Calm if not static

NOVUM

Kitty Xiao

Move Records MCD 562

Comprising five works by Australian composer Xiao, this disc is a no-frills product with no information about the works themselves, nor any biographical details about the players.  What you get are a set of atmosphere-rich vignettes, mainly for the Nimbus Trio personnel: Xiao on piano, Cameron Jamieson playing violin, Jessica Laird working with the standard three flutes.  For the final piece, Solstice 1, Luke Carbon’s bass clarinet joins the mix.  I’d heard the first two of these tracks in a composer’s concert about 18 months ago but the memories are faint.  Incidentally, the disc’s duration is a tad short of 43 minutes

For some of her constructs, Xiao has drawn inspiration from certain photographers. The CD’s cover, above, features Australian photographer Jane Brown’s Bushfire Landscape II, Lake Mountain, Victoria, 2010 and this shot provided the impetus for the album’s title (and longest) track.  For this, Laird uses the alto flute, beginning with shakuhachi-type exhalations to the accompaniment of violin shimmers  and questing piano chords; a slow, adagio-style meditation settles onto a violin scrap that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dies irae plainchant, which mercifully moves along an individual path rather than simply into a straight trio setting.  The instrumental interplay gives each contributor plenty to work with, although the first climactic moments find the piano and violin almost oppressively in synchronicity.

Xiao is pretty conservative when it comes to harmony.  Structures are easy to penetrate and she uses ambiguous timbral possibilities with discretion, making much of the flute’s potential for plosive, breathy accents.  At the central pages of Novum, the movement becomes more insistent with a steady sextuple pattern from the keyboard while the violin winds its way above it, before the three instruments revert to the Dies irae motif and another Romantic stentorian burst of rhetoric, both violin and flute trilling over solid piano chords before the piece’s positive concluding affirmation that begins with a soft ascent from flute and piano into something approaching a curt hymn.

Whether Xiao aims to give a kind of musical illustration to the tragedy behind Brown’s photo of the aftermath to Marysville’s 2009 destruction – the fire begins, the ascendant catastrophe, a concluding consolation – is up to any listener to decide.  Perhaps the composer is more intent on suggesting states of mind, in the best Beethoven Pastoral manner, rather than launching into musical pictures in contravention of Stravinsky’s dictum about the expressive abilities of music in general.  Whatever the interpretation, Novum is an easy piece to take on board and has plenty of interest in its progress for any potential executants.

Nipper is a shorter work, a little over half as long as Novum.  Its title refers to photos by Walkley Award winner Narelle Autio; I’ve found three in a series but there may be more.  All are underwater, the angle looking up at submerged swimmers who seem to be wearing life-saver caps – which gives an added dimension to the title in this country.  The piano opens with some impressionistic rumblings and leads the flute into a long arching melody with a supporting commentary from the violin.  The flowing effect stops for what could be confrontation with rocks or a beach drill exercise for the squad.

Xiao shows in  the central pages of this piece a tendency, or a preference, for doubling melodic lines, which heightens tension as the texture becomes more driven and insistent. But the overall effect is summery, in some places languorous, with the piano always ready with repeated washes to bring you back to the water’s edge, and beyond.  Eventually the patterns take over and the work reduces itself to pure colour before a strong slow waltz brings back suggestions of marine power.   A Debussyan coda dissolves the scene placidly.

The third piece that has a reference to photography is Nimbus, the CD’s opening track, but I can’t find any such photo in the catalogue of either Autio or Brown; just as well, because this marrying of visual image with sound leads you to forget the music itself – which explains the high success of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music.   Whatever its inspiration – cloud or halo  –  this is the shortest track here at less than 5 1/2 minutes, and it begins very simply as a piano/flute duet before the violin enters in short canon with the violin.  The piano maintains the step-like pace, eventually moving to a less rigid 4/4-type rhythm, although triplets enjoy something close to over-use.  Here is another piece which presents no difficulties to the listener, although the intra-instrumental mirroring moves into the predictable, with a frisson-filled tension before a hefty piano solo/cadenza finishes the Nimbus experience with pattern-work that somehow leaves you unsatisfied; why, I don’t know, given the evanescent suggestions in the title.

Emei falls in length somewhere between Nimbus and Nipper.  This has a definite extra-musical reference   –  to Mount Emei, the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains to be found in China, an age-old pilgrimage destination and apparently the site where all that Shaolin self-defence business began, immortalised for some of us by the television series from the early 1970s, Kung Fu, with David Carradine playing a mendicant monk in 19th century America.   A flute (bass?) opens the work before the violin and piano enter playing a melodic line that starts by sounding like a left-over from Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro but more four-square in outline.  The instruments reach a climactic point which suggests Brahms before the flute leads into a new melodic stream, another strong climax before a whimsical pastorale in triple time changes the pace.  A further segment of strong unison work (or nearly so) before some discords and a tension-releasing D flat 6th chord signifies journey’s end.  Is it a travelogue score of sorts, depicting the various stages the climber encounters during the ascent?  Could be, but it does have the CD’s least adventurous score.

Finally, Xiao’s Solstice I, over 11 minutes, is the second-most substantial work on offer.  It starts with what sounds like some flute over-blowing but in fact signifies the arrival of Luke Carbon’s bass clarinet; Laird takes no part in this work.  At all events, the initial atmosphere is placid, full of softness and quiescence before the piano and violin enter with an open-ended theme for elaboration.  Several distinct episodes follow although you are hard-pressed to find much that is new, i.e. any sounds you have not encountered in the preceding four pieces, apart from the bass clarinet colour which, outside two powerful moments of full-bodied playing, can be all-too-reminiscent of  Laird’s lower-pitched instruments.  The violin line suffers a slight intonative flaw at about the 8:15 mark, but it also is given what I think are the only octave double-stops on the CD, and these serve as a  reminder of how staid are Xiao’s vocabulary and palette.  She is not given to rapidity or flashes of colour but offers an ongoing contrast, especially in this Solstice I, between feather-;light textures and sturdy declamations, although the former have the edge.  A worthy showing, even if the products tend to emotional similarity.

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