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New music, making the earth move

Chris Reid: Tectonics

Tectonics creator, Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov, chose the name Tectonics (movement of the Earth’s crust) to allude to the clashing of experimental music with traditional concert programming. Teaming with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, numerous ensembles, soloists and composers, Volkov staged Tectonics Adelaide as an immersive two-day extravaganza of 31 compositions, the first day spanning 2.30–7.30pm, the second 2.30–11.00pm—an exhilarating survey of recent and newly commissioned works, some involving daring performance strategies and many of which could not be accommodated in a conventional orchestral concert format.

Day 1

Day 1 comprises three successive concerts in the ASO’s Grainger Studio, the first involving all Australian compositions, opening with the ASO’s performance of the late David Ahern’s After Mallarmé (1966), a finely wrought orchestral work whose Modernism is important in Australian compositional history.

Jon Rose and Elena Kats-Chernin co-composed the second work, Elastic Band, for orchestra and violin soloist. Kats-Chernin, a composer using notation, works magic with improviser Rose, who prefers to play spontaneously. According to her program note, Kats-Chernin developed melodic moments from musical fragments Rose sent her, resulting in cheekily humorous but complex music that melds Rose’s astonishing technique and creativity with large orchestral forces. The composition is flexible (‘elastic’), allowing Rose to improvise while conductor Volkov controls the orchestra’s response to Rose and the score—the hounds keep up with the hare as they tear across the musical landscape. Volkov’s coded gestures shape the performance and, at one point, concertmaster Elizabeth Layton co-conducts the strings in a parallel passage. This is high risk but brilliantly successful.

The joyousness continued with the premiere of London-based Adelaide composer Matthew Shlomowitz’ Listening Styles for orchestra, featuring a sparkling drum-kit solo by Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti, a persuasive work that takes the flavour of big-band music in new directions.

The second concert offered rare musical treasures, firstly Soundstream Ensemble’s eloquent rendering of Iannis Xenakis’ Morsima—Amorsima (“fate—non-fate”) of 1962 for piano, violin, cello and double bass, tightly directed by Volkov. In this work, Xenakis pioneered composing with a computer. We then sat spellbound for a sublime solo recital by acclaimed contemporary piano exponent Aki Takahashi of works by Xenakis, Giacinto Scelsi and Giuliano d’Angiolini.

The third concert opened with Scelsi’s portentous I Presagi (1958) for nine brass instruments and percussion, a dramatic work recalling Tibetan brass horns summoning the spirits. This absorbing concert included rarely heard works by Xenakis and Scelsi for various ensembles. In David Ahern’s Stereo/Mono (1971), with Jim Denley (saxophone) and Byron Cullen (electronics), the sax is miked and mixed to create controlled feedback from a pair of loudspeakers. Ahern’s Stereo/Mono was presciently innovative in using electronically mediated acoustic instrumentation stereophonically. Denley later showed me the graphic score, a copy of Ahern’s hand-written original, which, though apparently simple, benefits from Denley’s masterful realisation.

Day 1 concludes with Oren Ambarchi’s New Work for Guitar and Ensemble, in which miked ASO brass and winds join Ambarchi (guitar and electronics) and Speak Percussion to combine quietly seductive guitar-drone with improvised ensemble playing that, in the absence of a score, develops organically under Volkov’s conducting. Speak member Matthias Schack-Arnott told me that Volkov signalled the pitch and dynamics as the individual players contributed musical fragments. In this demanding 40-minute piece, the performers must respond instantly to the conductor’s and each others’ moves and collectively shape the flow of musical material, layering complex instrumental passages over a hypnotic electronic backdrop—high risk musically and performatively, but again it worked.

Day 2

The formality of Day 1 is succeeded by the informality of the longer, second day, programmed in two halves, at the warehouse-like Queen’s Theatre. The first half opens ceremonially with Scelsi’s Riti: I Funerale d’Achille, performed by Speak Percussion, evoking the measured solemnity of the funeral procession. Contrasting Scelsi’s Riti is Australian James Rushford’s enchanting Whorl Would Equal Reaches, commissioned by Speak for extended percussion ensemble. Canadian Crys Cole’s untitled solo involved the amplification of barely audible sounds generated by handling small objects under a sensitive microphone. Like Rushford, Cole focuses our awareness on the minutiae of our sound world. But Rushford’s work is visually arresting as the performers move quickly around an array of instruments in what seems like a piece of theatre for percussion.

The trio Hammers Lake delivered a stunning performance, foregrounding Melbourne artist Carolyn Connors’ unique vocal work, with the performers prominently situated on a podium in the auditorium centre. Their untitled work for cello (Judith Hamann), percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson) and voice demonstrated a unique musicality and, again, the potential of group improvisation. In his composition Evraiki, percussionist Robbie Avenaim uses laptop-programmed, mechanised bass drums, while numerous roaming, loosely-directed musicians mingle with the audience as they play, the stationary, mechanical drums forming a focal point like a conductor.

Guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi then raised the sound level in their highly amplified performance of Alvin Lucier’s Criss-Cross, commissioned for them by Volkov. Marco Fusinato’s guitar-feedback work, TEMA followed, and to maintain the decibel level, Part 1 of Day 2 concluded with Romanian spectralist composer Iancu Dumitrescu’s South Pole, also commissioned by Volkov for Ambarchi and O’Malley. Volkov conducted the duo in South Pole, shaping form and emphasis and so extending his reconsideration of the conductor’s role. Like Fusinato, Ambarchi and O’Malley use guitar and electronics to sculpt high-volume, polyphonic feedback into an advancing mountain of sound. Volkov’s insightful commissioning of Lucier and Dumitrescu to write for O’Malley and Ambarchi has created a unique compositional and performative synthesis.

Part 2 of Day 2 opened with a dazzling performance of Xenakis’ Mikka and Mikka S for solo violin by Erkki Veltheim (a member of Australia’s Elision ensemble) and included Vetlheim’s own striking composition Glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) for amplified string quartet as well as two more Scelsi works.

For his untitled set, Fluxus legend Takehisa Kosugi manipulates simple-looking devices generating pops and squeaks and controlling pitch and oscillation to weave his music. He uses a light bulb to activate light-sensitive sound-generators, a technique Joel Stern takes further in his set Solo Carnival, using coloured lights to activate particular pitches. The absence of a laptop in Kosugi’s and Stern’s improvisations is refreshing—they do it ‘by hand.’ In contrast, Ikue Mori’s beguiling Nymphs, Witches and Fairies appears largely pre-recorded but is accompanied by video animation.

Heavy Metal band Mayhem front-man Attila Csihar’s ritualistic solo work Void ov Voices, featuring his throat singing, recalls Gyuto Monks chanting, the robed Csihar multi-tracking himself to produce choral polyphony. Void ov Voices extends the theme of the ecstatic state in Veltheim’s Glossolalia, and Hammers Lake’s vocal performance also resembles speaking in tongues. Tectonics Adelaide concludes with a pulverisingly loud drone doom performance by the band Gravetemple (Csihar, Ambarchi, O’Malley), blending electronically mediated drop-tuned guitar and ritualised vocals to create a melodramatic climax that literally makes the earth move.

This formidable Tectonics program blurs the boundaries between musical genres, foregrounds the hybridisation of notation with improvisation and highlights important figures in compositional development such as Xenakis, Scelsi, Ahern and Kosugi. Volkov’s emphasis on conductor-performer dialogue and group interactivity is especially stimulating and his inclusion of compositions by Rose and Kats-Chernin, Avenaim, Rushford, Shlomowitz, Veltheim and Ambarchi not only showcases Australian composition but underpins his thematic approach. The Adelaide Festival also featured four concerts by John Zorn (see Keith Gallasch's review), who also works across genres and shapes improvisation through conducting. Artistic director David Sefton’s Adelaide Festival is again outstanding musically and the Adelaide public is witnessing first hand significant developments in contemporary music.

Tectonics Adelaide, curator, conductor Ilan Volkov, various artists and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Grainger Studio, 9 March; Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, 10 March

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 21

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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