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Sydney Spring Festival of New Music

Celebrating old growth and new

Keith Gallasch

Erik Griswold, Sarah Pirie (Clocked Out Duo) & Craig Foltz Other Planes Erik Griswold, Sarah Pirie (Clocked Out Duo) & Craig Foltz Other Planes
The Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music is an intimate garden where new works sprout side by side with modernist rarities—old seeds newly planted and nurtured. A small audience of admirers and the curious gather in the Sydney Opera House’s The Studio. For a significant part of the festival we are joined by a larger audience of ABC radio listeners. We clap like buggery to make them feel there’s a big turnout. Once again it’s a surprise that Sydney Spring can survive on the small audiences and a modest budget while yielding a richly coloured crop of quality performances planted by Artistic Director Roger Woodward and Executive Producer Barry Plews. But it does, attracting grant and sponsorships and some concerts pulling sizeable and appreciative audiences.

The pick of the bunch were the concerts by Clocked Out Duo, Erik Griswold, Ensemble Sirius, Marshall McGuire, and the Homage to the Iannis Xenakis, who died in February this year. A feature of this year’s Sydney Spring was the interplay between music and other media—video, visual art works, dance and combinations of these. Compared with the 2000 festival’s Exile, these were less developed and sometimes less than ideal combinations (see Gretchen Miller’s response above). Nonetheless they were indicative not only of healthy explorations in hybridity but also of a widespread concern to reach new audiences intrigued by multimedia possibilities.

Russian Futurism, Sept 14, 8.00pm

This proved an unusual opening concert, providing in part a prelude to Russian musical Futurism (or Constructivism as it is sometimes called as in the Sitsky Adelaide Festival concerts) with works from Skryabin, his son Julian (who drowned aged 11) and Pasternak (who gave up music to write). Skryabin's Feuillet d'album (1910) is his first venture into atonality. Roger Woodward plays an earlier work of intriguing beauty of the same title (1905). The son's Two Preludes (1918) seem even more prescient of the music to come, yet sustain the beauty of his father's dark romanticism. Then we were plunged into the middle of Russian Futurism with the 4 piano Symphonie: Ainsi parlait Zarathoustre (Thus spake Zarathustra; 1929-30) by Ivan Vishnegradzky. A musical mystic following Skryabin, the composer employed quartertones and microtones (a preoccupation too of our contemporary, the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina) to evoke cosmic consciousness, in this case 2 pianos tuned to normal pitch, 2 in quarter and 3-quarter semitones. The effect is extraordinary, initially like a bevy of slightly out of tune pianolas exercising scales on the edge of chaos. The second part is rhythmically rich but even more harmonically disturbing, the tonal shifts sounding like massive re-tunings of a master instrument. The brave pianists were Robert Curry, Daniel Herscovitch, Erzsbet Marosszky and Stephanie McCallum. The second part of the concert was a great debut for the Grand Masonic Russian Chamber Choir of Sydney, conduced by Artistic Director Piotr Raspopov. How the post-World War II works they performed fitted under the Futurism mantle wasn't clear. Shostakovitch was a contemporary of the Futurists and a fellow member of the doomed Association of Contemporary Music—some early works, like Symphonies 2 and 4, share the robust sense of machine and chaotic speed associated with Futurism. However, the Poems 5, 6 & 7 from Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets are elegaic, seamless constructions that allow the choir to demonstrate its range from classically rich Russian basses to lucid sopranos. The short work by Georgi Sviridov, Sacred Love, was remarkable only for its long, layered closing chord. by now I was beginning to think that Futurism had indeed been thoroughly purged by Stalin. However, the next 2 works, Da-di-da and Sunset Music, both by Valeri Gavrilan, suggested a tradition kept alive with their mix of the sung and the spoken, whoops and laughter and an insistent if heavily punctuated rhythmic drive. A dogged cuteness indicated that a radical inheritance was not be found here. What we got was a choir with a lot of promise and at its best in the Shostakovitch.

ACME Jazz Unit, Sept 14, 10.30pm

In the first of the late night jazz offerings from Sydney Spring, Adelaide's ACME Jazz Unit performed with polish and exuberance and was rewarded with rapturous applause. That's a good outcome, considering that the band's natural home would appear to a be a quality jazz club and that we'd of our drinks on entering The Studio. Vocalist Libby O'Donovan reckoned it would have been nice to have cigarette smoke too, but only for the atmosphere. The sense of musicians speaking the same language was evident from the beginning. In tightly scored, short works, improvisation was not a priority, but the many nuances that adorned the works yielded an engaging conversational ease. O'Donovan's range rose from raunchy belter to music theatre mezzo to a soft, all-sweetness-and-light soprano (thankfully without American vowels). While looking spectacular in her high heel sneakers, ultra-punk-spike hair and slick black plastic 3-quarter coat, she moved little, energy focused and embodied in the voice and on sharing the stage with the instrumentalists. Aside from one all too brief avant garde-ish contribution, Space: Tone Poem, the works, all composed by band members, were pretty safe for a new music festival, the pleasure mostly coming from the sheer dexterity of the delivery. There were exceptions, the gentle, opening number Harvest Time erupted into wild vocal riffs against the minimalist pulse of piano and drum. In Man of Sorrow, Julian Ferraretto's violin sang sinuously in the tradition of Stephan Grapelli. In his own La Zia Zangara (The Gypsy Aunt) the same voice spoke with a dynamic flamenco accent, shades of Chick Corea's Spanish phase. Throughout, bassist Shireen Khemlani proved an audience favorite with her right-on-the note melodic inventiveness and fluency while drummer Mario Marino provided clear lines of support with plenty of dextrous treble and no signs of heavy footedness. Group leader and key composer, Deanna Djuri, is an eloquent, melodic pianist, deftly creating a big city, bluesy Sweet Lullaby with a soaring vocal line for O'Donovan. Djuric's prize-winning, gospel-inflected Don't Let Go allowed the vocalist even further off the leash in the final number. The concert's centre-piece was Soap, a set of songs (Suspicion, Love, Jealous, Revenge) commissioned from Adelaide composer Angelina Zucco. Moments of musical inventiveness and committed performances didn't quite prevent it feeling like a sketch for a music theatre work and one in search of some real substance. ACME Jazz Unit made an impression that only frequent visits will sustain, bridging pop, jazz and music theatre with a coherent vision.

Ensemble Sirius, Sept 15, 8.15pm

The American duo (Michael Fowler, piano, keyboards; Stuart Gerber, percussion) play Stockhausen with a simple, elegant theatricality and a bracing, lucid sonic intensity. They first gesture their way to their instruments to perform 6 of the star signs from Tierkreis (Zodiac, 1975). Nasenflügeltanz (1983/88), the engrossing duo version for percussion and synthesizer of part of the huge 7-opera cycle, Licht, had percussionist Gerber singing Lucifer’s lines, punctuated with orchestrated hand signalling. The best known work on the program, Kontakte (Contacts, 1959-60) sounded less familiar as a piano, tape and percussion work than as an electronic score, but was nonetheless rivetting.

Colin Bright, Wild Boys, Sept 18, 8.15pm

A sampling of Bright's works played vividly over the sound system was accompanied by video images projected on a central screen and slide collages on screens to either side. The curious mix of videogame-like digital imagery and agitprop collage (Dean Edwards) was too busy and sometimes too literally illustrative to ever enter into a dynamic relationship with scores that were already full on, replete with their own texts (the late, great Chas H Duke, William Burroughs, Amanda Stewart) and powerful aural imagery. Bright is a unique and provocative voice, but going visual needs care—ears wide, eyes shut.

Erik Griswold, Sept 19th, 8.15pm

Erik Griswold is not Jo Dudley. Dudley was still in Germany. Griswold filled in, replacing Dudley’s sensual and whimsical theatricality with one of the most rewarding and intense performances of the festival. The tall, lean pianist-composer hovered over narrow stretches of his keyboard and picked and pounded out Other Planes: trance music for prepared piano. Rubber wedges, bolts, weights and business cards variously contributed to the alchemical transformation of furious, minimal clusters into eerie harmonics and distant half-heard melodies, sudden evocations of gamelan and marimba. American writer Craig Foltz provided text and voice via phone line for the title work, the apocalyptic intoning of the banalities of the everyday focused on air travel made for unsettling September 11 associations. Visual artists Sarah Pirie framed Griswold with treated fabrics pierced by light, echoing the detail of the compositions and the preparation of the piano.

Marshall McGuire, 20th Century Harp, Sept 20, 8.15pm

Rough Magic (ABC Classics 456 696-2) is rarely away from my CD player. This concert proved a great companion program providing more 20th century music for the harp, extending McGuire’s project into powerful works with amplification and tapes. Gentle works—the twinkling harmonies of Tounier’s Vers la source dans le bois (1922), the seductively song-like Hindemith Sonata (1939), Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ pastoral Sonata for Harp (1952)—preceded Berio’s lyrical and theatrical Sequenza II (1962), shot through with harmonics and abrupt punctuations (slaps, taps, sudden dampings), Kaija Saariaho’s Fall (1991), metallic, big and pulsing, with great rumblings and sweeps of the strings, Donatoni’s Marches (1979 and on the Rough Magic CD), an obsessive, hesitant dance with its passages of intense quiet pitted against grand guignol hyperbole, and Takemitsu’s Stanza II (1971), unexpectedly alternating aggression and reflection (with gagaku resonances), strings burring, chords bell-like, declamatory, fusing with blocks of haunting pre-recorded sound. The home video banality of the accompanying screen material (Nicole Lee) provided neither companionship nor counterpoint for the delicacy of the more introspective works or the grand gestures of the larger ones.

Clocked Out Duo, Sept 21, 8.15pm

This proved to be the most idiosyncratic concert of the festival, a striking and original fusion of minimalist and jazz (and other) impulses realised in piano (Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson). The concert reproduced track by track their CD Clocked Out Duo: Every Night the Same Dream (COP-CD001) including the sublime title work (Griswold) with its engaging recurrent neo-boogie drive and percussive chatter, Graeme Leak’s lilting dialogue between a Vietnamese newsreader and solo percussion, Tomlinson’s intense musical monologue, Practice, Griswold’s Bonedance (with seed pod rattles tied to the pianist’s wrists, first driven and then ruminatory), his beautiful and, here and there, unusually romantic Hypnotic Strains (“Varese/Xenakis inspired percussion” with piano improvisation) and Warren Burt’s Beat Generation in the California Coastal Ranges. If Griswold’s highly focussed rapid fire pianism often magically conjures a clear, transcendent musical line, Burt starts out with and sustains a gently pulsing note (“the beating of one note against another as moving sine waves undulate against delicate vibraphone chords” says the program note). It carries you along, sound and texture everything, the vibraphone a Buddhist bell beneath Big Sur pines.

Delia Silvan, Night Vision, Sept 22, 8.30pm

There are still those choreographers who employ a selection of musical compositions, often excerpts from substantial works, as a framework for their own creation. It's a rather tired tradition, especially in an era where composers, sound designers and dj-composers are creating challenging scores that may well entail any number of appropiated works but which add up to challenging totalities. In Night Vision Delia Silvan dances to a collection of compositions played live that make for an occasionally interesting but unlikely concert program and Silvan's choreography is not strong enough to provide the requisite coherence. The intention is that the work comprise a "series of interconnected 'duets'" (with Marshall McGuire, the Clocked Out Duo, Roger Woodward and David Pereria playing works by Einadu, Griswold, Chopin and Vine respectively). The relationships seemed all too circumstantial. The design (Silvan and Craig Clifford) with its 2 columns of moveable light (suspended perspex poles through-lit from the top) however suggests potential, framing and enabling the choreography's obsessive dance with the self.

Homage to Iannis Xenakis, Sept 23, 6.00pm

Two things were striking in this extraordinary event performed by Roger Woodward, Stephanie McCallum, Vanessa Tomlinson, Nathan Waks and Edward Neeman. One was the demands made by Xenakis on the performers, whether on piano, cello or percussion, as if possessing them from beyond, enforcing the tortuous stretch of arms and hands in the rapid traversal of keyboards, Vanessa Tomlinson’s furious playing-as-dance, Woodward’s manipulation of an original score comprising massive pages. The other defining element was an enduring sense of the compositions as aural architecture, the conjuring of vast imaginary spaces sounding ever more accessible and inhabitable, ever more beautiful with age. A fitting conclusion to the 12th Sydney Spring.

12th Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, September 14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 35

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

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