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21 October 2008

Griffyn Ensemble - Island Universes

Canberra // ACT // 10.10.2008

Griffyn Ensemble - Island Universes

The third concert in the Griffyn Ensemble’s 2008 subscription series coincided with the Gods, Ghosts and Men exhibition of Pacific art at the National Gallery of Australia. For the ensemble’s director, Michael Sollis, this was an opportunity to bring a dream into being.

As is increasingly à la mode in new music events, the concert was not presented in the traditional sit-down-shut-up-listen-and-don’t-murmur-between-movements way. Instead, the audience was guided through the exhibition, experiencing works bearing the influence of the Pacific as they moved from space to space.

Concerts that challenge the classical music norm don’t always make sense. This one did.

While the Pacific connection was a common thread throughout the concert, each work’s perspective was so vastly different from the one preceding it that getting up, moving, and receiving each work in unique surroundings gave the audience time to re-contextualise, and to focus on each work in its own right.

Opening the concert was Morning Star II, an earlier work by Australian composer Paul Stanhope, for which he won the 2MBS FM Young Composer Award. Drawing on songs from the Rembarrnga-speaking clans in central Arnhem Land, the work served as an introduction to the ancient indigenous societies of the Pacific that are so close to us, yet so little known.

In the middle section of Morning Star II, Aboriginal-influenced melodies surfaced from a base of whirling, curling blended ensemble patterns that were in stark contrast to the clarity of the solo trumpet in the following work. An excerpt from this work, John Rimmer’s Seaswell, was used – Pied Piper style – to lead the audience into the exhibition proper.

Sitting in the darkened art gallery, with small spotlights educing the eerie qualities of the carved spiritual figures, the feeling of anticipation (that has normally dissipated by this point in a concert) intensified. Out of the darkness, the sounds of Patangis-Buwaya [and the crocodile weeps] emerged. This work, by Filipino composer Jonas Baes, is based on a traditional narrative in which the great hunter Alewatu, on hearing of the rape and subsequent death of his wife, summons his hunting dogs with a flute call so anguished it brings even the crocodiles to tears.

With the mood now set for some more serious contemplation, the audience was ushered into the transitional space between galleries for Martin Wesley-Smith’s Papua Merdeka. Even with its highly political agenda and sobering subject matter, the composer’s distinctively quirky humour was still very much in evidence.

Written in 2006 for clarinettist Ros Dunlop, Papua Merdeka was intended to be premiered at the Asia-Pacific Festival of music in Wellington but was replaced in response to last-minute concerns raised by the Indonesian Embassy. Focusing on the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, the work includes a montage of images celebrating the country and its culture, and sympathising with its plight. Presented at the central point of the concert, the work combined vision and sound in a complementary rapport; one would not have made sense without the other.

The concert’s structure and content also offered a commentary on the role of the audience – particularly relevant in the context of cultures where music is both a tool and an art. In Patangis-Buwaya, sounds made by the performers occasionally overlapped with the sounds an audience might make. As the performers slowly exited the room at the close of the piece, it was hard to tell exactly where it ended.

New Zealand composer David Farquhar was more explicit about the role of the audience in Chap-Chap, with the solo viola player asking the listeners to mark the beat for the duration of the work. Maybe it was partly audience mood, but this felt much more like a genuine invitation to collaborate than a slightly patronising, token gesture.

By the final work in the concert, Ballad of a Highlands Man by the ensemble’s director, Michael Sollis, some audience members were relaxed enough to join in without being prompted. The piece is full of lovely moments: dove-tailed runs in the winds; a rousing middle section; passages of haunting high male voice. There is no doubt the composer is a skilled orchestrator. At times I lost track of the overall sense of the work, and wondered if perhaps there were too many ideas for only one piece. But the work was nonetheless engaging, and certainly contained enough material to keep both composer and listener occupied for a long time. If this concert is representative of Sollis’s work at the age of only 23, I have no doubt he will be a prominent figure on Australia’s musical landscape in years to come.

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Further links

Rhiannon Cook has been involved in the new music community as a composer, teacher and writer. Now working in social policy, she continues to contribute as a freelance writer.


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