A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Leave a comment


Seven Stories takes its lead from writer and journalist Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The theory is that all the stories of the world, from fairytales to grand opera, can be reduced to seven basic plots, namely, the Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation.

Try it. It’s fun.

Cinderella is Rags to Riches, Harry Potter is Overcoming the DarknessGotterdammerung is Journey. And Transformation. Or maybe Quest. Or Fatal Flaw. Hmm. Trust Wagner to muddy the water. But you get the general idea. Like many literary theories, there’s as much fun to be had finding the exceptions to the ‘rules’ as there is applying them. But as stimulus for a meditation on narratives, dialogues and archetypes, it’s rich in possibility.

A catchy premise, however, is just the starting point for Ensemble Offspring‘s latest creation. Stories need storytellers. And it’s not just the seven sound composers, each paired with an ur-plot, or the word composer, Hilary Bell, whose text picks up threads from the diverse works and weaves them together, or the image composer, Sarah-Jane Woulahan, whose swirling, cloudy visual gestures dance across the screen above the stage. No. These stories need real time storytellers too, and that’s the job of the seven piece ensemble whose job it is to deliver these seven nuggets of humanity.

I’ve written before about the impressive virtuosity of Ensemble Offspring, and I think it’s worth saying again. This is a group playing at a level where they can really perform.  What they do with their sonic resources — whether a cello, or an egg-shaker, or a voicestrument — is completely at the service of the story. It’s a joy to watch such a cracking band, engaging with the music, engaging with each other, engaging with the audience.

As for the work, it’s a fascinating example of many pieces making a whole. By luck or design, there is a satisfying consistency running through the seven works. Not homogeneity, mind. Individual voices come through loud and clear, from Amanda Brown’s edgy clockwork grind in Rags to Riches, to the playful, gritty invention of Caitlin Yeo’s Quest to Kyls Burtland’s dreamy but determined step in Journey. Like the unstoppable force of Sally Whitwell’s Fatal Flaw, or the unexpected transformation of Jodi Phillis’s Overcoming the Darkness. Every work uncovers new surprises, but they all retain a strong commitment – whether through catchy rhythmic patterning or harmonic cues (gotta love a modulation) — to drawing in the audience, settling us down, telling a story. They all play with us, as they should. They all explore the tension between narrative, dialogue and pure sensation.

Two that stand out are Jane Sheldon’s Transformation and Bree Van Reyk’s Comedy of Errors. Van Reyk’s three-part invention is a delicious riff on how to be funny. Of course,  a joke explained is usually no joke, but Van Reyk, in close collaboration with her performers, somehow manages to explore the anatomy of a gag without killing it. In fact, not only does she not kill it, she demonstrates that even though you’ve already laughed at an anticipated punchline, you’ll laugh again. And again. And again. Especially when the person delivering the punchline is Jane Sheldon, armed with a pneumatic car horn and a cheeky wink. It’s all timing, in the moment and in the architecture of the piece.

Finally, Transformation by Jane Sheldon who, up till now, has stayed on the interpreting side of the line. It’s perhaps inevitable, after working so closely composers to create new work over the years, that she is now creating work of her own. And why wouldn’t you? Jane’s is one of the most demanding pieces in the evening but, coming as it does towards the end, the audience are ready, listening closely. The changes they hear are subtle, tantalising even, drawing us into a deep engagement with the sound and the idea. This is what storytelling is all about.

I haven’t mentioned the visuals in detail, and that’s partly because there was so much to process on stage. Sarah-Jane Woulahan has put together an exquisite montage but in the end it is upstaged by the real time action, the sounds and words and brilliant performances. That, and the feeling that a key element of storytelling, for me, is the audience. The performers plant the seed, but the audience provides the space for the idea to grow and play. Perhaps imagination is enough.

This was a one-off performance of Seven Stories, but I’m confident that it’s not the last we’ll hear of these works. They are all strong enough to stand on their own, and as a whole it’s compelling, not to mention highly entertaining. Want more.

Thanks for reading this. Now go and read look at this. My book on Dartington Summer School of Music is crowdfunding at Unbound and I need you to support me! 

Leave a comment

Voices of artists

Christmas. Carols. Joyful singing. Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid it. So I go with loving it, especially when the joyful singing is courtesy of Gondwana Choirs.

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Last night they gave their end-of-year concert, Voices of Angels, at City Recital Hall. It was everything an end-of-year concert should be: slickly directed, ably compered, with a quirky but seasonally satisfying mix of repertoire and, most importantly, fabulous performances.

Two days before I’d had the privilege of attending a carol service at my daughter’s school. Again, fabulous performances (under the direction of a truly inspiring music master) and lumps-in-throat a-plenty. But there was a key difference. There, the singing came across as a glorious expression of community, voices raised in song bringing us all closer together. But at Voices of Angels, while it was certainly a celebration of a vibrant community, there was an added element: artistry.

Lyn Williams, the artistic director of Gondwana Choirs, has long appreciated the power of the child chorister. As she says (in a podcast interview with Andrew Leigh last month), “A children’s choir is quite a different instrument, as a violin is to a cello, and it has its own special qualities. To me the children’s choir instrument has a great purity, a great power to communicate with integrity and honesty… It also gives children the opportunity to perform at a professional level.”

A different instrument. A professional level. So their voices have an unique quality which is simply not available to adult choirs. And the senior choir is not just jolly good for their age. They’re real musicians who can hold their own against the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Opera Australia, with whom they regularly perform.

Seeing the different levels of Sydney Children’s Choir singing in Voices of Angels laid this all out. We met the Senior Training Choirs, on either side of the stage, singing diligently but with the telltale drift of eyes, the restless wriggle of the under-tens. There were the Junior Performing Choirs, a fiercely attentive army of choristers singing independent parts with confidence. Then there were the members of the Senior Performing Choirs, the Young Men’s Choir and the Gondwana National Choirs, all on stage, all singing with a steely sense of focus, the music they wanted the audience to hear almost written across their faces. I looked at pretty much every face over the course of the evening. They were all so individual in the way that they were experiencing and communicating the music. So individual in their expression, yet blending into a seamless sonic whole. Finally, there were creators, the artists who dreamt up the tunes the choirs sang, and these included Samuel Feitelberg, a member of the Young Men’s Choir, whose impressive composition The Stars Around the Lovely Moon had its world premiere.

From fidgeting, to focus, to having something to say, to saying it.

I’m not going to break down the evening into works but I have to mention Lyn Williams’ eerie A Flock of Stars, Owen Elsley’s lively arrangements of ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’, and a tantalising whisper of a new commission from Andy Ford, a choral opera based on Peter Pan. And Sally Whitwell’s luscious ‘Lux Aeterna’, and Joseph Twist’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ and the magical beginning with Eriks Esenvalds Stars, complete with glass harmonics and penlights. And… And… All so good.

There’s no rest for the wicked, nor yet for Gondwana Choirs after tonight’s final performance. A quick Christmas break and then it’s on, on towards a grand choral jamboree at the end of January, their first Festival of Summer Voices. I won’t be able to go – my family break – but I hope can, because this is not just an expression of community nor yet a chance to see happy smiling faces on cute kids. It’s something very special. This is art.

Thank you to Gondwana Choirs for inviting me to Voices of Angels. If you like what I write here on this blog, do please check out my book, Sanctuary, which is crowd-funding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. I’d love your support, either financially or by sharing the news of my book on your favourite networks, social, media or other. Merry Christmas!




Leave a comment

Harbour Light

The night before  Tony Abbott was elected prime minister I went to the Sydney Opera House to hear Lior and the Sydney Symphony. And the night of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, I find myself at the Opera House again, for Acacia Quartet‘s concert, entitled ‘Harbour Light’, in the Utzon Room. Music, as ever, is a consolation.

acacia_all_printThe Acacias have worked hard over the six years since they first came together, and achieved much. There have been five CDs and three ARIA nominations. More importantly, there have been any number of commissions, collaborations and deep dives into the music of here and now. This concert was no exception: a bold program of new works by Australian composers Sally Whitwell, Nick Wales and Joe Twist alongside three works by Philip Glass, George Gershwin and Bernard Herrmann.

I’ve mostly experienced Nick Wales’ music as underscore or music for dance, but on the evidence of this work, it more than fills the stage on its own. Harbour Light has a wonderful sense of pace and drama, like a brilliantly written four-hander. Wales originally wrote it for string ensemble but, at after nagging from the Acacia Quartet, adapted it here for four voices. Their instincts were good. The lush and complex string textures are still there when the music needs it, but the individual gestures shine out.

‘Face to the Sun’ is Sally Whitwell’s first string quartet, and it’s a thing of beauty. The layers of texture she adds to the lively rhythms and seductive harmonic agenda reveal a pianist-turned-composer with much more to say. The Acacias gave ‘Face to the Sun’ an energetic, glowing first performance, and I’m sure there’ll be many more.

You can’t listen to ‘Spongebob’s Romantic Adventure’ without a smile on your face. Composer Joe Twist has conjured up a wacky tale bursting with character. It’s tricky, too, but the quartet handled the rhythmic and expressive lurches from melodrama to high comedy with impressive fluency.

Works by George Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and Philip Glass completed the program. The Utzon Room, as ever, did no favours for the string sound, but the Acacia Quartet battled on, finding a rare delicacy in the Gershwin, and vivid glimpses of movies imagined and real in the Herrmann.

As the concert ended and the phones went back on reality came flooding back in but, at least, it was reality coloured by a head full of beautiful sounds. Art matters. Especially now.

If you’re in Albury this weekend you can catch the Acacia Quartet at the inaugural Albury Chamber Music Festival.

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.