27 September 2015
Twenty Ears: Ensemble Offspring celebrates
'We were on a high. We had to do more. Spring Ensemble was born.' Damien Ricketson looks back at Ensemble Offspring's 20 years and its early days as 'Spring Ensemble'. Offspring celebrates with two Future Retro concerts on 25 October.
Roger who? …. never heard of you was my grandmother's greeting when renowned pianist Roger Woodward phoned to discuss a potential student concert as part of his then Sydney Spring International Festival of Contemporary Music.
I had been living with my grandparents in 1995 when I was entering my last year of a Bachelor of Music degree at the Sydney Conservatorium. A fellow student, Matthew Shlomowitz, and I had been bemoaning the fact that composition majors didn't have a final recital like our performer colleagues who finished their studies with a bang. Rather than finish in silence with an orchestral work that would never get performed, we agreed to compose for the same large ensemble and put on a show.
We wrote down every performer-friend we could think of who had shown any interest in playing new music and then looked at the line-up. It was a strange and unbalanced ensemble, but a predictive indicator of how the group would evolve in the future: an organisation built around personalities rather than instruments. I mailed a tentative pitch to Woodward to include the event as part of the Sydney Spring. He called the next day.
In today's risk-averse climate I doubt any festival director would take on a program of yet-to-be written works composed and performed by students. And for that reason, a lot of starry-eyed young careers stop right there. Astonishingly, however, Woodward took us on. With one condition. We had to include a performance of Xenakis's formidable Eonta. In hindsight, the addition of a 'name' composer set us off in a particular programming direction. This was not going to become a Philip Glass Ensemble or Michael Nyman Band that played only the music of its founding composers, but an ensemble that contextualised new works together with seminal existing work from the 20th century. In September 1995, we took to the stage with Xenakis, two works by me, Lamina and Blech,and two works by Matthew Shlomowitz, his Piano Concerto and String Quartet.
When compiling the festival program, we were told the group of musicians needed a name. How about 'Spring Ensemble' came our unimaginative reply. Of course, at the time we had no idea this was to become an ensemble. We thought it was a one-off event. In the end, the concert featured 31 student performers from the Conservatorium, including Corrado Palleschi (trumpet), Loretta Palmeiro (sax), Tonya Lemoh (piano) and Roger Woodward as soloists. With that many people involved, the ABC Goossens Hall easily sold out. We were on a high. We had to do more. Spring Ensemble was born.
The early years
The pattern of the early years involved a series of gigs as part of the Sydney Spring Festival - we had become the de facto ensemble in residence - and the occasional gig outside. Sometimes we scrounged money through cultural attachés, for example 'Sounds French' with the Alliance Francaise, or 'Transfigured Nights' under the direction of Michael Finnissy as part of the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (1997).
In these days, the ensemble was led by Matthew Shlomowitz. I was studying in the Netherlands with Louis Andriessen: a composer who believed musical renewal was intrinsically tied up with the formation of artist-led outfits. He helped instill a strong DIY ethos that I was to bring home with me in 1998 at the same time Matthew went overseas for good.
And DIY it was. We still didn't really have any idea what we were doing. These were the days before business plans, risk assessments and budget bottom lines. We had ideas and acted on them. We stumbled enthusiastically, if recklessly, from one gig to another. Hopefully learning along the way.
By the end of the '90s, our relationship with the Sydney Spring was coming to an end. In an attempt to assert an independent identity, we changed our name to Ensemble Offspring in a concert celebrating the opening of the Studio at the Sydney Opera House in 1999. At the time it was to be Sydney's dedicated new music venue. It was short lived.
Staying viable was not easy. Although there were some great gigs - a tour to Perth as part of TURA's Totally Huge Festival (2000), Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra with Richard Toop (2001), and an early concert of 'spectral' music (2002) - the reality of paying performers was difficult, and dragging along our friends for an audience was reaching its shelf-life. Nonetheless, performance standards during these times were advancing fast with a crystallised core of musicians including Carl Rosman (clarinet), Mark Knoop (piano), Kathleen Gallagher (flute) and Geoffrey Gartner (cello).
Starting to thrive
The first real turning point that put Ensemble Offspring on an upward trajectory came in 2003. We received funding from the then NSW Ministry for the Arts. With it came our first European tour to the prestigious Warsaw Autumn Festival, and other gigs, including our first edition of Partch's Bastards which started attracting Sydney audiences outside our immediate circles. The upwards path was boosted by repeat invitations to perform at the newly branded Studio at the Sydney Opera House with projects such as 'The Art of Glass' (2004) where we were allowed to perform Philip Glass's early works that are usually reserved for his own ensemble. Other highlights from this period included a tribute to my former Australian composition teacher Bozidar Kos on the occasion of his 70th birthday, and a growing number of collaborations with conductor Roland Peelman and the vocal group Halcyon, including 'Floof!' (2005) and 'Tehillim' (2007) - a massive event at the City Recital Hall that also included Synergy Percussion.
I was also getting my programming mojo. 2006 was the first year I felt a coherent programming model develop that largely remains today: themed concerts combining world premieres and Australian premieres, emerging Australian work alongside seminal international names, and collaborators both across genres and across artforms.
The 2006 program included mirrored amplified 'open-form' gigs ('Flexible Eclectic' & 'Plastic Noise' in the casual Newtown RSL) mixing up known figures such as Cage and Zorn with new works by Matt Shlom (Slow Flipping Harmony), Kate Neal (Hyalus) and our first forays into improvisation and collaboration with mentor Jim Denley. Then there were two multimedia events at the Studio ('Surreal Interlude' & 'Light is Calling'), the former featuring new live scorings of historic films by Finnissy and Stephen Whittington. And in the middle was a monumental chamber program mixing up new works by Christopher Tonkin and the monolithic Australian premiere of Vortex Temporum of Gerard Grisey.
The great thing about being a composer-artistic director is that I can program all the music that I've been trying to write, or wish I had written. As such, many of my own compositional preoccupations - open forms, spectral techniques, just-intonation, microtonality, hybrid performance - can also be found as recurrent threads in EO's programming history at large.
The next major turning point for the Ensemble was Claire [Edwardes]. Although Claire had always been around - she was involved in the very first concert and performed in many others - she had spent seven years living in Europe. As friends and passionate promoters of new music there was something inevitable about our joining forces on her return. The sheer energy and dedication brought by Claire, together with the formation of our first board (2008), saw a massive increase in capacity as the company transitioned from a single-person operation to a genuine multi-person professional arts company. In the coming years the Ensemble secured Key Organisations funding from the Australia Council and, with it, ability to pursue upwards of 30+ events a year. In recent years, the Ensemble has settled into a healthy program of high-profile concerts, casual events such as our Sizzle series, education programs, including our Hatched Academy, and embarked on many interstate and international tours (I'm writing this article in China where we are featured in the Shanghai New Music Week).
Over the years there are two major forces that have shaped what does and doesn't get performed: the core people involved and the external environment.
Although Claire and I have strong musical preferences, we also represent the collective taste of those involved in the group. The musicians have frequently changed over the years, many leaving to pursue international careers as experts in new music. As the core musicians have come and gone, their presence has been felt in our programming history, both in terms of musical taste as well as the evolving instrumentations available. Today's core of Claire (percussion), Jason Noble (clarinet), Lamorna Nightingale (flute), Veronique Serret (violin), Zubin Kanga (piano) and Bree van Reyk (percussion) are all friends who regularly thrash out their opinions in our creative committee meetings.
There is a lot of music we don't play because it isn't us. Then there is a lot of music we'd love to play, but we don't have the available instruments or resources to do so. And then there is the mountain of worthy music, and composers we want to commission, that don't get performed for external reasons. I have notebooks full of pieces and projects that will probably never see the light of day: a vast and silent playlist of unheard music.
On rare occasions we have thrown everything we've got (including personal finances) at something in which we believe, to make it happen against all odds. Financially damaging as they are, these are some of our best projects. Notable examples for me include 'Professor Bad Trip' (2012), a concert that audiences, musicians and composers still cite years later as one of the most exhilarating they've experienced; 'Partch's Bastards' (aka Between the Keys), a project where we really built music from scratch, starting with new tuning systems, building new instruments and commissioning new works; and, more recently, the hybrid work The Secret Noise which recently won Instrumental Work of the Year in the 2015 Art Music Awards.
Everything else that gets programmed depends largely on external partners and how well what we want to do aligns with what they want to do. As such, our programs have also been shaped by the institutions who have supported us. In the early years it was the Sydney Spring Festival, later the Studio at the Opera House, then the Melbourne Recital Centre gave us a good run for a couple of years, and, more recently, the Sydney Festival under Lieven Bertels; as well as many one-off collaborations that have also yielded rewarding projects. Such partnerships are not compromised. For example, our Sydney Festival collaboration with Mike Patton to present Berio's Laborintus II is surely another highlight. However, the projects that do get to your ears represent only the tip of the iceberg of what we'd do if we could. True artistic autonomy is a slippery ideal.
Two decades and hundreds of concerts since our first gig, Ensemble Offspring is marking our anniversary with 'Future Retro': a double-concert, peppered with talks and celebratory drinks. The 'Retro' half of the event features some of the major works from our past that have left indelible echoes in our ears (Grisey's monumental Talea; Beyond Atmospheres - our creative remake of György Ligeti's famous work; Andriessen's Hoketus). In the 'Future' half, we hand the event over to emerging composers. Kate Moore's Fern was commissioned for our 2013 European tour, while the rest are all world premieres: Tristan Coelho's read/write error indulges in the beauty of broken sounds, and we are thrilled to introduce our 'Hatched' emerging composers with a lush and colourful work from Melbournian Samuel Smith, and a curious work from Adelaide-based Daniel Thorpe for solo flute, fluorescent light bulbs and ensemble. Thorpe's work features a live animated score that the performers read from networked laptops. Finally, we are presenting two works from final-year composition students at the Con: a modern take on birdsong in Cassie To's Avialae and an integration of acoustic and electronic soundworlds in Kezia Yap's Coalesce.
If Roger Woodward hadn't taken a punt on a couple of young composers 20 years ago, Ensemble Offspring would not exist. It is fitting that our anniversary event should do the same, passing on the musical baton to a new generation of talented young Australians.
Ensemble Offspring: Future Retro
Sunday 25 October, 3pm and 6m, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
More details and ticket links: AMC Calendar
Damien Ricketson - AMC proifle
Ensemble Offspring - homepage
Ensemble Offspring - Future Retro - read also related articles on the Offspring website: Matthew Shlomowitz; Damien Ricketson ('Exploring open music', 'Six Spectral Threads', 'Microtones and Weird Instruments'; 'Crossing Art Forms'); memories by EO players; commissions & premieres.
© Australian Music Centre (2015) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.
You must login to post a comment.