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7 June 2021

ELISION ensemble: Performance Series 

ELISION's Ben Marks performing Lim's work <em>The Green Lion Eats the Sun</em> Image: ELISION's Ben Marks performing Lim's work The Green Lion Eats the Sun  

Charlie Sdraulig introduces ELISION's Performance Series, a collection of videos featuring artists and composers closely connected with the ensemble. One important function of this series has been to support the artistic connection within ELISION's circle during times of isolation - as well as producing artistic results of the highest degree.

In ELISION's new series of films, glowing critters meet wrecks and runes, while vitriolic lions sit alongside a neatly ordered row of biscuit tins. Well, figuratively at least. Concretely, the films highlight the central creative partnerships that have sustained ELISION's activities over decades. Each one reveals how a commitment to long-term collaboration emboldens unique capabilities, vibrant practices, and a dash of rich symbolism.

The cameras and microphones bring viewers in close. They allow extraordinary access to the virtuosic choreographies that animate intricate sound worlds. To date, five collaborative relationships have been beautifully captured by Agatha Yim of Polyphonic Pictures and recording engineer Alistair McLean, within the Primrose Potter Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Rae and Lim

For flautist Paula Rae, Liza Lim's bioluminescence (2019) is an expression of 'a collaborative process that has been over 30 years in the making.' Rae continues: 'I've known Liza and played her music for all that time, including her student works and her first 'professional' piece for the ensemble, Garden of Earthly Desire, in 1988.'

Over the years, composer and performer have been drawn to those 'sounds we love', including the shimmering multiphonics, microtonal trills and tremolos that feature in this solo. A shared history of numerous tours featuring Lim's ensemble and operatic works has developed an intuitive connection: 'Liza doesn't have to explain the feeling she's trying to get across. I get what she is trying to achieve. It's very human and emotionally available music - I find it intoxicating to play.'

In this case, the human turns towards living light. The piece evokes critters like the tiny Hawaiian bobtail squid, which houses, feeds, and tends to luminescing bacteria. At night, this symbiotic relationship camouflages the hunting squid from its prey below - counter-illumination allows the squid to blend in with starry skies and appear to cast no shadow. Perhaps Lim's piece is a speculative, musical entangling with these vital, multi-species collaborations? It is as if Lim and Rae imagine the interdependence of beings through flickering sound.

Buckley and Cassidy

Aaron Cassidy's The wreck of former boundaries (2015) seems hell-bent on obliterating the composer's prior methods, before reforging the twisted shards that remain. The piece resembles an increasingly raucous trial by combat, pitting force against resistance, and velocity against friction. This bout is enacted on the fretboard of an electric lap steel guitar, processed through an idiosyncratic collection of effects pedals, and animated by ELISION's artistic director, Daryl Buckley. He slides, drags, fidgets, and contorts. Buckley's virtuosic efforts are steadily engulfed by the multi-channel fixed media playback, where Cassidy has pulverised samples of his prior works, including recordings by ELISION. The distorted ruins of these long, collaborative histories culminate in a brutal catharsis - materials are refigured and made apocalyptically strange, clearing space for something new.

Williams, Neville, and Lim

Ehwaz is the name of a Proto-Germanic rune, which may symbolise 'communion, trance, shamanic energies and ecstatic searching'. These qualities, suggested by Liza Lim, are embodied by Tristram Williams (trumpet) and Peter Neville (percussion) as fellow travellers in Ehwaz (journeying) (2010). Both performers have been on the road with ELISION for a while: Williams joined in 2004, and Neville has been there since the very beginning in 1986.

In Lim's piece, their instrumental personae seem at constant risk of unravelling, as they stray far from their conventional 'homes': distorted split tones on the trumpet are undercut by gruff vocal glissandi, or a CD rattling in its newfound role as a mute; the vibraphone's sound is hollowed out by rutes - multi-rod beaters - or extended via timbral rhyming with varied gongs, tubes, glass bottles, and ceramics.

A palpable sense of fragility emerges when Williams and Neville embrace sonorities at or beyond the limits of received instrumental practices. However, this vulnerability does not lead to disintegration, but instead allows the performers to reach unlikely common ground. For instance, certain passages of William's distorted, flutter tongued glissandi are translated by Neville's rolls on a partially filled, glass bottle. Neville tilts the bottle as he plays, and the water displaces to produce a smooth pitch bend. The result is a novel, sonorous union of the performers' sounds. This openness to journeying, to search together with Lim beyond usual bounds, leads to delightfully unexpected connections.

Neville and Barrett

Peter Neville has also recorded three percussion solos by Richard Barrett: delta (1990-93), abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (1992-6), and entoptic (2017-18). Neville charts a brilliantly virtuosic course through his decades-long collaboration with the composer. For writer Tim Rutherford-Johnson, this selection of pieces reveals 'the creative restlessness that drives exploration and invention, and the devotion that inspires lifelong engagement with another's work and character' (read more).

The 'instrument' in entoptic concretely illustrates this shared drive and commitment. It is a collection of 25 objects - small bottles, flowerpots, biscuit tins, woodblocks, cymbals, etc. - organised in a compact grid, which affords maximal timbral contrast at high speeds. Neville gradually developed this instrument while realising a long-running series of Barrett's improvisational structures, entitled codex. Its composite sound made a striking impression on the composer, who then systematised the setup into its present form. As such, the instrument itself embeds a shared creative journey - its materials, arrangement, and articulation are imbued with years of musicking together. You can hear and see it. Neville positively glides across the matrix of objects with a composure and fluency born of deeply embodied knowledge. The cameras chase his movements - the zones of contact between needles, tins, and flowerpots - sometimes just barely keeping up.

Marks and Lim

There is a growing repertoire for double-belled brass, which explores the greatly expanded timbral possibilities these innovations afford, but the instruments are still rare. Typically, they are custom-built in close collaboration between individual performers and instrument builders. When Ben Marks heard the original version of Liza Lim's The Green Lion Eats the Sun (2014) for Melvyn Poore on double bell euphonium, he 'felt it would sit wonderfully on the trombone.' However, since no equivalent instrument was at hand, Lim's solo offered a motivating challenge to spark Marks's creative invention. He conducted several DIY experiments with varied rigs, which shaped his requirements for the instrument featured in this film - a custom double bell trombone built by Noel Stephenson.

The alchemical symbol of the title admits diverse readings - it supports metaphors of destruction, purification, and more. On a human level 'The Green Lion Devouring the Sun' may refer to the interaction of preconscious and conscious activities. In the piece, each side of this duality is represented by a bell. Marks flits between muted and open sounds - blaring, muttering, and trilling - drastically varying timbre at a pace that only these double-belled instruments allow. Yet before long, the binary blurs. For Marks 'the music feels like an in between space with these great moments of festive dance, conflict, songs, calls, arrivals and momentary conclusions amid various wild departures, all across differing temporal and sonic planes.' In other words, a rich multivocality emerges, which complexly hints at varied axes of interpretation.

Ongoing ties

The ELISION ensemble is central to all the performers and composers featured in these films. As Ben Marks, a member since 1996, puts it: 'ELISION is the lifeblood of my activity as a musician. The wonderful musicians who are part of this group sustain a musical practice of unquestionable integrity and passion.' Paula Rae agrees: 'I owe Daryl and Liza a lot. Without ELISION, I don't know if I'd still be playing music.' At crucial crossroads, the ensemble offered Rae a community, exploratory outlook, and complementary contrast to her other activities, which 'was the shot in the arm that I needed to keep going.'

During the lockdowns, Daryl Buckley kept up regular meetings with ELISION's members all around the world. These films have been produced in a similar spirit. As Rae explains, they are a way to 'maintain our connections with each other, and with the music' in uncertain times.

After all, when distance and isolation become too much to bear, we find ways of tending to those ties that sustain us - means of staying in contact, healing the ruptures, celebrating shared experiences, and creating new ones together.

> ELISION (https://www.elision.org.au/)

Support Act is Australia's only charity delivering crisis relief services to artists, crew and music workers as a result of ill health, injury, a mental health problem, or some other crisis that impacts on their ability to work in music. Support Act also delivers specific COVID-19 crisis relief, including 'MusicKeeper' and 'CrewKeeper' Crisis Relief Cash Grants, which are designed to help cushion the blow occasioned by the end of Jobkeeper payments. If you know someone who is struggling, let them know about Support Act and their counselling helpline 1800 959 500.


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