Satire in short pants


Michael Kieran Harvey & Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3457

Something out of left field here. It’s a further collaboration between Harvey and von Caemmerer; their target this time is religion, albeit only a corner of that substantial field – Christianity. Originally written for two pianos, this CD records a concert given at the Australian National Academy of Music on May 25, 2019 in which the participating forces were considerably enlarged. The composer leads the keyboard forces, seconded by ANAM’s resident pianist Timothy Young. Assisting on other keyboards are Sine Winther, Amanda Pang, Hannah Pike, Maggie Pang, Jennifer Yu and Liam Wooding. As well, this alternative version finds room for four percussionists: ANAM’s Head of Percussion Peter Neville playing drum kit; James Knight and Alexander Meagher on assorted instruments; Alison Fane handling the big guns on timpani. Alternating with the 25 music tracks, von Caemmerer reads his complementary poems. While these don’t appear on the small sheet that comes with the disc, they can be found on the Move website, if you need to find them; but the poet’s enunciation is clarity exemplified.

As are his texts, which are hard to ignore in favour of Harvey’s scores. Like the poems, Harvey’s 25 pieces are brief, several lasting a little over a minute, and their titles can be linked to von Caemmerer’s preceding theses. The compendium’s title has a sort of reference to Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, a monumental inspiration that Harvey recorded 16 years ago. As well, the pianist/composer refers to another source in The Book of Mormon musical of 2011 – wasted on me as I don’t know the work and am unlikely to come across it. This also is a satire on religious beliefs, emphasizing their unrealistic aspects, and that seems to be part of the rationale behind Harvey/von Caemmerer’s list of Biblical ‘errancies’.

Von Caemmerer’s principal source appears to be The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by American atheist Dennis McKinsey. It appears that much of the spoken material on this CD has been inspired by McKinsey’s publication or springs out of stimuli provided by it. At the end of the on-line booklet accompanying the CD, you can find a list of sources cited in the 25 spoken tracks. Very occasionally, the focus shifts from New Testament miracles and Old Testament history/prophecy to current topics put under a rationalist’s magnifying glass, or to simple instances of religion at fault. One you will encounter deals almost obsessively with George Pell, who is the easiest of marks when documenting Christian errors and a pretty facile choice of target when the CD’s collaborators could have gone after much more nuanced characters like Daniel Mannix, Norman Gilroy or Guildford Young. I can’t detect any time being expended on the towering offence or error in the modern-day Christian churches of paedophilia; you can write volumes about this sin/crime but it’s probably a big ask giving it any kind of musical correspondance.

In terms of targets, von Caemmerer selects an all-too-easy set of ‘errors’ but he also branches out into obvious myths as well as parables. So, alongside Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel, you get the walking on the Sea of Galilee; with the various versions of the Bible is placed the water into wine at Cana; against the feeding of the thousands and raising of Lazarus are set the transfer of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and the centuries of life-span attributed to the patriarchs. The impression is of a quick-fire farrago that also includes flights of fancy like the location of the Garden of Eden in Tasmania, the survival through two bushfires of St. Raphael’s Church in Hobart, the distortion of Ezekiel’s name to Easy-Kill, American housewife Diana Duyser’s financial killing thanks to her infectious pareidolia, and the estimated worth of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Some of this is clever; a bit less is entertaining; other parts are jejune word-play and the poet’s delivery is a clever combination of the not-so-wide-eyed innocent – a knowing Candide – and clever-clever undergraduate or Mr. Bean smarm. Luckily, it’s all pretty short and your hackles don’t get much of a chance to rise . . . the first time around. Repeated exposure causes impatience, for me at least, and I find the puns just not that amusing; reminiscent of re-reading Wodehouse as opposed to Decline and Fall or Lucky Jim.

Then there’s the music. Here I’m all at sea also. Harvey twins his titles to those of von Caemmerer; for example, the poet goes off on a tangent named Cheesus, where he lists various cheeses of the world and the breads that they could suit, casting Jesus/God as The Big Cheese, while Harvey’s commentary is called Jesus Christ? All right: not very subtle. Later on, The Miracle of St. Raphael is counterweighted by Belief in miracles; a later juxtaposition comes more obviously in Conversion Disorder – From Saul to Paul set beside the composer’s more unpretentious Mixed-up Paul. Which is nice to see: everything is intellectually focused and radiating around specific points. But Harvey preserves his mysteries, playing his satire very close to his chest.

Despite the plethora of keyboards employed and the addition of percussion, the Catalogue retains much of its two-piano focus, showing traces of works in this new model. For me, the most striking resemblance is to do with the physicality of such a sound, like the insistent jubilation found in the last of the Visions de l’Amen, or the visceral pounding of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; works with which the composer has history. But such comparisons take you only a short way towards Harvey’s creation. The first musical track, The Bible’s chaotic composition, is a welter for keyboards with plenty of percussion interleaving – cymbal crashes and marimbas among the mix. As for the keyboard element, this is bar after bar of double-octave/7ths semiquavers, the patterns pounding out simultaneously or at a short canon. There’s a relaxation into something close to swing before the opening hectic hammering returns. And its all over in 1’17”. The same pattern returns in the last musical track, Life after Biblical errancy, although more elaborate with the added element of massive rising and falling six-black-note arpeggiated chords in both hands disrupting the opening movement’s clarity, the whole sharing honours with a highly prominent percussive element.

The second Harvey track then moves into territory more directly related to jazz with an exploration of Jesus Christ? in 5/4 where the shades of Brubeck and Zappa brood over all with their bright wings. You get a same-but-different flavour in God’s Word where the initial time-signature oscillates between 13/16 and 11/16 with unsettling semiquaver rests in different keyboards at opposite ends of the bar and pertaining to different hands; all very disjunct but a cousin to the Mothers of Invention at their I’m-not-going-anywhere finest. Contradictions begins its deliberately disjunct path dominated by the electronic keyboards and moves towards normal piano sounds and back again, the performers not quite on the beat at a few stages; the effect is assertively querulous, if you like, or possibly just a brisk meander.

And on it goes – a series of bagatelles that rush past, complementing von Caemmerer’s texts in sprightliness and, like them, running through the ear and leaving not much of a wrack behind. Another separation of congruence arises by way of a delaying semiquaver rest, pages that suggest a kind of two-part invention that revisits its framework but piles on extra material. Even the various superimpositions impress as modified frenzies; striding crotchets against quaver triplets sounds harmless but here the interplay is close to impenetrable. A guitar-mimicking keyboard against a slow-moving regular base suggests Hendrix, but this is a simple interlude in a galaxy of rapid repeated block chords alternating between players, throwing you off balance by its carefully crafted irregularity.

You also encounter outbursts of juxtaposition, like the sudden burst of faux-Charleston that enters near the end of Bible characters, in the middle of a rigorous toccata. Or meet the ambling Gershwin-suggestive preamble to Injustice. Put alongside that the jerky pointillism of Science or creationism for which Boulez’s Structures could have been a progenitor. Or the pell-mell rush of Belief in miracles which again undermines expectations of toe-tapping predictability. Anti-Semitism, which moves with improbable rapidity and employs a suitably wide range of sound-sources, could have come straight from a contemporary jazz session, if only the performers had enjoyed an unshakeable sense of purpose. Then comes a track like Intolerance and anti-intellectualism which presents, at heart and like so many of these vignettes, as an elaboration on a rising scale (or note series) with a myriad of colours, some of which are definitely percussion while others could be keyboards with percussive capabilities. Whatever the outcome, the content is unabashedly clear and non-depressing.

Fake prophecies is a less frenetic construct up to about the 50″ mark of its 1’03” length; starting with a quiet murmuring complex, an increase in action bubbling below the surface before erupting into a vehement coda. An electronic siren precedes the pianos’ mixture in Predestination or free will, which enters its main frame with a kind of sophisticated rock rhythm, albeit one that is pure Harvey and complicated enough to scare off any mainstream band. Another side of the same coin emerges in Forty Bible errors which begins with a deadly predictable drum pulse that persists despite the fracturing that comes from the keyboards; there is an acceleration and a rapid dissolution-coda. Further juxtapositioning of opposites, Bible creation conflicts seems to have no set pulse at all, the atmosphere heavy on electronic keyboards with a guitar imitation leading the way in a tonal rhapsody; here the layering of sounds smacks of impressionism – a hazy oasis in a world of sharp edges.

We’re back to the virtuosic with Saturday or Sunday? bringing actual piano sounds into play across a typically chameleonic rhythmic sequence where syncopation rules. A reversion to tonality beguiles at the opening to Mixed-up Paul with a genial rising melody leading into at least two other layers that over-ride the initial placidity, both a restless bass and a sine-wave-type making for counterweights. With Fake Bible news, we’re in another all-man’s land where regular and dissimilar pile on top of each other; a snare-drum trying to impose a measurable metre is subjected to inroads on all sides including a cluster-rich ‘straight’ piano. Then Harvey returns to his atmospheric wash territory for Peter, Paul and Jesus conflicted in which a musing background texture is lit up by jagged piano bursts, mini-explosions in this ambience, all of them resurrecting memories of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke as well as the could-go-anywhere blurts to be found in pretty much everything I’ve come across from Bussotti.

Throughout the Catalogue, Neville and his percussion colleagues have been a consistent presence, rising and receding over the music tracks – and the spoken ones – with so much authority and idiosyncratic speech that you realize how thorough was Harvey’s re-composition process. In Control by the elite, the percussion elements dominate, apart from a central unit where an electronic organ rushes through what could be taken for a fairly static chorale, all things being equal in this febrile musical world. And the penultimate musical statement, Other holy books, is a fast gallop with what sounds like a side drum and wood-blocks setting the pace while a piano main-line provides some linear interest, if barely touching the ground.

How you connect the compositions to their titles, let alone von Caemmerer’s words, is every listener’s private business. The musical execution is generally exact and consistently enthusiastic, even though it strikes me that the matter from some segments could be interchanged easily with others. Always an exhilarating ride, travelling with Harvey, and the tearaway excitement of many tracks here is well worth hearing. But the intention of the work as a whole remains hard to discern because the 50 tracks rush by so rapidly. The creators’ stance is probably anti-religious but their focus bounces all over the shop. Hence my impression that their product is a set of short satiric gasps rather than a solid assault; a catalogue, certainly, but one with pretty short entries.

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