Women-only outing


Jacinta Dennett

Move Records MCD 630

Australian harpist Dennett offers a collection of works spanning almost the complete gamut of contemporary local composition, including veterans Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde as well as younger (and alive) writers like Johanna Selleck and Alicia Grant. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, that all eight creative artists heard on this album are women; of course it’s of prime importance that we get to hear voices that have been/were muffled for decades by administrative bodies overwhelmingly populated by males, but a superficial bit of detective work shows that women composers can suffer just as easily as men from rarity of performances.

The way Dennett has organized her program is almost ideally chronological. The one exception is the opening track that gives this CD its title. This 1967 piece by Helen Gifford was a commission by the Melbourne offshoot of the International Society for Contemporary Music and it was premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 1968 by Huw Jones, long-time harpist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This is succeeded by Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ well-known Sonata for Harp from 1951, written for an appreciative Nicanor Zabaleta. A big temporal leap brings us to Miriam Hyde’s Sunlit Waterfall, produced in 1993 and premiered by its dedicatee, Sydney harpist Yuko Prasad.

From two years later comes Elena Kats-Chernin‘s Chamber of Horrors that was written for the Melbourne harpist Marshall McGuire, as was Eve Duncan‘s the sun behind it, burning it of 2004. Dennett gave the first performance of Jennifer Fowler‘s Threaded Stars 2 of 2006, a revision of Threaded Stars written 23 years earlier. From two years later comes Joanna Selleck’s Spindrift, also a Dennett premiere at the Third Australian Harp Festival in Canberra. Last of all, Alicia Grant’s 2017 Three Pieces for Harp enjoyed its first outing at Dennett’s hands in Bunbury, Western Australia.

So the CD is a compendium that takes in 66 years of activity in an arcane field. The range in vocabulary is also wide, but the accent falls on contemporary sounds – insofar as the harp can produce them. Fable proposes a tensile landscape, beginning enigmatically with some suggestive arpeggios, but gradually moving to a soundscape of contrasts where little is proposed directly, the writing is pointillist and shadowed, and the solitary patch of definite statement strikes you as something of a diatonic shock. Whatever suggestions of old-time stories and legends you are able to infer, they are definitely crepuscular and Dennett produces a shimmering, cloudy series of emotional gambits.

Glanville-Hicks’ three-movement sonata has three movements: Saeta, for that Spanish Good Friday drama-plus-depression outpouring; Pastorale, brief and appropriately benign; and a rollicking Rondo to bring us home happily. In fact, the opening movement is a maestoso processional for which Dennett keeps her powder dry until the last declamatory bars, the main body restrained and bordering on laboured with each semiquaver group that leavens the piece’s distinctive full-bodied chords enunciated with unexpected precision. The middle bucolic interlude presents as an appealing, calm meander with no surprises at all in its fluent siciliano motion.

As the finale moves forward, you come to realize that it serves as summation of its precedents, not least when the full chords of the Saeta return near the conclusion and the flowing 6/8 of the Pastorale emerges from the happy buzzing that constitutes the main chorus of this rondo. You can relish quirks like the quaver duplet that first shows itself at the end of bar 2, and the wholesale key-change that surprises in one of the interludes. Well, ‘surprises’ is an over-statement in a work that is harmonically pretty ordinary and winds up reminding you of so many British chamber works of several decades prior to 1951. The harpist again appears to be playing rather tentatively at certain points, and the conclusion seems lacking in finality, but that could be because the composer had second thoughts about the soft landing towards which things were heading.

Miriam Hyde found her voice early and nothing changed it, so that this gentle bagatelle will come as no surprise to those of us familiar with her miniatures from countless AMEB lists over the decades. In ternary shape, D Major-F Major-D Major, Sunlit Waterfall is a light study in placid semiquaver runs and well-primed melodies. Dennett has no trouble at all outlining this fluent blast from the past as another Australian writer externalises her English influences.

Two years on, and we hit a different channel of water with Elena Kats-Chernin’s essay in Grand Guignol. She opens with 12 semibreve-long strong chords; something like the opening to the Rachmaninov C minor Piano Concerto but not as harmonically settled. These act as a recurrent paragraph, interspersed with whip-quick interludes, full of effects that go a fair way to summoning up the intended menacing atmosphere. One of the most striking of these is a rattling caused by using/misusing a pedal. Yet nothing here is ugly; the restless arpeggios might suggest Hollywood menace or even shudderings, tremors of a mental or physical nature; abrupt chords with added notes propose uneasiness. As the segments, brief and extended, pass through, you are impressed by the composer’s command of textures and techniques, even if the horror is skin-deep.

Eve Duncan’s short piece takes its inspiration from a poem by Esther Theiler which focuses on the appearance of a poppy; one that is close to desiccation at the end of summer, it seems. The composer opens with a single note which deviates to a minor second, the dyad serving as a fulcrum for a wide-ranging, taut rhapsody. Despite its brevity, the piece makes a singular impression for its sustained atmospheric tension and its concentration of content, the whole suggesting aridity, a bare landscape.

Jennifer Fowler reveals a chaste methodology in her contribution, the most substantial on the CD in terms of length but the most transparent in presentation. For the most part, the composer spins out a single line which meanders across the full range of the harp, finding focal notes and weaving surrounding strings into self-contained episodes. This is carried out with an equanimity of expressiveness – nothing in excess – the line punctuated by an occasional added note, more rarely an arpeggiated brief chord; alongside this spartan set of limitations, Fowler eschews any effects, content to let her interpreter outline the calmly grazing nature of this simple, remarkable composition.

In her Spindrift, Johanna Selleck sets herself the difficult task of chasing an image of the nearly intangible: spray from cresting waves. Dennett shows admirable responsiveness to this score which begins with a scene-setting scalar pattern that rises and falls aquatically enough. The composer’s vocabulary is mildly dissonant in the opening pages, well suited to the prevailing quiet dynamic. About half-way through, the environment changes to definite diatonic harmony – E minor? – which lasts until close to the end when the mild atonality returns. This is an amiable work, as obvious in its intentions as Kats-Chernin’s frolic, maintaining its submarine murmuring at either end with a hefty dose of humankind emerging in the centre of this nature-scape.

When you encounter the CD’s final tracks, Alicia Grant’s Three Pieces for Harp, you’re faced with one of the most intriguing conundrums in contemporary serious music practice: a reversion to old-fashioned melodic and harmonic structures. The first of these pieces, Sea breezes, has more of an affinity with Hyde’s waterfall than with Duncan’s sun or Fowler’s stars. The rhythm doesn’t vary from a regular pulse and the work is at times almost operating on an Alberti bass set-up. More strikingly, the melodic material has a predictability that could be soothing or dulling, according to your taste. One of the Book 1 preludes, Des pas sur la neige, provides the jumping-off point for the second piece, Footprints in the sand: Homage to Debussy – which it sort of is. Grant takes the original’s minor/Major 2nd motif as her underpinning and builds up to two passionate climaxes, obviously finding more angst in sand than Debussy did in snow, whose work is a study in piano/pianissimo. Still, homage is not simple repetition and the Australian composer is as entitled to her background imagery as the suggestive French master.

Grant’s last piece, Ocean floor, is the smallest on the CD and it seems to be a digest of its precedents. There’s an unchanging metre, broken up by Dennett’s slight pauses to handle chord-placing challenges; the regular bass/supporting line persists throughout; the melody is not far-ranging in itself but appears in several registers; and you can enter at will into the composer’s vision of deep sea denizens, which seem, by the end, to be at work pretty close to the surface, like a Western Australian tiger shark or six.

This triptych rounds out Dennett’s tour d’horizon which is a testament to her promulgation of this country’s forays into harp music; a career dedication that she shares with Marshall McGuire. Her CD covers an impressively wide range of voices, offering (with a 25-year gap) a perspective of music written for this instrument by high-achieving writers. The fact that these voices all happen to be female is a considerable bonus, from which you can draw multiple considerations about similarities and disparities – and the fertile ground in between.

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