A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Unclassified Play

“How was the concert?”
“Great. Really interesting. It wasn’t really a concert. More an installation.”
“I thought an installation didn’t have a beginning and an end.”
“I said sort of an installation. Sort of. But it’s also a structured improvisation.”
“Performance art?”
“Mm, no. Not really. Well. Yes. But no.”
My husband sighs patiently. We have a lot of these conversations.


Theresa Wong (left) and Ellen Fullman (right) Photo: Jamie Williams

When I worked at the Australian Music Centre we struggled with the need to classify music every day. As a library dedicated to collecting and promoting art music, a big part of our job was in connecting music with people, art with audiences. We used to approach this, like good librarians, by categorising works or making a new sound less unfamiliar by way of comparison or analogy.

But that involves translating music into words, always a dangerous proposition. You either ring fence it within a genre, or describe it in terms of what it is not, call it ‘unclassifiable’. The artist hates the first. The audience hates the second.

Eventually I came up with a category called ‘Weird Shit’ to overcome this double bind . Everyone I tried it out on knew what I meant. Sadly, it was deemed not entirely appropriate. Let’s face it, it’s not appropriate. But what I was trying to convey was the kind of music that you have to approach without preconceptions. Where you open your ears and let the artist do their thing.

That’s what Sydney Festival asked us to do with Long String Instrument, an *insert word here* by artist Ellen Fullman and cellist Theresa Wong. The long string instrument is just that, 31 strings made of different materials, strung at different tensions between two sounding boxes 25 metres apart. In the middle of these strings Fullman paces backwards and forwards, using resin-dusted fingers to set the strings vibrating. On a macro level the only thing you can see moving is her feet, in a silent moonwalk. Look closer, however, and you could imagine seeing strings blurring at they vibrate, and wire tuners bobbing and flexing as she goes past. The instrument is tuned to resonate with the cello, so that the two stringed instruments can duet. But after a while it becomes an all enveloping sound world.

The whole experience is mesmerising. It’s also by turns soporific, claustrophobic and seemingly random. There is clearly a plan, but if you’re hoping to make sense of the rippling overtones, to read the organisation of the sound, you’re doing it wrong. The patterns are there. They must be. They’re sound waves, after all. But the waves are layered upon each other, bouncing off the walls of the Town Hall, enveloping the audience.  It’s a visual and aural sensation.


Chris Abrahams playing the Town Hall Organ. (Photo: Jamie Williams)

On Friday night the Long Stringed Instrument was preceded by an improvisation by Chris Abrahams (of The Necks) at the Sydney Town Hall’s pipe organ. It’s hard not to imagine the tiny figure sitting at the keyboard in front of this fantasy palace of Victorian tubing as an evil mastermind. I mean, you’re controlling an instrument as big as a building. Bigger than some buildings. Abrahams wasn’t there, however, as a Cameron Carpenter style virtuoso. He was there to play. Not to wow or entertain. To experiment, to poke and prod and make something new. He made his way through the different stops and registers at a leisurely pace, stopping so we could savour the particular tang of a chord. When he finally set the massive 64 foot pipe going it sounded like a jet plane taking off. Again, sounds bending and crushing against each other, beats and distortions and walls vibrating in sympathy.

“So it was a time-based structured sound installation improvisation.”
I shrug unhelpfully. “Kinda.”
“Weird shit?”
“Yep. Actually, no. It was real time inventing.
“Hmm. Real Time Inventing. RTI. Sounds cool.”

RTI? I dunno. All I know is that the Long String Instrument and the Long Pipe Instrument experience was visceral, spatial, and beautiful.

Long String Instrument (USA)
Saturday January 14 (6pm), with Okkyung Lee (Korea)
Sydney Town Hall, for Sydney Festival


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For the birds

The last few days in Sydney have been deafening. No. Not the lawn mower, the leaf blower or the incessant whinging of Sydneysiders (myself included) about the heat. No, the space in my brain reserved for listening has been filled by the feverish hum of cicadas, revelling in high temperatures and still air with explosive vigour, while we all lie around silently panting.

So with the promise of a cool change blowing through the sweaty streets it was good to swap insect-elation for birdsong in a tribute concert to Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, (1928-2016), presented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey.

Why do animals sing? Is it singing? Or is it talking, or signalling? Is it expressive on a macro level — a chorus of approval for ideal atmospheric conditions, or a mass panic at the apprehension of danger — or, for that matter, on a micro-level — ‘Hello. It’s me. I like you.’? Idle thoughts, perhaps, but hearing Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus – Concerto for birds and orchestra, Op. 61 (1972) got me pondering. The work opens with flutes and then clarinets in a long, liquid line — love your work, SSO wind soloists — which sounds at once organic and random. Is it an emulation of natural sounds? Is it deliberately avoiding a pulse or tonal centre, dodging the instinctive patterning of human-made music? Maybe, but then the real birds join in, field recordings of bird song. At first you second guess, what you’re hearing — is that another orchestral instrument, an unexpected timbre? But no, it’s a real bird call, and it’s going to out-sing anything going on on stage. The tension between recorded and live is delicate and delicious, and beautifully realised by carefully balanced dynamics. It makes me listen anew.

Two more recent works, Isle of Bliss (1995) and Symphony No. 7 Angel of Light (1994) completed the program and completed the audience full body immersion in Rautavaara’s sound world. And it could be like swimming, like drowning, a bit overwhelming at times, but for the precision conducting by Northey. His restraint delivered intense but not messy climaxes, brass passages which still maintained their individual instrument textures and crystalline solos from concertmaster Andrew Haveron and the principal cellist. (Also, shout out to second violins for their little big moment in the Symphony). And while this could have been performed with an enormous string section, the filmic underlay of sound produced from the reduced forces was refreshingly, transparent.

Good work. Home, with renewed ears for the orchestra of sounds in the velvety night.


Thank you to Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Festival for inviting me. And thank you to all those who have supported my book, Sanctuary, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. If you want to know more, just do the click thing. Let’s make this book happen!

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Decoding the stars

Sydney Chamber Opera / Ensemble OffSpring
Carriageworks, 7 January 2017

constellations_stars-1280x7201The life of scholar Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) is an impossible tale. Obsession. Delusion. Murder. Betrayal. Invention. No one medium could do hope to do justice to the complexity of this Renaissance (in every sense, including temporal) man, so thank goodness for opera, thank goodness for composer Mary Finsterer and thank goodness for the many hands which came together to make this palimpsest of sights, sounds, words and music.

Gerolamo Cardano may be a fascinating forgotten genius but, be warned, he is not a nice man and he does not live in a nice world. The sixteenth century is portrayed as a series of suppurating pustules and ragged wounds against which the nascent discipline of medicine can but flail. Yes, there are a couple of violent deaths, and an ear lopping or two, but you are just as likely to be carried off by a tribe of microbes which, for Cardano, make up the intricate web of life on earth as the stars make the skies. His attempts to cure patients are haphazard, by modern standards, but his passionate desire to make sense of the universe is the saving grace of this deeply flawed character.

Finsterer, along with librettist Tom Wright, creates his life story as an episodic work, jerc3b4me_cardanflitting backwards and forwards in time, like a series of Holbein portraits, each coherent as a whole but studded with secrets. The non-linear narrative is confusing, even frustrating at times – meaning in spades, if you care to reflect and connect, but with a seductively fast-moving surface. There is a grief-stricken mother – Jane Sheldon, wracked with the pains of motherhood — and a child’s eye view of the universe, magically captured by Jessica O’Donoghue. There is an intricate mechanism to decipher, and multiple death scenes. And running through all of it, there is Finsterer’s delicately patterned music, repeating, evolving. I wanted to step back to take in the whole picture but, at the same time, I didn’t want to miss any of the detail.

Central to the work is the relationship between choral writing and the spoken monologue. Cardano is a speaking role — played with brilliant charisma by Mitchell Butel — while the chorus, playing multiple characters, sing and play percussion. There is scarcely any dialogue (and I wonder if it could be done with no dialogue at all to underline the different states).  As it is,  the combination of biographical evidence and vocal scoring makes Cardano increasingly isolated, a lone voice against a crowd which, by the power of music, can make voices heard individually and collectively.

The stage and music direction, by Janice Muller and Jack Symonds respectively, makes a tricky space work far better than should be possible. The balance between chorus, ensemble and speaking voice is cleverly done by a combination of amplification, stage positioning and orchestration — Finsterer is good at picking lines out of the morass of sound using an unusual timbre here or a high register there.  And Muller explores the space fully, using a distant stage, movable screens and furniture and, as Cardano and his young daughter contemplate the universe, one of the most dramatically effective uses of projection (which has been used and abused on the opera stage in recent years) I have seen.

Mitchell Butel is a mesmerising Cardano. The way he makes the audience part of the action, part of the bemused world he is trying to enlighten, is deliciously seductive. The vocal performances are consistently good, if not yet great, and the ensemble, at least on the first night, was exciting, but still coming together. And this is one of the reasons why this work needs many more performances — it’s demanding for all involved, including the audience, but with great rewards for those who listen. I’d be happy to see any one of the twelve scenes being performed in isolation, in concert performance, and encourage new music ensembles to check it out. The final scene, in particular, is an irresistible funereal dance, driven by drums and a ground base, and spiked with chaos.

Biographica is presented by Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring as part of Sydney Festival. It plays for another six performances, until 13 January. (And while it shouldn’t be noteworthy, it’s worth noting that Biographica is the first work for Ensemble Offspring’s 2017 program, a year  dedicated entirely to music by women.

It’s also worth noting that this is my first review for 2017, the first of many I hope. Reviewing is a labour of love for me, and although I’d like to think all you need is love, my writing is also improved by chocolate, coffee and your support. If you feel moved to help please take a look at my book project, http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, and pledge lots of money. (I accept chocolate but at this time of year it melts).


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Summer dreaming


I’ve been taking a blogbreak over the silly season but I just received the link to the 2017 Dartington International Summer School of Music brochure and this has spurred me into action. I’ve been working closely with Dartington Arts and the Summer School Foundation in putting together Sanctuary, so I’m delighted to post the brochure here and encourage everyone — listeners, players, makers of all ages — to take a look. It’s Joanna McGregor’sjoanna-macgregor-1024 third year as artistic director, and it’s just been announced that she will continue after this year, which is great news. I’ve been to week 3 for the past two years and this year am intending to go to week 2 for a spot of Purcell. There’s also a focus on writing that week, so I’m going to take a fresh box of sharp pencils as well as my violin.

While I’m over there, I hope to also call in at Musique Cordiale 2017, run by the redoubtable Pippa Pawlik in the hilltop town of Seillans in Haute Provence, and take a side trip to visit the famous Horn Cave near Avignon. 2016-10-22-17-07-40-1024x576

Alternatively, I might end up driving kids around NSW, walking dogs, feeding chickens, slaving over advertising copy and studying. But we can dream!


Strung Out


Scott Hicks films Sharon Draper playing Robert Cavonogli’s work-in-progress, an unvarnished copy of an 18th century Guadagnini cello.

Just catching up with Scott Hicks documentary Highly Strung, which opened the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year. Hicks has musical form, including the 1996 portrait of David Helfgott, Shine, and the acclaimed 2007 doco on Philip Glass, A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. In Highly Strung he turns his camera on the instrument rather than the player, considering the violin (and its extended family) in terms of its sound, its history, its manufacture and its potentially immense value.

At least, that’s what he sets out to do. Using a slightly strained musical metaphor he introduces a parade of characters: violin dealers and valuers; the glitzy Carpenter family of New York, who see Stradivarius as the ultimate brand;  luthier Roberto Cavagnoli, who is tasked with making a copy of the 18th century Guadagnini cello bought by arts philanthropist Ulrike Klein for the Australian String Quartet; and members of the Quartet themselves.

Each vignette brings another aspect of the mystique of the violin to the fore. Joshua Bell talks about his Stradivarius and its every changing moods with almost mystical awe, while Cavagnoli walks up and down stacks of wood, knocking each piece to listen for the perfect resonance. Meanwhile, the Carpenters mostly shop for every more outrageous concert outfits, and the Australian String Quartet get on with being the custodians of a unique set of four matched Guadagnini instruments.

Hicks endeavours to make violins rather than humans the main protagonists of the film, but when the humans begin to unravel, so too does the focus. In a twist which no-one could have planned, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, the two violinists of the Australian String Quartet decide they no longer want to work with the viola and cellist. They give the ASQ board an ultimatum — them (viola Steven King and cellist Sharon Draper) or us. When the board chooses King and Draper to continue the ASQ brand, the Guadagnini instruments in the care of Winther and Tache are returned to the bank vault.

It’s a messy story and it turns out to be, perhaps inevitably, a messy film. One minute we’re learning about Cremona and Stradivarius and design, and the next we’re plunged into a complicated and bitter musical divorce. It’s a mess, but not a disaster — getting hijacked by real life saves a fascinating and quirky documentary from becoming worthy, and leaves us with a cliffhanger that will play out in 2017, as the ASQ launches its new line-up.

This is my blog. I watch, I listen, I write. I’m also crowd-funding a book at award-winning publishers Unbound. Do take a look!

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Ten of the Best

It is a truth universally acknowledged that lists and ‘best of’ posts are de rigeur at this time of year. I was going to do a ‘best of 2016’ blogpost but, frankly, I’ve seen so many round the traps – including some really good ones like this and this — that I’ll spare you my own ravings. Instead, I’d like to throw another list of ten at you.

booksHere are ten books which have grabbed my attention or piqued my interest from the publishing house Unbound. (Full disclosure: they’re hopefully publishing my Dartington book sometime in 2018.) Unbound is three guys’ response to the strange and wonderful publishing environment we find ourselves in in this new century, an environment which is being fought over by two opposing forces: the big companies, blockbusters and bargains brigade, and the seething underclass of independents, self-publishers and little guys. Unbound attempts to combine the best elements of each.

It is a full-service publishing house with editors and designers (so none of the wince-inducing grammatical clangers or woeful purple prose which clutters up the independent scene). However, it works with its authors, using a nifty crowd-funding front-end to its online presence, to pre-sell books to cover the production costs, thereby freeing it from the onus of only selecting sure-fire winners.

Put simply, it has developed a different structure for sharing risk. It puts some of the onus back on the author, but it also allows Unbound to embrace a much broader, much edgier stable of authors. Brilliant but niche non-fiction books. First novels. Quirky memoirs. Books which don’t sit squarely in a genre.

A scroll through Unbound’s current list of projects is a dangerous thing at this time of year. I cannot afford to buy any more books, but that doesn’t stop me from longing. So here’s my list of ten Unbound books which catch my eye.

  1. Letters of Note is one of the first books published by Unbound, and a best-seller. It’s a collection of memorable letters compiled by Shaun Usher. It includes facsimiles of letters from people like Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt and John Cleese – intimate little glimpses into fascinating lives.
  2. I met Lia Leendertz on Twitter, way back in the good old days. I love gardening, and love reading her columns, full of wise and poetic observations on the passage of the seasons. The New Almanac is a modern version of the traditional rural almanac, complete with moon tables, planting guides and beautiful illustrations. I live in Australia so it’s not going to help my garden grow, but I’ve pledged to it because I love the idea. Maybe she can do an Australian version one day!
  3. Lev Parikian’s sort-of memoir, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear, is a great example of the sort of book Unbound does really well. It defies description, but the way in which Lev fails to describe it is so compelling that you just want to read it anyway.
  4. Brilliant comic writer, performer and former Python Terry Jones was one of Unbound’s first authors, and a torch bearer for the company in its early days. This is the finale of his medieval adventure trilogy.
  5. When I pitched Sanctuary to Unbound I wasn’t expecting them to know about Dartington Hall, but by a nice coincidence it turned out that they had just commissioned a biography of Dorothy Elmhirst, Dartington’s owner and benefactor by Jane Brown.
  6. Jessica Duchen is a music writer, critic and librettist who already has four novels published. Ghost Variations is a musical detective story with a twist – it actually happened! I’m reading it right now, and immersed in the adventures of violinist Jelly d’Aranyi fighting for the legacy of Robert Schumann in the strange times of 1930s Europe.
  7. Moose Allain is a cartoonist, artist, writer and thinker. I wonder what I’m thinking about is a collection of pictures, stories, doodles and musings which emerge when he wonders. I love it because it makes me laugh.
  8. I’ve pledged to this on the strength of a very impressive rap from one of the Unbound founders, who called it “a near perfect manuscript”. I’ve since met (digitally) the author, Sarah Marr, and if the novel is anywhere as entertaining and insightful as her online postings it’ll be ace.
  9. Not only does Solitaire Townsend have a splendid name, she also has something to say. Something important. Her book The Happy Hero grapples with one of biggest challenges, Climate Change, but she manages to do it in an irresistibly positive and persuasive way. The Happy Hero reached 100% funding in just three days. Which makes me think she’s onto something.
  10. There is no number ten. You’d better go and choose your own. Have fun.

Merry Christmas.

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Haydn Seek

Sorry. I couldn’t resist it. Silly Season. It’s just that every time I go to see an Australian Haydn Ensemble concert — and it’s getting more regular as I get more hooked on their particular brand of bounce — my husband comes up with a new ‘Haydn/hiding’ dad joke. There. I’ve done it now. Out of my system.

Anyway, back to the Utzon Room and the last concert of the year for the afore-mentioned AHE, with guest director and soloist Erin Helyard. A big turn out, and a (relatively) big orchestra taking on the Sturm und Drang of the late eighteenth-century. Helyard describes the sturmunddrangers as the angry young men of their time, artists intent on shaking things up, scaring the horses.

440px-cpeb_by_lc3b6hrLooking at his stolid, white-wigged portrait, it’s hard to imagine CPE Bach as a renegade, but listening to his Harpsichord Concerto in F major, written in 1772, you get a whole new view. Especially when it’s played with the raw energy and punchy attitude of this ensemble. That’s not to say it’s at all lacking in polish: AHE have pulled their intonation and sound quality together dramatically over the last 18 months. Yesterday was the best I’ve heard them. The rawness was all deliberate, all in the performance. Led by Helyard at the keyboard, the ensemble gave us CPE’s concerto in all its edgy, obstinate difference. No, let’s not finish that phrase, even though a hundred years of harmony is begging for it. Yes, let’s hang onto that note for a bit longer. Even longer. Even though it’s sticking out like a sore thumb. As anyone who’s tried to un-learn a habit can confirm, it’s quite hard to play in a deliberately angular manner, without phrasing off, without vibrato to give that note a final polish. To do it consistently, and as an ensemble, is even harder, but the ensemble brought out all the delicious oddness. Meanwhile, Helyard added lashings of spidery virtuosity at a fearless but never rushed pace.

Before that, CPE’s Flute concert Wq. 22 in D minor, an earlier work, and less torrid but, in the hands of soloist Melissa Farrow, no less compelling. Farrow has a way of making the end of her phrases hang in the air, ready to connect with the next idea, ready to build into one splendid arc, like a brilliantly written novel that you can’t put down. It also helps that  the sound coming from ‘Blondie’, her natural boxwood flute, a Martin Wenner copy of an August Grenser original, is unfailingly lovely.

Book-ending the concert, two ‘sinfonia’, one from CPE and one from Papa Haydn.  La passione, as Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 is known, brought everything good about the performance so far together: the sustained, mind-spanning phrases, the mercurial mood swings and the impressively consistent quality of sound. Even through the intensity of the first movement there was a wiry tension, a momentum and once they hit the allegro spirituoso the motor rhythm powered on through with an invigorating vitality. One of those moments when you think 2016’s not all bad.

Many thanks to the Australian Haydn Ensemble for inviting me. If you like my blog, please support my book, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary! A pledge would be wonderful. I also accept social media shares, spreading the news by word-of-mouth, best wishes and chocolate.