Sweet and low

WORKS FOR PERCUSSION AND RECORDER

Duo Blockstix

Move Records MCD 581

Despite the best intentions of its practitioners, the recorder doesn’t lend itself to contemporary sounds; that is, if you treat it fairly and don”t over-amplify it to a ludicrous degree.  Not only does it have a limited projection power, but also its mechanics make it hors de combat when considering harmonically complex instrumental fabric.  So it’s only to be expected that this CD doesn’t contain anything confrontational or challenging; indeed, a fair number of its twelve tracks make for very easy listening.  Even though the results sound pleasant enough, you come across a few patches where a sterner editorial hand might have been of service – moments where the fluency falters; not by much, but just enough to disturb a listener’s expectations.

Duo Blockstix comprises recorder player Alicia Crossley and percussionist Joshua Hill.  Both are Sydney musicians and, as far as I can tell, have not had much contact with Melbourne, except that Hill is a member of the Synergy Percussion group, so I must have seen him somewhere down the track.  Both are promoters of modern music but what they present on this CD is very comfortable listening and, it seems, just as comfortable playing. The disc contains works by seven composers, most of whom are unfamiliar names to me. Daniel Rojas rings some tango-connected bells but nothing memorable.  I’ve looked at the catalogue of Peter McNamara’s works and nothing springs out.  Julian Day is a well-known personality from ABC radio but his Five Easy Pieces are the first of his compositions that I’ve heard; very strange for a Bendigo-born writer with an impressive back-log of national and international appearances.

Damien Barbeler has made some glancing appearances here but is, like all composers mentioned so far, a Sydney resident.  Mark Oliveiro, educated in Sydney, now appears to be resident in America.  Tim Hansen has also enjoyed similar associations with the United States but his main area of activity seems to be New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.  Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan doesn’t fit the rest of the CD contributors’ mould in his origins but, like all of them, his career path has been – to put it mildly – adventurous.

The players open with  .  .  . of magic and realism by Rojas.  The composer’s notes refer to Llosa and Marquez, as the title would suggest, and the piece itself is intended to reflect an occasional junction of the everyday and the supernatural.  To my regret, I found nothing of the kind in experiencing this track.  It sets up a Latin beat which rouses in this listener’s mind the unexpected but ever-welcome shade of Arthur Benjamin and his Jamaican Rumba; it stays with the same pulse and the recorder and marimba ring changes on an amiable sequence of motives.   In the piece’s second half, a bit after the 4 minute mark, the players show slight signs of uncertainty – not with each other, but the progress of their individual parts.  Still, the 7 minutes’ duration passes by agreeably enough with plenty of colourful tinctures.

McNamara’s Duo Generere requires a bass recorder, marimba (both struck and bowed) and suspended cymbal.  The composer begins with a sequence of soft low-lying textures, then moves into a quiet development of his initial material; the instrumental interplay impresses as pretty simple and any rhythmic novelties that arise hold no difficulties.  In spite of its modestly inventive opening, the work is heavy on ostinati and the overlapping ascending scales leading to the muted final notes, even with some plosive recorder punctuation, wear out their welcome.

With Day’s pieces, we are taken into a world that is reassuringly contemporary and involved with sound manipulation.  The first gives slow-moving single notes and repeated-note patterns to both recorder and marimba; this pattern obtains for most of the other sections as well, with an occasional overblow or semi-tonal wavering to spice up the sparse Webernian atmosphere.  Like some of the master’s products, the dynamic level rarely rises above piano and the five elements take five minutes to negotiate.  Day’s creation presents as ultra-controlled, emotionally calm and –  as the title has it  – easy.

Hill’s marimba is rested for Barbeler’s Resonant Voice, but plenty of other percussion instruments are employed – gongs and cymbals  – and this complex follows a similar path to that of Crossley’s bass recorder. The composer has given a poem (intentionally unidentified) to the performers to ‘read’; their interpretation constitutes the score, as far as I can tell.  The recorder line suggests folk-tunes; the percussion spends some time mirroring the wind instrument but enjoys an exposed cadenza near the performance’s ending.

Some of the writers comment on the odd combination they are working with but the general solution is to give the recorder prime position.  Barbeler restrains his percussion part – or Hill does – so that this sudden solo strikes you as remarkably aggressive, coming after Day’s pastel shades and – up to this point – courteous support for the recorder.

Oliveiro also employs the bass recorder/marimba combination for his Auto Dafe Suite. The composer has produced four movements that call on various traditions or influences: medieval European modes, Malaysian kompang rhythms, Japanese sho clusters.  The title’s reference to Inquisition torments and the impact of Catholic missionaries and military forces on older civilizations is deliberate.  Sesquialtera Ritual summons up images of an organ rank although the actual sound is more primitive than European.   Rentak Silat Ritual refers to rhythm and martial arts, possibly Malay, and the effects are occasionally suggestive of a gamelan.  Iteration Ritual follows a repeated pattern, of course: a rising third, followed by two staccato explosions; Oliveiro offers variants but the basic path follows these two elements with a keen sense of suspense.  Finally, Reflection Ritual sets up a repeated note ostinato, then recorder and marimba follow the same melodic path under that relentless treble pecking.  The pattern is broken just at the end.

It’s an intriguing experiment and the combination of cultures works well enough.   One thing I missed was the composer’s reference to the ‘violent effect’ of Europe on Asian culture.  If anything, this piece sounded as though those cultures were doing quite well. But it is heartening to find that the fascination of Eastern music still finds a response in at least one young Australian composer, all these years after Dreyfus, Meale and Sculthorpe were writing seminal scores – Clouds now and then, From within, looking out, Sun Music III – that revealed a welcome preoccupation with our place in Asia.

Three Pencils is Hansen’s suite for recorder and marimba where the spirit of Les Six is alive and well, as well as the Nino Rota of Fellini film scores.   The Cartoon Philosopher refers to Michael Leunig and is a very appropriate jaunt, quietly syncopated but as innocent as a landscape populated by Mr Curly, Vasco Pyjama and a multiplicity of ducks.  Five Year Arrival celebrates Shaun Tan’s famous book that occupied the artist for five years; a long-note melody curves over a continuous odd-notes arpeggio marimba figure, the result a fusion of action and musing.  Finally, Self Portrait in HB is a slow bluesy amble that suggests a personality along the lines of C J. Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke.

The Duo leave the longest work to the final track.  Cutlan’s Affirmations, originally written for amplified bass recorder, cello with electronic effects and didjeridu, starts placidly with a phrase-sentence for bass recorder and forward motion gathers speed as the marimba enters.  Then everything stops for a flute cadenza which circles around the same notes.  The marimba returns and you become conscious of Curlan’s plan of opening his main theme by degrees, as the marimba performs a cadenza also.

When the two musicians are working in tandem, the rhythmic patterns are regular, but the work’s interest comes in these interstitial solos.  With the concerted passages – even in the final melody revelation – the writing is unexceptional, despite some supple syncopations and the surprise of the recorder’s last gesture.  For a good deal of time, you have the impression of note-spinning: the duo could go on for quite a long time manipulating a limited suitcase of notes without necessarily getting anywhere new..

For sure, this duo combination is an exceptional one in its composition and the confidence of its members.   Crossley and Hill are to be applauded for their enterprise in working closely with pretty well all of the seven composers and getting music out of them. Four of these works come from this current year – Rojas, Day, Oliveiro, Barbeler – while the other three date from 2014.   All works were premiered (Cutlan’s piece in this format) during a recital by Duo Blockstix on June 15 this year at the Wesley Music Centre, Canberra.   If you are after about 52 minutes of generally soothing, breathy music that makes no demands but just nibbles at your consciousness, this CD fits the bill.