Original works that breathe

BASS INSTINCTS

Alicia Crossley

Move Records MCD 624

Straight on the heels of percussionist Claire Edwardes‘ new CD of works by female Australian composers comes this publication by Alicia Crossley of bass recorder compositions, again all by Australian women composers. There’s only one common element: Alice Chance whose Mirroring appears on the Edwardes disc, and a mutation called Inhaltations stands at the centre of Crossley’s production. The other names that Crossley promotes are Holly Harrison, Fiona Hill, Anne Boyd, Lisa Cheney, Amanda Cole and Jessica Wells. As far as I can tell, all of these are Sydney composers except Lisa Cheney, who is Melbourne-based. But it’s no good being absolute about this; you can check up on contradictory websites and information sources and still not wind up with the right facts; least of all in a these chop-me-change-you years where personal movement is hard to detect.

This CD moves into more advanced compositional territory than Edwardes’ recent product. Three of the works involve electronics, one allies itself to percussion, wind chimes appear in another and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet stars in Chance’s work. Spending far too long chasing down information, I’ve come to the conclusion that all these pieces were probably commissioned by Crossley, although I can only swear to four of them being so blessed. As for their dating, three of them are definitely 2021 while the others are probably from that year. Thanks to Move Records’ promotion of local writers, I’ve come across isolated works by most of these composers – many more in the case of veteran Boyd – and traces remain of other pieces that came to the fore in concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when in Cybec-modern mode, also at the occasional Musica Viva recital, and even one score heard during the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

It’s a hard ask for these writers. Even allowing for Crossley’s skill, her instrument is a limited one with a range of two octaves; hence, I suppose, the fact that only one work is for the bass recorder alone and unadorned. Everybody except Lisa Cheney has looked at opportunities for expansion. But this one unadorned work, Before You, is one of the more affecting offerings on this disc. As I understand, it’s a love-song to the composer’s newly-born baby daughter, Nora. The piece is not all slow-moving lullaby material but has some deftly-placed emphatic plosions and root-forming repeated notes, even some double stops (note plus humming?), and a touchingly curved lyrical section before the final monotone tattoo. It’s a strange and imprecise ambience we’re offered, where uncertainty and affirmation sit alongside each other: a fine summation of parenthood, in other words.

Slightly more varied in its instrumental source material, Anne Boyd’s Alhekulyele brings wind chimes into the mix. This piece revolves around illustrator and Aboriginal rights activist Olive Pink and the Botanical Garden that she established in Alice Springs, from which in her latter years she would watch the sun set on Mt. Gillen, the imposed name of Alhrkulyele. Boyd presents the work as both a meditation and a dance; as far as I can see, the dance reference doesn’t start until about the two-thirds point, the preceding material presenting an aural scene all too easily transferred into one’s preconceptions of the continent’s centre. The percussion element is introduced at various points, serving as aural brackets, while the recorder is gifted with a long, going-nowhere melodic line, interrupted by over-blowing passages that imitate the same effect on a didjeridu.

Again, Boyd uses a double-stop-producing technique which could involve breathing and/or fingering in a specific manner, such as we have come to know and love from contemporary flautists, the rot setting in (for me, at least) with the recordings of the incomparable Severino Gazzelloni. The dance segment is a piece of pattern-play that would probably not appeal to many choreographers because it stops and starts at its own sweet will, although the full and partial repetitions are suggestive of similar essays from Antill to Sculthorpe.

Beginning the CD is Holly Harrison’s Sylvan, a three-movement suite with erotic overtones. In the first, Crossley works in partnership with percussionist Joshua Hill on hand drums to show the woodwind instrument as a cool-eyed vamp, starting her act slowly and gradually rising to a jazz- and Latin-inflected climax. This is a deft piece of construction for its crescendo shape and for the juxtaposition of the recorder’s breathy sound quality against Hill’s snappy percussion. In the second movement, Harrison moves to a recorder-marimba partnership which pursues another cool jazz path; nothing over-aggressive but plenty of mild effects like small glissandi, breaths, flutter-tonguing, the whole capped by a moody, vibrato-rich coda. Hill’s marimba also works hard in the final piece which follows another catchy Latin rhythm but with more instrumental interweaving and a mid-way switch to a soft tinkling underpinning which suggests a cymbal used carefully, content to stay in the background of Crossley’s syncopated flights.

This is a fine opening as Harrison takes Crossley’s disc title and pursues one of its suggestions, if you allow ‘bass’ to become ‘base’. Still, Harrison’s communications of an earthy compositional stratum remain above the aesthetic navel and the suite suggests diversion rather than full-blown engagement.

Alice Chance’s Inhaltations – a cross between ‘inhale’ and ‘exaltation’ – is proposed as yet another dance, this one for the bass recorder and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet; the whole sound complex supplied, I assume, by Crossley because no other artists are listed as contributors. It begins as a kind of slow chorale with the solo (live?) recorder line weaving a melodic line above the chords – more an incantation than an inhalation. A few dissonant harmonies appear at about the 3’40” mark but the greater part of the piece is unexceptional and follows an orthodox pattern, the solo line eventually moving into the centre of the chordal fabric. If there is a dance here, it has the character of a slow-moving pavane, and the exaltation is essentially spiritual, not physical.

The remaining three works involve bass recorder and electronics. Fiona Hill’s Lost in the Darkness takes as its starting point a poem by a refugee who had spent two years in detention with her younger sister. The atmosphere is, as you’d expect, dark and mournful with many sustained notes, tightly whispered words, a light use of electronics which seem to be based mainly on bass recorder sounds. At the centre, the solo wind line tends to be more volatile and unpredictable – rather like the federal government’s treatment of those dispossessed unfortunate enough to wind up on Australian shores.

Hill suggests very strongly the scenario of a captive bird struggling against restraints, as well as the futility and endlessness of the detention process, particularly in the final moments of her piece where the real-time output is mirrored by an electronic sustain. This makes for a fine piece of polemic, to my ears: presenting us with an aural equivalent to the isolation and quiet, depressing environment of people like those refugees who remain in Carlton’s Park Hotel while a spoilt Serbian tennis star has been able to tip his toe into their world and then fly home to his waiting minions and millions. It’s not an absolutely depressing piece; the solo line has many flights of restlessness and agitation. But the imprisoned spirit that it represents finds no way out – just a sustained, floating changelessness.

Microtones make a basic element in Amanda Cole’s Vibration Meditation which is focused on changes in timbre and production techniques more than rhythm and harmony which remain unadventurous across the work’s breadth. While the sustained electronic notes and chords give a certain weight to the score’s progress, the live recorder line holds the really interesting elements as Crossley employs pretty much all the same techniques as her colleagues, and then some. Her variation comes in that exposed line’s fluency, it seems to me, and not in the material itself which is content with a comfortable diatonic repetition – slowly altered, yet the same elements are sustained.

The CD’s last track has a schizoid form: The Clockmaker on the sleeve, The Clock in the booklet. It opens with electronic tick-tocks and a soft but perky recorder line, punctuated by percussive interpolations as the rhythm moves in a five/six alternating pattern. In fact, the electronic percussion takes on major importance with a sonorous passage for bell sounds and notes reminiscent of a steel band. Then the rhythmic insistence stops for a kind of free-wheeling lyric line supported by sonorous sound bands, before the ticking recurs and a faster tempo obtains as the composer revisits her initial material, although the electronic support is here more richly coloured. While the live recorder performs a sort of dribbling-away sign-off, the background persists in its energy until it fades into the distance.

This final piece has claims to being the disc’s most solid example of physical replication. Like many of its companions, The Clockmaker uses the bass recorder’s compass with a specific determination to display its timbral qualities, although this composer avoids most of the sound-production techniques brought into play by others with a more adventurous bent. All nine tracks show a musical world that is essentially soft-voiced and inferential – a circumscribed ambience with smooth edges. It soothes but is intriguing enough to engross rather than working as an aural narcotic.

Sweet and low

RHYTHMS OF CHANGE

Claire Edwardes

Move Records MD 3459

Of course, percussionist Edwardes is speaking of changing rhythms – the shifts in beat and pulse that Stravinsky and Bartok gifted us in the first half of the 20tm century, to the point where a predictable metre that lasts unchanged throughout a contemporary piece of music can be regarded as a failure of invention and/or imagination. Some regard it as a reassurance, to have the time signature stand as a monolith; if it was good enough for Paisiello, surely it’s good enough for us? More importantly, Edwardes is talking about something like a change in performance aesthetic. Each of the nine works performed on this CD has been commissioned by Edwardes from seven female composers, a result of the performer realizing how male-centric is (was?) the nature of her repertoire. These writers are Maria Grenfell, Ella Macens (two works) Alice Chance, Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Elena Kats-Chernin (two works), and Anne Cawrse.

This is an interesting list; certainly for me because, Kats-Chernin apart, I don’t know any of them. Grenfell is currently a Hobart academic; Macens appears to be centred in Sydney where the bulk of her work is commissioned and performed; ditto Chance; the same with Polias; van Reyk breaks this mould by living in Newcastle (as far as I can tell); Kats-Chernin is the most well-known and prolific of all Australian women composers and resides in Sydney; finally, Cawrse takes us away from COVID Central (or has that distinction moved north?) by living and working in Adelaide. The age range that these composers represent is also wide – from 64 to 27. But what about a similar scope in the actual sounds we hear? Well, it’s not startlingly wide.

Grenfell has produced a three-movement suite for marimba solo. Macens’ first work involves vibraphone and crotales, while her second is for marimba alone. Chance’s Mirroring is a vibraphone solo, while Polias gets with the strength through one more marimba work. Van Reyk joins the Chance push with a vibraphone solo; Elena Kats-Chernin hits the marimba solo trail, then gives us a vibraphone piece; finally, Cawrse’s three Dance Vignettes round off the experience with a marimba. Focus on these two instruments was inevitable, given that Edwardes’ prescription to her composers was that their music had to be for solo mallet percussion and there’s not much left – xylophone and glockenspiel, possibly, but neither is used in your modern-day contemporary music-making, whereas the vibraphone has been employed by some impressive big names of the 20th century and the marimba forms an essential part of many music-making percussion nights in this century and the last – as I’ve found out to my cost.

Edwardes delivers Maria Grenfell’s Stings and Wings with assurance and a keen eye for its humour. The three movements – Jack Jumper, Dragonfly, Moth Hunt – depict insects with an attractive deftness, each presenting us with a motif or two and demonstrating the composer’s good husbandry with her material, be it a rising Major 2nd chord punctuating a syncopated murmuring, rapidly repeated notes and chords, a happily urgent single-note pattern that transforms into a melody but continuously returns to its original shape. The central piece interests for its middle section where Grenfell deviates from the expected path and works into more taxing, irregular rhythms and harmonic constructs, before calming us down with a return to her opening bar atmospherics.

As a job-lot, this suite is the CD’s second-longest construct but each segment passes with alacrity, the composer owning the inestimable gift of knowing how much is enough. While there’s little here to frighten conservative tastes, the work is an amiable delight – not too difficult in a technical sense but asking for a buoyancy of interpretation, here well realized by Edwardes.

Ella Macens’ Falling Embers refers to the aftermath of two bushfires – one that she personally experienced as a child, the second that terrific disaster of 2019-20. It’s a gently articulated piece, given a base by bowed sustained notes while an incrementally expanding melody in C minor emerges, vibraphone and three supplementary crotales making ideal complements in another work that refrains from mallet-crunching but sustains a placid, elegiac atmosphere that suggests calm and rest without a hint of any preceding terrors. Macens’ Verve dates from 2016; a marimba solo, it is skeletal in its matter but sets a few timing problems – nothing too serious for a modern percussion player, especially one with experience in Latin American dance steps. I don’t know where the title comes from; the piece is a neat exercise, if a repetitious one beneath the dressing, and happy to stay rooted pretty much throughout in A minor.

Mirroring by Alice Chance, a vibraphone solo, lives up to its name. Not that it’s packed with canons and cancrizans, but the piece presents its building blocks and plays with them in a glimmering sheet of variants, some of which you catch straight away while others nibble at the corners of memory. Chance’s world here is direct in its address but not strident, best appreciated in its rhythmical flow which seems to be continually on the move and not settling into a specific pattern, even if you sense that the pulse is unwavering in a subterranean manner. In different mode completely although having the pandemic and its effects firmly in its sights, Peggy Polias presents a vision of the COVID-19 virus as it attacks and recedes, eventually outfoxed by researchers and out-and-out virologists. Receptor is easily the most ‘modern’ music heard so far with a healthy atonality in operation, ameliorated by plenty of repetitions and textural varieties as it works through its four sections: Binding, Sequencing, Defending, Fading. This work’s last bars serve as a muted consolation, a soft requiem for the tragedy that many of us have faced.

Exploiting the vibraphone’s ability to generate differing sounds, Bree van Reyk exploits a range of techniques in Slipstreams, which revolves around pedal notes that last a bar while the fun goes on at different levels above them, particularly lengthy measured melodic chains and incidental, faster-paced small cymbal patterns. A harmonically plain work, van Reyk has also opted for an inexorability of rhythmic underpinning; still, the work is a sort of address to her younger self, focusing on sounds as qualitative units more than demonstrations of expertise or instrumental facility.

The oldest work in this collection is Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2010 Violet’s Etude, which celebrates the then-energetic nature of Edwardes’ daughter, a domestic presence as composer and performer prepared the former’s Golden Kitsch percussion concerto. A marimba solo, the work stays wedded to its 5/4 time-signature throughout, as well as an E minor tonality with modal inflections. As with every one of Kats-Chernin’s works that I know, this one is melodically idiosyncratic and deftly polished, reflected in Edwardes’ clear delivery, right down to the almost inaudible final gestures. Poppy’s Polka concerns Edwardes’ younger daughter and outlines the young girl’s day at school; another clever, almost facile vibraphone bagatelle, this time in A Major/minor in ternary shape, its meandering melody taking more than a little from Bach’s A minor Invention but the delivery packed with different shadings and styles of attack.

Last of all, Anne Cawrse’s three Dance Vignettes comprise the CD’s longest work: Meditations and Hymns, Fancy and Flight, Scamper and Scoot – all on a decreasing scale of length but just as atmospheric and as title-reflective as anything else in this collection. The first is loaded with intimations and imitations of plainchant, organum, tunes that might belong in a latter-day psalter; the whole sounds restrained and potentially meditation-accompanying with a great deal of repeated-note work and a restrained dynamic level. In the central piece, the fancy is light-stepping, initially in E Major and moving along its arpeggiated path with calm deliberation before entering into more complex rhythmic and harmonic territory between the half and three-quarter marks, then returning to the original 4/4 stepwise motion – the flight being harnessed at its end, or so it seems.

A fast linear duet finishes of the suite, the main interest coming from the combination of off- and on-beat accents, as well as the precision of output in a marimba piece that comprises two lines for much of its length, the 4/4 regularity interrupted by interpolated bars of disjuncture-causing irregularity, not to mention some brief glissandi near the conclusion. Scamper and Scoot serves as a happy romp with which to finish this display of Edwardes’ talents, even if – like many of its companions – it flirts with chromatic shifts but is firmly tonal. I don’t think many barriers are smashed through on this disc; even the more daring moments avoid angularity and dynamic shocks. But the final effect is one of careful craft being exercised, an overall evenness of temperament and address, the whole performed with sympathy and unfaltering devotion that speak out, no matter what level of virtuosity is required.