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28 August 2009

Solo Perspective concerts 1&2

Sydney // NSW // 09.08. & 16.08.2009

Stephen Adams's solo flute work <em>Reverse</em> formed part of Janet McKay's program Image: Stephen Adams's solo flute work Reverse formed part of Janet McKay's program  

The recent Solo Perspective concerts, presented by the New Music Network, gave six Australian soloists the opportunity to strut their stuff in front of appreciative audiences in the Recital Hall East at the Sydney Conservatorium in two Sunday recitals. Each concert took the form of a triple bill and juxtaposed an eclectic range of instruments and musical styles.

The first performer in 'Solo Perspective 1' was Hong Kong-based violist William Lane. He opened with a work by Italian composer Simone Movio, entitled …solo battiti di palpebre riemergono? Movio had created a fragile timbral world brimming with fragmentary wisps of sound. There were short bursts of tremolo and very high partials, coloured by frequent alternation between sul tasto and ponticello bow placement. These effects, many of which were on the boundary of audibility, were marred by an unsettled audience, particularly a small child running between the first and back row of the hall. This effectively destroyed the ambience of the work. Nevertheless, Lane soldiered on and played with superb poise and élan.

For his next offering, Kar Fai Samson Young's Ageha. Tokyo., Lane put down his viola and picked up a violin with contact microphone attached. Young's work takes its name from a large Tokyo nightclub. This influence was clearly evident in the electronic component of the work, which contained a goodly helping of nightclub-inspired samples amongst the many processed bow-crunching and glockenspiel sounds. The major issue here was one of imbalance, the composer assigning a far greater role to the electronics than the fiddle. The violin part often seemed like an afterthought. Still, this little work was fun in a superficial sort of way and Lane carried it off with aplomb.

Punctum, by Chilean-born Bryan Holmes, was a much gutsier affair, and we finally got to hear Lane lay into his viola with the lower half of the bow. Here, the composer's desire was to elevate the performer to the status of co-author, the notated score being wholly pictorial and containing no fixed pitches. This idea extends to an improvised climax, and Lane performed with conviction. There was also a wah-wah pedal involved, but I found the effect somewhat disappointing. In this context a not dissimilar effect could have been achieved by moving the bow closer to the bridge or onto the fingerboard.

Flautist Janet McKay presented three works, all of which were written for her this year. She established a welcome rapport with the audience, offering a spoken introduction between each piece, but in this situation her jeans and bare feet took the familiarity way too far. Compared to her two colleagues she looked seriously underdressed. Her recital opened with Jen Wang's meditative Searchlight Songs. This work made significant use of McKay's singing voice, the composer's intention being to treat the combined flute and voice as one solo instrument. Certainly Wang succeeded in this regard, although I found the piece highly reminiscent of Reza Vali's excursions into the same territory. Unfortunately what should have been an absorbing sonic experience was again marred by the child running rife in the auditorium.

Stephen Adams's Reverse, originally written for flute and Korg synthesiser, here made its debut in a reworked form for flute alone. Adams's piece is an exploration of starkly opposing elements and reversals, making much use of sudden, uneasy periods of silence. This was particularly effective at the outset, where moments of stasis were interspersed with passages of furious busyness. Once again, McKay showed her masterly control over sustained passages of simultaneous singing and playing.

She concluded with Cat Lamb's Frame for Flute, a work which exploits the composer's fascination with tuning systems derived from the ancient Greeks. William Lane returned to the stage, playing a harmonic drone on his viola to help emphasise the microtonal inflections of the bass flute. Lamb's work consists of a series of very slow phrases, each played in a single breath. While this was an interesting structural device, it also severely limited the composer's realm of possibilities owing to the breath needed to sustain each phrase on this large instrument. With pitch being the only changing parameter my mind soon began to wander. I generally approach contemporary flute recitals with wariness, as many of today's composers are apt to jam in as many extended techniques as possible. However, on this occasion the opposite was the case, and I wished McKay had included something a little more outré in her program. By the end of her set, I found myself longing to hear a jet-whistle or a tongue ram.

Lack of variety was certainly not an issue with the day's final soloist, Adam Simmons, who presented six of his own short works on a bewildering assortment of wind and toy instruments. Immediately following McKay's performance, the more disruptive audience members had departed taking the restless tot with them. This was fortunate, as Simmons's opening pieces were hushed and intense.

In Out of nothing…and back again, for shakuhachi, notes slowly emerged from nothingness, and very high adjacent pitches slowly dissolved one into the other. This was finely nuanced playing, where the inhalation and exhalation of breath were as important as the pitch material. After the delicate utterances of the shakuhachi, Gödel's yodel saw Simmons revelling in the big, dirty timbre of the rarely heard sopranino saxophone. This work was essentially one long rallentando. It started as a dense mass of swirling notes and eventually slowed to angry splutterings. He created a massive, unremitting volume of sound on the threshold of pain which quickly drove one audience member from the hall. I loved it.

Picnic with a Whale utilised an even rarer instrument, the contra-alto clarinet. Primarily the domain of American marching bands and wind orchestras, Simmons showed its capabilities as an excellent solo instrument and exploited its wide range to the fullest. Picnic with a Whale was based around a simple bluesy riff which quickly took on the guise of a ground-bass. This Simmons adorned and morphed by the addition of multiphonics, gradually creating an extraordinary counterpoint between the bass and treble registers of the instrument. His final work, Warszawa, also emerged from a single motif, this time based on the rapid repetition of a fingering pattern.Through a fine display of circular breathing he created a dense and incessant polyphony on his tenor saxophone which closely emulated electronic phasing.

In an afternoon of challenging music, Simmons brought a refreshing element of play to proceedings, presenting two short works for toy instruments. One saw him cranking the handle of a small music box, the other performing with six brightly coloured spinning tops. However, whilst I enjoyed all the music he presented, I felt Simmons jammed way too much into his allotted half-hour. Works such as Picnic with a Whale and Warszawa needed more time to unfold. Adam Simmons's performance was the highlight of the afternoon, but on this occasion I would have been just as happy hearing four works instead of six.

'Solo Perspective 2', on the following Sunday, was a vastly different affair, with a much greater emphasis on technology in the music-making. A long-time stalwart of the multi-media scene, clarinettist Brigid Burke proved herself to be remarkably adroit at playing whilst simultaneously manipulating electronic equipment. She presented four of her own compositions, all of which employed a complex melange of images projected onto a screen behind her. In such a scenario, designed to explore relationships between sight and sound, a little background information goes a long way in helping the audience understand the musician's intentions. However, with the house lights kept down for the entire duration of the performance it was impossible to read Burke's informative program notes, and what should have been a stimulating sensorial experience was rendered needlessly abstruse.

Nevertheless, there was lots of highly inventive clarinet playing, particularly in her improvised works. In Island City Burke produced a rapid-fire succession of breaths, shrieks, trills, hisses and vocal utterances, yet, for me, by far the best was her final piece, Scratching, a wonderfully virtuosic improvisation which burbled its way from the lowest range of the bass clarinet and gradually covered the entire range of the instrument, with some occasional squawks for good measure. The accompanying bass clarinet imagery I found to be a mere distraction, and I longed for the house lights to be put up so we could see Burke play. Alas, it was not to be, and she took her bows in darkness.

The hall's sound-absorbent curtains were now raised, revealing a far more reverberant acoustic and allowing the next soloist, Mark Cauvin, to exploit the resonant qualities of his double bass to the fullest. He presented two works: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Plus Minus No. 14 and then the quaintly titled No More Rock Groynes by David Young. He started with the world premiere of his realisation of Stockhausen's complex graphic score, an absolute tour de force of high partials and extended techniques. This work consists of an unrelenting torrent of short sonic events with no clear sense of conventional development, yet in Cauvin's masterly rendition all of these disparate elements came together and flowed beautifully. His performance was utterly compelling and was made even more so by a remarkable feat of memory.

The title of David Young's short piece is taken from the bumper sticker of a passing car. In No More Rock Groynes, instead of a bow, he has the bassist use a prepared microphone wrapped in tinfoil. This Cauvin rubbed on the surface of the strings, producing a delightful cacophony of amplified grating, grinding, clicking, and popping. His eyes were glued to the music stand as his hands traced the shapes of Young's miniature watercolour score. This enjoyably quirky study in friction was a perfect counterweight to the Stockhausen monolith.

Last on this triple bill was the pianist Michael Fowler who also presented two works, both of which employed a substantial electronic component. The first of these, Downtime, was written for Fowler in 2005, by American Benjamin Boretz. Fowler has long enjoyed a close working relationship with Boretz, having recorded a disc of the composer's piano works in 2002. This sparsely textured piece alternates between lengthy solo passages for piano and electronically generated MIDI percussion sounds. The piano writing is highly dependent on intervallic relationships, with solitary pitches, dyads and unisons abounding, and as a result, the tonal language frequently borders on the diatonic. The electronics were nothing more than a sad assortment of hackneyed ersatz MIDI percussion timbres. The intermittent creaks of the piano stool proved to be far more interesting; certainly they were less predictable. However, the biggest problem with this long work was the almost total lack of interaction between the MIDI sounds and the piano. Combined with a slow tempo, it was hard going indeed. Fowler's playing was elegant and beautifully voiced, but not even his stylish pianism could save this work from monotony.

After this lengthy excursion into stasis I was hungry for the brash, serial world of Milton Babbitt. It was worth the wait. His 1975 Reflections is a tautly structured, brutal, and uncompromising work which explores complex interaction between recorded tape and piano sounds. Fowler gave a thrilling performance, negotiating Babbitt's dense score with total assuredness. This was stunning playing.

Despite my misgivings about some of the repertoire presented in these two concerts, all the soloists displayed musicianship of the highest calibre, and it was a pleasure to be exposed to such a diverse repertoire. The New Music Network is to be congratulated on curating these enterprising recitals. One can only hope they are able to follow up with more recital concerts next year.

Event details

New Music Network's Solo Perspective concerts

William Lane, Janet McKay, Adam Simmons
Works by Movio, Samson Young, Holmes, Wang, Simmons
Recital Hall East, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW
9 August 2009

Brigid Burke, Mark Cauvin and Michael Fowler
Works by Burke, Stockhausen, Young, Boretz, Babbitt
Recital Hall East, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW
16 August 2009

Further links

New Music Network (www.newmusicnetwork.com.au)
Vanessa Lahey's review of Solo Perspective 2 on Australian Stage Online
Gail Priest's review of Solo Perspective 2 on RealTime
Stephen Adams - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/adams-stephen)
Brigid Burke - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/burke-brigid)
David Young - AMC profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/young-david)
William Lane - MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/williamdavidlane)
Janet McKay (http://www.randomovertones.com/)
Adam Simmons - homepage (http://www.adamsimmons.com/)
Mark Cauvin - homepage (http://www.markcauvin.com/)

Geoffrey Gartner is a freelance cellist, conductor and writer living in Sydney. He is a passionate advocate of the Fluxus ethos.


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