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Calendar, Music, Performing arts, September 19

Music: The Edge of Forgetting

29 September @ Marist Auditorium, Newman College ·
Presented by Fremantle Symphony Orchestra ·

The Fremantle Symphony Orchestra’s second concert of 2019 will feature the West Australian premiere of The Edge of Forgetting, a symphonic work by WA composer Lachlan Skipworth.  In a program curated by the Orchestra’s Artistic Director, David Pye, the Orchestra will also perform Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major all under the baton of Dr Paul DeCinque.

The performance takes place at 3pm.

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Features, Music, News

It’s time to listen

Becoming a composer often requires a long apprenticeship, but composer Lachlan Skipworth’s career is hitting full stride. The winner of the 2016 Paul Lowin Prize has released his debut album and it features a stellar line up of local and international musicians performing his chamber music. He chats with Rosalind Appleby about the endless chase for the perfect listening experience.

Rosalind Appleby: You’ve learned both clarinet and shakuhachi and studied with composers ranging from English modernist Roger Smalley to the Asian-influenced Australian Ann Boyd and avant-garde German Jörg Widmann. As a composer that is a vast range of experiences to draw on, yet you fuse them together to create such an original and beautiful voice. What is your secret??

Lachlan Skipworth: I suspect the “secret” is listening. I thirst for music that moves me physically and emotionally, as I believe music’s role is to strengthen us, to uplift us. Look at how profoundly it impacts infants, children and the elderly. And for me, endlessly chasing a “perfect” listening experience built a strong sense of my own personal aesthetic preference. So the constant challenge of creating music that lives up to this vision is what drives my artistic journey. Clarinet and shakuhachi skew my voice towards a certain purity and subtle nuance, and memorising shakuhachi honkyoku in particular left an lasting impression on my musical instincts. My composition teachers all played an important part in developing my musical thinking at key stages of my career. But the central factor is how deeply I love listening to both live and recorded music.

Composer, clarinettist and shakuhachi student Lachlan Skipworth. Photo supplied.

RA: Your repertoire includes orchestra, chamber and vocal music. Why did you choose to focus on chamber music pieces for your debut album?

LS: Of course a little pragmatism- it’s much easier to assemble chamber groups than an orchestra. But playing in a wind quintet in high school introduced me to the joy of making chamber music, and the love has never gone away. Chamber music can be equally as powerful as the symphonic repertoire, but reaches for something even more through the intimacy of its spell-binding musical communication. On my album the Piano Trio reflects this, a live recording that absolutely sparkles with the personality and virtuosity of the performers as they navigate some fiendishly difficult writing. It really does mean a lot to me to have assembled these five pieces on an album, it is a big personal milestone. And I do hope a subsequent orchestral release is not too far down the track!

RA: The shakuhachi honkyoku aesthetic permeates every work, with the use of silence as a colour, the floating absence of predictable rhythms, detailed inflections of tone and pitch. However the instrument itself doesn’t appear on the album. Is there a reason for this?

LS: These pieces represent a challenge to myself to express the honkyoku aesthetics in a medium completely removed from shakuhachi. Its haunting sound holds so many connotations that it ties me to a particular musical palette which I outgrew many years ago. So in these works I’m asking musicians with no knowledge of honkyoku to engage with its various musical elements, perhaps unknowingly. And this to some extent meets my obligation to transmit my shakuhachi learning in gratitude to my teachers for teaching me.

RA: Can you describe the Psalterphone, the instrument you invented, and why you wanted this particular sound in The Night Sky Fall.

LS: In the original version of this piece, a re-tuned cello playing stratospheric natural harmonics was the third instrument (after clarinet and piano). I’ve been told it is close to impossible to play. And when I started conversations with Louise Devenish about forming Intercurrent, we discussed playing this work with percussion taking on the cello’s role somehow. After many trips to the Perth New Music Supply Store (Bunnings), I settled upon a design that combines the layout of a psaltery (an ancient Greek string instrument) with the sound of a bowed vibraphone. The sustained sound helps the perfectly tuned intervals of the harmonic series linger and shimmer in the air. Louise has honed the playing technique to make it sound fantastic.

RA: You have a stunning list of performers contributing to the album, including the ensemble Intercurrent you founded, and your wife Akiko Miyazawa playing violin. How important is it for a composer to either form or find ensembles willing to take on the challenge of a new piece?

LS: Very important, but I’d flip the responsibility around- composers simply must make sure their notes challenge and excite the best performers. If the music is too easy performers won’t practice, and if too hard they won’t achieve the satisfaction of feeling like they played well. I’m really happy that my collaborations with Ashley Smith are heavily featured on this album. He was the star of my Clarinet Concerto some years back [Ed: which won the 2015 Art Music Award for Performance of the Year and the 2016 Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize.], and this experience undoubtedly informed how I composed the Clarinet Quintet to frame the astoundingly beautiful tone he makes. Our musical relationship is a dream, and I hope to write many more works for him in the years ahead.

Lachlan Skipworth album cover. Cover photo Andrew Davoll

RA: What do you hope listeners will experience when they get their hands on this album?

LS: I hope that listeners can be drawn in to experience the “inside” of each work. These high-quality snapshots of the music were facilitated by the recording engineer Lee Buddle, who makes it truly possible to feel like you’re in the room sharing an intimate performance with the musicians. But most of all I hope that the music itself leads the listener upon a personal and somehow uplifting journey.

Skipworth’s self titled debut album is available on the Navona label from August 9. Catalog #: NV6241.

Pictured top: Composer, clarinettist and shakuhachi student Lachlan Skipworth. Photo Nik Babic.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical artefacts

Review: Intercurrent Ensemble, ‘Walkman Antiquarian’ ⋅
UWA Callaway Auditorium, 27 May ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Developments in technology brought new performance tools for musicians in the 20th century: transistor radios, turntables, and voltage-controlled synthesizers made their way into concert programs. At the same time, the rapid pace of technology rendered many of these artefacts obsolete. Walkman Antiquarian, by Perth ensemble Intercurrent, presented a program of works featuring bygone-era devices along with modern equipment in a concert that evoked themes of nostalgia and discovery.

John Cage’s Credo in US is a piece for prepared piano and found objects. Tin cans, a buzzer, a radio and turntable are used to create a performance full of non sequiturs. The original version from 1942 starts with a phonograph playing a classical music excerpt (Cage suggested something by Dvořák, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich). Intercurrent’s version had Ashley Smith cueing pre-recorded samples from a mixer. Bombastic orchestral music was heard in the loudspeakers and then cut short by the loud clanking of tin cans played by Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Emily Green-Armytage followed suit with repeated phrases on the prepared piano, adding melodic contours to the clangorous racket. It was a wild ride of free-roaming sounds and musical passages. In a solo section, Green-Armytage played a teasing melody reminiscent of Western films; at another, a radio emitted topical news regarding the recent election. Intercurrent’s conciliatory approach bound these elements together but the anarchic spirit of John Cage was missing. It would have been interesting to see more engagement with the randomness of the radio (only one station was used), or having not just one, but several orchestral excerpts play during the piece. Perhaps more stress on the aleatoric elements within the composition would have brought about the ‘unknown outcomes’ Cage sought in his work.

Two new premieres by local composers followed. Intimate Distance by Olivia Bettina Davies pits acoustic sounds against a backing track of faint, whistle-like harmonics. Bass clarinettist Ashley Smith played pinched tones in the upper register; his playing was strained, as if wanting to match the roughness of the audio track. Devenish bowed on the marimba eliciting whispering noises and pianist Green-Armytage provided dry, scattered sounds akin to drops of rain. The handling of the material was nuanced, creating a sense of motion that brought different instruments to the fore and then receded them into the background.

Composer Lachlan Skipworth’s reworking of Beata Viscera, by the 12th century polyphonist Perotin, is a response to the recent burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. An audio track of crowds singing hymns during the incident was slowed down and further processed; Smith, Devenish, and Green-Armytage played alongside these sombre vocalizations. Perotin’s modal canticle was repeated over and over in long sighing phrases. Skipworth’s writing is austere and spacious, with a looseness that feels comforting.

Franco Donatoni’s Soft 1 and 2 for solo bass clarinet was a departure from the general theme of the concert; rather, it is part of Ashley Smith’s ongoing investigation into the works of this Italian composer. Donatoni is an interesting figure in 20th century music; early in his career he aligned himself with the ultra-rationalist composers at Darmstadt (Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen), and was later influenced by the chance operations of John Cage; an about-face in the polarized milieu of the fifties. Donatoni’s career was marred by depressive episodes and stretches of almost no activity, but he wrote profusely in his later years; Soft 1 & 2 belongs to this period. Smith’s performance had a thespian quality, he seemed to channel an inward, brusque character absorbed in a monologue. There were hiccupping figures followed by silence, and low caressing tones contrasted with high-pitched assertions. It was a thoughtful performance that broadened the scope of the concert. While some pieces in the program flirted with more experimental approaches, Soft 1 & 2 sat firmly within the tough, virtuoso tradition of the European avant-garde.

But the core of the concert was Walkman Antiquarian, a work by the Australian-born Berlin-based composer Thomas Meadowcroft. The piece juxtaposes acoustic instrumentation (piano and a wide array of percussion instruments) alongside degraded audio samples. There was something Cagean in the realization as Jackson Vickery and Devenish explored and manipulated a variety of objects: they poured beads on pulsating speaker cones; in a rotating turntable there were bowls, paper and wood from which they obtained glitch sounds; a glass of water was emptied, and at some point, a tree branch was used as a shaker. On one side of the stage, Green-Armytage played broken chords that evoked the coolness of minimalism and post-rock, the restrained figures  intertwined with noise textures triggered by Smith on a keyboard. The ensemble brought a sense of discovery, of being caught up in the creative process. It was a satisfying conclusion to a concert whose well-considered program was carried out with great deftness.

Pictured top: L-R: Emily Green-Armytage, Ashley Smith, Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Photo Olivia Davies.

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Calendar, May 19, Music, Performing arts

Music: Walkman Antiquarian

27 May @ Callaway Auditorium, University of WA ·
Presented by TURA and UWA Conservatorium of Music ·

Intercurrent perform contemporary chamber music for piano, percussion, bass clarinet and electronics in Walkman Antiquarian. The program includes renowned works by Thomas Meadowcroft and John Cage, and a newly commissioned world premiere work by Perth composer Olivia Davies. Olivia’s work Intimate Distance for bass clarinet, marimba, piano and tape is inspired by a recording in her personal library of collected sounds.

“A small sample of this recording was immediately evocative of entirely different
soundworlds and I could hear the potential for a piece. I pushed the sample from
a very high to a very low range, and this became the arc of the piece. As it descends, the character of the music shifts, hinting at familiar soundworlds. That’s where I have this idea of intimate distance—a kind of state of familiarity and detachment. It’s also a bit like listening to electroacoustic music, where we are detached from the source of the sound and are completely immersed in a particular space of listening. I’ve used the live instruments in a way to try and enhance the tape, and create a listening experience that I hope is immersive,” Olivia said.

Intercurrent is Lachlan Skipworth (composer and conductor), Louise Devenish (percussion),Ashley Smith (Bass Clarinet) and Emily Green-Armytage (Piano) with guest artist Jackson Vickery (Percussion). Intercurrent is currently Artist-in-Residence at UWA Conservatorium of Music.

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Classical music, Music, News, Reviews

Beyond the bombast

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, “Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s New World” ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 16 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Australian symphony orchestras only rarely premiere new work. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra‘s premiere of Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland was therefore an anticipated and revealing event. Australia’s orchestras are conservative in the precise meaning of the term: their aim is to conserve a musical tradition which began in 17th century Europe and which arguably reached its apotheosis at the start of the 20th century. This does not imply slavish reproduction, but rather an alternative definition of modernism where progress is defined less in terms of radical new discoveries and more in terms of reworking known forms into new configurations.

Employing these criteria, Skipworth’s Hinterland was a triumph. It is a rousing, fundamentally neo-romantic work. Melodramatic, rhythmically strong crescendos and rattling bass kettle drum moments define its structural units, this kind of material bookending both the first movement, and then exploding out in the finale. The WASO’s placement of this premiere alongside Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 From the New World (1893) and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1868) was instructive in this sense because, despite popular terminology, WASO and its peers are less committed to properly Classical composition, and instead tend to highlight the emotionally rousing approach which the Romantics developed in 19th century Europe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, quite a bit of Hinterland feels rather like one of John William’s works (Star Wars, etc), a composer well known for producing a modern, digestible form of neo-romanticism. Skipworth’s materials are a bit darker, and certainly there is a tendency to dwell in the deeper tones of the orchestra more than what Williams’ lighter touch tends towards, but there is a clearly shared approach to blending between the two.

Hinterland is basically a three part work. It starts dirgy and heavy with massed strings and ends in much the same place only much more aggressively and powerfully. As Skipworth puts it, the “dense chordal mass of the opening returns to build a powerful climactic peak.” For those such as myself, who dream of finding the radical potential of that wonderfully conservative machine that is the orchestra, I did find some such elements in the interregnum. Hinterland is essentially a piece of what was once called “program music”: material designed to evoke a narrative about how the landscape changes over time. The middle section relates how “shimmering strings capture sparks of [morning] sunlight in shallow rock pools.” Because of this, there is true attention to not just rhythm and harmony, but sound qua sound. The sharp clack of the rocks briefly used by the percussionists, the rich, colouristic quality of the horn peals, and other gestures, come out here and rest in their own sonic world. The audience is encouraged to listen and attend to the specificity of these modest, subtle but wonderfully beautiful acoustic events. For those such as myself whose allegiance lies more with Morton Feldman and Xanis Xenakis than John Williams or Georges Bizet (whose work is also evoked here), it was deeply disappointing that the most exciting element of this performance came across as little more than a diversion from the true melodramatic focus of this neo-romantic work. Still, of course, different strokes for different folks, and while the WASO certainly could have used a lighter touch, Skipworth’s challenge for the performers was well handled.

Much the same was true of the program overall. Pianist Andrey Gugnin played Grieg’s extremely varied and at times fiendishly complex Piano Concerto from memory, ably supported by the orchestra. For my taste, the final solo piano section is by far the most interesting, the harmonic richness of the rest of the work here constrained into a very jazzy, finger-plucked section that sits well amongst piano works of the late twentieth century.

Dvořák’s New World symphony concluded the program in a commemoration of the foundation of WASO, which began with a performance of this piece in 1928. Dvořák’s composition is an intensely interesting one which I do not know well. It is at times sparse, with a real sense of urban drive, recalling what America once represented to nineteenth century Europe: the “New World.” There are hints of (now considered ill-informed) attempts to evoke American Native chants (taken from unreliable sources of white American poetry about Hiawatha), of folk-like music (Dvořák’s own speciality in his native Czechoslovakia), of calmed and modified jazz and African-American music, as well as the sweeping Romantic motifs that tended to define music of the period as a whole. Dvořák apparently found the US both scary and bracing, and the music certainly evokes this.

There was a sense that WASO was if anything too Romantic in its interpretation. Having hit the crescendos and crashing strings so early, it was not clear where the orchestra had to go when it came to the finale. But then to some degree this is the point of such music. It is composition with the volume turned up to 11 out of 10 (to quote Spinal Tap). The aim is for an ever more overwhelming explosion of musical force and its corresponding affective impact. If the concert was not quite able to deliver here, this was, I would suggest, at least as much a consequence of the musicological bombast which WASO bravely broached as it was that of the performers. Skipworth’s own contribution then can only be read as a canny compromise. He neither rejects these musical approaches, nor does he slavishly devote himself to them. I look forward to his next endeavour.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the WA Symphony Orchestra.

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