The way we were/are


Derek Jones, Cameron Roberts

Move Records MD 344

You’ll find something here to stir the embers of recognition, as well as music that is yet to withstand the rigours of memory. On this collection, five works embrace a fair gamut of contemporary music written in this country. Jones and Roberts conclude their survey with Richard Meale‘s Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1960, one of the pivotal moments in Australian composition – not so much for its content as for its language which informed the composer’s Australian colleagues that British bucolicism was no longer reliable as a reputable trail to follow; in fact, European composers had indicated a startling number of paths for the open-minded Australian artist, and had been doing so for at least half a century.

Next, historically speaking, comes Anne Boyd‘s Cloudy Mountain for Flute and Piano from 1981, a product of the writer’s fascination with Asian sounds – which focus she may have inherited from her teacher, Peter Sculthorpe, who visited this region in a handful of pieces, like Sun Music III. Rohan PhillipsFragment III for Flute and Piano dates from 2001-2 and derives from a larger construct, 7 Fragments after Paul Celan; I know very little of this Bendigo-centric composer, having heard live only his Meditations on der Krieg from the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in 2018. A close contemporary work, Mark Pollard‘s Three miniatures dates from 2004; and the most up-to-date in time, if not in adventurousness, is the Sonata for Flute and Piano of 2015 by Stuart Greenbaum, Pollard’s staff colleague at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music,

As well, Greenbaum’s four-movement work is the most substantial on the CD, coming in at close to 20 minutes. Meale’s sonata lasts pretty much on a quarter of an hour, Pollard and Boyd each a little more than half that length, while Phillips is almost minimal: his Fragment requires less than 4 minutes. So you have a cross of expanded canvases and smaller scenes to consider and, as you might have guessed, some capture attention while others fly past without making much impact on their own terms or on those of their listeners.

Greenbaum takes stellar inspiration for his work – well, three-quarters of it. Three of its movements are specifically connected with Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and the projected discovery of an underground ocean on that satellite; an event that preoccupied the world’s astronomical scene in March 2015 although, as far as I can detect, the hidden sea’s existence is still postulated, not a firm scientific fact. Greenbaum’s finale detours in an odd way with its For those in peril on the sea title – which the composer views as a ‘secular benediction’ while others among us are reminded irresistibly of Eternal Father, Strong to Save and that hymn’s association with the US and British navies.

For the first movement, the composer meditates on the distance to Ganymede: 628, 300, 000 km but you don’t find any indications here of immense parameters; in fact, the movement is a contrast between busy groups of four semiquavers and wide-arching lyrical stretches at the movement’s centre with only the slightest trace of the heroic but – for those who go looking – occasional echoes of Holst’s Neptune in a determinedly diatonic harmonic language. Jones and Roberts are well occupied, the former asked for a series of sustained notes towards the movement’s end, and the busy semiquavers of the opening reduced to slower note values in the final page(s).

Next, Greenbaum centres on depicting the moon’s ice crust: 150 km thick, The music is initially slow, solemnly paced and packed with low notes on the flute, silences, small glissandi with the odd quarter-tone. More agile measures emerge at the movement’s core but the motion remains sporadic, regular motion giving way to the opening’s sustained notes and pointillist breaks in the silence. This isn’t as brooding as this description suggests; Greenbaum’s moonscape remains placid and far from threatening. When we move seamlessly to saltwater ocean underground, Greenbaum gives us a meditative flute solo before Roberts joins in with a sort of ever-expanding cantus firmus which eventually moves to the right hand partnering the flute’s triplet fluency. Here, more than anywhere else in the work, you are firmly rooted in a specific tonality and the impression remains one of benignity – a fluent body of water but optimism-generating, not like that which faced Dumbledore and Harry when searching for the locket horcrux but more in line with the interior sea of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The brief final movement is a sort of antiphon/response dialogue between the instruments, its main motif a short figure of a perfect fifth interval played rapidly twice; it’s something like a bugle call and the piano mainly sticks to it while the flute has more liberty to wander. Still, the wind instrument has the last word, which is a definite exposition of the last line to each verse of the Whiting/Dykes hymn. This produces an unexpected sense of fulfilment to the work, the music’s action a reflection of the preceding two movements in some ways. But the reference also brings the inter-stellar ambience back to something more Earth-bound: a benediction on all humanity, it seems, not just cosmonauts and astronomers.

I’m a Celan virgin, never coming across the poet’s works. My loss, of course. This Fragment III by Rohan Phillips has a prefatory text: In den/verflussigten Namen/schnellen die Tummler. You can hear the darting dolphins, I suppose, in the highly mobile flute line; Roberts’ part is a gloss on the original’s two percussion and cello parts. Here is a definite contemporary sound with solo passages of rhythmic complexity and lyrical leaps alongside Morse-like repetitions, the whole sounding as if centred on F. In the end, you are impressed by Jones’ rapid-fire delivery and rapid recovery, even if the work’s intellectual context remains obscure.

With Anne Boyd’s Cloudy Mountain, we are moved to a world completely alien to the sophisticated modernism of Phillips. Boyd confines herself to a pentatonic scale for structural material, giving the piano some arresting arpeggiated clusters which later move into a sound sphere approximating a gamelan in effect – but not for long. As you’d expect, the flute has most of the focus and the shakuhachi timbre is never far from your thoughts, although Jones’ output lacks the Japanese instrument’s breathiness. But the wind line is a suggestive one with a wealth of acciaccaturas and rapid incidental notes to decorate the cursive melody. Of all five works on this CD, this is the most atmospherically pictorial with a keen delineation of Oriental sounds that could have worked as aural supplement for many a Crouching Tiger-style film.

As rubric measures for his composition, Mark Pollard set up two restrictions: the first sketch of each miniature had to be completed by the time he had made the tram journey from East Brighton to Melbourne’s CBD, and each had to relate to a St. Kilda Road building. Which really limits his endeavours because there’s a fair distance between Brighton and the city’s splendid avenue. So, if we take the compositional commandments at face value, Pollard couldn’t really start sketching until he hit some point a fair way along the journey. Whatever, he picked out his three locations: Sheridan Close, which backs on to Fawkner Park; a little closer to the city, the Amber Room in the Royce Hotel which is between Toorak Road and Melbourne Boys’ Grammar; and Illoura House, now demolished, which stood almost on the Toorak Road/ St. Kilda Road intersection. In other words, the three sites are clustered pretty close to each other.

The composer uses three different flutes for his collection: Sheridan Close calls for a piccolo (or flute); the Amber Room uses either an alto flute or a concert flute; Illoura asks for a flute with no alternative. The first miniature moves placidly past, its opening intervals expanded slightly as a developmental mode. I suppose the aim is to reflect the restrained grandeur of the building which has a splendid facade of almost Georgian regularity with a semi-circular drive sweeping into what looks like a porte cochere. An art deco ambience characterises the Amber Room and Pollard celebrates it with a breathy alto flute address, pretty close to the previous movement in character if a lot more smokey in suggestiveness.

Illoura House was demolished in the mid 1960s and Pollard was born in 1957. The place must have had a great impact on him, as it did on many of us who knew the grand old building in the years of its decay. Pollard’s piece relating to this declining mansion is meditative at its opening but gains in rhetorical flourishes, proving the most dynamic of the three pieces with moments of relative excitement, although the bookend mood is placid. All three of Pollard’s constructs are excellent show-pieces for the instrument, asking for assurance of output rather than virtuosity, and free from effects for their own sake, with only brief touches of flutter-tongue to disturb a surface of pleasant equanimity.

In retrospect, I find it easy to understand why so much attention was given to Meale’s sonata of 1960. In that time’s cultural landscape, the work made a striking impression as it broke away from the English pastoral mould, if not as distant in its language from that country’s more striking voices. But the spirit that hovers over the work is that of Messiaen, if truncated and with less emphasis on the ecstatic line. To give it due credit, the sonata resonated as a new voice in a pretty bland neighbourhood, but from a distance of over 60 years, its bluntness and insistence are irksome, the piece’s finale particularly grating as a sample of trying too hard, too concerned with astonishing the bourgeois.

Other commentators have made much of further influences on Meale, including Boulez. But that particular one strikes me as so much special pleading when you consider that the French composer’s Sonatine was written 14 years before 1960 and set a benchmark for flute/piano composition in rhythmic complexity and dynamic differentiations, not to mention instrumental potentialities and simple virtuosity. Even allowing for the Messiaen influence, Meale’s work every so often breaks into something that sounds very like plodding. Jones gives a careful outline of the opening movement but there’s no disguising the hard work involved in making repeated patterns interesting. As well, Meale’s preference for short bursts of action interspersed with elongated stretches, where the keyboard fixes inexorably on a cluster pattern while the flute enjoys some plain sailing melodic arches, doesn’t so much keep you on the qui vive but wears away at your interest level. Throughout, you feel the lack of the French composers’ sparkle; instead, the movement seems ham-fisted.

It’s brief, Meale’s second movement, in which the piano sustains a bass-heavy gruffness below the flute’s piercing arabesques. Here also, you sense a statement-and-response mode of operations in play, the interlude ending on a major chord, like that breaking through the turmoil in Act 2, Scene 1 bar 116 of Wozzeck. The substantial third movement begins with some bird suggestions in the flute line and a reassuring tendency to have the piano play a melodic line in octaves. But for much of its length, the work is restrained and very fluent for the wind instrument; in fact, it seems threatening, as near the 4 5 minute stretch where both instruments work themselves up to a series of strident climactic points, only to fall back onto the familiar meandering, before Jones takes on the final hushed last words.

Much of the work’s succes d’estime came from its final movement which opens with a Messiaen-suggestive piano solo where the Visions de l’Amen, the Vingt regards and Canteyodjaya spring to mind in turn, with a dash of Oiseaux exotiques thrown in. The flute is given to high bursts of energy, suggestive of the two upper instruments in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. And the work concludes with a series of gestures, each repeated four times, including the well-known high E yowls for flute. The music’s shape presents as primitive, the content momentarily arresting but . . . from this distance, naive. You can find much to admire in the performers’ address and confidence in negotiating this score which still holds plenty of problems even if the technical ones have been eclipsed by other more outrageous demands in the decades following the 1960s.

For all my reservations regarding the Meale work, it’s obvious that this CD is essential listening for anybody with a commitment to serious Australian music. The five works could not be more varied – a multiple perspective – and their interpretations are informed and make the most of the scores involved.

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