3 September 2009
Melbourne // VIC // 31.07.2009
A large and diverse audience crammed into the Richmond Uniting Church for the Quiver Ensemble's most ambitious concert to date. Formed early in 2009, Quiver's young musicians have been developing a broad and open aesthetic centred on exploring sound through performance, improvisation, and installation. The program focussed on works exploring different approaches to colour and timbre. Alongside compositions by George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Harrison Birtwistle and Conlon Nancarrow, were two world premieres by Australian composers Warren Burt and Luke Paulding.
Despite the murmurings of Friday evening traffic wafting through the thin walls and the uncomfortable reality of sitting on hard church pews, Quiver managed to establish a warm and inviting atmosphere to the concert. The low-lit, softly coloured lighting design of Travis Hodgson did much to assist, and helped set an evolving mood for each piece.
The opening work was Toru Takemitsu's Rain Spell (1983), for harp, flute, clarinet, piano and vibraphone. Comprised of a series of organically related episodes, the work calls on different amalgams of instrumental timbre and gradations of colour from the quintet of instruments. Takemitsu used a proportional scoring approach to this work, yet it is full of the exacting detail he is known for. The harp is required to tune in quarter-tones for five notes in the middle and bass registers, while the flute and clarinet are often assigned intricate changing multiphonics and timbral trills.
In performance, the ensemble took a few minutes to work their way into Takemitsu's Rain Spell. However, they soon settled and displayed great ensemble skill in rendering the work with the necessary subtle blends and manipulations of timbre. Takemitsu's notions of 'liquid form' and 'sea of tonality' can sometimes result in performances of his work that lack a sense of directional coherence. But Quiver showed an understanding of the composition at the localised and macro levels which helped to define an overall shape. Dynamic control and energy transfer between the ensemble members was generally excellent.
Following the Takemitsu was an arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow's Player Piano Etude No. 18 (1977), for violin (Zac Johnston) and piano (Luke Paulding). It wasn't just the late György Ligeti who has been intrigued with Nancarrow's kinetic-based compositions. Among contemporary composers, performers and their audiences, it has become more common to see attempts to translate Nancarrow's once seemingly unplayable works to live performance. For this arrangement, the players each connected an earphone to an iPod. I can only imagine that what was on the iPod was some kind of backing that assisted them in locking into their respective parts of near impossible rhythmic precision. This work was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to, with the audience wondering whether the two complex lines of canonic interplay would fall apart. The concentration and confidence of the duo held firm and the momentum of the work concluded with a perfect rhythmic unison attack. Particularly impressive was the violin of Zac Johnston whose pizzicato virtuosity traversed the entire scope of the instrument.
Next on the program was George Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965), for alto flute, clarinet, violin and piano. A very different work to the Nancarrow, Crumb's work contains a plethora of delicate timbral effects - from fifth partial piano harmonics, to vocalised text fragments, to amplification and colouration of the winds through sympathetic vibrations as they play into the piano, and violin playing with the bow hairs completely loosened. Quiver simply gave a sublime performance of this work. Crumb's eleven 'echoes' were treated with the right amount of control, balance and sense of musical space to work their charms. Toward the end of the work the violin plays a section of very soft and exposed artificial harmonic glissandi. Even a braking tram outside and its metallic screech seemed unable to disrupt the beautiful atmosphere created by the ensemble for this work.
Harrison Birtwistle's Linoi (1968) followed the Crumb. Written for clarinet and piano, this was perhaps the most intimate of all the works on the program. Linoi is structured in an arc that moves from a spacious opening with lengthening melodic strains to a more frenzied and densely textured middle section and back again. Giving voice to the refined timbral colours of the clarinet, Aviva Endean moved effortlessly from lines of subdued lyrical beauty to intense syncopations. The piano of Luke Paulding deserves recognition also for its secure support, placement of sound and the thunderously violent strums on the inside of the piano strings in the middle of the piece.
A new work by Warren Burt titled Bass Drum, Vibraphone, Voice and Electronics (2009) followed and acted as a punctuation point in the concert. Burt's work opened with a pounding bass drum figure, interspersed with brazen comic-book quotes yelled from the lips of percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott (who, by the way, was wearing sunglasses and some sort of glam 1970s cape, as well as being positioned high above the church's altar with a spotlight on him). This was initially jarring, following the almost meditative mood set up by the earlier pieces, but the quirky theatricality of the piece ended up working extremely well at this stage in the program. Schack-Arnott delivered a theatrically and musically captivating performance.
The second part of Burt's work was far more sedate, combining 'realised electronics' with fluid chordal textures from the vibraphone. What the connections were between the two different parts of Burt's composition was a little lost on me - perhaps juxtaposition was the point, with the second part providing a moment of reflection? I'm unsure how the piece would stand on its own, but in the context of the other works being explored in this concert, it was highly effective at injecting a contrasting energy into the overall concert flow.
The final piece of the evening was a new work from emerging composer and Quiver ensemble member Luke Paulding. Titled her sparkling flesh in a saecular ecstasy (2009), it was written for flute and alto flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, tuba and percussion. According to Paulding, the title of the work takes its inspiration from a poem by Richard Wilbur and the work unfolds through a series of intense instrumental dialogues throughout the quartet, 'at points converging with poetic grace, at other times provoking individual instruments to explode into chaotic splendour'. In effect, this was a return to the texture-based writing and complex rhythmic interplay of some of the earlier works, however Paulding's sound world consisted of deconstructing instrumental sounds to produce new and fascinating timbres. The flutes of Rebecca Lane, clarinets of Aviva Endean and tuba of composer Luke Paulding became sound generators producing air sounds, pops, sucks, hisses and clicks. Percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott was asked to play everything including the kitchen sink: oven grills, vials of water and bowed polystyrene. The risk in a work such as this is that the multitude of sonic material doesn't lead anywhere, but Paulding's piece revealed an engaging directional structure from the timbral fragments. Percussionist and Elision Ensemble member Peter Neville took up conducting duties and assisted in keeping all the complex rhythms and energy flowing.
At the conclusion of Paulding's work, Quiver received sustained and deserved applause. This had at times been a challenging program, yet Quiver had sought and produced synergies between the performed works. It would have been nice to have experienced the harp of Jess Fotinos in more than just the first piece, but this is a minor quibble. Overall, each composition presented in this concert was treated with precision, vigour and great expression. Quiver managed to maintain a focussed musicality and passionate engagement throughout.
The next Quiver concert, 'Dichroic Sound', is planned for November and will focus on works which incorporate live video.
Quiver New Music Ensemble
Aviva Endean (clarinets), Jess Fotinos (harp), Zac Johnston (violin), Rebecca Lane (flutes), Matthias Schack-Arnott (percussion), Luke Paulding (piano/tuba), Peter Neville (conductor), Travis Hodgson (lighting design)
Works by George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Harrison Birtwistle, Conlon Nancarrow, Warren Burt and Luke Paulding.
Richmond Uniting Church, Melbourne, VIC
31 July 2009
Event details in the AMC Calendar
Warren Burt - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/burt-warren)
Quiver Ensemble's next concert 21 November - event details in the AMC Calendar
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Anthony Lyons is a Melbourne-based composer and teacher.
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