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30 May 2008

Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival

Various Artists // SA // 04-06.04.08

Gabriella Smart, director of Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival Image: Gabriella Smart, director of Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival  

Staging a contemporary music festival is always a tricky proposition: one person's idea of cutting edge contemporary music is another person's conceptual straitjacket. How one defines contemporary music is bound to be contentious one way or another, so I approached the inaugural Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival (directed by Gabriella Smart) with an equal measure of curiosity and trepidation. For all its boldness and relative newness, the festival fell into a formulaic category – playing it safe within a comfy environment of conservatism and convention.

One person's idea of cutting edge contemporary music is another person's conceptual straitjacket...The opening night's gala concert program in the Dunstan Playhouse offered recent works by Andrew Ford, Roger Smalley and Constantine Koukias, as well as earlier works by the late Tristram Cary and Alfred Schnittke. Performed by the Grainger Quartet, Ford's String Quartet No. 2 (2006) offered some playful moments, whilst Smalley's Piano Quintet (2003) – with Gabriella Smart – featured skewed references to Chopin and Beethoven and toyed with some interesting harmonic interplay between the players.

Koukias's Byzantine Memories (2007) performed by the Telesto Duo (Tiziana Pintus, violin and John Addison, cello) featured strong lyrical elements and the occasional fractured rhythm and melodic ostinato, articulated effectively by some interesting instrumental treatment and contrasts in dynamic. Cary's Messages (1993) for solo cello was the stand-out performance, though somewhat spoiled by the peculiar decision to leave the house lights up for the whole piece. The night ended with Schnittke's Piano Quintet (1972 – 76), which frequently shifted between melodic and dissonant sonorities.

The unforgivable acoustics (or lack of acoustics) of the Dunstan Playhouse rendered the sound of the performances flat. Thankfully, the Artspace venue would prove to be more acoustically adequate for the remainder of the festival.

Saturday's ‘Tour De Force’ program featured works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Willem Jeths, Henk Badings and Tristram Cary, performed by the Telesto Duo, Gabriella Smart and soprano Greta Bradman. The opening performances of Gubaidulina's Rejoice! (1981/88) and Chiasmos (2000) showcased the technical virtuosity and dexterity of the Telesto Duo and Smart, whilst Badings's Capriccio (1959) and Cary's I am here (1980) showed how to, and how not to, marry electronic sounds with classical music. Badings's Capriccio – one of the first works written for concert instrument and electronics – was stunning as Pintus's violin ducked and weaved its way around a rhythmic barrage of clicks and drones pulsing from stereo channel speakers. The realisation of Cary's I am here, on the other hand, was an often confusing and at times downright frustrating experience as soprano Greta Bradman recited an existential crisis from within a purpose-built aluminium tetrahedron. The electronic sounds and their interplay with Bradman's operatic trills worked at times, though one felt that a work like this could be much better realised in a more appropriate context (such as a darkened space with suitable lighting) than stage left of a baby grand piano.

Trio d'anche Suave’s program on the final day of the festival was a stranger offering than any of the previous concerts, featuring largely unknown works from the Asian continent performed by Seung-Eun Lee (oboe), Yoko Yokota (clarinet) and Ai Ikeda (bassoon). Isang Yun’s Rondell for wind trio (1975) featured some lovely sustained harmonic interplay and sharp contrasts in dynamics. The trio’s performance was quite remarkable given the complexity of Yun’s score. Anne Cawrse (a graduate from Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium) was an exception to the overarching Eastern theme, and her Lullabies and Crooked Dances, premiered in this concert, was a charming neoclassical work, but would have been better suited to another program.

Gabriella Smart’s performance of Xiaoyong Chen’s Diary 11 (2003) for solo piano was a highlight, at times captivating and hypnotic with its incessant repetitions and bursts of dissonance. The final two works of the program were less inspiring, though. Mayke Nas’s Anyone can do it (2006) was a Fluxus-era performance throwback, whilst In-Sun Cho’s Camino – though charming in parts – proved that even the triangle can be played badly.

With the weekend’s proceedings concluded, my initial impression of the festival was quite favourable. I was impressed with the quality of the performances and the semi-adventurous direction of the second and the third programs. However, upon reflection I found the overarching formality of the works and performances to be too staid, and occasionally the music sounded awkward in its desire to be ‘contemporary’.

Gabriella Smart deserves a great deal of credit for staging what could be an enticing and progressive venture for the future. Unfortunately, despite its best intentions and the occasional pleasant surprise, the inaugural Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival amounted to a predominantly safe showcase of conservative contemporary music.

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Tristan Louth-Robins is a South Australian based sound artist, visual artist and composer. Since 2006 he has been the curator of the Tyndall Assembly experimental music series which showcases the work of local artists and composers. He is currently completing a Master of Music at the Elder Conservatorium, University of Adelaide, where he also teaches within his department of Music Technology.


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What makes a contemporary music festival?

Hi Tristan

I am interested in your description of the festival as being "conservative", and this prompts me to ponder on what elements might be necessary for a contemporary music festival to qualify as being "contemporary".

In the contemporary Australian context where there is such diversity across what might be considered as "contemporary music", of genre and style, of personalities and musical tastes, I would have thought that "contemporary" meant "now"?

Looking across the recent festivals of "contemporary music" in recent months - in Western Sydney, in Melbourne, and in Canberra, for example - each of these festivals reflect the musical interests of the artistic director, the people and organisations involved, and also the performers participating. The result is an amazingly eclectic mix of music that provides a rich a fertile source for reflecting on current trends.

I wonder if Matthew Hindson (Aurora Festival), Nicole Canham (Canberra), and Anthony Pateras (Melbourne) might reflect on this?


Yes, John, what an interesting review! I think any good festival reflects the tastes of its artistic director - "committee festivals" are always lacking in flavour - so my hat's off to Gabriella. But what, I wonder, did this reviewer want that he didn't get? He was obviously disappointed, but when he accuses the festival of "conservatism" what is he objecting to? Too much minimalism? Too much atonality? Not enough aleatoricism? Too much? In the context of contemporary music, the word "conservatism" is open to a lot of different interpretations.

I read the following lines with genuine bafflement: "I found the overarching formality of the works and performances to be too staid, and occasionally the music sounded awkward in its desire to be ‘contemporary’". I don't know what "overarching formality" means, and the quotation marks that the reviewer himself now puts around "contemporary", suggests that by the end of his review, he didn't know what that word meant either. Can't say I blame him! But I'd be genuinely interested to hear this reviewer call a spade a spade. What exactly didn't he like? What did he want more of?

Reply to comments

Firstly, I'd like to thankyou for the comments made so far - they've certainly given me plenty to think about over the past couple of days since checking this out online.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can admit that my review was perhaps a little heavy handed at the time of writing, and certain parts of it - specifically my definition of 'conservatism' (avec/sans quotation marks) - may require some clarification.

I agree with Andrew that the term 'conservatism' can be interpreted in many different ways. Put simply, my definition of conservatism was equated to the conventional nature of the festival - i.e. the nature of the works and how they were presented. That is my definition in the scope of the festival, it may not relate to others' interpretations.

What did I want from the festival? In the scope of the 'contemporary music' tag, I felt the concerts could have been a bit more adventurous and reflected more of the 'now'. Obviously I was let down.

I wouldn't say I was ill-suited for reviewing the festival, but my expectations were probably set too high at the time, and my background (experimental music/sound art/avante garde) has the tendency of auto-critiquing anything that appears vaguely conventional.

I have a great deal of respect for Gabriella as a curator and performer, I think she did a great job staging this event. For me though, it was just a question of taste. I do hope she speaks to me again the next time I see her.

Festivals and their flavour

Everyone is polite in Australia, in general. In contrast to Europe where you can get booed (and I have been), if Aussies don't like something, they just won't say much at all, or say that it's "interesting', or whatever.

Which may be why reviews are still held by some to be important. A fearless reviewer will give frank and forthright opinions. In such cases, a good review may be particularly prized: which does not actually make much sense since we must recognize that every listener (including reviewers) will hear each piece of music with their own aesthetics, history etc. in place.

And when I say "we" must recognize the above, I refer not just the artistic team putting together a reviewed event but also a review's readers.

It is much easier to break it than it is to make it. Negative reviews can be frustrating especially if they seem to totally miss the point. In the review of Gabriella's festival, this may indeed be warranted - I didn't attend the festival so don't really know. When Tristan says in the followup post that his expectations for the festival may have been "too high", I would suggest that maybe they were just misplaced. I say this purely from reading his bio and imagining the types of music presented in the experimental music he curates. Certainly the range of music listed in the review of the Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival appears contemporary in scope. I imagine it's reflective of Gabriella's tastes - as Tristan's experimental music series would be reflective of his.

When people criticize the choice of music in the Aurora Festival, I say to them that there is nothing stopping them from putting on their own contemporary music festival with the music they like. Go for it. In a way that was one of the rationales behind the Aurora Festival - to present a range of music that doesn't necessarily ordinarily get a wider airing. We don't present a great deal of music similar to that of, say, the Now Now Festival because they're already doing that. The programming of Anthony Pateras' festival in Melbourne was immensely different to the Aurora Festival, but it has a different focus, and I was imagine that Anthony's tastes are different from mine. That's fine, and I would say, to be encouraged!

The good thing about Australia is that there is room enough for a diversity of forms of expression. Even taking reviewers into consideration, ultimately we don't have artistic furhers telling us what we can or cannot do. Thank heavens for that.

You want fries with that?

Festivals and their Flavour.....'we don't have artistic furhers telling us what we can or cannot do. Thank heavens for that'

Holy Gumboly, where are you from. More to the point, how long have you been here?

You want the names of the local culture police? Drop me a line.

Starting Young?

Let’s not underestimate even super-young audiences! Years ago, Mauricio Kagel suggested that I come to a performance in Bonn of his ‘Zwei-Mann Orchester” – a 50-minute piece that is musically very austere, but visually fascinating: just two performers manipulating a huge array of ‘sound sources’, often pulling strings, like puppeteers. When I got there, I found that most of the audience consisted of school-kids aged about 9-12, and I feared the worst. I was completely wrong: they were mesmerized, and the only sound they made was when a new, strange ‘instrument’ came into play, and there were sudden excited whispers. Otherwise, you could hear a pin drop (literally – most of the sounds were that quiet). Re festivals, Donaueschingen – which aims to be pretty ‘cutting edge’ – always has some kind of integrated educational programme (with all kinds of online backup), though it’s mainly geared towards the equivalent of Year 11-12 students, and sometimes tertiary ones engaged in areas like music journalism. As for local community involvement (Donauschingen is a very small town at the edge of the Black Forest), you find sound installations in the most unlikely places, and last year 350 regional wind/brass-band players (firemen, police, whatever) were performing an outdoor piece by Alvin Curran. Obviously, this doesn’t have to be a model for anything that happens here, but it’s good (helpful?) to know that it exists. And in case you’re wondering, tickets to most Donaueschingen concerts and ‘events’ sell out months in advance.

Richard Toop

Inherit the wind.....

A few years back in the mid 90s, when I was still teaching, I was playing Ligeti to year 3 students who would draw what they heard on huge pieces of butchers paper, then describe what they'd heard and drawn.....not sure where this leaves us...but there you have it.

Would be interested to speak to some of them now......