Ecology meets the digital

THE GREEN BRAIN CYCLE

Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3434

A double CD, this contribution to the Michael Harvey Collection is getting on in years; I received it in 2018, I believe, and was daunted by the scale of the undertaking. To begin, you need to have some awareness of Frank Herbert’s 1966 novel, The Green Brain, which treats of a world where humankind has wiped out – or thinks it has wiped out – all insects. I can’t get a copy anywhere: Dune and its sequels, no problem, but the more arcane Herbert remains an unknown quantity. Not to worry: the creators here would rather you concerned yourself with their own production which comes in the shape of 20 compositions by Harvey and almost the same number of poems by von Caemmerer which have a strong link to the music in that their source material comprises the letters that make up the names of Harvey’s chosen insects – a pretty strict form of concrete poetry.

Having said that, further caveats and modifications have to be noted. All the poems are printed in the CD booklet. Unlike Harvey’s movements, there are 21 poems, von Caemmerer being sufficiently enamoured of butterflies to give the species two treatments; for all I know, he could be celebrating the semi-Rorschach effect of the insect’s wings. In the first performance at Mona Foma in January 2018, these poems were projected onto the performance space’s walls. Although it’s informative to have them supplied, they can form no part of the recorded experience. Nor can Brigita Ozolins’ set (in which Harvey and von Caemmerer operated at the premiere) be appreciated, apart from a pair of photos in the booklet.

What you do have to help you in comprehending facets of the 90 minutes of music is a pair of interviews by Ben Ross with the composer and the poet. Where von Caemerrer sticks to his brief and responds with admirable focus to the journalist’s questions and prompts, Harvey sets off opportunities for detours throughout his colloquy, some familiar from past addresses and statements, others unexpected and unsettling to those who regard music as essentially a form of aural pleasure. You can find soothing oases in the various tracks, but the whole composition is hardly framed to be treatable as illustrative or background music: that’s not Harvey’s way and he makes no bones about presenting his music-making as an adventure on which passivity from performer and audience is impossible.

In its printed form, The Green Brain is a piano solo. In this performance, Harvey uses various keyboards: a Kawai MP8 stage piano, a Kawai ES7 digital piano, a Korg Chrome synthesizer, and a Baldwin concert grand. This assemblage allows him a rich range with which to operate but, as well as the ability to achieve a sonic palette of infinite variety, the fabric, at various points, also has a vocal overlay as van Caemmerer reads extracts from Herbert’s novel. As he’s contending with amplified instruments, the reader operates a Mininova Novation synthesizer’s Vocorder function, which gives his output a disembodied electronic timbre and one I sometimes find hard to decipher in the general mix – although that could well be a problem with my sound system.

As a source for his structures, Havey prefaces each movement of the printed score with physical information about each insect. For example, cockroaches have 6 legs, 2 winds, 4 antennae and 3 sections, and the composer uses these numbers as a part-basis for shaping his movements. To my mind, it could be similar to the post-serial approach to creating scores where all parameters – rhythm, pitch, timbre, harmony et al – are organized by the book – after you’ve constructed your book, of course. But the process is not the same because Harvey’s creative process is so packed with energy and surprises that the constructional steps and formats become backgrounded, intellectually satisfying as they may be.

From the start, Harvey’s melange of sounds is close to overwhelming. A wash of middle-pitch white noise sets off this Ants movement before the original piano score begins. Under a series of Ives-like chords, the composer lays out a twelve-tone series in bass octaves, all helpfully numbered, but soon the piece moves into a less New England-angular landscape with a drum-kit underpinning (on a loop, I guess) that suggests both jazz and Zappa-like rock. I think an auxiliary repeated melodic loop is also superimposed while Harvey works through his original piano pages. Whatever the sources, there’s a lot of sound manipulation going on in this, the third-longest track of the album. The more imaginative listener could probably summon up suggestions of an anthill’s ceaseless activity; the less gifted can exercise their ears trying to follow the work’s layers which merge into the following Cockroaches – an electronic keyboard tour de force which employs several facilities for sustaining notes/bands, producing impossibly regular chains of single-note staccato, flashing across the keyboard with that agility you can achieve when downward pressure is unnecessary. Again, you can easily superimpose mental impressions of scuttling throughout these rapid-fire pages.

Grasshoppers involves an extraordinary amount of percussive overlay. I have no idea how this is achieved while Harvey is working through his piano original; the whole panoply of superimpositions present as sewn into the piano part with split-second precision. And, not surprisingly, the aural effect is of angularity set inside a powerful frame of unpitched explosions. In the Mantises pages, the piano sounds are set against another spectrum incorporating both percussive strikes and the variety of noises you can extract from inside the piano. The action is startlingly rapid although a series of pedal notes towards the end suggest the row from Movement 1. And, above all, there is an occasional striking effect resembling stridulation, like the guiro that cuts through Stravinsky’s ferment in The Rite of Spring.

It sounds as though Harvey is using two keyboards simultaneously in parts of Scorpions, which comes closest so far to an old-fashioned synthesizer sound. Yet again, more seems to be happening than two hands can accomplish, although you’d be a fool to underestimate this player’s legerdemain. The texture is multi-layered and multi-faceted, even if the whole thing begins with a simplicity that brings to mind Webern’s Variations for piano opening. By contrast, the all-electronic Beetles takes us into a more stringent landscape, reminiscent of a Bach invention for its two-part linear character – even if one of the parts has chord chains punctuating its forward thrust. This time, the percussive bite comes frequently from a snare-type clip that you think might have been keyed in to coincide with a particular pitch/note; as the piece moves on, the snap becomes more of a whip or cymbal and finally the dominant treble sound suggests a Mothers of Invention energetic rough-house.

*

In his interview with Ross, Harvey speaks of confronting certain problems in his career, one of them concerning the cultural character of the piano – his instrument. ‘The piano is like a real symbol of the Establishment – now.’ Which may be a partial explanation of why he employs other sound sources – albeit keyboards – to amplify and animate this score of movements. But he’s right, of course: the piano has been an indicator of gentrification for two centuries and its potential as a source for exploration has become as unpromising as the electric guitar – once a symbol of liberation, now a suburban lifestyle trope. As Harvey observes, every Government House has its grand – ferociously unused, if my experiences are any guide – and he is probably correct in questioning what the Establishment is doing with them – apart from positioning them as handsome pieces of fenced-off furniture

*

I think Flies uses the Baldwin for much of its length, with occasional electronic implants, especially a set of drone pitches in the second part that inevitably throw you back to the title and the insect’s talent for annoyance. It also features von Caemmerer reciting plenty of Green Brain text extracts, most of them discernible but handicapped by one feature: the voice sounds like a Dalek so that any minute you expect to hear ‘Exterminate!’ commands. Here, the philosophical/ecological messages take over, the final moments given to the voice alone. Onomatopoeia comes to mind in Bees where the workers are hard at it, Harvey negotiating a rapid two-part invention etude, taken at dazzling speed, with what I suppose are pre-recorded lines both supporting and interfering.

Without a pause, we are linked into Wasps. At its start and conclusion, the sound fabric is reminiscent of exploratory rock, even if that term seems improbable, the overwhelming washes bring to mind what that branch of music could have achieved if its practitioners had not become enslaved to the most prosaic and repetitious of formulae. It’s hard to believe, in the main part of the movement, that human hands are performing because the Presto marking is an understatement; here’s technical wizardry of a high order and – like Bees – unavoidably descriptive. Matters are a little less frantic in Butterflies, even if the shifts in timbre are carried out with remarkable swiftness. The only distraction from the keyboard lines remains a rising siren sound, kept at a subsidiary volume level with some white noise delicately applied before the concluding cadence.

Sub-titled Nocturne, Moths is the longest movement in the cycle. Opening with an intervallic meditation, the original score begins after input from von Caemmerer and you can hear that this night-piece is full of action with a steady pulse in operation for much of its length. Throughout, the underpinning comes from this pulse that weaves in and out of prominence with some strident action at about the 6’30” mark where the pace increases and the work takes on a momentary fervour. Three or four vocal interpolations emerge; indeed, von Caemmerer has the last word in this piece which sticks in my memory for its implementation of the (synthetic) sound of a West Indian steel drum. As an essay in electronic pointillism, Spiders gives you a remarkably vivid experience; every note slots into place with finely-executed synchronicity as Harvey moves across his keyboard range; these pages sparkle with spiky brilliance and a remarkable economy of material.

*

Further into his interview, Harvey observes that ‘A virtuoso is now an interpreter that lives off other people’s ideas and, in classical music, that is what is regarded as an artist.’ That’s how it is; unlike Liszt, the paradigm of the virtuoso/creator, the modern-day pianist is committed to interpreting the products of other musicians. For every creator like Chopin or Rachmaninov, you have an astonishing number of latter-day interpreters, all struggling to make a living out of nights of nocturnes and etudes-tableaux. Mind you, it’s hard to deny the title of artist to musicians as revelatory as Demidenko, Ohlssohn or Hamelin but Harvey’s point is still valid: worthy of applause as the finest virtuosi are, their efforts are not creative in the strictest sense, but reproductive. In which respect, Harvey has given us some memorable nights with his interpretations of other people’s ideas.

*

Another tone row is announced in the treble of the opening bars to Fleas; which is fine information except that the movement is rhythmically complex and multi-layered. Von Caemmerer’s output has been altered; here, he sounds like a countertenor Dalek as Harvey gives dynamic precedence to the text, although not always going into a holding pattern while the sentences last. Again, the impression is of flickering activity interwoven with an impressive set of harp imitations. Another attacca takes us to Ticks where a sustained chord sits underneath pizzicati that function like sonic prickles, restless and relentless. Suggesting in miniature form the famous post-murder orchestral link in Act 3 of Berg’s Wozzeck, Harvey begins Lice with a bar comprising four levels of the note B, then launches into a bewildering series of episodes where the rough and smooth are juxtaposed and jazz suggestions lead to passages where rhythmic irregularities flatten out and linear dollops give way to sound-bands.

Again, straight ahead to Silverfish that opens with a snare-drum compilation before pitched notes start in a piece that is packed with fits and starts of activity, including a plethora of decorative work. For the most part, this is a frenetic enterprise, its general tenor a kind of rough tachisme with short interludes of celesta delicacy. In Earwigs, you can hear several instances of Harvey’s facility in close-order pianism, one hand following swiftly on the patterns set up by the other. Here is another piece that melds a sort of heavy-handedness with improbably rapid bravura performance as its counterpoint waxes and wanes. Another contrast comes in Slaters where sustained notes interweave in a timbral scenario that is sometimes reminiscent of an organ like that in Ligeti’s Volumina, a kind of slowly shifting kaleidoscope punctuated by buzzing and loud bourdon passages in the bass while on top weave shifting string chords.

*

Further to his comments regarding the modern-day practice of virtuosity, Harvey says, ‘You’re exposed to a process much like an exam every time you present this music where other people pass judgement on that piece of music to see if it’s correct or not, as if there is some sort of benchmark for that’ – a process that he finds ‘appalling’. Which reminds me of an occasion many years ago when a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music spoke of regarding a composer’s manuscript as a ‘palimpsest’; confronted with it, the performer sees as through a glass darkly and is required to scrape away any surface scum and uncover what lies beneath. Yes, you can do that – if you’re insightful and lucky. But most audiences are conditioned to position themselves as arbiters in Harvey’s exam process, a lot of these listeners happy to have their benchmarks set for them by others, like . . . Harvey is right yet again, the unfortunate truth being that our current musical professional life is structured this way, with performers required to offer themselves up to judgement by working through works of mind-boggling familiarity in which the chances of deviating from the accepted path are all but non-existent.

*

Marimba sounds dominate the opening to Aphids, gently meandering before the Baldwin breaks into the aural scene for a moment or two. But between von Caemmerer’s readings come a series of electronic variants that suggest an amiable doodling that brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet at its coolest. Last of all, Mosquitos is yet another brilliant demonstration of Harvey’s unmistakable dexterity, a presto that never lets up, climaxing in a unison/octave flight that leaves you breathless through its sheer velocity. It’s a modern-day toccata in the truest sense of that term where the composer/performer takes you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you keep up with his mental and physical athleticism. It makes a celebratory end to this vital compendium which celebrates the smallest among us with a wide-ranging humanity.

Posted in CD