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20 June 2008

Eight Different Takes on Intimacy

chronology arts - Intimate Lines // NSW // 02.05.08

Intimate Lines composers and performers Image: Intimate Lines composers and performers  

The promise of eight premieres in one night is an enticing one. Intimate Lines, the first in the chronology arts 2008 concert series, offered exactly this: eight new works by young Australian composers, each one presenting a different response to the concept of intimacy. The Old Darlington School at Sydney University proved to be a very appropriate setting for a chamber music concert; small in size, warmly lit and filled almost to capacity, the space felt intimate and inviting.

An initial glance at the program suggested that the composers’ gender had been a factor in determining the program order. The first half consisted of four works by male composers, while the second was made up of four works by women. But while the fifty-fifty balance of works by men and women was a conscious decision on the part of chronology arts directors Andrew Batt-Rawden and Alex Pozniak, the order of the program was coincidental. It was well organised and varied, featuring a satisfying and logical progression of works.

The performers were Eleanor Betts (cello), Gemma Laing and Joanne Toouli (violin), Sophie Unsen (saxophone), Toby Armstrong (clarinet), Anthony Dunstan (horn), and Reomi Mito (piano). This group of musicians delivered sensitive and thoughtful performances, adapting well to the different ensemble configurations and varied playing styles required.

Melbourne-based Kevin March’s Valley of the Moon opened the program with an exploration of, in the composer’s words, 'the mystique, charm, puckishness and luminescent grandeur of moonscape'. Scored for violin, cello and piano, the work unfolded as a skilful exploration of various different aspects of counterpoint, increasing in textural density from the sparse, ethereal soundscape created at the outset.

In his Sketches for violin, horn and piano, Chris Williams, a current Sydney Conservatorium of Music student, approached the concept of intimacy from a slightly different angle. In an overall four-part structure, instrumental isolation and interaction were juxtaposed in alternating solo and ensemble sections, culminating in a sense of terse co-operation at the work’s conclusion. Williams made effective use of the timbral capabilities of the instruments, using piano resonance and percussive playing, string harmonics and natural horn tuning to create a sense of other-worldly fragility.

Fellow Sydney Conservatorium student Lachlan Skipworth’s Closeup, by contrast, featured a much more homogenous texture; an impassioned dialogue between violin and clarinet unfolded against an undulating piano and cello accompaniment. The ensemble’s rendition was confident and sensitive, generating a sense of ebb and flow as the focus shifted between the two main 'protagonists' of the piece.

Afterlight, by Sydney-based composer Cyrus Meurant, was scored for alto saxophone, horn, bass clarinet and electric organ. A bustling, minimalistic texture was created from brief, layered motives, underpinned throughout by a restless organ accompaniment. The overall effect was hypnotic; the blended soft timbres of the instruments and subtle shifts of motivic configuration were certainly evocative of the twofold meaning of the word 'afterlight', defined by the composer as 'the light visible in the sky after sunset', or 'a view of past events: retrospect'.

Adelaide-based Rebecca Harrison’s Vinyasa, for cello, clarinet, horn and saxophone, kicked off the second half of the program. Harrison took as her inspiration the sense of intimacy with the mind and the body that is central to the practice of yoga. Each of the work’s seven movements was titled after one of the composer’s favourite yoga postures, which were in turn woven into a narrative programme. Harrison’s work received one of the most enthusiastic responses from the audience; her vivid, pictorial writing and witty deployment of timbres and thematic elements were excellently realised by the ensemble, in a thoroughly charming and entertaining performance.

In Intimate Waves, for violin, cello and piano, Sydney-based composer Jessica Wells presented a very different take on the concept of intimacy. Her moving and personal work, inspired by 'the enigma of pregnancy', was performed in near-darkness, and accompanied by a video projection of an ultrasound of her daughter Emma Natasha, recorded at 18 weeks. In her program note, Wells describes the sense of dislocation that she felt during earlier ultrasounds; she writes that 'the movements of the foetus on the screen were not able to be felt within'. In Intimate Waves, this dual sensation of closeness and distance was artfully evoked; in the sequences of crystalline piano chords and themes, later underpinned by a heartbeat-like violin and cello ostinato, austerity and warmth were cleverly balanced, through the careful manipulation of registral space and textural density.

Perhaps surprisingly in a concert dedicated to intimacy, Sydney-based Chloé Charody’s Les Préludes Sensualé, dedicated to the memory of her grandmother, was the only solo work on the program. In the three Préludes, Charody made use of harmonic and figurative language reminiscent of Debussy, and demonstrated an impressive command of piano textures; delicate melodies were gently coaxed from shimmering, arpeggiated backdrops, in a work which presented a careful balance between tenderness and melancholy.

Enter by Christina Abdul-Karim, also from Sydney, closed the program with a relatively large ensemble of violin, cello, piano, horn, clarinet and saxophone. The central concept of the work was, in Abdul-Karim’s words, 'the process of entering an intimate encounter'. A chordal solo piano theme served as the starting point of an intriguing and tumultuous musical trajectory. Recurring in various guises throughout the work, the theme acted as a magnetic force, interrupting the increasingly active instrumental interplay with reminders of the initial state of calm and solitude.

Intimate Lines was a promising start to the 2008 chronology arts season; the diversity of the composers’ responses to the concept was striking, as was the energy and enthusiasm of the performers. chronology arts certainly seem to be succeeding in their mission to unite young Australian composers with equally creative and dedicated performers, as well as with interested, appreciative and sizeable audiences.

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Fiona Berry studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where she is currently completing an honours thesis about the musical activities of Jewish émigrés in Shanghai. She is currently employed in various capacities at the Conservatorium, chiefly as a research assistant to Kathleen Nelson and Jennie Shaw, and as a program note writer.


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