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Carolyn Connors, The Itch, Chamber Made Opera Carolyn Connors, The Itch, Chamber Made Opera
photo Daisy Noyes

Chamber Made Opera’s initiative is bold and timely: to address the arts’ fixation on government subsidy by producing a series of chamber operas in living rooms around Melbourne. The audience commission the work through buying tickets, while the host provides the site and context for the performance. As the lights of Fiona Sweet and Paul Newcombe’s kitchen were flicked on and off, the patrons seated themselves for the itchiest night of their lives.

The 19th century music theorist Eduard Hanslick diagnosed as “pathological” music whose principal effect on the listener was a “morbid irritation of the nervous system.” Beyond the physical excitations of rhythm and melody, music needed form if it was to satisfy the mind as well as the body. Though Alex Garsden’s agitating timbral creations for viola, cello, double bass, and female voice are fitting examples of Hanslick’s “pathological” music, they find their form as the physical side of an allegory, which I would like to call the “itch-scratch” model of the creative process developed by director Margaret Cameron. If Garsden’s music provides the itch, then the scratch is the dramatic form provided by Atul Gawande’s article from The New Yorker, June 30, 2008. If the itch-scratch model applies to all creative activity, then it also applies to Garsden’s compositional process. His use of both traditional and graphic scoring techniques not only represent the creative itch, but also influence the dramatic form of the work.

Gawande tells the story of M who awoke one morning with an itch on her scalp. The itch would not go away: not after medication, surgery nor scratching through her skull to her brain. Gawande likens M’s itch to a phantom limb resulting from a neuropsychological misrecognition of what is really going on in the body. Phantom itches are particularly easy to conjure: I have scratched my scalp three times just writing this paragraph. As The Itch demonstrates, Hanslick’s physical and Gawande’s mental pathologies are closely connected; thinking words such as ‘itch’ and ‘scratch’ is nothing compared to hearing Garsden’s score.

Himself informed by a bout of chicken pox during the composition period, Garsden conjures phantom itches using the most physical of musical resources. With a string trio scraping, rasping and rubbing their instruments for the better part of an hour, the composer makes it impossible to forget that every bowed instrument comes with half a metre-odd of taut, coarse, sticky, powder-coated hair. There are moments of simply unbearable tension produced through brutal, grinding bow-strokes contrasted with niggling tremoli on the edge of hearing.

Performer Carolyn Connors’ seemingly limitless timbral repertoire carries the audience through M’s bildungsroman-like battle with the itch. The audience feels a visceral sympathy with the woman as she resists the temptation to scratch with hair brushes, paint scrapers, gardening forks and bread knives. At least one person had to excuse herself in a (I like to think) sonically induced coughing fit. Though uncomfortably effective in its physical communication of itchiness, Cameron believes there is more to The Itch than meets the ear.

To the director, the itch is a “creative proposition,” an irresistible desire to create that cannot be directly satisfied. As Cameron suggests, “you can develop a relationship to it, a congruent relationship, a kind of equivalence between form and content.” M’s “congruent” answer to her itch is religion, a non-resolution that sees her exhaustedly croak a creepy chorale, holding aloft a crucifix of wire brushes. The pained chorale gives momentary form to her fathomless itch. She holds the crucifix immobile, as a ward against the temptation that previously saw her draw brushes and knives closer and closer to her vulnerable skin, or carve open a grapefruit filled with viscous, green fluid.

If M seeks momentary respite from her affliction through religious rituals and artefacts, Cameron seeks to allay the creative itch with dramatic structure, a process that she frames in terms of making dramatic sense of Garsden’s music. However, Garsden’s own congruent itch-scratch informs the dramatic structure of The Itch through his juxtaposition of traditional and graphic scoring techniques. Garsden’s graphic scores are collages of blood, bone and brain, unfortunately obscured from the audience’s view by the performers’ music stands. The performers read the scores using parameters set by Garsden. The horizontal axis determines duration, while gradations of shade and hue indicate timbre and pitch respectively. As Garsden noted, while the traditional score was made from a sonic basis by sampling and arranging workshop recordings, the graphic scores were produced through a primarily visual process. Like M and her crucifix, Garsden’s graphic resolution to the musical itch evades the fraught business of musical scratching.

In the context of The Itch, Garsden’s juxtaposition of traditional notation and graphic scoring results in contrasting moments of intense, timbral sophistication and freer, wandering movements. While performers and composers attempt to make the rendering of graphic scores as precise as possible, much relies upon a performer’s ability to improvise around a score’s parameters. In this instance, Garsden gives the performers freedom to wander on the vertical axis of the score as they move horizontally through the image, gaining access to different timbres and pitches. The performers also improvise dynamics and the techniques they use to render the timbral and pitch specifications. Providing moments of reflective calm between Connors’ tortured recitatives, they add interest to a performance that threatens to become a too-literal setting of Gawande’s article. Graphic and traditional scoring then form a cross that informs the dramatic structure of the piece. With its restless combination of dramatic form and pathological music, The Itch is itself an example of creative congruency.

Chamber Made Opera, The Itch, composer Alex Garsden, director Margaret Cameron, performer Carolyn Connors, viola Phoebe Green, cello Judith Hamann, double bass Anita Hustas, conductor Brett Kelly; private home, Melbourne, Nov 19, 20

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 40

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

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