The long and the short

NEW SOUNDS

Alex Raineri and Angus Wilson

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday October 10

Angus Wilson

So what do we do from now on? This is the last of the recitals in this Festival sequence – the end of music-making in Brisbane for the year . . . well, the production of music that is reliable, serious and regular by nature. Yes, you expect some other bodies to put up their hands to present the odd program, and so some of them have done. But we have come to rely on Alex Raineri and his organization to supply us with fortnightly events of musical value. From here on, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has the field all to itself as far as generating streamed material of consequence goes.

Raineri has a big reputation for interpreting contemporary music and his wind-up for 2020 played to this strength. The night featured first performances of four Australian compositions, all written by Raineri’s peers and colleagues associated with the avant-garde Kupka’s Piano enterprise: Samantha Wolf, Jakob Bragg, Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle. These works featured piano and percussion – usually vibraphone, handled by Angus Wilson who is another Kupka associate.

Agreable as it was to hear these fresh works, they were all – deliberately, or by chance – brief. So the duo gave at least half of their allotted time to an import in John Luther Adams’ ten-year-old Four Thousand Holes which requires two-to-six musicians but also has a continuous electronic underpinning. This non-live component doesn’t actually do much except swell and diminish, ending as it began after a half-hour-plus round-the-block hegira. The human contributors to this reading were Raineri on piano – staying at the keyboard throughout, I think, rather than making forays under the lid – and Wilson handling vibraphone and glockenspiel, following the composer’s requirement for ‘metallic percussion sounds’.

This performance was bedevilled near its beginning by several cuts in transmission: some of them short, then later dilating to the point where the broadcaster had to put up a web-site frame. After the transmission was completed, Raineri posted a tape of the complete recital for those feeling short-changed by these missing fragments. I dutifully went back to hear the first moves in Adams’ work – never look a gift horse, etc. – but this extra exposure achieved very little in my case. To be frank, I rather enjoyed the moments of unintentional disruption; probably a generational overload of Cage-ean yearning for any signs of Zen in music, according to which there are no mistakes or flaws, even if there are. But I delighted in those passages where the sound came back intact while the players were freeze-framed in action.

As for what the live performers had to do, the essentials seemed to be plenty of chords from the piano, mainly major, and single notes from the percussion, although I’m probably wrong about that because Wilson kept two sticks/mallets ready in both hands; still, it seemed to me that his function was essentially pointillist while the piano amplified the ongoing electronic stream with chords that drifted in and out of consonance with it.

Actually, the in-and-out breaths of this sonorous back-cloth became annoying, possibly because of an absence of variety – harmonic, polyphonic, rhythmic: you name it – but chiefly because the mesh wound up sounding like an accordion and, given the unadventurous nature of its construction, a particularly elementary. Young Talent Time-reminiscent one. You’d suppose that all these long periods of stasis would engender a sympathy with Adams’ emotional landscape, which involves the wide open spaces of America’s northernmost state, residence in which shaped the composer’s aesthetic aspirations.

Wilson used both keyboards, sometimes by themselves, sometimes at the same time but the chief memory of his activity remains those single note patterns. Yet, even when his dynamic was at its most compelling and Raineri’s chords ranged widest, the work’s process and progress comprised a haze, scintillations breaking through but not intended to jar against the prevailing sound continuum. After a while, you were tempted to abandon hope of any analysis and just suppress the critical, sinking into the repetitions and the glowing taped-sound stratum. All that was missing was a chain of visuals, like sub-Arctic landscapes of snow and ice-filled vistas until the instruments stopped and the tape drew to its elongated diminuendo conclusion (in E Major?).

You are in sync with Adams or you’re not; he isn’t of the same ilk as the big-name minimalists and ‘modernists’ who can often enrage with their futility or pretension, but he works on a Cinemascope level in which the natural world fundamental is idealised. It’s easy to go along with this cosmic humming, the musical equivalent of a lengthy ‘Om’, but I’ve been suspicious for many years of works that ask you to ignore all that you know and surrender to a benign intellectual coma. For all that, both players did the composer excellent service with a reading that outstripped two other recorded interpretations that I’ve heard recently, their superior in exerting personality and finding space in an aural area where both were difficult to achieve.

Each of the Australian premieres was preceded by a taped short address from its composer, most of them revisiting topics that had already been made public in Raineri’s interviews, published on the internet some days before the event itself. Wolf’s Bull in A China Shop set piano and vibraphone in bitonal competition, the most interesting moments coming when both instruments played the same melody line in their own specific tonalities – the effect rather like an organ Mixture stop. You were hard pressed to find anything aggressively taurine here, particularly during the substantial middle section reminiscent of Pagodes that moved into a vibraphone ostinato supporting 5th-heavy piano chords. A moderate degree of deftness appeared in the final ‘fast’ section that had more than a touch of Bernstein in his dance mode about it.

Both players worked inside the piano for Bragg’s Nest of gravel in which the sounds produced related strongly to the composer’s desire to suggest the granular and dessicated. Wilson mounted a slightly grating ostinato with wire-brush strokes on the upper strings, graduating from one hand to two in the piece’s later reaches. Raineri contributed his own bevy of scrapes on the lower range of the instrument, using a variety of wood and (I think) plastic strips as well as various sticks while complementing his scrapes and block glissandi with punctuating stopped notes. The physical presentation looked device-heavy as we were confronted with a wide gamut of effects. Whether the whole thing lived up to its backdrop aims of illuminating COVID-19 lockdown life and the constricted world of refugees still imprisoned on fast-decaying Pacific islands depends on your response to auditory stimuli, of which this brief score offered a sizeable amount.

Reardon-Smith’s three questions of scale appeared to be over too soon for anything much to land. Her first movement, three ants carry a dead wasp/east coast-west coast fires, had Raineri operating inside his piano with a long stick ending in a knob, producing single notes both struck and stopped. Wilson’s vibraphone confined itself to single notes. The composer’s debt to Morton Feldman seemed most apparent in this section. The next segment, the continuous trickle of my cat’s drinking fountain/the port of beirut explosion, impressed for its unsettling mobility. Here, the pianist scratched out sounds with two drum-sticks and both players interchanged range areas to produce a mobile fretwork of sonorities, Wilson’s contribution enriched by two cow-bells. At its climax, the work simply stopped, the narrative halting with nothing left to say.

Finally, mould growing inside an unopened tub of coconut yoghurt/we have all run out of medicare-supported therapy sessions saw Raineri at the keyboard for an array of single notes, indulging in a pin-pricking intersection with the vibraphone. The content of this movement moved between the frantic, including one wild piano passage, and the refined. Wilson’s cowbells weren’t struck but patted and tapped near the end, the piano mirroring this reticence with isolated blips.

These comments are quickly-noted gleanings from a run-through that left little time for awareness of much beyond texture. Added to that, you were confronted with the same problem as the Adams work presents: how much do you invest in any composer-derived information? Reardon-Smith’s movement titles split into halves where one is highly personal, the other broader in its implications – even the last with its reference to a national health crisis. But does either half help you to understand the composer’s intentions? It’s an open question to which – of course – there’s no definite answer.

Last of the Australian quartet, Rottle’s Public Figure springs from the composer’s interest on how personalities use the internet and associated media to make their names. Another score for piano and vibraphone, it revealed some early dexterity with both instruments playing the same notes in unison, then just after each other, the piano’s right hand and the vibraphone working into catchy off-beat rhythms before Wilson picked up a large string-instrument bow to create an all-too-familiar unearthly effect, then gave the same soft treatment to a stray cymbal.

Raineri moved inside his piano for some short glissandi while the bowed vibraphone helped generate a cleverly atmospheric interlude – soft, with threadbare action – before the piano regained authority against a brushed cymbal and, from nowhere, emerged a five-note motif that brought memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to this irreverent mind. I started to wonder about the tuning in some of the piano’s lower notes but was taken aback by the subtle, inconclusive ending: a parable of the quest for public recognition, maybe.

Here was an ambitious program, a striking ending to the Festival’s 10-event series. It’s hard to emphasize to onlookers how much we are indebted to Raineri – and his guests – for keeping live music-making alive here. With limited resources, he has presented a splendid variety of programs in which we were lucky to enjoy several excellent interpretations. This final one had the added benefit of giving a small showcase to four young local voices, in which endeavour Wilson and Raineri demonstrated an unflinching probity, despite the physical (and, one hopes, transitory) handicap that the percussionist had to endure and the shared necessity of coping with such disparate creations.