Seductive music & the difficult listening hour

14 September 2018

Review: Ensemble Offspring, “Spel” ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 11 September ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

“Spel” was the latest offering from Ensemble Offspring, produced by Tura New Music. In accordance with the increasing push for improved female representation in art-music, four female artists composed the five pieces featured in the program, while the ensemble itself consists of two women and two men, with Claire Edwardes the ensemble’s artistic director. This is proof (though none at all is needed) that there is enough repertoire by women for music programming to include many more works by them.

Two pieces by Kate Moore featured: a short study for solo vibraphone and a longer work for the whole ensemble (vibraphone, flutes, bass clarinet, piano). Both exhibit Moore’s looping, minimalist stepping patterns. A series of ascents and descents in the notes is marked out, the rhythms being very slightly asymmetric, and the final notes especially tend to vary from phrase to phrase, preventing full resolution or absolute repetition. These are bright, pleasant works and Edwards (on vibraphone) and her collaborators nailed the irregular counts required. The pieces are crowd pleasers; seductively easy-listening contemporary art-music.

More complex in its tonal irresolution was the short study for solo piano from Missy Mazzoli. It is not strictly speaking an atonal work. The clusters of notes tend to stagger across the keyboard in unusual scattered phrases, and it has a great sense of picking itself up and then falling out of rhythm again. The performance begins and ends against a quiet ground of wavering, pre-recorded sinewave tones, though the focus is the piano. Overall, the piece hints at more complex developments, but since it is an early short work from Mazzoli, we do not get that here. It was nevertheless an appealing off-kilter taster, well handled by pianist Zubin Kanga.

Drummer up close
Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring Claire Edwardes on percussion. Rachael Barrett Photography

The stand-out piece is Andrea Keller’s Love in Solitude, performed by the whole ensemble. Again, this is performed with a pre-record, in this case of extended-technique sounds and clunks previously recorded by the live performers. These materials lie behind a recording of a reading of Rilke’s poetry. Initially the recording feels like a solution to not having enough performers, but halfway through, the live instruments come to the fore forcefully and percussively, breaking up the sense of a scattered field of materials and offering a more urgent set of motivic forces. A generally jazzy feel intrudes, and afterwards the larger progression is significantly changed and extremely diverse, moving from minimalist loops, staggered unison gestures, extended preparatory sections or pauses awaiting the next movement, and more. I did not manage to fully decode this diversity on my first listening, but the piece has an abundance of moods, which is a joy for those who like to chase compositional developments as they slip away in performance.

Composer Felicity Wilcox’s attempt to riff off Jean-Luc Goddard’s famous film Vivre Sa Vie (1962) was, sadly, less successful. As Philip Brophy noted in his keynote address for the 2008 Tura New Music Festival Conference, there has been something of a trend for:

getting abstract experimental films and then performing abstract experimental music to these films … this kind of combination of music and vision becomes like a sign being held up that says: “This is an experimental music event of great historic importance!” The message is: “This film is being shown to let you know that I am doing experimental music — no rock’n’roll here!”

As Brophy observes, the practice is tautological and is unlikely to offer insights into the film, or its scoring — particularly when dealing with someone who did such innovative things with scoring as Goddard. The music is okay, but there tended to be an oscillation between what is called “Mickey-Mousing” — music that pops up and makes active changes every time an action happens on the screen; this was most evident when instruments imitated in a non-verbal fashion the act of characters speaking (“Pbbt brrt hrt?” goes the clarinet; “Pah zwee!” goes the flute) — and then into some of the most common clichés of mainstream scoring, namely emphasising the dramatic content of what you see. We see a violent, climactic scene, so we had better have some violent and climatic music, just in case we somehow failed to notice this was a violent dramatic scene. As Brophy observes, this is the sound-and-vision equivalent of tuning the volume up to 11. Subtle it is not.

Tura does deserve accolades for its promotion of sound-and-vision work in Perth, though music venue conditions can hamper efforts at realisation, despite the best of efforts. With Ensemble Offspring, the location of the screen meant that the musicians obscured the view of the film’s English language subtitles for audience in the first four rows. Although the projection itself was otherwise crisp, it was also ever so slightly out of proportion, making everything on screen look wider than it should.

Having said this, Ensemble Offspring provided a delightful night of well executed works which varied from the seductive to something closer to Laurie Anderson’s so-called “difficult listening hour.” For sound and vision fans, stay tuned for the announcement of when electronica vision-and-music maestro Robin Fox will be performing.

Pictured top: Zubin Kanga (piano), Lamorna Nightingale (flutes), Jason Noble (clarinet), Claire Edwardes, (percussion/artistic director). Photos: Rachael Barrett Photography.

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Author —
Jonathan W. Marshall

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is postgraduate coordinator at WAAPA, Edith Cowan University. Jonathan has written for RealTime Australia, Big Issue, The Age, Theatreview NZ, IN Press, and presented on radio, since 1992. He grew up beside the Yarra River, near a long metal slide, set into the side of a rocky slope.

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