22 November 2007
Western Australian Sanctuary and Soundscapes
Scale Variable: pi // WA // 11.11.07
© Peter Illari
In this latest performance offering by new music ensemble pi, audience members were privileged to witness why this group of talented musicians and composers is so highly respected and acclaimed in their field. The ensemble features strings, woodwind and percussion alongside accordion and harmonium. Members’ commitment to and passion for their local environment is clearly demonstrated in this program for the Scale Variable series, presented by Tura New Music.
The first piece on the program, The Seasons, by David Pye and Kevin Gillam, is a multi-faceted soundscape of Western Australia throughout a single calendar year, and was first performed in January 2006. Gillam’s set of twelve, formally diverse poems – each representing one month – is sewn onto Pye’s instrumental backdrop, examining how the natural cycles of the environment across the state dictate our cultural activity. Text undulates between describing salmon, whales and abalone, to commenting on local Perth events such as the derby at Subiaco Oval, the Royal Show’s sideshow alley, and chants of ‘Gillie’ at the Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA).
Before the main performers appeared on stage, the audience’s curiosity was already piqued by a selection of brightly coloured ukeleles and rubber ducks adorning the stage. Eight members of the local community were also seated at the rear, rainmakers in hand – unrehearsed, they followed directions from the conductor during the performance.
This cyclic-based piece commences and ends with whispering amongst the musicians beneath gentle, muffled cymbal rolls. Special guest and distinguished actor, lecturer and voice coach, Julia Moody, enhanced the rhythms and sounds of Gillam's poetry through her mesmerising narration, using her resonance, articulation and lyrical vocal quality to maximum effect. Although every word could be clearly understood, I found myself – at times – drifting into a state where I was enjoying the sounds of the words, in combination with the music, as much or more than the actual meaning of the words themselves.
Bare-footed violin virtuoso, Jess Ipkendanz, was the featured soloist throughout most of this work. Her earthy interpretation of the music and connection with the subject matter proved to further engage the audience. She was accompanied by a large variety of instrumental combinations, including ‘cellos played with tapping sticks.
Sounds reminiscent of sprinklers, rain on a tin roof and cicadas were clearly conveyed and reinforced by hints within the accompanying text. This was one of the main successes of the piece: the symbiotic relationship between the poetry and the music – one would not be as strong without the other.
The second half of the concert opened with David Pye and Lee Buddle’s Jarrah (the life of a giant). Also inspired by nature, this piece was the result of a residency in Dwellingup in 2006. The collaborative work explores the history of an ancient, gnarled tree through the idea of the tales that could be told between trunk rings, which indicate years of its life.
Structurally, this work consists of numerous short sections, some recurring. David Pye utilises a large range of percussion instruments to help create atmospheric soundscapes as well as melodic and rhythmic motifs. The rainmaker is again used, along with marimba, Indonesian anklung and African thumb piano. This ‘traditional’ music influence is also apparent in Buddle’s haunting bansuri passages.
Textures ranged from contemplative solos for ‘cello, violin and accordion, to full, rousing, rhythmically driven sections, often ending in chaos and breakdown, reflecting traumatic periods in the tree’s history. Although played with passion and precision, I couldn’t help but feel that the performance would have been enhanced by an outdoor venue, where the more and less subtle sonic emanations could diffract into the foliage instead of a ceiling.
The program concluded with the world premiere of Sanctuary, written by another member of the ensemble, pre-eminent Perth composer and accordionist, Cathie Travers. This work was commissioned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to celebrate their Mt Gibson sanctuary, 350 kilometres north-east of Perth. Travers effectively uses the passionate language of the tango to convey her commitment to wildlife preservation.
Described by fellow musician, Gillam, as ‘schmaltz on guarana’, Travers’s recent works have been strongly influenced by rhythmic, harmonic and stylistic features of various forms of tango. Her style falls somewhere between Richard Galliano’s fiery approach and Pablo Ziegler’s jazz influence.
Her imagination and creative processes were partly inspired by two species of fauna found in the area, namely the malleefowl and the chocolate wattled bat. The malleefowl’s lonely and solemn existence naturally lends itself to being portrayed by the equally melancholic Argentinian nuevo tango, which also serves to represent the agile flight of the bat.
Sanctuary consists of several movements, which seamlessly flow from one to the next. An unaccompanied melodic passage on the harmonium begins the first movement, which is entitled Vespers, being a prayer for endangered species and ecosystems. The harmonium is then joined by the vibraphone, marimba and two bass clarinets, before embarking upon an exquisite duet with the accordion, which was one of the highlights of the performance.
Travers enjoys allowing for solo improvisation. In this piece, she gives players freedom to form their solo passages within set textural and harmonic frameworks. Violin, saxophone and vibraphone, as well as the accordion (with Cathie Travers herself) featured in solos – each solo, while unique in interpretation and style, was equally successful and well appreciated by the audience. I instinctively felt like applauding each solo at its conclusion, but restrained myself amongst the classical crowd.
Fast, accented clapping signalled the beginning of the third movement, which developed into a wild, rugged European tango, marked by occasional and strikingly agonising ‘screams’ from the clarinet. Here, the marimba provided the backbone, with its unfaltering tango rhythm. The piece concluded as it began, with a haunting theme on the harmonium, rounding off a highly engaging performance. Travers’s orchestration talents were clearly demonstrated, with careful consideration given to the instrumentation possibilities available with pi.
It is so refreshing and inspiring to see an ensemble work so well together, obviously committed to supporting and respecting each other’s creative output. Overall, the program was entertaining and accessible, but riskier, more aurally challenging works by the composers in the group would also be welcomed in the future.
© Australian Music Centre (2007) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Kelly Curran is currently completing a Bachelor of Music in Composition at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts @ Edith Cowan University. She has had many of her works for chamber groups performed around Perth, and has also written pieces for film and dance. Kelly aims to continue her research into emerging hybrid forms of tango.
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