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Arcko Symphonic Ensemble Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
photo Langdon Rodda
An all-star band of swashbuckling musicians, the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble has a reputation for performing some of the most sublime and yet neglected Australian works. It makes sense then that they should champion one of Australia’s most sublime and neglected composers, Nigel Butterley. Butterley belongs to a generation of luminous and relatively well-funded composers including Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale, but stands out for not taking a reactionary, post-impressionistic turn in later life. His music is detailed and spacious like a rambling baroque manor house. One wanders the halls of his mosaic forms listening for clues, taking new paths, and circling back on old ones. Arcko celebrated Butterley’s 80th birthday with performances of iconic works and a new piano concerto by his former student Elliott Gyger.

Uttering Joyous Leaves

The piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves is a riot of colour. Pointillist atonality shares the piano with snatches of blues modes and tonality, here jumbled together and syncopated with exceptional spirit by pianist Zubin Kanga. Pitches are scattered around like the oak tree in Walt Whitman’s poem “Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend, a lover near.” But not all is joy and light. There are dark undertones, shadows under the leaves. Kanga smiles through the effort of realising this virtuosic piece composed for the 1981 Sydney Piano Competition. After the performance, Gyger explained how the piece is “distilled Butterley” with “almost” everything wonderful about his music condensed into five minutes. What is missing is the expansiveness evident in the rest of the program and in works like Laudes, which Arcko performed in May last year.

In the Head the Fire

Butterley’s radiophonic work In the Head the Fire eschews the musical meteorology of his generation. In the place of birdsong and rain one finds the howling of wolves amid incantations from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The piece is of its time, composed shortly after the Scrolls were popularised by their translation into English in 1962. The piece would also find favour with today’s ritual-and-wolf-obsessed art school students. Aided by the space and watts of the Iwaki Auditorium, the superimposed choirs and orchestras were vast and cinematic. The vocal writing and subject matter is reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which was transformed into a film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in 1973. In the Head the Fire notoriously pipped Berio’s Laborintus II at the post for the Prix Italia in 1966 and I like to imagine Huillet and Straub tuning in to this work of biblical proportions as they planned their film.

From Joyous Leaves

In From Joyous Leaves Gyger expands the material of Uttering Joyous Leaves into a 25-minute concerto for piano and chamber orchestra. He provides a nuanced mosaic form that speaks an obscure and enticing narrative (though Gyger insists the stakes are purely musical). The effect is like listening to a story told in another language, an experience I recall from Defunensemble’s All Finnish concert at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music in September. The piece opens, like Butterley’s From Sorrowing Earth, with sweet harmonies in mellow violas. The orchestra and piano begin quoting Butterley’s piece, Kanga throwing fistfuls of note-confetti into the air. The magnificent display of orchestration continues until—all of a sudden—the piano strikes out a metallic tone, then another and another. The piano had been prepared all along (a reference to Butterley’s performances of the prepared piano works of John Cage), but Gyger carefully avoids the 22 prepared keys until halfway through the piece. The transmutation of the piano is revelatory, a little musical miracle at the heart of this intricate work.

From Sorrowing Earth

Butterley’s From Sorrowing Earth is as much a masterpiece as dozens of other works that regularly grace our state orchestral programs and Arcko deserves high praise for mustering the large forces required for a well-overdue performance. The title refers to the piece’s epigraph, a poem by Kathleen Raine describing renewal after environmental desecration. The piece likewise moves from plodding, dark episodes to freer, lighter textures, ending on a single harp harmonic. According to Elliott Gyger’s program note the piece’s message is moral and spiritual rather than political, but a 30-year-old listening to the work is not going to hear it the same way as an 80-year-old (or even the 65-year-old who composed it in 1991). The piece reflects the Cold War binary of destruction and renewal, at a time when a change of spirit really was essential in avoiding nuclear holocaust. But the decline of humanity under global warming will be slow and painful fuelled by actions not taken long ago, actions half-taken now and who knows what sort of action in the future. But perhaps the spiritual message of From Sorrowing Earth is precisely what is needed in the face of global environmental collapse.

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, From Sorrowing Earth, composer Nigel Butterley, piano Zubin Kanga, conductor Timothy Phillips; Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, 31 Oct; podcast by ABC Classic FM

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 49

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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