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Ezmi Pepper, Joe Manton, Seven Stations: Love Poems for Sydney Ezmi Pepper, Joe Manton, Seven Stations: Love Poems for Sydney
photo Hospital Hill

The Acacia Quartet chewed into Movement I of Daniel Manera’s first String Quartet with evident enjoyment, the occasional tonal chord glimmering amid the bare, striated textures like pyrites within quartz. The quartet carefully groped their way through Manera’s taut clusters, unease building towards a claustrophic stasis. And when movement’s lush denoument arrived it was with a sense of relief for musicians and audience alike, full bows opening up the sound in great sucking lungsful.

Written in three distinct sections, former AIDS activist Lyle Chan’s composition, Mark and Adrian are her sons, opened with slight, weightless gestures iterated with increasing frequency, suggesting private anxieties in pre-dawn darkness. Then some threshold was abruptly breached, the Acacia players falling into a jagged, resolute march, coloured by jazzy, almost ragtime inflections. This section, surely reflective of politician Franca Arena’s apparent hostility to AIDS victims who had contracted the disease sexually as opposed to medically, then receded into the warmly concordant finale, a rich melody being skilfully palmed between the instruments. Though effective as program music—the piece being excerpted from Chan’s extended musical memoir for string quartet—as a stand-alone work it did not seem to quite cohere, the final section in particular losing focus.

The first half closed with Perth-based composer Lachlan Skipworth’s where the mountains meet, written specifically for the gorgeously turquoise six-string bass guitar of Joe Manton, who performed the work. Melodic fragments materialised and faded around precisely articulated harmonics, with further overtones resonating like peaks glimpsed through cloud. A further dimension was added to this basic effect with the incorporation of the delay pedal, ascending runs flashing rapidly across the ear, echoes allowed to hang and gradually fade, action and response being contained within a strictly formalised aesthetic reminiscent of tightly choreographed martial art. A beautifully realised performance, made all the more impressive by the severely limited time constraints within which it was apparently prepared.

Seven Stations—Love Poems for Sydney, a song cycle written in collaboration between poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden, draws its inspiration from the railway stations that circle the inner-city—a schematic that seems to reinforce the romantic, tourist-bureau notion that this most suburban of cities begins and ends at the perimeter of the CBD. That said, Mansell’s text here is unabashedly romantic. “I am love” begins the opening song, Town Hall, filled with an unironic immediacy reflected in Batt-Rawden’s directly evocative music: trains shriek through tunnels, muttered spicatto conjuring the “wary scary/ hungry beast” lurking amid the subterranean shopping arcades—Halcyon’s Alison Morgan (soprano) and Song Company’s Anna Fraser (mezzo soprano) chewing, chattering and spitting words like some two-faced creature, the city’s shining self-image doubled by the coiled thing below.

Written for various combinations of soprano, mezzo soprano, bass guitar, viola, cello, percussion, electronics and kalimba (much of the music was written while Batt-Rawden was living in Brazil), the subsequent pieces play off this basic dichotomy to varying effect. St James, a duet for bass guitar and soprano, generates a fraught anxiety, Morgan interspersing precisely articulated text with heavy mouth breathing over Manton’s propulsive bass riff. Sydney Terminal, a cooing lullaby for strings, soprano and bass guitar, didn’t quite seem to capture the grinding limbo of Central Station filled with “fresh fodder/ new meat/ for the city,” though the repetition did recall Cityrail’s festive season habit of playing a single Christmas song on loop.

Redfern was more successful, stalactitic electronics and dissassociative bongos contrasted with the smooth control of Ezmi Pepper’s cello playing to evoke the “depleted girls too drunk to walk” and the “madonnas and a man walking his pig.” Less so was Museum, Fraser donning black gloves and red shoes for some almost burlesque showmanship, Sydney being presented as “liminal and silly/ this beat and rattle girl/ with a bad bad past,” purring and trilling over bowed drums and cymbals. Surely a missed opportunity to present the city as Drag Queen.

Though brimming with intriguing effects, “grey fear cruis[in-g] below” suggested by glistening viola double stops and chittering wood blocks, The Quay suffered from Batt-Rawden’s journeyman conducting, a problem compounded by the score’s page order becoming muddled. Similar issues plagued Sydney Terminal as well as the final section of the work, Kings Cross—though the musicians maintained the densely chromatic evocation of “where the polygamous money lies” with admirable poise, the vocalist’s weirdly enunciated spoken word being contrasted with a shriekingly hectic cello figure, energetically delivered by Pepper. Difficulties in execution notwithstanding, Seven Stations seemed at times weighed down by the conceit of the concept, straining against but never quite escaping the lure of “singular tragedies and perfect farces.”

Seven Stations: Love Poems for Sydney, Chris Mansell & Andrew Batt-Rawden, Daniel Manera, Lachlan Skipworth, Lyle Chan; Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, March 1

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 51

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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