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24 December 2008

Ensemble Offspring: To the Max

Sydney // NSW // 10.12.2008

Michael Smetanin Image: Michael Smetanin  

The cavernous Carriageworks foyer greets audiences with splashes of bold modernity slotted alongside time-capsule echoes of near-forgotten industry. If the 21st century is settling into an aesthetic, it appears to be this – not obliteration of the past through fetishisation of the new, nor a desperate attempt to preserve a past slipping from our grasp as we attempt to clutch it. This compromise between the old and the new, original form and necessary function, mirrors a struggle music presents every time a composer sits to write – the weight of history pushing back, the imperative that drives them to break or break through.

The apparent breaking with the past of John Cage, avant-garde wunderkind, was more a matter of the inventive confidence of his vision than a rejection of his tradition. Thus the easy acknowledgement of his debt in the title of his work Cheap Imitation, a playful acknowledgment of his infatuation with Erik Satie. Under the bow of James Cuddeford, Cheap Imitation bore the imaginative hallmarks of Cage while riding the harmonic coat-tails of his French predecessor. It was a surprisingly (for Cage) warm work, the unusual tunings the main concession to the off-kilter.

The informal manner in which Cuddeford took up his post in Bay 19 encouraged the audience to mill around, some nearby, others lingering by the bottomless bowl of cashews near the door. The artworks serving as the backdrop blended seamlessly with the piece, video projections overlaying traditional static paintings to return a sense of the life art attempts to capture.

The audience had been divided into a number of groups, each assigned an usher leading us between bays and pieces. While this movement had a practical element in terms of keeping a more intimate feel for the quieter pieces, it also moved us into a more engaged sphere. The ebb and flow of a fragmented audience meant there was an element of disruption that was not always successful but was at least an attempt to make the most of the space and differentiation that Carriageworks has to offer. As a venue it’s still settling in, but experiments like this open up its possibilities as more than just a box with nicely textured walls.

As Cage continued on his muted and merry way, we were led to Bay 20 to find Claire Edwardes surrounded by a cornucopia of percussion toys. Morton Feldman’s King of Denmark had the feeling of an aleatoric game piece, albeit for one. Edwardes's tempo cue came from a score, but there was a freedom to her performance, a litany of decisions made in an instant as an improvisational response to Feldman’s triggers. Edwardes was without any of the sticks or mallets with which a percussionist will ordinarily strike, and the piece took on a fluidity owing much to the performer’s deft touch, her communication with the instruments more intimately carried to us without the translation of distancing props. The muffling that resulted from the inability to withdraw from an attack seemed an intimacy, as our ears had to draw closer to hear the finger-struck instruments. There was a strange democracy at play, where louder and softer instruments – gongs and bells – were all brought to the same dynamic plane.

Helmut Lachenmann’s Dal Niente appeared to share similar motivations but wasn’t quite as successful. Perhaps in 1970 the piece may have been a breath of fresh air, but now that these extended techniques are de rigueur – noteless breaths, breathless padding – there was not a lot to spark the imagination. The elevation of the mechanic and the incidental, the medium becoming the message, helped snuggle into the program, a bridge between the muted softness of Cage and Feldman and the brasher, swelling surge of sound to come, but suffered from this middling foot-in-both-camps indecision.

‘Part 2 – Loud’ was more traditional in the sense of being less to do with modes of listening and more about the message carried by and the sounds produced within the pieces. The world premiere of Michael Smetanin’s Swell took advantage of the unusual two-clarinet, two-percussion, two-violin-arrangement, the clarinets tasked with moving the work along, providing the bulk of the colour and motive through their warm overtones. Arriving in sets of musical waves, the repetitious circular movement was neatly sewn with false lulls. Increasingly precipitous, each section tumbled ever inward, climaxing with a short, sharp series of notes cascading down the open face of this cleverly wrought work.

Louis Andriessen’s cacophonous classic Workers Union was devised for ‘any loud-sounding group of instruments’ and marched along with striking effect. The piece has a very strong sense of movement, a swelling mass building an unbreakable impetus, and the small cluster of performers were able to establish this momentum early and sustain the tidal pull. Each instrument at times drifted from the central thrust of the piece, providing tangents of interest that didn’t detract from the central purpose, although the percussion deviations did threaten at times to pull it off course, only to swerve back into step before it all unravelled.

Phil Niblock’s The Movement of People Working was a fitting climax, an ultra-loud droning maelstrom during which the audience was beckoned forth to mill about on the darkened stage, experiencing the shifting microtones in their own construction of space. Video projections on opposite walls each displayed various human endeavours, hard labour in harsh, inhospitable terrains, echoed by or echoing the seething thrum. The piece explores the complexity of sound and resonance at high volume, pushing the threshold of both sound and our ability to process it, arresting our thoughts and felt as much as it was heard.

The structure of the evening seemed to reflect Lachenmann’s concern with liberating the listener from the habitual modes of listening and responses to music. Being ushered from one place to another, invited to take seats on the stage rather than up in the raked seating, listening to solo performers positioned off-centre and dwarfed by their cavernous surrounds – each broke with typical expectations and standard concert procedure, opening possibilities to listen in slightly different ways.

The slow build from muted delicacy to evisceratingly loud was deftly handled by this energetic ensemble and offered a certain logical point of entry to a disparate and challenging range of works.

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Benjamin Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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great article!

Thanks for your interesting and well drafted comments on our TTM extravaganza! I just have a question about what you meant by the percussion deviations in workers union? Are you referring to the moments where the percussionists were alone and the other instruments dropped out? Also what do you mean by your comment regarding the end of the piece? I am interested to know in regards to future arrangements of the work that is all! 

Thanks again for your supportive comments - we very much hope to bring Sydney To the Max #2 in the near future - perhaps in the Studio/Sydney Opera House, as you suggest in your article! claire