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4 June 2009

Ensemble Offspring - Thirteen Colours

Sydney // NSW // 30.05.2009

Ensemble Offspring Image: Ensemble Offspring  
© Christopher Hayles

Ensemble Offspring opened the New Music Network 2009 season on the first wintry night of the year, presenting a memorable program of five works that banished all thoughts of being cold and wet. Their program was an enlightening and transporting one, free of the familiar or predictable, which held the audience attentive in silent concentration throughout. The music came from two Australian composers, Bozidar Kos and Christopher Tonkin; two French, linguist-turned-composer Tristan Murail and the late Gérard Grisey; and one American, John Luther Adams. What their works have in common is involvement in a concept credited to the two French composers, with the name of 'spectral music'. The concept is not such a recent one as you might suppose, if you have not come across it before, with the concert’s key work, Murail’s Thirteen Colours of the Setting Sun, written more than thirty years ago. Noting that the five instruments for which it is scored are (optionally) augmented with 'ring modulation', however, you might appreciate that this was no place for a conventional quintet.

The first half of the concert was remarkable for the way in which three separate works came together, almost as though you might have been hearing a single work in three movements. Peelman’s opening signal unleashed an outpouring of sound in which Kos, the first composer, had given every instrument its own point of entry into, and path to follow through, a continuing spectrum of sound. There was no beginning and no end in a conventionally structured sense. Each instrument followed its own path unerringly wherever it led, sustaining the closest harmonic interplay with the others, no matter what they did, without repetition, solo diversion or conventional thematic development. Without anything much in the way of a tune to play, either, yet the effect was melodic and free of any discordance. When the time was right, each instrument was gently masked out, in unison, leaving the sound spectrum continuing into an inaudible distance.

Performances were intense, each instrumentalist a study in concentration tied invisibly but securely to Peelman’s semaphoric gestures. Taking a cue from Murail’s own observations, this music and that of Tonkin moved us through an intricate network of subtle variations of sonic hue and radiance, using the instruments almost as prisms rather than generators of sound. The pacing was constantly slow, methodical and searching, the tonality crystalline throughout, sound of exceptional brilliance and clarity.

As a way of searching out new directions in music, 'spectral music' as heard so far, then, puts forward an alternative to improvisation, in which there is no room for chance. It reveals, instead, that the number of permutations contained in absolute music is infinite. You may never end up being anywhere that you might have predicted. But electronic manipulations were happening in this concert, some place where they could not be seen or traced to any particular instrument, and more were to come.

The second half opened with John Luther Adams’s Roar, actually more tranquil than the title would imply. Edwardes took this one, near-motionless and unaccompanied, back to the audience, at the back of the stage, with what must have been a physically demanding continuous addressing of the tam-tam. The processed sounds attributed in the program were not tied to her activity, however. So where did they come from? Who created them? Where was Deems Taylor, when I wanted him to introduce us to the sound itself, just the way he introduced us to the soundtrack in the Walt Disney film Fantasia?

In his short life, Gérard Grisey, whose work brought the performance to its conclusion, was the one composer who seems to have had the most pertinent things to say about spectralism, the movement whose creation he is jointly credited with. It became clear why he insisted, apparently superfluously, that the fundamental element of this musical spectrum is sound. He delimited territories of his own sound with sharp declarations at high volume, and it was Clemens Leske’s role to even the contours out with precise plucking of the strings inside his piano.

What dawned on me, attending this concert, was how rarely sound has been isolated and explored for its own sake at any time in the history of music. Tonight’s experience was not a literary one, nor theatrical, not even scientific, nor any of the other vehicles Grisey nominated as means of stimulating the senses. Instead, Ensemble Offspring gave us some idea of how musical sound can sound – how sound itself might describe the setting of Murail’s sun.

The non-performing Artistic Director, Damien Ricketson, and New Music Network President, James Nightingale, gave the audience some words to take away with them. No doubt some of them were left wondering what most of the words might have been, as both men spoke a shade too softly, given the size of the hall they were speaking in. What I hope they had in mind was to do with what had been achieved in the previous two hours. It was a performance of great skill and imagination, of intense control, of high concentration, and the relief on the faces of the participants, after they had performed so well, was obvious.

The audience, as always one unique to the Conservatorium, and not to be confused with any other Sydney audience, had much to take away with them. They had been part of a fine night for music in Sydney. If they wanted to find more 'spectral music' outside the Conservatorium, they might look for it in an old-fashioned chemist, and watch it being measured with sparkling precision from jars filled with coloured liquids. Ensemble Offspring brought us 'spectral music' as one of the freshest and most absorbing musical developments of recent times.

Event details

Ensemble Offspring: Thirteen Colours
Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium, Sydney, NSW
30 May 2009
Full event details: AMC Calendar

Bozidar Kos: Fatamorgana (2004) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello & percussion
Christopher Tonkin: Widdop, Phaetons, Relic
Tristan Murail: Treize couleurs du soleil couchant
John Luther Adams: Roar (The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies)
Gérard Grisey: Talea (ou la machine et les herbes folles)

Roland Peelman, conductor
Lamorna Nightingale, flute
Jason Noble, clarinet
Claire Edwardes, percussion
Clemens Leske, piano
James Cuddeford, violin
Geoffrey Gartner, cello
Bob Scott, sound
Damien Ricketson and Claire Edwards, artistic directors

Phil Vendy’s radio broadcasts on Sydney-based 2MBS-FM 102.5 include a regular monthly program of contemporary classical music. He has written many published articles and classical CD reviews.


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