A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Intricate Models

The Natural Order of Things was commissioned from composer James Ledger for the Australian Chamber Orchestra by David and Sandy Libling, in honour David’s father. Simon Libling lived an extraordinary life. He was born to a wealthy family in Krakow in 1912 but, as you can imagine, they didn’t stay that way. When he finally arrived, with his wife and child, in Melbourne in 1960, Libling had lived through halfBlakusCelloMed-e1348130472704 a century of economic and social turmoil. Two wars, the Great Depression, occupation, living under a totalitarian regime… There’s a (necessarily) abridged version of a long and eventful life in the program booklet and, as Ledger says, it reads like a film script. The beauty of Ledger’s five movement work, however, is that he has resisted the temptation to use filmic techniques, emotive musical language or empty drama. This is an intensely thoughtful work, full of considered gestures and deft layering of sound. Sudden, sculpted outbursts dot the musical landscape as if at random, but clearly placed with exacting accuracy by disparate soloists within the ensemble. Designed, but not contrived, organic but not predictable. It’s like turning an intricate model over and over in your hands, discovering it from different angles. This is a fine work which would grace the repertoire of any string orchestra and a beautiful memorial to a life well-lived.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Satu Vanska, brought their habitual virtuosity to this and all the other works on the program. Indeed, the evening was like a collection of intricate models, each work with its own set of fearsome demands. I was thrilled to hear a work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (yes, mother of Peggy Seeger, stepmother of Pete Seeger, wife of Charles Seeger and, most importantly, a composer who music critic Peter Dickinson called ‘a kind of American Webern’). Her Andante for Strings, the second movement of her 1931 String Quartet, is an arresting work, beginning with tense, dissonant smears of sound which build to a brilliant, crystalline cacophony. If that sounds chaotic, let me assure you it’s not: the restraint with which she adds voices — you have to wait till nearly the end for the double bass — is fascinating. The ACO’s performance makes a powerful case for hearing the whole thing.

Another intricate model took the centre stage in the second half : a 1616 Hieronymus and Antonio Amati cello, the latest acquisition of the ACO Instrument Fund. And to show it off, a new arrangement by Jack Symonds of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello, with Tipi Valve as soloist. I don’t know the sonata well, but whatever Symonds and Valve did, it worked brilliantly. The cello line emerged, glowing, from a delicate mass of string textures.

A Vivaldi Concerto bounced off the stage with verve, but the real showpiece was Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12After the profundity of what went before this piece comes across as completely nutty: the soloist ricochets off into a series of cadenzas designed to test the limits of the instrument. In fact, it’s more impressive as a pyrotechnical display of digital dexterity than as an artistic statement. However, when you are a virtuoso violinist and you come across a concerto subtitled The Harmonic Labyrinth – Easy to enter, hard to escape, the gauntlet is well and truly thrown, on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up. Satu Vanska, who has been known to perform Paganini Caprices in clubs and on surfing retreats, is completely up for a challenge, and her heroic performance got a well-deserved standing ovation.

All that and Mendelssohn too. A night of many notes. (Not too many, though). Catch one of the last two performances if you can, tonight, Weds 17 May or Friday 19 May, both at City Recital Hall.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please feel free to rummage further around my blog, or search for other features and reviews I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, or check out my book project, Sanctuarya cultural history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. 


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Oh no! Nono!

Cross posted from my Unbound Page, where there are details of the book I’m researching on Dartington International Summer School of Music.

A letter from William Glock to John Amis, dated July 1962

Dear Johnny

The worst has happened. I’ve been trying desperately to get in touch with you.

Nono has finished his piece.

I think he stayed away from Darmstadt (‘ill’) in order to finish it, and anyway I feel we must do our best to put it on.

But… It’s for soprano, viola, cello, d.b., celesta, keyboards, 1 tam-tam, 12 crotales covering all 12 semitones – but the exact pitch I don’t know; are you an authority on crotales? If Gigi’s letter (sent apparently 5 days ago) reaches me tomorrow morning I’ll let you know.

‘Gigi’ is Luigi Nono, Italian avant-garde composer, disciple of Schoenberg and Webern, central figure of the notorious ‘Darmstadt School’, (a term which he coined in a 1958 lecture).

Nono’s only published work for 1962 is Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima. It’s not clear what work that Glock was referring to and, in the end, the ‘new work’ listed in the program didn’t happen. But the soprano mentioned below, Dorothy Devow, was at Dartington that year at the same time as Nono, and gave the premiere of Canti at the Edinburgh Festival at the end of August, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Performers: (1) D. Devow – cd she be asked to come down earlier, to learn her part? L. N. will bring the material with him on Friday.

(2) Nono will conduct

(3) students can play the cymbals, tam-tam, crotales (6 players). Also the celeste – but this presumably has to be hired. Cd it be put on the Steinway truck?

Sorry to spring this all on you; the news came at 11.55pm last night.

Menuhin: $200. It seems reasonable.

Much love,

W

Re:- the crotales. There are cr. graves and aigues, if no more; so we better wait. I’ll phone.

Did Nono and Devow rehearse at Dartington? Did the students work out the crotales? And who were these students? It was quite a class: Peter Maxwell-Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, Harrison Birtwistle, Hugh Wood, Robert Saxton, Brian Elias, Alexander Goehr, Cornelius Cardew, Nick Maw and Susan Bradshaw among them. Nono taught in Italian, with Max as interpretor. He was an iconoclast, an ardent communist and hard taskmaster. His other claim to fame, at Dartington at least, was his refusal to shake hands with Benjamin Britten, on artistic grounds.

Can anyone out there enlighten me on what work William was talking about? And do you think it’s reasonable to pay Yehudi Menuhin $200?

I’m off to have another rummage… And you can too if you chip in to my book project. It’s now funding at Unbound. Let’s make this thing happen!

 


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The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.

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All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.

 


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Rummagining

Digging through an archive is a bit like piecing together a puzzle. Most of the bits are there, but they need putting together, and once you have put them together you realise that something is missing. It’s like the yarning, cryptic crosswords and QI (mixed in with a fair amount of drudgery.) But every so often things fit together in new and exciting ways.

I was intrigued to find out more about early performances of Le Marteau sans Maitre. Yes, I know, nasty modern music, but that was a big part of the Summer School. You could have your Mozart and Schubert, but you needed to listen to something written yesterday too.

Pierre Boulez’s notorious work was first performed in 1955 at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden but I was pretty sure its first UK performance was at Dartington.

To the archive!

First, a photo: 59.42

I can make out “Boulez” and Le Marteau sans maitre, but not much else. It’s a picture of Ilona Halberstadt, a film producer and scholar, who later founded “Pix” magazine. She was also involved with Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra in the 60s.

Then here’s the concert programme:IMG_5024

August 9th, 1959 it says, in my father’s handwriting. I can almost smell the roneo ink.

And then, by recent happenstance, an introduction to the fearless conductor, John Carewe, who agreed to dredge his memory for that performance. Here’s what he remembers:
“The idea of doing it was mine. William [Glock] was enthusiastic. I had been in Paris studying with Messiaen and Boulez (I think 1956/7). I guess I gave my first concert (RFH recital room, based round 2 performances of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1) in Jan 1958 and William invited us to Dartington. Of course I knew Le Marteau and loved it and its challenges, hence my desire to do it..
There was a new printed version available. We started rehearsals about 7 months before that August. We had one session together (after which we sacked the percussionist and Richard Rodney Bennett took over the part). After that I took lots of rehearsals with one, two or three players. There was no guitarist at that time who could have played it so Cornelius Cardew learnt to play guitar! All the others were young professionals intrigued by the problems. In Dartington we rehearsed from 9.00 am to late evening for 5 or 6 days before the performance. I guess we got travel, bed and food and possibly £10 each for all that work.  But we loved it!”

Here’s a (terrible) picture of them rehearsing.59.98

Now I’m hoping to find someone who remembers hearing it for the first time.

Could that be you? Do get in touch!

 

This is a cross post from my Unbound updates page. Unbound is the game-changing publisher which finds authors with something to say then uses crowd-funding to make it happen. There are more details of my book, Sanctuarya pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School, over there, and that’s where to go if you want to get updates on what I’m finding out and pledge your support by signing up to get a copy when it comes out next year. (Go on, you know you want to!) If you’ve already signed up, thank you thank you thank you,  and do take another look because Unbound’s just relaunched a bright and shiny (and pink) new site.

 


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The Impossible Cor

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l-r Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser, Antony Pitts

There’s not much that can defeat the Song Company. This tight knit group can sing, act and, most important, think their way around pretty much anything you can throw at them. But with Cornelius Cardew they might have met their match.

Cardew was an experimental composer and activist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1981, aged 45. His relationship with music was, like his relationship with life, art, philosophy, everything, passionate, playful and enduringly tricky. If ever there was someone who could think themselves into a corner, it was Cardew.

There’s never going to be a double CD boxed set of Cardew’s greatest hits. For a start, the whole idea of a finite word, a recording setting the sound in shiny silver, is something one feels he’d rage against. Nevertheless, the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, has dreamt up a ‘kind-of-opera’ (his description) which brings together fragments and glimpses into the musical machinations of Cardew’s iconoclastic mind. It’s designed, with input from designer and writer Adrian Self, as a chronology of  Cardew’s life, with music, some synchronymous (is that a word?) and some tangential.

The performances are, as you’d expect from the Song Company, wild and wonderful. They’re all fine singers but, more than that, they are sound artists. Something like Steve Reich’s ‘voicetruments’. Plus they occupy the stage with a highly tuned awareness of the interplay between themselves and the audience. No shy genius hiding behind a score here. It makes for a very intense experience: the music is beautiful but discombobulating, nothing is predictable, and the threat of audience participation hangs in the air.  You’re never quite sure whether you are being entertained, educated or are in fact the subject of a covert scientific experiment.

As a way of portraying this curious artist I found it superbly effective. As a way of trying to answer the question always hanging in the air — what is this new music for? — I found it confronting and, ultimately, quite sad. There wasn’t a hint of irony in the ensemble’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, and I even felt the physiological surge of joy as cross-rhythms combined with key change combined with sweet, sweet harmonies. The darkness I felt came from all that went before.

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L-R Cornelius Cardew, Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw, 1956, Dartington. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, courtesy Summer School Foundation).

In Anthony Meredith’s biography of Richard Rodney Bennett he gives an account of a concert where Susan Bradshaw, English composer and fellow student of Cardew, jumped out of her seat in the audience, leapt on stage and dragged Cardew away from the piano. Anything to make it stop.

I think I know how she felt. I wasn’t driven to yell ‘stop’. It was too well-crafted, too entertaining for that. We knew we were in safe hands, safe voices, with the Song Company.

I did, however get glimpses into Cardew’s relentless questioning, his moments of High Nihilism, and it was a scary place. Scary but necessary, because asking questions is what art is all about, and that’s why the Song Company is one of the bravest ensembles around.

Accidental Plans goes to Canberra on Friday 17 Feb, then Wollongong on 18 Feb, Melbourne on 20 Feb, Newcastle on 23 Feb, back to Sydney on 25 Feb, with a final concert at Richmond School of Arts on 3 March. Details here.

(BTW if you were at the concert, yes, I admit it, I was the one who walked in late. Sorry. No exciting excuse, just life getting in the way. My apologies to performers and audience.)

The 1956 photo above is from the Dartington International Summer School of Music’s archive, which I’m currently immersed in as I do doctoral studies and prepare a book for publication sometime next year. It’s crowdfunding at Unbound so you need to go and have a look and tell all your friends about it and pledge lots of money. Thanking you in advance.

 

 


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What’s Classical: NEXT?

There’s a rumour been going around for the last – oh, let’s see — 200 years or more that Classical Music as-we-know-it is dead. Dying, at the very least. Really not well at all. It’s true, of course. Classical Music as-we-know-it is constantly dying. Especially if it’s based on old technology (sorry, record companies) or old business models.

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Dammit, how am I going to get the blood out of my wedding dress? I’ll have to sing…

But look more closely and you see that it’s an awfully lively corpse. (Or a zombie, perhaps). Seriously, though, ensembles come and go. Orchestras struggle, reinvent themselves. Composers and performers and listeners change. Some drift away. Some works are forgotten. Others are rediscovered. There’s never enough money, but there’s always passion. New modes, new models, new ways of doing things and, most importantly, new audiences. If that sounds ludicrously Pollyanna-ish, look around. Just look.

Classical: NEXT is an annual gathering of the global classical music community dedicated to looking — forwards (as well as back). It welcomes members from across the community, from grass roots outfits to digital leaders to major presenters. It also presents the Classical: NEXT Innovation Award to shine a spotlight on some of the most exciting, forward-thinking, smart, savvy, sustainable ideas coming out of classical music today.

Classical: NEXT approached me a couple of months ago to nominate Australia’s entries to the Innovation award and now, finally, the cats are out of the bag. The cats being Victorian Opera and CutCommon, two organisations who are filling a gap, thinking up new ways to do business, showing ingenuity and creativity and, best of all, being bloody good at what they do.

So cross your fingers and toes for them, go buy tickets or subscribe, and keep looking. Forwards. If you don’t know where to start, try here, the full nomination list for the Innovation awards.

Coming soon: reviews of the Song Company and the Australian Brandenburg’s Messiah and Eighth Blackbird.


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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.

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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.

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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

 

Have you visited my author page at Unbound yet? It’s just a click away. with words and pictures and a bunch of rewards to be had. And if you like it you could share it or, even better, pledge to buy the book. Thank you!