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31 March 2009

Those Vanished Hands - Janet McKay

Brisbane // QLD // 15.03.09

Stephen Adams Image: Stephen Adams  

To present a concert in an established art space is always a project more complicated than it first appears. Art spaces are undoubtedly attractive concert venues, being specifically chosen and primed to act as artistic tabula rasas—elevated havens from the everyday. While the question of integration may not be at the forefront of the audience members’ minds, it is clearly a critical aesthetic consideration—should the performance be relevant to the art exhibited? Should the musical works engage with the artworks at all, even if only on a base-line thematic or stylistic level?

‘Those Vanished Hands’ was a concert presented by Brisbane-based flautist Janet McKay at the gallery of the Queensland College of Art. The concert included works by Julian Day, Kathryn O’Halloran, Hermes Camacho, Katia Beaugeais and Stephen Adams, the majority commissioned by and developed through collaboration with McKay herself. The choice of venue, while not all that unusual, was clearly intended to be a feature of the concert, as the advertising for the event linked it to McKay’s policy of ‘actively seeking out unconventional venues for her projects’.

The artwork on the walls was part of an exhibition entitled ‘I Have Not Been Myself Lately,' and included some excellent, and sometimes profoundly dark images. The works included items of leather and whips, as well as images of bodily displacement. The art peered in at the sizable audience attending the concert, and the formatting of the chairs in a U-shape pattern encouraged a simultaneity of visual and aural engagement with the exhibition and concert respectively.

Hundreds of Exploding Suns, by Julian Day, opened the program, with McKay on bass flute backed by a distorted drone of strings samples. The first piece that McKay ever commissioned, it seemed fitting this work should open the concert, the program for which is to furnish her first solo tour of the USA later this year. The cycle of harmonics produced by the distortion of the strings created an encompassing and almost physical soundscape, while the bass flute offered an overlaying of jabbing, intermittent tones. It is almost impossible to avoid issues of balance between the competing (and avowedly ‘oppositional’) interests of the sustained audio track and the intermittent bass flute which naturally lacks the penetrating timbre of any of the higher flutes, but the technical challenges of the concert were otherwise met with relative smoothness.

Kathryn O’Halloran’s composition, Nightscape, came about as a result of a workshop McKay presented at the Queensland Conservatorium in 2008, where she sought to illustrate the extended potentialities of flute technique. The work continued the theme of harmonic production through timbral distortion, as with the opening work, achieved here through adding an internal vocal line to the flute tone. O’Halloran’s piece was a showcase of various 'extended’ techniques (which, for all intents and purposes, are now fairly standard), including whistle tones, breath notes and multiphonics. Experimentation with the flute’s vast range of untapped timbral potential is always to be encouraged, though it is becoming increasingly clear that composers must remain mindful of the structural role these techniques can serve within a work, rather than being merely atmospheric.

The Australian premiere of Hermes Camacho’s Caprices was perhaps the most successful musical offering of the program, though there were still periods where the music seemed to lose its way. The work consisted of five caprices for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), and here McKay was joined by flautist Morwenna Collett. The caprices represent vivid snapshots, with Camacho employing an effective technique of close-writing between the two flute lines to create the timbral tension and overtones which seemed a constant in this program.

The valuable adjunct to the performance of contemporary local works—something to which McKay is especially committed—is the possibility of composer attendance. Four out of the five featured composers were present at McKay’s concert, and Katia Beaugeais, whose Burwood Park was performed, even travelled interstate for the occasion. Beaugeais’s work is named after a park in Western Sydney and evidently depicts ‘the people and scenery we come across as we walk though the park.’ The piece was developed in collaboration with McKay in January 2009 during her residency at the Bundanon Trust. Burwood Park is, almost by necessity, rather episodic. Though it is also unabashedly programmatic (including forceful moments of high register writing to depict the ‘screaming and shouting’ of agitated chess players in the park, and pentatonic figures to depict ‘Tai Chi dancing’), there were nevertheless some effective moments of layering melody lines across registers, creating flowing, cyclic figurations.

Stephen Adams’s Reverse for flute, coupled with a vintage Korg MS-20 synthesiser from the late 1970s, provided an electrifying close to the program. It also unintentionally brought together (one might even say it ‘synthesised’) a number of stylistic themes from the concert as a whole. Here, electronic distortion was again used as a technique for creating different pitch layers, both real and imagined. A microphone captured the escaped breath from over the flute mouthpiece and transformed the sound into a parallel stream of musical activity. Long silences between effects enhanced the tension and forcefulness of the periodic sound barrages, which included electronic pitch-bending, sustained walls of sound, wind-tunnel sounds and static frequency noise pitched to the very edge of aural bearability.

McKay’s ingenuity in developing and presenting these projects is to be loudly applauded. Through the hour-long, essentially solo program, she was able to maintain the energy and interest of the audience and create a collegial atmosphere for the consumption of new works. Although the linking between the title of the concert (presumably taken from the Robert Wilson book of the same name), the musical works presented and the diabolical subjects of the concurrent exhibition, was too subtle for this reviewer’s comprehension, it did not deter from the effectiveness of the event. Indeed the paradox created its own interesting tension, akin to the aural tension of the timbral distortion so prevalent throughout the program.

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Sarah Collins lectures part-time at the University of Queensland in music history and cultural studies, is currently completing her PhD in the School of Music, and has performed throughout Australia and internationally as a flautist with various contemporary music ensembles and orchestras.


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firstly thanks to sarah for her interesting response to the performance! just a tiny clarification - the title "those vanished hands" was actually taken from the Virigina Woolf novel "Orlando". Not really intended to have any specific link to anything on the program or in the gallery, merely a beautiful set of words that may inspire some imagery :-)




Did anyone else just hear the live broadcast on CABC FM of the THE PASTICHE ACCORDING TO ST RICHARD?