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13 August 2009

Elision in Session

Melbourne // VIC // 28.07.2009

Benjamin Marks and Richard Haynes Image: Benjamin Marks and Richard Haynes  

The ensemble Elision has been focussed internationally for most of its existence, having long moved beyond its humble beginnings at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 1980s. A welcome and all too rare appearance here saw them present what was effectively two programs to a sympathetic and encouragingly sized audience.

On this occasion, the group came across as a collective of highly skilled individuals rather than an ensemble as such, the program comprising mostly solos and duos. The performance was recorded by Classic FM for later radio broadcasts, and this may have influenced both the length of the program and the selection of repertoire. Few concessions were made to the audience present in the room, as unhurried introductions and interviews spun each half of the concert out to well over an hour of challenging music.

Aesthetically, Elision has not strayed far from its original stylistic brief - the works presented were uniform in their allegiance to post-war modernist developments, and as such characterised by extended techniques, instrumental virtuosity, complex rhythmic activity and biting atonality. All of the composers represented are concerned with the search for unusual timbres and pushing performance techniques to the edge of what is possible.

One of the ensemble's strengths is its forging of extended relationships with composers, a process that is mutually beneficial, giving the group a distinctive musical identity and enabling composers to develop and refine their individual voices over long periods of time. This is nowhere more apparent than in the music of Liza Lim, who has been there for much of the journey and created a significant body of work for Elision. She was represented on this occasion by two solos- Wild Winged One (2007) for solo trumpet, and Philtre (1996) for hardanger fiddle. Tristram Williams opened the concert with a spectacular rendition of the former. A resetting of fragments from her opera The Navigator, the piece asks the performer to give voice to a bewildering cast of characters. Heroic fanfares are juxtaposed with maniacal avian screeches; nonsensical vocal gibberish fades into elegiac echoes of 'The Last Post'. Williams carried this all off with aplomb, from memory.

Lim's other work is for hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian hybrid which supports open tunings with unplayed strings that sound sympathetically. The work is well known to Melbourne audiences (it's on the Melbourne Conservatorium listening list) and Graeme Jennings's account was both compelling and expressive. The piece lopes forward in passionately swooping glissandi, and is never allowed to settle into the tonalities suggested by the open tunings.

Not all of the solos presented were able to maintain the expressive interest and distinctive musical personality that Lim achieves. Both Michael Finnissy's Marrngu (1982) for E flat clarinet and Roger Redgate's Ausgangspunkte (1981-82) for oboe shared more than their vintage in being typically effective but (especially in the case of Redgate's work) unremarkable examples of virtuosic solo woodwind expositions. It is possible that in the light of the various developments in composition since the late '70s, both works sound a little too much of their era, and are couched in styles that have possibly lost their potency due to overexposure.

Richard Barrett, another long-time Elision collaborator, was represented by two small chamber pieces. Inward (1994-95) for flute and percussion essayed a delicate sound world, with the flute circling microtonally around individual pitch centres and light percussion providing a chiaroscuro background. Wound (2009) was even more incorporeal, pitting frantic but vague solo violin glissandi against slowly moving textures in an ensemble of cor anglais, E flat clarinet and cello.

Also featured on the program were works by a younger generation of composers working in sympathetic styles. Silk Dialogue VI (2007) by New Zealander Jeroen Speak manages to generate a lot of nervous energy in its scurrying textures, but the work seemed to fade out without any kind of satisfying release. A string quartet supported a solo E flat clarinet (Richard Haynes had quite a workload, also acting as MC, providing spoken introductions and interviews) and flute in a secondary solo role. Five players also doubled on snare drum, which was used to demarcate changes of texture or focus. Unfortunately, the periodicity with which this device was overused introduced an unwelcome sense of predictability in what was otherwise a fascinating work.

The remainder of the concert(s) consisted of recent works by young Australians Robert Dahm and Benjamin Marks, and American Evan Johnson. Dahm's the flesh is the grammar (2009) is scored for a quintet of clarinets, bassoons, horn, trumpet and trombone. The work contained some interesting timbral blends, especially involving the rich lower brass, but came across as something of a work in progress, with uncertain pauses interrupting the flow. Perdix (2009) by Marks was really a trumpet solo joined by a brief nexus to a percussion solo. The short fragile vibraphone coda that concludes the work was in some ways the highlight of the evening, more so because it was totally unexpected, and seemed to come from a different sound world than literally every other piece on the program.

The final work, Johnson's Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) (2009) was possibly the least successful and interesting of the evening. It may have been the lateness of the hour, or the sheer overload of information, but these three short fragments for quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone came across as slight and unvarying in their musical content.

Elision have come a long way since the core group of players took their first uncertain steps in mastering this difficult repertoire as students in the 1980s. In the meantime, they continue to contribute on the international stage both in their high performance standard and in the creation of exciting new work. I look forward to hearing these works again in radio broadcast, and to future, perhaps more audience-friendly, concerts.

Event Details

Elision in Session
Elision Ensemble - Paula Rae, Peter Veale, Richard Haynes, Brock Imison, Ysolt Clark, Tristram Williams, Ben Marks, Graeme Jennings, James Cuddeford, Jason Bunn, Geoffrey Gartner, Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Music by Liza Lim, Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett, Jeroen Speak, Roger Redgate, Benjamin Marks, Robert Dahm and Evan Johnson.
Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Centre Southbank, Melbourne
Tuesday 28 July 2009

Further links

Elision Ensemble (http://www.elision.org.au)
Chris Reid's review of the concert in RealTime

Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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Thanks for the interesting read. It's good to keep abreast of Elision's performances in Australia (and I would have loved to have heard the Dahm).

I was struck by your closing comment about 'audience friendly'. Mainly because it reminded me of my own 'audience friendly' comment in a review of some of the same repertoire:


In what way did you feel the concerts weren't friendly? I am tempted to write that I feel like Elision has given us plenty of materials for understanding the grammars, tics and tendencies of many of the composers here performed (especially Barrett, Lim, Redgate, Finnissy). But that would suggest that familiarity is necessary for friendliness, which is an uncomfortable clashing of metaphors. Perhaps the concerts we reviewed had different audiences?

audiences #2

Since the early 90's ELISION has explored quite different modes of performance.  This has resulted in a wide range of interdisciplinary collaborations - the video documentary opera 'TULP the body public' with new media artist Justine Cooper, the various operas of Liza LIm with Barrie Kosky and Michael Kantor, and the installation projects from 'Bardo I thos grol' through to 'Sight and Sound of a Storm in Sky Country'. We have worked with visual artists from Heri Dono of Indonesia, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook of Thailand, Per Inge Bjorlo of Norway and senior Indigenous artists Judy Watson and Lilla Watson. Yet after almost 15 years of performances in differing contexts I cannot fail to observe that the hardest challenge and request to make of an audience in Australia remains the request to listen and to do so actively.  Its not something I or ELISION would ever resile from. To my mind the 'friendliest' relationship one could pursue with any audience is to present an ideas rich programme.

I would also disagree with the reviewers comments on the Johnson duo. Tristram Williams and Ben Marks have just finished recording this work at Radio Bremen. These quite remarkable recording sessions brought home the sheer interpretative and technical virtuosity to play a work that is anything but slight!