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17 December 2009

Stations of Creation

Sydney // NSW // 27.11.2009

Stations of Creation 2009 Image: Stations of Creation 2009  

Stations of Creation is an ambitious project by St Ives Uniting Church to adapt the traditional art forms comprising the fourteen Stations of the Cross, a series of paintings and carvings depicting incidents in the passage of Jesus to his crucifixion. The intention is that St Ives can find in this a new way for people to approach Christmas, station by station, using contemporary music as their markers, instead of visual artworks, on a journey through what is involved in creation.

The overall project was divided into ten tightly specified segments, each one assigned to a composer by the scientific means of drawing a name from a hat. Each composer faced the challenge of interpreting the thoughts suggested by their segment, and writing something that could be played by a small ensemble of musicians and singers, all to be presented live in the church with performances on two consecutive evenings.

The fact that this was a concert of contemporary music clearly occupied the minds of the event's organisers, with a verbal introduction and a matching page in the program offering suggestions as to how a listener might deal with the sounds they would hear - the implication being that the audience would not necessarily consist of practised new music fans. As it happened, none of the composers opted for the kind of new music that would make it too difficult for their listeners. The message, perhaps, being that this program was for the benefit of a congregation.

Which was not to say anyone shied away from a challenge. Each of the composers took up their own, defining their task with insight and clarity in the concert program, thus presenting their collective ideas in words as well as the music we heard. The nature of the occasion did not lend itself to musical development in a melodic sense. Each piece was too short to allow much in the way of sustained development, either within its own length or when combined in sequence with the others. Each of the composers had to effectively work within the limits of their own segment for their work to make sense in itself, as well as in an overall context. It meant addressing the structural aspects of each composition as well as the individual musical ones.

It was instructive to witness the unravelling of tonight's message, piece by piece, composer by composer.

Station 1: The Creation

Andrew Batt-Rawden gave the instrumentalists the task of establishing a starting point, a musical muse on how we might define creation, starting from nothing, silence, and evolving into a concept of self, a being able to observe and philosophise about the workings of creation. The first intimations of the cycle of creation, in which the self discloses its own unforeseen and unpredictable duality of good and bad.

Station 2: The Risk of Birth and the Fear of Barrenness

Katy Abbott's own life has made her aware of some of the risks that creation entails. A sense of history, of past lives, was intrinsic to her composition. Fear and the potential for failure were involved in her music, yet there was also hope and the sense of joy that comes when creation bears fruit. Little things inspire Katy, and these took on meaning when she used the instruments to pick out some sense of what makes us human.

Station 3: Conception

Corin Bone's song of conception picked up on the sense of the joy in creation, with a cautionary awareness of being surrounded by elements of chaos. He found the means of musically expressing these elements in the way he scored the instruments, with a controlled turmoil, the absurd aspects of a poem written by Ron Padgett, while reserving a key directional part for mezzo-soprano to guide us safely through an underlying structural rationality.

Station 4: Muteness

Annie Hsieh's work weighed the realisation of hope against the limitless demands that it imposes on its carriers. Her cry came from within, given voice by soprano and cello alone, yet as it ended they remained unable to determine the cry's origin. Had they passed on a cry from composer's own inner self, or were they responding to a remnant of something else?

Station 5: The Quickening

Dan Walker picked up this cry in the following work. The sound of his music came from developing consciousness, the product of creation, and the way it responds to the presence of surrounding reality. As with the other composers, Dan was mindful of the opposing forces that creation unleashes. Good and bad are always tied to each other, and Dan's music carried the threat, described but never named, implied by their coexistence.

Which brought us halfway through the ten, time for a short break to recap and to introduce what was still to come. Although the number of instruments was restricted, there were enough of them, especially with the notable inclusion of the vibraphone, frequently bowed rather than struck, for us to be presented with varying combinations of sound and effect. All of the musicians, and both singers, had contributed effectively to the performance, and the audience remained alert for what was still to come.

Station 6: Gestation

Alex Pozniak took us on into the materialisation of self, and its simultaneous need for protection against unhealthy influences. This was described in a performance in which silent theatrical gestures by the string quartet - were they actually making any sound? - accompanied the soprano's words, taken from James Joyce.

Station 7: The Birth

Steve Hodgson had the privilege of setting to his music the actual act of birth, the product of the creation, the coming together of two worlds, inner and outer. Given the option of using any or all of the musicians, his piece was for performance by solo mezzo-soprano, an unadorned alternation between rhythmic passages and text fragments from a poem by Sharon Olds.

Station 8: The Mother's Song of Joy; The Angels Sing

Ruth McCall wrote, musically, of the joys and hopes brought into play when a new life begins, extracting her ideas partly from existing carols and partly from the improvisational techniques pioneered by John Cage. Her focus, the sound of her music, was on the elation that comes with creation, more than the sadness, which presented an undercurrent needing no particular elaboration at this point.

Station 9: The Naming

Anthony Lyons dared to put a name on that which has been created, conferring identity on what thus far was abstract. His Beginnings marks the entry of a new being into the world, a new observer of the sky and the stars above, as written in Lyons's own poem. The act of naming lights a candle, and we were musically drawn to the child taking on the singularity of the name conferred on them.

Station 10: The Circle of Creation

Bryony Marks sought a biblical expression of the meaning of creation to bring the circle to its close. She may have left it not quite complete, though, in her recognition of the existence of death having been summoned by the occurrence of birth. A miracle, and at the end a mystery still. The unexpected may always happen, and may even change your life. The music ended, but cannot ever really end.

The musicians gave all ten composers their due, with tight and thoughtful performances. The audience may not all have all been regular new music followers, but could still appreciate the good value and technical skills that were evident on the stage tonight. Perhaps there was even a slight touch of relief that, after all, none of it had been too difficult, despite the density of thoughts and concepts that the composers had shared. Cheese and wine followed, with the chance to make direct contact with a set of people who are not to be found in St Ives every night of the year, a few of them in the audience as well as onstage.

Looking more closely at the program itself, and the strong themes of birth and life that ran through the ten segments, it showed a literal sympathy for the feminine experience, an instinctive grasp of at least part of the mystery that lies behind what we were here to discover more about: the act of creation. Did the experience succeed in its aim of offering something new, as we approach Christmas? In the end, the ten stations in this musical form offered an impressively effective collaboration. Many people each played their part well, and their awareness of their roles in this cooperative event succeeding in bringing it to its conclusion.

The church at St Ives is not hermetically separated from its surroundings, and the Mona Vale Road is not the easiest of roads to be neighbourly with, so there will always be distractions when attending a performance there. Nevertheless, this was the third in a now-established annual series. A program for a congregation, perhaps, but religious adherence is not a condition of attending, and it is worth marking in the calendar already as a chance next year to follow new thinking in musical development.

Event details

All Heaven Shouted for Joy: Stations of Creation 2009
St Ives Uniting Church
Friday 27 November 2009
Works by Katy Abbott, Corin Bone, Steven Hodgson, Annie Hsieh, Anthony Lyons, Bryony Marks, Alex Pozniak, Amelia Smith, Daniel Walker
Musicians: Belinda Jezek and Anna Albert (violins), Isidore Tillers (viola), Patrick Murphy (cello), Tim Brigden (vibraphone), Jacob Abela (piano), Alison Morgan (soprano), Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo-soprano), Geoff Gartner (conductor), Dan Walker (director of music).

See also: event details in the AMC Calendar

Further links

Stations of Creation website (www.stives.unitingchurch.org.au/StationsofCreation.htm)
Stations of Creation: 15 premieres for Advent - an article on Resonate in December 2008


Phil Vendy broadcasts frequently on Sydney classical music radio, and has written many published articles and classical CD reviews.


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