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13 October 2008

Ecstatic Dances - Soundstream and OzAsia Festival

Adelaide // SA // 23.09.08

Gabriella Smart Image: Gabriella Smart  

Six performers from Soundstream Contemporary Music Ensemble gave a mesmerising performance of Australian works in front of some one hundred people at the Dunstan Playhouse as part of Adelaide's OzAsia Festival. Apart from the top-class playing, this event, masterminded by pianist Gabriella Smart, was also a fine example of how intelligent programming and presentation can keep the listener engaged through a program of introspective contemporary works.

The dry acoustics of the mid-sized drama venue could have been deadly to music that often relied on luscious sonorities and quiet dynamics. After the concert began, however, the atmosphere was one of intimacy and ever-increasing intensity. The performers, appearing in different configurations from piece to piece, entered and exited the stage seamlessly, and, aided by the unobtrusive but effective lighting, the meditative mood of the unbroken ninety-minute performance was allowed to sustain and grow.

The program demonstrated the different ways Asian musical and conceptual elements have been taken up by composers trained in Western music. Works by composers like Peter Sculthorpe brought Australian indigenous elements into the mix, while Ross Edwards's preoccupation with native birdsong and insect noises echoed the attention and reverence Shintoism gives to nature and its processes.

Australian composers' interest in Asian and indigenous elements is frequently associated with the stylistic shift towards a 'new simplicity' that emerged in the late 1970s, as composers searched for an alternative to the complex, highly controlled compositional language of the post-World War II avant-garde. This quasi-nationalistic, or regionalist, shift reminds us of the pivotal role that non-Western European music, particularly that of Asia, played when Euroepan composers moved away from the dominance of German ultra-romanticism in the early 20th century. Indeed, during that time, Percy Grainger was already expressing thoughts that Australian music might 'exhibit a deliberate monotony' indicative of the country's vast landscape, and both Grainger and the musicologist Henry Tate talked about the potential for absorbing of Asian, Pacific, and indigenous elements into Australian composition.

The program for this concert was limited to works composed in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. Given that my adult musical life started after the most recent of the pieces was premiered – and there were others in the audience like me – I was thankful to have an opportunity to hear this music performed live.

Soloists opened the concert. Anne Norman's Inner States (1993) was given a superb performance by koto player Satsuki Odamura. The exotic breadth of tone colour in the improvisatory episodes of this piece set a captivating and unforbidding tone for the concert.

Julian Yu's short piano Impromptu (1991) delivered a strong contrast. Although the composer states that its origins are improvisational, Impromptu sounded controlled: a limited number of registrally assigned motivic cells, seemingly dynamically serialised, flash by in a twirl of kaleidoscopic, rhythmic juxtapositions, while increasing ornamentation drives the piece forward, striving to expand the impossibly confined initial pitch range. It's a compelling composition, one that will have me looking up other works by this composer.

Since her studies with Peter Sculthorpe, an interest in Asian culture and religion has been a consistent theme in Anne Boyd's life and work. Interestingly, she speaks of feeling drawn to Japanese music as it evokes her outback upbringing.

I was deeply impressed by the depth and drama of Boyd's Red Sun Chill Wind (1980), dedicated to the evening's flautist Geoffrey Collins. In a stellar line-up of players and a great program, it was he, together with pianist Gabriella Smart, who delivered perhaps the most memorable highlight. The composer's powerful voice, full-bodied and dramatic, was delivered with conviction, subtlety and poise. The frequent imitations of the shakuhachi were well executed, and well integrated into the broader narrative of the piece which, while drawing heavily on Japanese elements, easily transcended mere exotica.

Barry Conyngham's Afterimages (1995) provided an imaginative and engaging vehicle for the skills of the dedicatee koto player and the remarkable percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson. In one section of this episodic work, bowed marimba notes, blended with plucked harmonics on the koto, produced a stunning effect. In a section that soon followed, the koto player was required to vigorously beat the strings of her instrument, creating a highly unusual and effective drumming duet with the percussionist.

Ross Edwards was represented by two stylish, understated works, both drawing on wildlife sounds for inspiration. Clarinettist Peter Handsworth brought a great feel to Binyang (1996), the rhapsodic, almost jazzy lines in free meter punctuated by an occasional string of steady pulsations on Vanessa Tomlinson's clapping sticks.

Sculthorpe's Songs of Sea and Sky (1987) for clarinet and piano had many haunting and powerfully nostalgic moments typical of this composer's work. Sculthorpe's slow, exposed lines are deceptively difficult to play, and within relatively static textures, the handling of significant dramatic events requires a perfect feel and razor-sharp timing. Handsworth and Smart were yet again on target.

Boyd's Kakan (1984) for alto flute, marimba, and piano picked up the pace with four short, well-defined sections that contrasted with the rhapsodic nature of her offering earlier in the concert. The more motoric sections occasionally conjured echoes of Stravinsky and Steve Reich. An intriguing and attractive piece that demonstrated the flautist's clave skills, it set the stage for the angelic postscriptum that was Ross Edwards's Ecstatic Dances (1978-90) for two flutes, Geoffrey Collins joined by his former student Rebecca Johnson.

A greater music component in a future OzAsia festival would allow for an exploration of questions that a finely curated event like this gives rise to: how are Asian composers dealing with their own musical heritage; how are Asia's other Europeanised neighbours in North America and Russia engaging with Asian and indigenous elements; and what does the younger generation of Australia's composers have to say on the subject?

Aleksandr Tsiboulski is a Ukrainian-born, Adelaide-based classical guitarist. He is winner of numerous awards, including the 2006 Tokyo International Guitar Competition. Between 2006-08, he was on a Fulbright Scholarship, based at the University of Texas at Austin. Recently, he has recorded a Naxos CD of solo Australian guitar works, due for release in 2009.


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