IF NOT IN THIS WORLD
Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Church of All Nations, Carlton
Menin Gate at Midnight (Will Longstaff, 1927)
This event marked an ominous date. It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.
At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.
Only one of the writers was familiar to me. Helen Gifford’s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch. Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison – are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.
Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips. This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought. Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.
Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix. From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen. Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.
For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action. While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes and overlapping timbre textures. For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.
Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench. Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.
The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic. This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis. To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.
Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos. It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived. As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.
As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday. The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction. Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.
Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres. Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate. In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.
Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord. As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.
Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.
Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together. Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field. The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.
Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches. Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.
The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’ Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief. To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it. In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.
Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary. None of the music drew attention to itself for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence. The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.
It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.