedic, Greek, Christian) who are neither humans nor gods and are variously associated with fire and light. In his program note and a brief talk at the concert, Dench noted the key role of percussion in the 10 works he’s created for Elision and embodied in the playing of Peter Neville. This new work commences with a carefully phrased percussion passage suddenly joined by the disparate voices of the ensemble who just as quickly become one. The violin takes the lead, lyrically but quietly, firmly in the body of the ensemble, the first of many voices to rise up, either gently or impatiently and passionately. A series of crises follow, perhaps indicative of the aspirations and the failures of the work’s subjects, or their overwhelming luminescence, interspersed with passages of transcendent delicacy figured in a warbling recorder or, finally, in a delicate entwining of flute and violin against quietly shimmering percussion—a fading of the light. Was it a settling for something less than immortality, or simply acknowledgment of the beauty of the quest for transcendence?

John Rodgers’ Amor (1999/2006), for “intertwined flute (Paula Rael) and oboe (Peter Veale)”, as the program notes put it, made its first appearance in Elision’s spectacular realisation of the composer’s Inferno in a Port Adelaide warehouse at the 2000 Adelaide Festival. The 70-minute work with large-scale instrumental forces fused concert with installation, climaxing with flautist and oboist playing instruments made of ice that melted their way to the work’s conclusion. Here the 2 instruments are real and remain intact, but once again the music expresses the painfully enforced togetherness of Francesca da Rimini and lover Paulo for eternity in Dante’s vision of the Inferno—simply for the sin of lust. The score demands seriously entwined playing, much of it quite theatrical and suggesting a passionate dialogue, furiously paced and full-bodied as bursts of breath, sighs and whispers are wrung from the players and their instruments. The musicians read from the same score, playing cheek by jowl until, facing each other, the flute finds its way into the mouth of the oboe. The final sustained, quietening notes suggest perhaps a post-orgasmic escape from torment, just as the melting of the ice instruments in the installation version seemed to propose release from a hell that was, after all, only a cold religious conceit. Whatever its dialectic, Amor stood on its own as an entrancing, dramatic duet.

Timothy O’Dwyer’s Gravity (2006) for solo improvising saxophone and oboe, trumpet, percussion and viola, gave us the remarkable playing of UK saxophonist John Butcher. Here is a player with a truly distinctive voice combining purity with power, forming utterly distinctive crystalline aural shapes and earthed guttural rumblings, sustaining and working them for long periods without recourse to the frantic gearshifts common to many inheritors of bebop and improvising traditions. O’Dwyer adroitly places Butcher’s improvisational language within his own compositional framework, allowing freedom for the soloist against scored and semi-improvisational responses from the ensemble. After a quiet percussive opening that aptly (for a work titled Gravity) entailed the clatter of dropped mallets, Butcher’s tenor sax fluttered its way breathily into high, sustained notes. The oboe warbled with a Middle-Eastern cadence, the percussionist’s wire brushes swiped the air, the viola slipped into a deep glide and a drum roll presaged the entry of full bodied sax play, a mellow gurgling morphing into staccato phrasing and, over the oboe’s ‘kissy kissy’ outburst, sailing into the stratosphere. In brief, the ensuing episodes yielded a wonderful totality of soloist and ensemble sounds. In the final movements, enhanced by trumpet, the sound world opened out even further, the saxophone evoking horns both French and fog, the cosmos vibrating to flights of percussion and Butcher’s ethereal playing. Gravity, as O’Dwyer’s program note reminds us, is not just about things that fall, but “the ‘tendency’ of 2 objects of mass to accelerate towards each other.” Gravity’s strength is not only in the anti-gravitational push of Butcher’s playing and the rich moments of freefall, but in the push and pull between soloist and ensemble—subject to the score and to the less predictable forces of players and conductor, all given the freedom to improvise. Gravity was an engrossingly vertiginous experience.

The major work of the concert was Liza Lim’s Mother Tongue in its Australian premiere after a first performance at the 2005 Festival d’Automne in Paris where it was performed by Ensemble InterContemporain, co-commissioner of the work with the festival and Elision. Written for soprano (the Finnish artist Piia Komis, who also sang in Paris), 15 instruments and a text by Melbourne poet Patricia Sykes, Mother Tongue is an ambitious work, metaphysically and musically. Lim told her Sydney audience that she’d been inspired by a linguist friend who had worked on the revival of the Indigenous Yorta Yorta language of north-eastern Victoria. The connection of language to the land and its expression of intimate human relationships are central to both the poem and Lim’s music. As she foretold, the instruments whisper and sing with the soprano in Mother Tongue. They certainly do—language and music are as one.

The complex, imagistic poem with its English text and 5 words taken from other languages celebrates language but also fears its destruction, portraying it ecologically, subject to the forces of nature, economics and politics (a poetic companion to Louis-Jean Calvert’s Towards an Ecology of World Languages, Polity Press, 2006). But musically, where Lim has a great capacity to make words dance, the work reminds us of possible origins of language in song and movement (as argued by Stephen Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005). Piia Komis is called on to mine every aspect of her vocal capacity, committing herself to it with passion and remarkable precision. Lim’s writing suggests a pre-language requiring Komis to leap from Sykes’ words into howls, yips, growls, sudden pitch shifts and huge glides, from guttural surges into bird trills and pure soprano flights. Mother Tongue is above all dramatic, operatic even, an expression of a great range of feeling both restrained (passages of serene beauty, especially in the glorious 3rd movement with its opening sea imagery and ‘boy soprano’ voice from Komsi) and unleashed (Lim knows how to make a chamber ensemble sound like a full orchestra and Komsi knows how to ride with and over it). As ever, Lim’s orchestration is utterly distinctive, whether eerily plumbing the sonic depths or creating waves of percussion that rattle like rain or sing like talk.

Mother Tongue is a magnificent work, and as demanding as you would expect from Lim. Absorbing it in one sitting is simply impossible, and even after several listenings, thanks to excellent ABC Classic FM streaming, there is much to assimilate. For a work about language and nurturance, the first 2 movements are often fiercely vigorous, exploring every dynamic of voice and ensemble. I keep returning to the 3rd movement, Longitude of Loss, where Sykes writes and Komsi sings, “my oar is my tongue”, and the work ends quietly with the plangent, “I am hanging by my mother tongue.”

The job of corraling Elision’s birthday riches into one wonderful gift fell to conductor Jean Deroyer, a regular with the great Ensemble InterContemporain and an ideal interpreter. No piece was less than demanding and Deroyer and the ensemble played as one, showing off every work at its best.

Mother Tongue, Elision 20th Birthday Concert, Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, June 11

The concert is available as streaming audio at

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 50

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

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