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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Songs beyond words

Chris Reid is seduced by a song cycle

David Young’s wonderful 7-movement composition Thousands of Bundled Straw (RT 69, p41) has been years in the making, an epic work scored for soprano and combinations of instruments that reveals Young’s compositional life over that period. The final movement was premiered at this concert and the excellent performance was also the first featuring the whole cycle.

The title Thousands of Bundled Straw is an example of the confused English often found in tourist brochures and other printed material mistranslated for English-speaking visitors. In this case, the term is drawn from publicity about Ichibata Yakushi, the Temple of the Healing Eyes, in Japan. According to legend, the temple was founded about 1100 years ago by a fisherman who discovered a statue of the Buddha floating in the sea and subsequently had a dream in which he was instructed to throw himself from a cliff to cure his mother’s blindness. Wrapping himself in protective straw, he jumped, and his mother, rushing to his aid, wondrously regained her sight. Young’s music bears strong influences of Japanese music, theatre and mysticism, as well as ‘Japlish’, the hybrid English that emerges through translation.

Thousands of Bundled Straw is complex, subtly nuanced and infinitesimally crafted. Every sound and gesture seems precisely calculated, yet the music retains freshness and immediacy. Except in the fifth movement, which is for soprano and a guitar tuned to quarter-tones, a clarinet or oboe predominantly carries the principal line, melding variously with violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet and bass recorder to create unique textures. There are percussive sounds made by clicking the tongue, snapping the fingers, tapping the body of an instrument or using woodblocks and drums. These percussive sounds break up passages of music, add emphasis, and sometimes sound like footsteps or heartbeats. In the fifth movement, soprano Deborah Kayser tosses eggs on the floor, making an evocative plopping sound. The overall effect of the music is of a minutely staged drama. One listens intently, as you might for the sounds of frogs, crickets, strange characters and even spirits in an unfamiliar mountain village at night, while overhearing murmured conversation from another room. The work is dreamlike, floating just outside consciousness. Each motif seems to grow out of the previous one, like a perpetual unfolding. There can be sudden shifts in texture and meter and between instruments or blends of instruments, and abrupt pauses. A demanding work for performers, it is quiet, unintrusive and perhaps best staged in an intimate auditorium with low lighting.

Kayser’s dextrous voice does not dominate the music, and is not even present in all movements. Whereas song typically emphasises the vocal line over supporting instruments, here the voice is muted, weaving around other instruments and sometimes barely audible, as if merely a thought. The voice is not the sole bearer of the song. Young’s ‘songs’ are composites of sounds, though the ‘voice’ is the sense in which the song is carried, and other instruments variously form part of that voice. A slurred oboe line might segue into Kayser’s voice or the voice into a clarinet line, producing groans, cries and whispers. Sometimes the voice appears to be speaking, though the ‘words’ are nonsensical. At other times the voice makes singing sounds or emulates the call of a crane or some other sound, going beyond Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist twittering and Cathy Berberian’s performances of Luciano Berio.

In his program note, David Young reveals that he draws on other forms, such as the literature of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Perec developed quirky formal innovations such as writing an entire novel without using the letter E, and a palindrome 5000 words long. Calvino’s fables satirically and surreally postulate strange lands with strange inhabitants. The writers belonged to the 1960s literary group OuLiPo-Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. Thousands of Bundled Straw is perhaps a potential literature—through its unique sprechgesang based on the sounds and confused meanings of Japlish and through the instrumental writing—languages within languages. These are not conventional songs, neither communicating a narrative nor enunciating ideas in understandable language. But there is beauty in the extraordinary sculpting of each sound, and the sung-spoken content makes us re-listen to normal speech and hear it as abstract form, in the way calligraphy works visually. Above all, there is an intense and clear musicality in Young’s writing—as with Perec and Calvino, the content exceeds the form.

Thousands of Bundled Straw evokes characters in a play who, like those in Calvino’s cities, are invisible and driven by strange apprehensions. It would be interesting to see such music adapted for dance.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Libra Ensemble, Thousands of Bundled Straw, composer David Young, soprano Deborah Kayser, conductor Mark Knoop, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank, Centre, Oct 18

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 10

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

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