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21 August 2007

New Kids on the Block

Ensemble Offspring // NSW // 28.07.07

New Kids on the Block

For Ensemble Offspring founder and artistic director Damien Ricketson, cultivating young talent is a rewarding experience close to home. Ricketson, 34, formed the group in 1995 during his university days, establishing a performance outlet for his own works, those of his peers, and for experimental new music in general. The ensemble’s latest venture – supported by the notation software company Sibelius (www.sibelius.com) – has been fuelled by awareness and personal understanding of how difficult it can be for young hopefuls to have their works performed.

It is in this spirit of encouragement that the Sibelius Student Composer Awards came into being. Applicants in secondary and tertiary education categories each composed a short work for specified instrumental forces (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion), with four standout entries workshopped and premiered by Ensemble Offspring at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Aside from the excitement of witnessing their creations being played in public by world-class musicians, the winners and runners-up received cash prizes and an arsenal of equipment from sponsors Sibelius and Digidesign. These resources and opportunities doubtless will prove invaluable to the fledgling composers’ creative development, helping them to breathe life into those laboured-over dots on a page.

Judges for the event included Ricketson, acclaimed percussionist Claire Edwardes (who herself performed the winning entries with Ensemble Offspring), Sydney-based composer and educator Anne Boyd, and jazz pianist and composer Paul Grabowsky. With musical minds as diverse and distinct as these, there were bound to be differences in opinion as the panel pondered and appraised hundreds of submissions nationwide. One important aspect of the competition was the judges’ readiness to share these opinions with the aspiring composers: each candidate received constructive feedback relating to his or her piece.

The meticulous adjudication process, and the number of scores assessed, enabled the six members of the panel to glimpse emerging trends in the musical language of young Australian composers. At the finalists’ concert on 28th July, Ricketson expressed delight at the overall high standard of writing. To consider this new generation in a wider context of recent Australian art music, Ensemble Offspring presented a mixed program placing the student works alongside those of established local composers Michael Smetanin (b. 1958) and Bozidar Kos (b. 1934).

Owen Salome, 17, garnered first prize both in the secondary school division and in a separate audience vote. His piece Deep Fish could be described as the most conventionally tonal of the works performed, enlivened by energetic syncopated passages and bright, flitting dialogues between flute and clarinet. The marimba and vibraphone parts call to mind the percussion works of Ross Edwards and Nigel Westlake, while the instrumental colouring and jaunty staccato sections remind me of the American composer Michael Torke (www.michaeltorke.com). By turn vivacious, folk-like and delicate, Deep Fish radiates a natural charm, though it ends on a rather benign note with a simple cadential gesture. Salome, currently preparing for his HSC in the Victorian country town of Bethanga, was thrilled to hear his music performed for the first time and intends to commence serious compositional study next year.

Bhuripat Jittivuthikarn, 15, was awarded runner-up in the secondary school section for his piece Subconscious, somewhat darker and more harmonically pungent than Salome’s offering. Born in Pattaya, Thailand, Jittivuthikarn must be praised for his rhythmic inventiveness and for the sophistication of striking group effects such as unison and tremolo passages.

Both high school entrants supported their compositions with extra-musical or programmatic descriptions: Salome explored abstract images of fish in the ocean and light on water, while Jittivuthikam engaged in the more specific representation – using contrasting musical motifs – of savagery versus order in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. One wonders whether these themes functioned as genuine compositional starting points or if, owing to their tender years, the boys were tentative about allowing musical ideas to thrive on their own strength and speak for themselves.

Tertiary runner-up Chris Larkin, 19, also exhibited overt programmatic tendencies in his piece, but with a decidedly different approach from that of his younger colleagues. Accompanied by a linear plot with a strong fantasy element, The Mountain reflects Larkin’s interests in improvisation, film scores and videogame music. His program note included a synopsis of the work, describing ‘Happy Travellers [who] must head past a mountain to reach their destination’ and who subsequently meet their end at the hands of man-eating ogres.’

These dramatic scenes allowed for several contrasting sections. Despite offering the most musical variety of the finalists, Larkin adhered so closely to his fanciful narrative that his work lacked cohesion as a whole. Each section was treated as an isolated vignette, almost like the music for different scenes in a videogame. The Mountain is remarkable, however, for its adventurous use of cymbals and snare (absent in the other entries), sinister exchanges between flute and clarinet, and some pastoral sections evoking images of hobbits gambolling in a field.

Huw Belling, 21, received first place in the tertiary division. As an Honours composition student at the Sydney Conservatorium, he is likely to have encountered more recent experimental art music than the other three finalists. This distinction seems clear when one considers the complex rhythmic content and often strident dissonances in his submission, Impetus. A glassy introduction of string harmonics and bowed vibraphone recalls the cold, high soundscapes of Arvo Pärt’s instrumental music. Later, frenetic clarinet gestures and glissando techniques in the violin writing suggest the influence of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

It was interesting to hear these four student works alongside the sinuous cacophony of Michael Finnissy’s Springtime (2003) and the intensity of Kos’s Fatamorgana (2004). The melodic clarity of Deep Fish for instance, seemed startlingly earnest when flanked by these more progressive efforts. Salome described the compositions of Finnissy and Kos as outside his current listening spectrum; he felt Ensemble Offspring’s program had exposed him to musical directions previously unfamiliar to him. Most contestants I spoke to about the mature compositions featured in the concert found Smetanin’s Spray (1990) to be most accessible for its thumping immediacy and repeated notes. With a high school focus on Australian works such as Westlake’s Antarctica Suite, it may be a few years before our budding composers develop the requisite aversion to tonality. Or perhaps, as the audience popularity vote for Deep Fish may suggest, the vibrant melodies could be here to stay.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the Sibelius Student Composer Awards – for listeners and almost certainly for the judging panel and performers – was a palpable, wide-eyed enthusiasm for new musical experiences. These young creative minds exhibited a common desire to be immersed in all kinds of music, a respect for new discoveries that might enrich and inform their own compositional language.

Perhaps I’ve met too many jaded composition graduates for whom the possibility of sheer enjoyment and open-mindedness has been suppressed somewhat by ego. But it was a delight to applaud music by teenagers with such driven talent for creative expression, and to see conductor Roland Peelman haul these grinning youths on stage and manoeuvre each of them into an awkward but disarming bow.

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Melissa Lesnie currently studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where her main interests lie in early music and 20th century composition. She works at the classical CD specialist store Fish Fine Music. In her spare time, Melissa sings in the Sydneian Bach Chamber Choir and records as one half of an electroacoustic duo, Lady Lazarus.


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