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.