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13 March 2014

ELISION: nomads on an aesthetic journey

ELISION: nomads on an aesthetic journey

Established in Melbourne in 1986 but nowadays nomadic, new music ensemble ELISION has built a presence as one of the world's important voices in new music, and is featured regularly in major festivals and new music programs across the globe. The ensemble's aesthetic lies at the complex and virtuosic end of the contemporary classical spectrum, resolutely international in focus.

As part of a tour of three Australian cities, ELISION is currently in Adelaide (an extensive John Zorn program as part of the Adelaide Festival), then performs in Melbourne on 17 March before travelling to Sydney for two shows at Carriageworks on 18-19 March. Carriageworks new music curator Louis Garrick interviewed ELISION's artistic director Daryl Buckley - please see the Carriageworks website for more information about the two events and a shorter version of this interview.

Louis Garrick: ELISION is Australia's premier new music ensemble, yet Sydney performances have been rare. Indeed, Australian performances in general are noticeably infrequent in the ensemble's busy international schedule. What does it mean to be back, touring in Australia? Is this home?

Daryl Buckley: Home for me is where you start from and ELISION, with all of its successive restarts, has had a number of homes ranging from the rich turmoil of the music scene of Melbourne in 1986 to a burgeoning Brisbane in 1996 to amazing Berlin in 2007 and beyond.

You always take home with you. How can you not? I don't think of it as a static place defined by the singular. In this way the idea of home becomes dynamic, constantly explored and re-understood, and always contingent upon what is happening in the world around you. Fluid.

Performance of Barrett's work in Bremen - Tristram Williams and Genevieve Lacey
Performance of Richard Barrett's Codex IX in Bremen.

If you really want to know what home is, have a guest. Or see what you believe to be special and particular about that place from the outside. Or live in someone else's home to have that always challenging experience of seeing yourself as someone else might see you (or not!), or from another totally different vantage point.

And if you really really want to know what home is, have an uninvited guest. This is one of the ongoing and inevitable challenges for Australian society in the 21st century!

An unfortunate and recent phenomenon, which I have witnessed in a number of forums ranging from Australian arts journalism to academe and political comment, is a version of Australian exceptionalism or triumphalism, the relative escape from the economic ravages of the world's economic crises, and the riches of a well-endowed continent being construed as reflections of personal virtues and individual attributes. These things are inevitably short-lived. For me, however, the question of how superior an Australian arts practice, practitioner, organisation or achievement is (or is not) can always be rephrased more critically as a question of context - if you achieved something in economically affluent times, could you do the same in more difficult times if the overall social circumstances were less optimistic, less coherent? Should the nominated achievement, however it is chosen to be defined, not indeed be better? It's a set of questions worth asking. Missed opportunity in times of surplus is not something to be valued.

It has been a pleasure for ELISION to represent and be viewed as representing Australia.

LG: ELISION has always made much of its international outlook. But some observers have suggested that the ensemble's programming is actually predominantly European. To what extent can a Western new music ensemble be truly 'international'?

DB: Imagine your observer sitting in a nice warm comfy bath surrounded by a flotilla of yellow rubber ducks. The observer might enjoy a rich variance between the ubiquitous yellow duckies noticing that not all are the same. And the way the surface tension and shadowed ripples of the bathwater change might be highly mesmerising to the very same observer. They might even let loose a fart-bubble or wee for fun but in this special bath it's all about familiarity and the dimensions of the bath encapsulating a very safe known space for that observer to relax in. And with your observer, let's now imagine that the idea of an immensity might cross their mind for one instant. Let's nominate an ocean. But the degree to which all of the constantly changing complex set of ecologies (the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Tasman Sea, etc.) that mark those bodies of water might be summarised in a single word and dismissed in favour of meditating upon the safely familiar is a quotient, a measure in fact, of an easily executed, could we say in the case of that observer, a dismissive insecurity?

Or to tackle your question from another point of view: In Darmstadt (a German city which always excites OBSERVERS) the festival of new music this year will have as part of its program a Singaporean ensemble performing. The ensemble is from a secondary school called Raffles Institution and is working in partnership with Studio musikFabrik, a youth project of the Cologne-based ensemble who, in recent years, supported by the Goethe Institute, has enjoyed a developing set of relationships with newly forming networks for ensemble practice across Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Opening of the Mouth (Perth Festival, 1997)

Certain places at certain times become highly resonant for arts and cultural practices and galvanise connections across the world. So, to my mind 'international' is not simply an appellation to be used as a list of places visited. Although that can say a lot. It's also, in part, about having a presence amongst those places and networks, those meeting points, about being 'local' to someone else's memory, being part of their histories, references, and ongoing exchanges.

One of the great pleasures I've been able to enjoy in my recent years, living in Manchester, is in fact being able to witness the uptake of ELISION ideas, repertoire and practices, the absorption of that work and the influence it has had on other creative practitioners, critics, commentators and musicologists! The way in which our performance of Richard Barrett's Opening of the Mouth for the Perth Festival at Midland Railway Yards in 1997, our Ferneyhough Kairos CD recording release, the many performances of our work with Liza Lim and others in Australia, have all found their way into becoming strong and critical reference points for others.

I would never have seen this as clearly from the vantage point of Australian shores.

LG: ELISION is often associated with the so-called new complexity movement and composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy. Yet for a new music ensemble to remain active and in demand for 28 years, there must be more to it than that. What do you make of this new complexity label?

DB: Well, the term new complexity has progressed from a musicological label to one signalling otherness and fear for the bath-tub observers and, more recently I guess, the use of the term has collapsed under the weight of its own (mis)use and people just move on - perhaps to the next journalistic tag! In retrospect I believe that part of the fury that that label invoked in Australia in the early 1990s arose from a form of anti-intellectualism, from a view that the intellectual life of music belonged to composers of other countries and was somehow un-Australian. Or should be. I recall one commentator opining something somewhere to the effect that 'any bum can have an idea'. If only. It's pretty self-eviscerating to the qualities and talents of your artists and audiences to deny them their faculties!

At the outset, the personal attraction to the very different composers to whom that label was applied did commonly denote an exuberant wild energy and a depth of imagination. Of course now, decades on, you can find brilliant and talented students of composition who in a few years of study can skim off the surface of what has taken composers such as Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, and many others, decades to arrive at. But that personal embeddedness in the music, the labour of that journey as a mark within the score is always there, I think, as a necessity in any composer that ELISION takes on and commits to.

LG: The Carriageworks concerts are titled 'And the Scream, Bacon's Scream' (18 March) and 'To Another of that Other' (19 March). What themes do these titles point to?

DB: The extensive vocal practices of the dancers that have worked with the American choreographer William Forsythe have sparked a lot of commentary and have not been without controversy. In his work, a simple movement of the body, a raised leg for instance, might trigger a further succession of bodily movements compressing the diaphragm and lungs and inevitably creating sound - a gasp, a scream, a rendering of text. 'Intermodality' refers to the experience of visual and sonic as a unified sensory experience and has been used by commentators to describe some of the radical practices proposed by Forsythe's work wherein dance is not purely a watched but heard experience which defeats expectations of genre.

This same quality is in fact present and specific in varying degrees to all music performance: heard performance experiences which can also be seen. With these two Sydney concerts, ELISION brings to the fore and makes dramatically evident the performative aspects of the choreographic-in-music. Trilling fingers, lips, lung pressures, rapid hand gestures all assist in a version of the described Forsythe choreographic priority. Here sound makes evident the physical and sets the body into constant motion. This rich saturation of information can happily thwart expectations through unexpected juxtapositions, shifts or interruptions. Use your ears but also at the same time your eyes!

The Navigator.

Why the concert title? Well, the title comes from Aaron Cassidy's work for nine musicians, And the scream, Bacon's scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). The title is a very direct homage sourced from a Francis Bacon triptych. For many, these paintings sum up and provide a visual bank for the horror of our times. The Cassidean ensemble piece takes this violence and the constant eruptive spasms of motion that performance of this music requires, and creates, not a black shadow leaving the body in forced eruptions, but something else - a very sensual trilling, almost a bird-like song language of the soul. Listen to Peter Veale and Richard Haynes play the musette and Eb clarinet parts in the performance: at these points, for me at least, Aaron's music provides an in-between glimpse of the body, almost settling (but not quite) between moments of sheer exertion and the exhilarating quiet and realisation that follows. Ecstasy and joy gained through motion. A similar attitude might be shared with Matthew Sergeant's Ymrehanne Kristos, a direct reference to the architecture of an especially significant church in Ethiopia, and the incessant addicted-to-movement dynamic of Timothy McCormack's One Flat Thing Reproduced.

Here instability and the feeling of a constant almost fractured repetition is key and again sound is motion. But in one work, also by Aaron Cassidy, in this first concert, the sound runs out. Determined by the length of one breath, the duration of memento/memorial dedicated in memory of the leader of Ensemble Surplus, James Avery, is a heart-felt meditation upon life. One breath. Do with it what you can. That is all you have.

At the other end of the musical spectrum, Liza Lim's Ehwaz (journeying) is made up of an ongoing melismatic thread envisaged as being spun through trance, shamanic energies and ecstatic searching. The line is an activity.

The second program is a window back into the first. Irish composer Anne Cleare's music is visceral yet subtle; compressed blocked moments of instruments exchanging timbral identities, bleeding out, leaving trails and traces as they resonate into silences. Richard Barrett's Lens gives me a chance to take the country and western or blues and roots narratives of the electric lap-steel and fling them into an altogether different universe. I especially commissioned this instrument from a guitar maker in Newcastle, UK. It's a unique experiment to pioneer and re-imagine an instrument. And certainly this one is something like tackling a cross between an electric guitar and a trombone. What I feel when I play is amazing - the movement of the slide whipping back and forth, torsioning, snapping around like a string on a kite.

The second program also focuses on the music of Russian composer Dmitri Kourliandski and his approach to layered and extreme contrasts. I suspect his work is new to Australian audiences and it's great to have the opportunity of giving the world premiere of one of his pieces.

Crucially, both programs celebrate the players. That's the thing about these scores. They are not delivered truths but an envisioning of sound that exists with and through the bodies of the players. The site of the body is a very obvious site of co-creation. Luke Paulding's work the abundance of breath for vocalist Deborah Kayser and trumpet player Tristram Williams makes this very clear. These works are very much a part of all of these players. As an artistic director I have always celebrated that relationship.

The Oresteia.

LG: Over the past decade or so, ELISION's non-concert and interdisciplinary activity has increased, from music theatre (such as various projects with Barrie Kosky) to collaborations with installation artists. What is driving this?

DB: The growth of these involvements began with the Bardo-i-thos-grol project of Domenico de Clario and Liza Lim in 1995 at NORPA, Lismore, and extended rapidly to a participation in the Third Asia Pacific Triennale of the Queensland Art Gallery in 1999 in installation projects with visual artists Heri Dono of Yogyakarta and Judith Wright, then Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook of Chiang Mai, Per Inge Bjørlo of Norway in Dark Matter, Justine Cooper, Judy Watson and Lilla Watson in various venues from Brisbane to Berlin and Huddersfield.

What drove all of this? Fascination. Fascination with the creative process and the impulses and discussions that could occur before this process self-identified as music or theatre or new media arts and was distilled out into separate little boxes and genres. Fascination with the potential impact upon the form and duration a work could take. There was a desire, a hope, that outside of the more usual performance conduits provided for by concert halls, the scale ambition and nature of the resultant collaborations between visual artists, composers and ELISION would add to the individuality of the contribution that ELISION was and is making to performance practice. More recently this becomes fascination with research and a more deliberate reflection and digging back into practice.

In all of this activity we have had the opportunity of working with Barrie twice. Firstly, on Liza Lim's The Oresteia which premiered at Theatre Works in St Kilda in 1993, and then more recently on The Navigator project from around 2006-9. I love the The Oresteia and have always harboured an ambition of finding my way back to another production of that work. The release of the CD recording on Dischi Ricordi Milano was amazingly effective to the growth of the ensemble's reputation.

Some people like a poke in the eye, and Barrie is all too keen to oblige. Certainly with The Navigator there was a painful and confronting realism to the staging that was difficult to bear for some. The naked, aged bodies of the singers (as with his staging of Gluck's Iphigenie on Tauris that I saw at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2007), and their identity-transformations through folds of skin, fat, wrinkles and sagging flesh into confused hybrids of male/female, touched a raw nerve. In a way I felt it was easier for the critics to latch onto the more comic, silly moments than grapple head-on with the production and the counterpoint that Barrie posed to the music. He chose not to adorn or illustrate but add a third strand to the libretto and the score. And Barrie is nothing if not musical. So counterpoint is a very real and understood force for him.

In Moscow, as the first major Australian contemporary production of scale there, it was amazingly well received. There the music was controversial! In Paris a concert version was presented at the Amphithéâtre in the Bastille, Opéra National de Paris, as part of the program of Festival d'Automne à Paris. The acoustic was fabulous and we could balance to the natural delivery of the singers' voices. Another wonderful experience.

Barrie is excessive in his ideas and delivery but unafraid of changing trajectory and of cutting as needs be. And unafraid of the flak. I admire that. And it was great to have Liza and Barrie working together in the rehearsal rooms. An amazing team.

LG: There are several composers with whom ELISION has had an ongoing collaboration for many years. Two who come to mind immediately are the Australian Liza Lim, and the Welsh composer Richard Barrett. Both are featured in the Carriageworks concerts, including two new compositions by the latter. How important have such collaborations been to ELISION's success?

DB: Both have been crucial. Certainly, in the late 1980s, the shift away from being a composer-service based organisation defined within a nationalistic ambit was propelled by ELISION enjoying relationships with composers that took into account the idiosyncratic, the explorative potential of the musicians, and absorbed these potentials into the act of writing in ways that just took everything far away from the profferings of orchestration handbooks, the copying of closely held compositional models. What does it mean, what can it mean, when a composer hears in their head not the sound of a cello but Rosanne Hunt or Séverine Ballon playing the cello, of Peter Neville as opposed to an anonymous percussionist, of particular and special musicians like Tristram Williams, Benjamin Marks, Carl Rosman or Richard Haynes? Apropos my earlier remarks, I think you will find if you look at some of the recorded comments I made in the early '90s, I compared those possible musical relationships to the way in which the relationship between a choreographer and the bodies of dancers might individuate one another! I still believe this zone of intimacy and of co-creative impacts is where it all comes together at its best.

I would also comment that the duration and intensity of both artistic relationships has been fantastic. With Richard, there have been something like four or five major musical cycles and installation projects that now mark our work together. The scope of it all becomes just too massive to capture and state simply. Not the least because the journey continues and the work finds new outlets and forms that redefine the previous creative enterprises. It hasn't settled.

With Liza there have been three operas and the most amazing aesthetic journey across the terrain of her cross-cultural engagements with her own personal biography in South East-Asia and her friendships and experiences with Indigenous Australians. Liza's work from the very outset has enjoyed an engagement with the world's best ensembles and performers and, since our time living in Europe, this has only accelerated. To have been with her from the beginning is a rare privilege. To have been with the musicians of ELISION is another rare privilege.

AMC resources

Liza Lim - AMC profile (biograpy, works, recordings, articles etc.)
Luke Paulding - AMC profile
AMC Calendar: ELISION at Melba Hall, Melbourne (17 March); ELISION at Carriageworks, Sydney, (18-19 March)

Further links

ELISION homepage (www.elision.org.au)
Elision at Carriageworks 18-19 March (www.carriageworks.com.au)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Louis Garrick is new music curator at Carriageworks and artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera.


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