DANCING TO THE TREMORS OF TIME
Yet another part of this company’s dedication to the art of Harvey and – by extension – to contemporary Australian composition, this disc contains seven compositions of various lengths, the whole dominated by a Brendan Colbert work: his solid score from 2017 that gives this CD its title. Five of the tracks come from live performances, the exceptions being the last work on offer, Brendan Collins’ Prelude and Fugue, and a short piece by Elliott Gyger.
Standing alongside Colbert’s major construct is Don Kay’s Piano Sonata No. 9, which introduced me to a senior and prolific composer whose name has not crossed Bass Strait, despite a successful academic and creative career in his home state. Harvey has been quite an apologist for Kay’s work, especially the sonatas of which there are ten. He has had three of them dedicated to him and has commissioned at least two, giving the premiere of No. 9 at MONA on November 17, 2018 – which is the performance offered here.
The other substantial piece, Scott McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 – also from 2017 and featured at the same concert as Colbert’s Dancing to the Tremors of Time and Kay’s sonata – is another witness to Harvey’s role in promoting modern Australian work; in this case, the product of another Tasmanian writer. In fact, Harvey has given the premieres of all three extant McIntyre piano sonatas as well as the composer’s Piano Concerto in 2016.
Gyger’s D E G and the smaller-framed Colbert piece were both recorded at Move Records’ studio last year, while screen composer Elizabeth Drake’s Rabbit Song and Martin Friedel’s Vanishing Point come from a live recording at the Brunswick Music Festival on February 20, 2019. Harvey has history also with Friedel, having recorded in 2008 the composer’s main solo piano score: The school of natural philosophy. In fact, Vanishing Point seems to be the only other work for piano in Friedel’s output. And it’s the shortest track on this disc; surprising, because the composer’s intention seems to parallel drawing with music and that could have led to a wider-ranging canvas than it has.
The point that Friedel referred to is one where two parallel lines meet in the distance. Don’t know why, but that suggestion brings to mind Philip Glass – perhaps the railway line in Einstein on the Beach. In this piece, loud or soft individual chords alternate with frisky, surging note melanges that can be fierce or subterranean. At the end, the chords win out – four of them – and supposedly they signify the visual/aural point of conjunction. What stands out is Harvey’s communication of atmosphere, alternately staid cathédrale engloutie and vigorous tumbling across the keyboard. You could regard the piece as coming to its proper end in that the last bars fade to black successfully.
Next in increasing order of size stands Drake’s bagatelle which takes its genesis from an idea germinated for Caryl Churchill’s play, Top Girls. I don’t know it, although I do know its themes and suppose that the particular rabbit that this piece depicts is the heroine Marlene, the music suggesting her momentum now that she is on the treadmill that should lead to corporate success and familial failure. Drake sets up and sustains a one-note-at-a-time moto perpetuo that offers slight variations on an original pattern, notes accreted and discarded in quick succession over a pivotal ascending arpeggio figure. Harvey has its measure even if his articulation falters just before the two- and three-minute marks, and some unintended notes are struck in the last bars – at least, I think they’re due to fatigue and are not late introductions of a harmonic complication.
Drake’s language here is indebted to the Minimalists, although her fabric is not that seamless in that her deviations are apparent and the repetition does not atrophy our aural perception potential. In this CD’s context, it seems like an oddity. Indeed, it has a striking counterpart in Gyger’s birthday present to his father D (David) E (Elliott) G (Gyger) which takes the three designated notes of the dedicatee’s initials as a fulcrum, as well as what the composer calls ‘a cypher of his full name’ – whatever that may be. As promised, this piece unfolds in a series of episodes, presumably character-filled vignettes, the whole quite impressionistic, gliding rather than stating, and the personality sketch is almost uninterruptedly gentle and even-tempered.
It’s at about this stage that you are struck by this CD’s subheading: Surrealist piano music from Australia’s east coast. To this point, have we been confronted by anything suggesting musical surrealism? Well, the Friedel seems a possible candidate, if a rather bare-boned one. Drake’s rabbit involved in irregular wheel running is more metaphoric than anything else, while Gyger’s musical portrait doesn’t seem to fit into the surreal category at all. Mind you, there is a direct correlation between surrealist art and music in the disc’s major work, but that seems to be a case of packing all your titular eggs into one basket.
The Prelude and Fugue by Collins has its roots in both the formal structure that we have come to love from Bach’s time on. Both parts are hugely indebted to jazz, mainly through syncopation for the prelude and melody shape for the fugue which, as the composer says elsewhere, is indebted in its subject to Scott Joplin as well as mirroring the American master in its buoyancy of progress. Once more, you wonder about the surrealist aspect of these happy and/or exuberant pages which go no further than their surface. In C minor, the prelude uses its material adroitly, juxtaposing short chords with at least two fluent melodic shapes, while the B flat Major fugue happily piles on the lines so that even Harvey has to give himself the shortest of breaks between bars when the intermeshing becomes hefty. But Collins doesn’t aim for density and both parts of this construct radiate good humour, even some wit.
Kay has given his sonata a subtitle: the call. It’s an easily recognized compositional tic – or, in this case, two of them. The composer specifies an ascending octave falling back a second as an ‘appeal’ motif; later, a descending minor third becomes a bird-call which takes on high significance in the work’s later pages. The ‘resolute’ first movement sets up a series of motifs, some of them post-Debussyan in delicacy, others more aggressive to the point of whip-sharpness, although the opening waltz-time bars recur as anchor-points. While the harmonic vocabulary seems wide-ranging, in fact Kay is not afraid to utilise pedal points both upper and lower, and crisp turns of phrase that recall Scarlatti sonatas.
But the movement is highly discursive with some perplexing detours to complement the repetitions of key material, in particular an emphatically diatonic phrase that inserts some placidity into an often hard-edged set of spasmodic outbursts. As the work’s three movements are played through without a break, I found it hard to determine when the second ‘tenderly’ one began – it seemed to be pretty brief – but the finale bursts in about 4 minutes from the end with an emphatic hammering that marks a new sonic canvas in which the bird-call has high prominence to the point where it has the sonata’s last word.
Harvey’s performance shows sympathy with the score’s jumps between styles of attack and abrupt bursts of energy that don’t seem capable of sustaining themselves. You can hear an error or two where a note is added where not required. Still, the sonata has an idiosyncratic voice: not exploitative of piano sound production resources, combining digression with argument-by-statement, weighty in its intentions but demonstrating aspiration more than achievement.
In contrast, McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 sounds more daring, disjointed, and searching for textural interest from the start. The work is split into four segments: Prelude, Toccata, Interlude, Epilogue and the demarcations present a test in awareness of where the music is heading and whether or not it’s reached its destination. The opening pages are strong on sustained notes and the manufacture of harmonic resonances; it sounds like the player is directed to hold down a note while the other hand rages around setting up sympathetic vibrations. McIntyre’s work is riddled with percussive sprays, particularly from the upper reaches, which makes for a music that is constantly on the aural attack.
I think the Toccata begins at about the 5’45” mark where the texture becomes pointillistic but spiky, more so than it has been up to this point. Any transition into the Interlude is difficult to pinpoint; when you believe that the acrobatics have stopped, they are set off again and the third movement presents as – eventually – more assertive than anything heard so far. It’s all wonderful exercise for Harvey who rollicks through the work and generates some splendid bass rumbles against angular vaults in his right hand.
I feel safe in pointing to about the 12′ 15″ point for the transition to McIntyre’s passive Epilogue where the aggression dissipates and you are left with a benign, sotto voce soundscape that drifts to an unexpectedly moving, very soft ending. As a contribution to advancing the piano’s possibilities, it impresses for its investigation of techniques, a remarkable realization of building and releasing tension, an abstractness in that any extra-musical factors are eschewed, and its fitness for purpose: displaying Harvey’s prowess as executant and interpreter, albeit one who follows his own path at the same time as negotiating yours.
Colbert’s massive construct takes its title from a 2004 painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson in which six nude pod-conglomerates hang in space below two fang-like stalactites. Are the bodies dancing? Is the landscape packed with trembling? Your intimation is as good as anybody’s; much more than mine. But the association – obviously clear for Colbert – is amplified by two quotations with which the composer extends his vision. One comes from that poor bastard Seneca – who’d be a tutor? – and it concerns the human life span, observing that the only definite/reliable element in it is the past. The other comes from David Bowie, who sees Time as a deceit for all of us. So far, so old-fashioned Cynic. Will these pictorial and philosophic lead-ins take us anywhere? My experience is that they are soon forgotten; your experience may well be more informed.
The dancing of this work is probably intellectual, not boots on barn floors or slippers in ballrooms. Colbert begins with short spasms, sustained bands punctuated by abrupt flurries that introduce the composer’s trademark penchant for rhythmic subdivisions: three quavers in the time of two, for example. It might be a dynamically quiet start but the work is on the move, growing in contrapuntal density as both Harvey’s hands engage in a long-term duel loaded with mirrorings and interchanges while the short bursts and isolated intervals or chords expand into two-part dialogues.
Mind you, these conversations between lines are impossible to untangle, particularly in the long central argument of the work where the performer presents a mind-sharpening onslaught of material, brilliantly executed in the sense that the output sparkles: a real dance and one in occasional danger of spilling over into confusion. Although the score closes placidly – Colbert and Gleeson’s mutual vision vanishing into the ether – the path to this resolution is a thorny one, if not as symphonically stormy as the artwork delineates.
Previous experience with Colbert’s products may prepare you for his complexity of thought. His music has no compromises and reminds me of nothing so much as a sensible Fernyhough; in the Australian’s work, the flourishes lead onward, while the British/American writer dazzles in the moment. If you had time and inclination, this music could be analysed and decanted of its mysteries, although the process in this case would distract from the score’s pivotal exuberance. It makes a startling, exhausting opening track on this CD, and it overshadows most of what comes after – or perhaps that’s just my own predilection for work that asks for sustained concentration from an audience.
Dancing to the Tremors of Time is a stand-out contribution to this country’s piano literature. It was tailored for Harvey and gives ample room for the display of his extraordinary brilliance in interpreting contemporary music that makes high demands. So you would be hard pressed to find other pianists capable of mastering its multiple tests. Haydn Reeder, Danae Killian and Peter Dumsday have given premieres of some of Colbert’s solo piano pieces over the past near-three decades but Harvey has set a standard for the composer’s recent works that I suspect will remain unchallenged for some time.