A wide-ranging revelation of self

PRTZL

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3447

Wherever you look, you come across Harvey’s name.  He’s omni-present in Australia’s musical landscape, even if he makes his home in Hobart (there’s a bit of mainlander snobbery for you).   For years, he has been a fiercely prominent standard-bearer for contemporary music – Australian and otherwise – with an ability to play anything written for his instrument.    Yes, he can occasionally be heard playing mainstream repertoire, if you’re lucky enough; at various times and places, I’ve watched him perform Chopin and Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven, usually to my enrichment.   Further, I’ve seen him improvise at some long-forgotten (by me . . . more repressed than forgotten) spot in Fitzroy, sweeping an audience up with overwhelming, seemingly endless cataracts of notes.   As well, he has collaborated to splendid effect; in my experience, with Slava Grigoryan, both live and on disc.

As a composer, Harvey is well-represented in the Move catalogue, sometimes juxtaposing his own works with those of other Australian writers.   On this CD, however, it’s all Harvey  –  compositions and performances  –  playing both solo and alongside some new- and long-time collaborators.   Leading the piano solo works is the solid Piano Sonata No. 4   A. Gramsci of 2018, as well as a Module Fugue from the same year; a Divertimento originally written by Anna Amalia, Duchess of Braunschweig in 1780 for a mixed quartet of piano, clarinet, viola and cello, is here arranged by Harvey for piano alone; in this disc’s title work, Harvey uses two pianos – one grand, one electric – during which he seems to twist himself into that shape suggested by the title, although why the word loses its two vowels seems odd – but then, Cage and Lejaren Hiller did much the same with HPSCHD over 50 years ago.

Harvey presents three duos: Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion for electric piano and synthesizer (Harvey plays both) and trumpet Simon Reade; Tubby the President with Reade taking up the baritone horn; and Gestalt Climate for two pianos, Harvey in harness with wife Arabella Teniswood-Harvey.    Then you find two trios: a salute to Deep Purple’s John Lord in Deus est Fabula for violin (Tara Murphy), clarinet (Derrick Grice) and piano (Harvey); Toccata DNA in a version for flute (Peter Sheridan), percussionist (Peter Neville) and piano (Harvey).   Last of all comes a quartet – Aporia II – for three pianos
(Harvey, Teniswood-Harvey, Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson).

On Disc One, the Gramsci-inspired sonata takes up most space  –  almost two-thirds of the total area.   On the second, the tribute to Lord, Deus est Fabula, lasts longest, with the toccata coming in a worthy second.   Two related pieces – Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion and PRTZL – are the briefest, both about 2½ minutes each.   To my mind, there is one anomaly among the ten works expounded – the satire on Trump which wears out its welcome, even though anyone with a brain would sympathize with its intentions.

The album’s opening track, Module Fugue, impresses for its rapid-fire elaboration on the notes E, B and F which provide the fundamentals across the piano solo’s length.   These three notes would be the module that Harvey uses for intervallic and transpositional exercise; as for a fugue, there’s little here that brings to mind your concept of that form, although the composer/pianist does insert a small fughetta near the end but it serves as more of a slight episode in the course of this construct, one that looks sensationally difficult on paper but which sounds  –  in patches  –  mellifluously fluent in the realization.  Actually, ‘slight episode’ does this brief fugal passage poor service as it acts as a momentary and slight brake on the fierce action that precedes and follows it.

The piece is full of excitement across its breadth, right from the scene-setting right-hand sextuplets that start the action.   In fact, the work falls into two parts: the first, piled high with crisscrossing meshes typified by irregular gruppetti, irregular arpeggios, irregular rhythmic displacements, irregular time signatures – all depending on your definition of ‘irregular’.    In this instance, the sonorous web that Harvey compiles is  volatile, but moderately so compared to what comes at bar 66 when we reach a stage where the underlying three-note motif becomes the basis for a percussive chord- and rhythm-play, intensely invigorating and packed with the composer/pianist’s delight in alternating time-signatures – 3/4 becomes 5/16, 6/16, 11/16, 7/16: all semiquaver-based but the balance is asymmetrical so that toe-tapping jazz enthusiasts (for instance) would be completely at sea.   Harvey allows himself some liberties with an unscheduled pause here and a disinterest in his own designated accents there; yet, as every time when he gets the bit between his teeth, the pianist carries you breakneck past his mini-fugue and into a rip-roaring torrent of fabric.

The Sonata No. 4 begins with a statement of Gramsci’s name where R is represented by the note D, M by F, S by E flat, and I by B.   I can’t trace how these equivalents were reached but here they are, initially articulated by across-the-strings glissandi.   Some under-the-lid work emerges quickly, but not for long; in fact, manipulation of the strings disappears until near the sonata’s conclusion.   The aim of this first burst of activity is to solidify the seven-note Gramsci-name sequence through harmonic manipulation, a potent bass statement, and – after a pointillist 8-bar flurry – across a firm double whammy in alternate hands before it is subsumed into the work’s contrapuntal workings-out.

From these initial statements on, the seven-note aggregation returns en clair throughout the one-movement sonata’s length, yet you find plenty of distractions/disguises to move the work out of the realm of spot-the-row/inversion/cancrizan games.   But then, I’m slow in realizing a good deal of what development on this scale involves, to the point where it took me several hearings to appreciate how much of the sonata is set in 7/4 or 7/8, and that the first of the many chord clusters that crop up comprises 7 notes.   You can get carried away with this sort of 1950s detective-style analysis, no matter how simple-minded, especially when other features impress so vividly, like Harvey’s fluency with two part invention-style writing, the jumpy energy that breaks in at the Vivace of bar 272, and the ensuing placidity of isolated notes placating the listener and leading into the timeless string glissandi of the last 25 bars to the sonata.

Why Gramsci?   Harvey identifies with the anti-Fascist Italian philosopher’s trademark theory of cultural hegemony, in which the rich have taken over the incidentals of  aesthetic practice –  to be specific, in this case, the piano.    By using the instrument at the opening and close of his sonata in an anti-bourgeois mode, the composer is making a statement about the abstraction by a wrong-minded class of a cultural symbol which can be reprogrammed by changing its use.   OK: I’d go along with that, as long as the inside-the-lid brigade had the same intention – Cowell, Cage, and the rest of the crew.   But it’s improbable that they all march to the unheard beat of a Leveller’s drum.  Not that it matters over-much: Harvey is exemplifying the essential re-allocation of resources that so appalled Il Duce, setting the theory as his sonata’s alpha and omega.   The manifesto is at the edges; to my mind, the true interest lies in the exuberant working-out in the middle.

As for the two-movement Divertimento by Duchess Anna Amalia, this is a fairly straight reduction of the original work with the interesting parts of the non-piano lines incorporated into the keyboard part.   Before, during, and after the noblewoman’s polite work, Harvey indulges in some extemporisations – not long, but energetic to the point of frenzy, sort of putting the 18th century inside a contemporary cocoon.   The repeats are ignored and Harvey goes in for a continuous accelerando at the end of the Allegro second movement, which all sounds as though he’s tired of being polite and is rushing towards his end-of-track explosion.   As well, he allows several wrong notes to survive on the recording, which can be interpreted as uncaring or bringing the music down to earth.  It’s an odd adjunct to this collection and makes no pretensions to much beyond the status of a slight bagatelle.

PRTZL represents something similar.   A player sits in the middle of two pianos (one electric, one grand) and swivels between both – sort of.    The work begins with one instrument, the other joins in pretty quickly, they alternate with bewildering rapidity and are joined by a drum sequencer about 4/5ths of the way to the end.   Even with the score and a pretty decent sound system, I found this hard to follow; after an orthodox start, the player seemed to be following  general contours and, although I knew two keyboards were involved, both timbres combined so that the desired result was achieved and perceptions twisted into a pretzel shape.   You’re not exactly bamboozled but your sense of shape is left in disarray.   Still, Harvey is noted for his individuality: not just putting a fresh lick of paint on works, but indulging in a spot of angle-grinding and radical planing as well; if he wants to do so in his own constructs, it’s essentially his call.

This work is dedicated to Hobart lawyer Craig Mackie.  The unkind among us might see the work as a reflection of the twisting and mental contortions that the practice of law requires, or the necessity on the part of a successful legist to keep several balls in the air simultaneously, never mind about juggling them.   Harvey admires Mackie, not least for his representation of Astro Labe aka DJ Funknuckl who was charged with head-butting then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott on September 21, 2018, for which act the penalty was 6 months’ jail with a minimum of two.   It might be an over-reach, giving Astro Labe the sobriquet of Lionheart, especially as the assault was not occasioned by Abbott’s disregard of the national majority’s feelings concerning marriage equality or by any other of the Prime Minister’s blind spots in social logic, but rather by a general sense of offence caused through the presence of the man himself – rather like the reactions among the population of Cobargo when Scott Morrison showed up.   Would you headbutt him, though?   Well, I wouldn’t take on an Oxford Boxing Blue, especially if you were stupid enough to square up to him properly.   Giving a Liverpool kiss might have satisfied your sense of hubris taken down, but it’s not brave.

The piece itself is mainly an electric piano solo; another of Harvey’s rhythmically compulsive drives, mainly in 7/16 with forays into 4/4, and it hurtles past with superlative performance finesse.   An ad lib short break for synthesizer drums is interrupted by two tritone-forming trumpet notes in the distance, and a high trill before a synthesizer bass explosion and, finally, the sound of a bird tweeting.   It’s obviously a tribute to the titular hero and may reference his DJ career; as a character study, it proves inviting but inscrutable.   Recorded at a live performance, the bird-song conclusion raised some laughter.

That deals with the first disc; the second is all collaborations, the first of them the variant on Kleinsinger’s Tubby the Tuba.   In its original form, the work was a piano/tuba duet, but here the brass instrument is a baritone horn (Simon Reade) which manages the original line with a few octave transpositions.   Its opening suggests The Star Spangled Banner but that melodic contour disappears quickly as the work follows its sevenfold path: Come un imbecille; Ritmico, ma come una personna che non sa ballare; Twittare a mezzanotte; Rubato, osservato una giovane donna; Pesante, inferocito; A tempo, i farmaci per i cappelli stanno funzionando di nuovo; Coda, la vendetta di Melania. Some of these divisions live up to expectations; most are impenetrable, like the last section of all.  To ram home the message, Trump slogans – Fake news, Grab ’em by the pussy, Bad fire-fighter – are called out at certain points.   But the satirical intent remains obscurely expressed.   Not to mention the difficulty in finding material in a person who is a booby beyond the comprehension of Dryden and a yahoo mentality that might have confounded Swift.  As America is finding out with each passing day, the reality cannot be satirized: imitation is the only coping mechanism.

More serious intentions underpin Gestalt Climate where human interference with nature to the latter’s destruction is epitomized in the adjunction of two separate but internally connected sets of material.   Harvey performs a version of his own Module Fugue in which the various elements are revisited, sometimes literally.    In opposition (?) to this stream, Teniswood-Harvey imposes 3, 4 and 5 note chords (the first comprises the B, F and E source mini-row of the earlier work) and isolated interjections derived from the Module Fugue.  This might have worked more effectively if the second piano part had been more assertively written; as things stand here, Harvey wins all the attention, playing a mobile, dynamically volatile role while his partner is subsumed into the welter.

The pianos are treated as independent, although their parts are spelled out.  In the piece’s centre, they operate on different time metrics, so that the first piano occasionally waits for the other instrument to reach some sort of tempo parity.   Not that this matters too much as little relief is built into the first piano’s part.   Indeed, the temporal disjunction serves as a clear sign of the composer’s main proposal to do with ‘the concept of Gestalt prägnanz‘, so that the message comes across in aphorisms rather than paragraphs, especially as the work reaches its final stages.   While its premise is laudable –  to expound the huge problem between what we do and what we need to do  –  I’m left in an interpretative bind: the state of affairs presents as fast as well as furious, which could be the march of progress turned into helter-skelter, and the countermeasure speaks with inexorability as a possible triumph of nature or a Big-Bang Apocalypse.  Harvey’s work speaks in a language that is vital and anxious to a high degree; an uncomfortable if salutary experience.

Jon Lord’s name means very little to me and, I’d suggest. my generation.   His work is very close to Harvey’s heart; the Australian pianist gave the English composer’s solitary piano concerto its premiere performance in 2003.   In Deus est Fabula (God is a fable, Lord is a legend – take your pick), violinist Murphy and clarinettist Grice work work in very close quarters with Harvey through a score that has some of the most complex rhythmic structures and displacements I’ve seen since early Stockhausen.   The major part is as closely argued as you could wish, with some intervening duets for the viola/clarinet combination, and some splashy solos for Harvey.

By this stage, you should be getting used to the composer/pianist’s inventive tropes:  smashing alternating-hands chords, sustained pedal washes of remarkable power, time signatures that favour semiquaver patterns, unusual groupings like quintuplets and septuplets, delight in imitative part-writing (sometimes even for piano in this score), directness of utterance with little room for mawkish self-examination, bursts of syncopation that suggest bebop but defy analysis (Brubeck with his Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk are Stone Age vintage compared to this).   The trio is divided into your classical four movements, in a way: yet the piece presents as one movement.  The first division is marked with the Satiesque Credulita, con rubato; then comes a more ordinary Moderato espressivo, followed by Ossessionato, winding up with an almost predictable Impietosamente.

In terms of material, Harvey writes that his trio is based on the first seven prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.    These numbers can certainly be found in the piece but are of little help in piecing together the work’s progress.  By the way, even a tyro at this game can see that the first three bars of solo piano contain all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.   What you hear is a strident sequence of declamations involving all three instruments in solo or combinations before an abrupt launch into one of the composer’s trademark ritmico passages, everybody loaded up with tempo and range problems before the Moderato is reached and the instrumental interplay becomes less angular.  A brief Infuriati explosion of one bar leads to the slow-moving Ossessionato where the pianist operates on the strings, the clarinet enters into this new world with multiphonics, while the violinist indulges in a bit of overpressuer or grating sound production.   The players eventually reach the final merciless section which lives up to its name by sustaining a sonorous barrage to the end.  You can hear – even if you have a very limited knowledge of Lord’s output – how Harvey  hymns the fiery determination and bravura of the rock organist’s performance, if here transmuted into something more complex and intellectually challenging.

Deus est Fabula, written in 2014, is the second-oldest piece in this collection of scores which come mainly from 2018 and 2019.   The oldest track is of Harvey’s celebrated 27-years old (can you believe it?) Toccata DNA – originally for piano, and soon after appearing in this trio format; the work was subjected to further revision three years ago.   On this pressing, the toccata is a triumph for all involved, a marvel of synchronicity and a startling internal transition from a simplicity that is almost tonal to detonations of agility from each sound source – which, in Peter Neville’s case, is quite a few.

In format, the piece follows the segmented tradition that stretches from Buxtehude to Khachaturian,    It opens with a flute-piano duet that sets up a semitone nexus and shortens its note values to increase the activity level until a unison segment with shifting time-signatures leads into the active second part, the marimba establishing a a fast pattern of sextuplets with the piano revisiting the grave semibreve/minim ambience of the opening bars.   A new phase, Flowing, brings all three instruments into play together in what eventually turns into an atonal chorale with florid, complex surrounds.  The work reaches its apex with an extended Giusto sequence, piano dominated and most exciting with its ostinato bass strides and right-hand clusters.

Harvey points to two sources for the toccata: the opening segments derive from the Art of Fugue as reinterpreted by organist Gerd Zacher;  the second part hales from territory claimed by the now-40-year-old group Einstürzende Neubauten, specifically the song Z.N.S. – you can find it on YouTube although its relevance to the toccata is difficult to perceive.  But then, even when you’re given pointers like these, you probably do best to take them as indicators that may not travel beyond the personal; for example, others see Bach but I see Boulez, or someone cites German industrial rock where you hear Mosolov.   If this information proves counter-productive, listen to this reading of the toccata and revel in its helically interweaving strands as well as the pin-point accuracy of the work’s executants.

To end, the quartet Aporia II moves us into a time-honoured realm, that of the controlled aleatoric.   The title refers to a state of doubt – not just about the nature of truth in philosophical discussions, but also to what you think is happening now.   Harvey’s performers divide into two tribes – percussion plus keyboard, and two keyboards –  who respond to an initial stimulus, in 2-minute time limits.   Now, it’s always worthwhile being aware of how something musical works, particularly in the vexed continuum of form.  But, as Schoenberg (if not his followers) insisted, you don’t have to bear this knowledge at the front of your mind when you listen; it’s primary information, but it’s not primary to the experience, pace Die Reihe and all who sailed in her.

What of Aporia I?   That’s the work title for Harvey’s Piano Sonata No. 3 of 2016, in which he attempted to deal with a form of this uncertainty principle.   By contrast, this present work tenders a bare-bones explication.  The piece has four sections – pianissimo, forte, pianissimo again, fortissimo leading to a brief coda that diminishes into silence.   The initial material for improvisation comprises the notes C, A, G, E, D which also provide the coda’s elements.   Section 2 introduces B, F and C sharp alongside the existing pentad.  Section 3 brings into play the missing notes from the chromatic scale: B flat, A flat, G flat and E flat, while Section 4 is a free-for all on all 12 notes.   The player’s entrances are staggered in each part, although all are involved at a bar’s distance (each bar is a 4-second unit) from the start.   It makes for a welcome mobility for the performers, and just as welcome a comprehensibility for the listener.

Aporia II makes for a clever conclusion to this album.   It’s the most ‘adventurous’ piece in the collection, reliant more than any other on the creativity of each performer, and it represents the most challenging foray by the composer into a field that is completely different to the other nine works that precede it, and it’s the most simply structured of them all as well.   There’s something of an open-air temper to Aporia II, even in Section 2 which brings to mind irresistibly the world of the gamelan, with a side-order of Debussy’s Pagodes.

My gratitude to Michael Kieran Harvey for his generous emailing of all the scores played on these two discs.   Allowing critics to have access to your work is a rare characteristic among contemporary composers.   It’s even worse with their interpreters.   My only previous experience of this generosity came from Daryl Buckley in the years when his Elision group was performing in Melbourne and from Peter Sculthorpe, fondly remembered.   This beneficence from Australia’s master-pianist made the act of reviewing his compositions a much more cogent enterprise than it could have been, no matter what you think of the results above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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