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Reviews/Music

Fresh breeze blows labels out the door

22 November 2021

Tenth Muse Initiative’s composer showcase has Claire Coleman pondering the usefulness of categories like “classical music”.

Fresh Air presented by Tenth Muse Initiative ·
Moana Hall, 21st November 2021·

Tenth Muse Initiative is a collective of recent music graduates who are expanding the boundaries of “classical” music by spotlighting the work of underrepresented artists. On Sunday afternoon the Initiative’s founders Hannah Lee Tungate, Saskia Willinge, Rachael Doulton, and Jessica Taylor hosted their third concert.

“Fresh Air” featured a mixed bill of emerging composers which Willinge, the MC, initially called “classical or classical-adjacent”. This frame suited the first half, but her alternative suggestion that the concert presented new works by Tenth Muses’ peers better reflected the afternoon’s musical diversity.

Poet Sara Morgillo opened both halves of the program with her relatable spoken word, exploring themes like identity, the body, place, memory, understanding and misunderstanding. Some poems were accompanied on improvised electric guitar by Lara Fay, lending the work a meditative quality.

Lara Fay plays guitar in Tenth Muses Initiative’s ‘Fresh Air’ concert. Photo supplied

Three works for voice were presented in the first half. Maddie Hammond’s Remnants of the Sea for vocal ensemble was originally commissioned by the Vanguard Consort. Its pleasant disruption of tonal harmony was reminiscent of choral composer Eric Whitacre’s harmonic language. Singing acapella and unaccompanied, Elyse Belford-Thomas, Adele Cole, and Rachael Liu offered a sensitively blended rendition that resonated perfectly in the acoustics of Moana Hall.

Liu returned for a setting of Hilary Zhao’s poem you will fall in love with the city. Liam Russell composed the work and accompanied on Nord keyboard. Though its jazz inflections would have been better suited to an acoustic instrument, Russell’s intricate piano writing elevated the instrument’s status to one half of a duo rather than mere accompaniment.

Izzy French’s Wx, a neatly structured semi-improvisatory fantasy exploring the letter W, was a highlight of the first half. Its discrete sections, marked by shifts in Russell’s piano accompaniment, featured vocalisations by Belford-Thomas and Cole which were in turn reflective, clashy, and rhythmic, but always playful.

Between the vocal works were two experimental recorded works. Haga, by composer/conductor Kate Milligan, comprises Margaret River field recordings and a verge collection zither played by Fay using an e-bow. Fay tastefully added harmonic hums and metallic rattles to the field recording’s running water, birdsong and footsteps.

Victor Arul’s Note G takes its title from an algorithm developed by early computer engineer Ada Lovelace. Foregrounding the hisses and hums of its recorded medium, the minimalist work layers synthesised pitched sound with slow noise transitions. Arul describes its singular focus as a welcome contrast to his usual tendency to cram in as many ideas as possible.

After interval and another reading by Morgillo, the second half focused on popular music forms. Sisters Julia and Lucinda Nicholls performed optimistic pop ode In The Light for voice and keyboard. Fay, undoubtedly the afternoon’s MVP, returned to the stage for a short set of her own folky songs, influenced by musicians like Adrianne Lenker or Lucy Dacus. The concert closed with a set of up-and-comer Jewel Owusu’s thoughtfully constructed RnB / soul ballads, of which “Blue” was a highlight.

Tenth Muse has some growing to do: the sound tech presented repeated hiccups, and Willinge imposed a little too much of her own perspective as MC, rather than allowing audience members to form their own response. However the groups’ unbridled enthusiasm for music of all stripes is endearingly infectious. This is an ambitious group who will do great things.

Pictured top: Sisters Julia and Lucinda Nicholls perform as part of ‘Fresh Air’. Photo supplied

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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