23 November 2009
Continuum Sax: Winterscenario
The idea of how this ensemble regards itself as a 'continuum' was
clear the moment the performance started, with an early example
of spectral music. This one, Quatuor, was written by one
of the movement's architects, the French Hugues Dufourt. His
extended sequence of simultaneous chordings by the complete range
of instruments was a deceptively straightforward work of fine
timing and precision, in which melodic development played no
part, but at various times every possible combination of notes
was nailed clean throughout the entire range of the saxophones'
While Quatuor declared one boundary of this continuum as being extreme control and precision, the second work of the program - Improvisation for saxophone and video artist - immediately established its opposite counterpart, by title as much as sound. Yet there was no reason to think that there was anything random about its interplay. Visually, there was physical space on stage between the one musician (Margery Smith) and the one visual artist (Rachael Brown), but also physical space between that artist and the screen that was effectively the canvas she used for our benefit. The small, indeterminate physical movements she made on her computer became much bigger, visually calculated movements before our eyes, sometimes describing recognisable objects, other times abstract effects, with no evident connection, other than to what the music was suggesting.
It was an effective pointer, in both sound and vision, towards
the second part of the performance, but next the saxophone
quartet regrouped for the world premiere of
Damien Ricketson's Length and Breadth, all set to
show us another aspect of the instrumental multiplex now
occupying the space before us. It was a piece commissioned by
Continuum Sax, and one of the keys to exploring it was
Ricketson's decision to withhold directions as to which actual
instruments should take us on through. Saxophones, for sure, but
the sounds we were to hear depended on the performers making
their own choice of what to play. This particular version, then,
might conceivably never be heard again. It might conceivably not
have worked. When it ended, though, there were five very
satisfied people on stage. One composer, four performers, all
A good mood to take into the interval, before our entry into the concert's title component, the Winterscenario. To be more specific, a Postnuclear Winterscenario. This is a concept that reaches back half a century and more. Describing it as a chilling concept implies its northern hemisphere origins, and it was the Dutch avant-garde composer, Jacob Ter Veldhuis, who first seized on it as a subject for saxophone quartet a few years ago.
That is much the same period as Continuum Sax has been developing its own presence here in Australia. If they had commissioned this work, calling it a Postnuclear Desertscenario might have brought it closer to home, but given that it opened with a piece by a French African composer, our first taste of winter was far from the bleak snowscapes we might have assumed we were seeing. The African savannah looks remarkably similar in its monochrome starkness to an Arctic waste, so one setting succeeded in bringing two climate extremes to the Conservatorium.
Veldhuis has made much of the simplicity of what he came up with for this work, his desire to reduce its structure and number of elements to the minimum. The corresponding visual impressions were similarly subtle, with gradual changes in tone and density revealing an evolving scene in which the elements of distance and emptiness, basic to the entire concept of this performance, were given prominence. The sole acrobatic performer probed the dimensions of her world, perhaps, on our behalf as much as her own, even if unaware of our presence. Thinking of her surroundings as a desert rather than an icy waste helped to reassure us that her responses to them were plausible.
The visual impressions left by the Winterscenario were so fundamental that they inevitably affected, though did not diminish, the impact of the remaining four works in the program. On their own account, ranging through solo and combined works, they were all looking to move music forward without relying on strictly musical conventions. So there were references to distance and nostalgia, colour and organic intensity, brightness and radiance, as much as melody and harmony. The two written by Mark Anthony Turnage for solo soprano saxophone carried the evening's strongest references to the saxophone's home base, jazz, while Elena Firsova's Far Away reestablished the quartet with something of a reprise on where the music of the Winterscenario had taken us. Sydney-based Tony Gorman picked up on the earlier Improvisation to let Continuum Sax run out with fluid ease.
Developing a place for the saxophone in contemporary classical music means that Continuum Sax opened a door for us this evening onto a new kind of musical experience. As its practitioners become more familiar with what can happen, what may already have been happening elsewhere, and perhaps what should happen, this fusion of the visual with the auditory can move forward quickly. Though how to follow a Postnuclear Scenario, of Winter or Desert or any other kind of setting, may now need some discussion. Hopefully, we will have plenty of opportunities to see, and/or hear, the results at the Conservatorium.
Continuum Sax: Winterscenario
New Music Network
Margery Smith (soprano saxophone), Christina Leonard (soprano saxophone), James Nightingale (alto saxophone), Martin Kay (tenor saxophone), Jarrod Whitbourne (baritone saxophone)
Works by Hugues Dufourt, Rachael Brown and Margery Smith, Damien Ricketson, Christian Lauba, Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Mark Anthony Turnage, Elena Firsova, Tony Gorman
Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW
31 October 2009
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Phil Vendy broadcasts frequently on Sydney classical music radio, and has written many published articles and classical CD reviews.
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