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31 October 2007


Janet McKay (flute) // NSW // 20.09.07


The reconsideration of sound in recent times, and the concomitant re-evaluation of instrumental roles and techniques, seems on occasion to be inherently better suited to particular instruments: instruments, for example, without a strong canon of solo repertoire. If Janet McKay’s debut recital proved anything, it was that historical determinism is no deterrent to compositional exploration. For an instrument traditionally as demure and angelic as the flute, the development of a body of work that largely circumvents its melodic purview is strangely exhilarating; McKay’s chosen program all but ignored the beloved silvery gloss of sound for a more complex beauty.

Transit was a program of exploration and discovery on two main levels: the exploration of sound structures through a ream of extended techniques, and the exploration of musical traditions foreign to Western art music, in particular those of geographically disparate locations with independent flute conventions. McKay’s performance on the figurative world stage was grounded by the informal, agora-like atmosphere of the venue, and the percussive counterpoint of crickets and rain.

A solo voice emanating from behind the screen at the rear of the stage opened New Zealand composer Helen Fisher’s Te tangi a te matui (‘The call of the matui’). McKay emerged slowly, barefoot and solemn-faced, her singing – wistful and a touch melancholy – was overtaken by the flute’s own chant-like material. Fisher explored the timbral parallels between the concert flute and the Maori koauau through techniques that foreshadowed the evening’s experimental sound spectrum. Whistling through the flute created sweet harmonics; rolling the lip plate led to breathy microtonal slides. Fisher also explored the more visceral side of the flute’s stereotypical serenity as the dreamy opening was replaced by playful sweeps of sound.

Kaija Saariaho’s Laconisme de l’aile similarly mixes verbal and instrumental music, although the focus on air and breathing within the work is related not to the nature of the flute but, metonymically, to the experience of birds. The spoken introduction, taken from the poetry of St John Perse (which also provided the title for Saariaho’s flute concerto, L’Aile du songe), had a physical musicality of its own. McKay savoured the formation of the words between lips, teeth and tongue, rendering the lack of translation in the program notes insignificant. This portentous approach to the poetry – ponderous rather than lyrical – seemed, like the work itself, to explore pitch only as a subsidiary element of tone and texture. The fluid structure of the work, the push and pull of liquid time, was subject to increasingly manic transformations. The line of the music became fragmented as the range became more extreme, the upper lines frantic as the bass sank lower, connected by harsh buzzing, brutal tonguing, and, rarely, the fuller ‘normal’ flute sound, fluttering between registers. The final stream of harmonics filtered through like a distant electronic bird, the airy whistling of a late-twentieth century Lark Ascending.

Dutch composer Wil Offermans’s Japanese-influenced Honami was also a predominantly timbral composition, seeking to create textural rather than colouristic differentiation on a very subtle scale. The measured opening was a paragon of restraint: each sound (by any objective distinction only microscopically different from its neighbours) was glorified and luxuriated in while the moment lasted. Microtonal and enharmonic alteration both played a role in developing the muted palette of pitch material. McKay displayed a rich, full tone when the piece permitted it, usually on shock notes that within the musical syntax were far more shocking than a further extended technique might have been. Reminiscences of the shakuhachi left me tracing the elusive plucking of a koto in the raindrops.

The opening of Robert Dick’s Techno Yaman has all the temporal and melodic freedom of an Indian rag. To the accompaniment of an accordion-like pedal point on an electronic keyboard (maintained by the ceremonial placing of weights at the commencement of the work), the contemplative opening evolves gradually into wilder strains strengthened by the pull of a genuine tonal centre: the ubiquitous microtonal inflections reflect the influence of the Indian bansuri. The work permitted a more melodious style of playing than others in the program; McKay’s performance was at times a little dry in the upper register. The techno element of the title came in the form of the wholly unexpected cessation of the pedal point in favour of an almost comical accelerating drum beat, to which was added the ludicrous clang of cowbells. McKay demonstrated considerable facility over vast tremolando glissandi. The sound combinations seemed contrived at times, but perhaps this is to be expected in an attempt to fuse traditional Indian with contemporary Western music of both the commercial and avant-garde persuasions.

If Saariaho and Fisher’s works melded music and speech, Ian Clarke’s exuberant Zoom Tube exulted in the physical expression of music through drumming and dance. Singing, stamping and riotous swirls of sound crammed with extended techniques were used to create an unabashedly funky work. Complex, tactile textures of sound seemed to go beyond surface timbre to create an almost polyphonic effect. Particularly dense multiphonics included up to half a dozen distinct layers of sound, each with their own characteristics, from the wavering undertones and warbling overtones to the grating middle ground. The reedy pan-pipe effect of breathing directly into the instrument, rather than across it, was balanced by a vituperative cabasa-like chatta chatta that was practically spat into existence.

McKay moved to the massive bass flute, and was joined by Antares Boyle on alto flute, for Polish-based Australian composer Dominic Karski’s Glimmer. The instruments, although rather unwieldy in appearance – like highly polished pieces of industrial plumbing – had a breathy, recorder-like quality that was used to great effect by Karski. Fragments of melodies were sown among static streams of air and strange harmonic fluttering. Snatches of recognisably triadic and linear chromatic passages stood out between Boyle’s vicious flutter tonguing and McKay’s almost mechanically precise trills. The interaction between the two performers seemed to be predominantly on an aural rather than visual basis; they seemed sometimes to be in separate worlds connected only by the musical messages they sent across interstellar distances. Heavy articulation almost slapping against the metal brought to mind beating wings; Karski’s impetuous phrasing propelled the work, pushing great rushes of air through the instruments as they rushed headlong into the surprising sweetness of the final concord.

The premiere of Julian Day’s Hundreds of Exploding Suns positioned the bass flute against an electronic background rather than a member of its own family. In the darkened theatre, the flute punctuated the simple, quasi-modal texture with mellow hooting, like a contented owl. The flute was initially tentative, but gathered speed and motivic connectedness as the texture of the electronics began to ripple and warp and the solo line rose gradually. Light and breathy throughout, and with the initial hesitation never completely overcome, the gently fading conclusion was an afterglow without any real preceding cataclysm. Day’s is an exquisitely well-mannered supernova, a microcosmic appreciation of the glitter of a dying star from light years away.

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Angharad Davis is currently completing a Masters degree in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying the potential applications of phenomenological analysis to musical collage and quotation. She is associated with a number of musical organisations as a teacher, performer and a writer of program notes.


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