Sweet and low


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.

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