ISCM Thursday May 6 lunchtime (a belated commentary)

Much delayed: my review of the fabulous (but not so fabulously named) “Young and the Restless” concert given by Ensemble Offspring as part of the ISCM World New Music Days.

Middle of the day, middle of the metropolis, this concert was programmed at the Riverside Theatre complex in the smaller sized of the two theatres. This meant that the quite large (by contemporary music standards) crowd really did fill the space, and one found oneself making both eye contact and conversation with fellow audience members – not the norm, by any means, at a new music concert.

The concert was a sampling of music by composers under the age of 35. Once upon a time someone the age of 35 would consider themselves far from young, but for at least the last decade youth has been bureaucratically bestowed upon anyone under the age of 40, so this representation was certainly youthful by these standards.

The first work Item 1, 2, 3, by Braam de Toit (for marimba, cello and bass clarinet) was from South Africa, and sounded like it: the cello evoked a thumb piano (in the best sense) and the whole work was enjoyable listening (and I do hope that that’s no longer considered faint praise). Julian Day was again hosting the event, and before this first performance he wondered aloud at the paucity of music emanating from Africa. I would think a simple demographic analysis (how many music schools are there, how many composition students, what access to African composers have to ISCM, how many African composers are working in this rarefied musical environment, and so forth) might yield some answers on that front.

This first piece was presented in such a way that one might have thought the marimba was to be the featured instrument in the work (the marimba was the visual focal point), but in fact the bass clarinet and cello deserved to be positioned in a manner that reflected their equality in the music-making. This might seem like quibbling, but the meaning of the music is communicated in a myriad of ways, and the physical placement of the instruments contributed a bewildering element to the listening experience.

Mind you, there weren’t a lot of placement choices available to the musicians: the stage was cluttered with chairs and music stands, with no rhyme or reason seeming to apply to where these objects found themselves. The music in this concert emerged from a visually raucous ensemble of gear.

The second piece in this Young and Restless program came from Russia. Weird, but wonderful, Under Construction by Georgy Dorokhov was a 2-hander (violin and piano) in the style of Beckett.  Yes, I know, Beckett is theatre not music, but honestly, this was a radio play begging to be adapted for the stage. Julian Day appeared at the end of the performance to intone that it had been a ‘contemplative’ work, but in fact it was far from that, an active dialogue between the two parties, a series of urges and efforts, throwaway lines and points to ponder. Both instrumentalists engaged with their instruments in what are still desperately non-conventional ways, and while the fascinatingly-named Zubin Kanga created music for both the ear and the eye on the piano, I’m not sure the same can be said for the violinist, who lurched about in a wild effort to snatch her notes from the ether (one felt maybe she didn’t always succeed).

The third work, Shore Leave by Stephan Thorsson (Sweden), incorporated national songs from north east Asia, each one of these national songs naturally unrecognisable to the international and Australian audience and therefore possibly lacking any appropriate semantic depth. This piece was apparently a manifesto regarding politics and pop culture, but it sounded like old-fashioned new music to me. Roland Peelman made a spidery presence conducting this work, although the piece began with the ensemble members tuning under his direction, with the squeaks and tones sliding into a performance; an impressive sleight of musical staging.  This effect may have been amplified by what appeared to be a temporary loss of the cellist; the ensemble members had gathered on stage, admittedly after a change to the order of program, and after some longer than short period Roland wandered off-stage, re-emerging with the tardy cellist, who had apparently been mid-cigarette when the performance was announced. This unexpected narrative thread gained credibility as the performance drew to an end, with Geoffrey Gartner (said cellist) coughing in pleuristic fashion as the final notes sounded and the first applause began.

And then we had an interval.

Now by this point I was feeling as if one more work would do me. The idea of returning to another three brand new works (let alone a barrage of concerts that other audience members would have been up for through the later afternoon and evening) seemed too much. Thankfully the idea of including a work by Philip Glass when he was under 35 had been abandoned (an odd programming notion the more one thought about it), so it was only three more works.

And in the intermission I had two lovely conversations, which made me wish I had been able to participate daily and extensively in these ISCM events: a sense of community was there (if one had just been around long enough to join in).

So the second half began with a work entitled Mnesique by Nicolas Tzortzis, and yes, this piece was ‘about’ short term memory (or maybe that’s just what the title means/refers to). And if the work had been performed the way it started out I am afraid that it would never have made it into my long term memory at all – it seemed like so much blippety blopity music we’ve heard before at these kinds of concerts, a lot of bluster and effort for not much musical result. In pieces like this one starts to monitor the pages left to turn on the performers’ or conductor’s music stands as one wills the work to end.

But a few pages shy of the end Roland Peelman (again conducting this work) suddenly stopped the performance and announced to the ensemble “We have to start again”, explaining to the audience that with the volume of new music the ensemble had performed over the preceding days it was almost inevitable that the wheels would fall off at some stage. “This is the only performance we get to give, and we must start again”, he continued in great earnestness, and I found myself wryly contemplating the prospect of sitting through all those blips and blops again while calculating if I had put enough money in the meter for this now-extended second half.

The members of the ensemble seemed as taken-aback as the audience, turning their pages back to the start as their conductor did the same. “Oh, Roland” issued forth from Geoffry Gartner, his head shaking back and forth. An irrepressible laugh amplified its way around the audience, til everyone was chuckling at the unexpected respect being given to the composition.

And hoo-boy, was Roland right.

The piece we heard the second time around was nothing like the clichéd blips and blops of the first effort; there had been a harmonic moment the first time around that I’d rather fancied, and the second performance was so different that I never even noticed it that time around. Which makes me want to hear it again, and makes me wonder what we don’t get to hear most of the time when we hear new music. Maybe it’s blippety blopity music because that’s the best performance we ever get, not because that’s what the composer had in mind.

Two more pieces to go. And the penultimate performance was of Australian Alex Pozniak’s new work for solo cello, Mercurial, although a work less like Mercury I can hardly conceive of. Although that, I suppose, might come down to one’s perception of mercury (as much as anything else). Gartner has a distinctive physical style, an inimitable glumfulness he wears, and with his serious downturned mouth firmly set he took off through the Mercurial score. I won’t pretend: it’s not my thing; interesting, but for me failing to connect to anything in my daily or interior life.  Apart from that, it was a substantial work running a gamut of cellistic expressions and intentions, but three weeks on I really can’t remember anything beyond a technical ennui.

But the last work really did get my attention. Two Sides by the curious Fabian Svensson was factually named, with the musicians lining up on two sides (marimba, flute [and variants] and violin versus piano, bass clarinet and cello), each side giving a different account of the musical gesture in question – an ascending arc made up of a three-note descending motif; simple and addictive, Seurat for chamber ensemble. I loved it. I want the opening as my ringtone. And the musical gestures still resonate joyously in my memory.

On the other hand, this piece lost its way as it struggled to a conclusion: while the exhilaration of the thing was in the persistence of the motif, the kaleidoscopic treatment didn’t seem to provide a natural end point. The two sides ended up taking their arcs in opposite directions til the instruments ran out of notes, imbuing a sense of inevitability (and interminability) on the final 30 seconds or so of the composition. As much as I want the opening as my ringtone, I want this composition to get a new ending that doesn’t involve the kaleidoscope unwinding and all the bits falling out: when something tastes this good you want the engineering to hold it together til the end.

But I came out of the concert thinking “That’s what I’m talking about” – genuinely new music, being performed by a musicians genuine about making new music. Anything to do with the age of the composers? Maybe. Maybe this was just an excellently programmed event. But I think it also had a lot to do with the performers, who presented this music with glee and intensity and the commitment to play it twice, if that’s what it needed.

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