Move Records MCD 629
In a fortnight when the new Prime Minister and/or his Minister for Foreign Affairs have slashed their carbon-spouting paths to Tokyo, South Pacific khanates and New Age republics, as well as the apparently obligatory drop-in to Jakarta (when did Indonesia become [according to our gutter-spawned Fifteenth Estate] the compulsory first overseas foray for a fresh Australian PM?), it came as a refreshment to experience Melbourne composer Selleck’s new hour-long CD. It has an individual Asian perspective as its textual components comprise haiku and renga in three languages – French (along with Australia, a major colonial power in the Pacific), English, and Tibetan (a long stretch geographically but just as much a legitimate Chinese satellite as the Spratly Islands).
Selleck’s suite follows a Four Seasons format with a substantial Spring, a lesser temporally substantial scenario for Summer, then a minute less for Autumn and a desiccating two minutes shorter for Winter. A cadenza for shakuhachi occupies the centre of this foray into Vivaldi/Piazzolla country and the disc concludes with an instrumental Interlude and a valedictory Finale. The Spring movement was first heard at the 2006 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, while the complete score enjoyed a first airing at the following year’s Castlemaine Festival. I missed both performances, as well as the August 2013 city interpretation at the Melbourne Recital Centre which featured the three vocal artists heard on this CD – soprano Merlyn Quaife, counter-tenor Dean Sky-Lucas, bass Jerzy Kozlowski – and the Silo String Quartet. As far as I can tell, the Silos have radically changed personnel, founder Caerwen Martin the sole survivor. Here the two violins are Lynette Rayner and Zachary Johnston, with Barbara Hornung accounting for the viola line. As for the shakuhachi contribution, 2013’s Anne Norman has been replaced by the inimitable, ever-questing Adam Simmons.
Selleck is not the first Australian musician/composer/writer to be enchanted with the three locales visited by the Albanese/Wong circus. Japan has exerted a modest interest for some formidable names; well, I can think of one in Richard Meale whose Clouds now and then, Soon it will die and Nagauta balance the same musician’s catholic involvement in Europe with Very High Kings, Las Alboradas and Incredible Floridas. What about New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa and – above all else – the Solomon Islands? Here, you struggle, although Alfred Hill made a now largely-neglected fist for New Zealand – about as South in the Pacific as you can get. Indonesia provided an occasional mine/source for Peter Sculthorpe; who could forget his gamelan imitation at the start to Sun Music 3? Not to mention his one-time fiancee Anne Boyd’s career-long focus on Asia as seen in (to mention just a few titles) Angklung, Goldfish through summer rain and Bali Moods. These are names that were productive during my life-time; God knows how many young composers are currently delighting in the music of our geographical neighbours, mirroring in their craft the ways in which our local bogan-redneck brigades revel in the art of Ubud and Jembawan.
Spring opens with the quartet working arpeggios and a three note motif before Quaife enters with a haiku by Selleck herself that proposes a dreamy landscape before the mood changes to a more rhythmically definite segment, its text celebrating the burgeoning power of the season. Quietly, the shakuhachi timbre merges into the ambience in antiphon with the strings playing jagged twitterings while Simmons works through a brilliant display of sound manufacturing devices, Quaife declaiming a haiku concerning a butterfly by Masaoka Shiki, the vocal writing here the most challenging so far with a splendid juncture of voice-into-shakuhachi at the change of scene. Sliding high notes from the strings preface the final setting of verses by Australian poet Janice Bostok, translated into French, the voice almost following a single note as it offers the image of barrel water gleaming in sunlight – which brings this four-part song-cycle to a comatose conclusion, with a final sparkle coming from an uncredited bell sound that could have escaped from a by-standing set of chimes or crotales.
Selleck’s language is far from abrasive; indeed, her opening pages for the Silo strings work above a low base drone, her melody-making lyrical for the most part. While she makes her players work with production techniques that engage the ear, nothing is obtrusive because she’s seeking that compositional dorado of sustaining an atmosphere long enough to become comfortable. Simmons makes the most of his instrument’s capabilities, especially the wind-in-tunnel effects and the capacity for producing two simultaneous notes. Selleck’s soundscape, as you can imagine, sits in congenial partnership with her brief text slabs, suggesting worlds in sparse imagery.
Kozlowski begins another Shiki haiku at the opening to Summer, Sky-Lucas eventually taking part in a duet after the bass has made us comfortable with an imitation of our favourite family bonze. The scene is of suspended rains allowing ant processions to pursue their industry. In this segment, Selleck continues to follow an intriguing path between passages transparent enough for you to analyse chord progressions and other segments packed with vehement, jagged action from both voices and instruments. Sky-Lucas has most of the honours (and the work) for a Natsumo Soseki haiku, focused on the setting sun, where the vocal line mimics its own text while simultaneously expressing a slow mobility.
A series of overlapping string textures supports three lines by Bostok that are sung in both English and Tibetan by Sky-Lucas and Kozlowski; here is another passage that is diatonic-susceptible where the quartet’s behaviour suggests the lushness of Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica. Selleck ends her Spring with a haiku by Jack de Vidas that proposes a lover/nightingale pair (thank you, Enrique) singing to the moon (and hello to you, Arnold), counter-tenor and bass producing barely mobile lines above a drone-like (second inversion?) minor chord from the Silos and a few shakuhachi breaths for punctuation.
You could twist yourself into teleological knots by seeking relationships between the four poems that constitute each movement’s textual material in the vocal movements of Becoming. Rather than indulge in a search that in my hands would definitely prove fruitless, I think that it’s better to simply allow yourself to be led through each season and finale, taking the poems as single objects where the intellectual or emotional relationships are given, data that you can mould into your own interpretation. Certainly, my response to Summer veers towards the melancholy, if not tragic; others may find a sultry languor, or a moody brooding. All of which proposes that Selleck’s work is as suggestive in its multi-faceted emotional attraction as is her technical skill.
Simmons’ shakuhachi solo is a delight. The instrument is employed so as to display its abilities and potential, all the while maintaining its nationalist character despite some firm aleatoric writing. Apart from the characteristic chiff-attacks and near-overblowing, Selleck includes some atmospheric, small glissandi, bending notes downward to produce a series of plaints that reinforce my sense of melancholy underpinning this work.
Simmons takes us into Autumn, dovetailing with the Silos in brief fragments and, eventually with Quaife and Sky-Lucas in a renga by Fujiwara na Toshiyuki: a forthright duet, almost martial in effect. As is the following three-line maybe-haiku by the shadowy KWH, and another renga by Bunya na Asayasu. All three have a continuous motif of wind: a threatening presence, a symbol of evanescence, a power of dispersal. Only the final text by de Vidas brings us back to earth when the poet laments the ageing of his wind/voice. All four settings are duets, serving both soprano and counter-tenor as excellent vehicles for expressive collaboration. As well, Selleck has contrived an intelligent representation of this season’s combination of colour and decay.
Kozlowski is the solitary vocalist for Winter, which mirrors Autumn in its aggressive nature, sparked by images of a winter blast (Natsume Seibi), a pale sun (KWH), a snowstorm and loneliness (Shuji Miya), and an internal thunderstorm (KWH again). Here, the musical vocabulary is fraught with harmonic tension, timbrally concentrated as the shakuhachi is silent while the strings ride the blast. Unexpectedly, there is a cross-breeding of the last two poems (renga and haiku), Kozlowski returning to the loneliness theme before a substantial two-minute postlude for strings which operates above a pedal note while a plethora of open 5ths and a volatile arpeggio figure dominate the movement’s ending, the bass once more giving an echo of his spirit-lowering message of despair.
Selleck maintains the gloom into her Interlude for strings alone. This is a movement that suggests the final stretch of Berg’s Lyric Suite, although the Australian work shows less bleak a prospect with a well-worked melodic arch and some stretches of deliberate instrumental colour, like powerful block chords to interrupt the interweaving lines, and a series of slow upward glissandi. Still, the landscape here seems full of the milk of human kindness, each instrument treating the original arch with a benevolent calm, the Interlude’s final bars a moving fade-to-black with Selleck’s forces sustaining notes at opposite ends of the sound spectrum.
In the Finale, all three voices come together for the first time in a KWH haiku which is first sung in English, then by Kozlowski alone in Tibetan and in a monotone suggestive of a dungchen. Again, the text is an updated vanitas vanitatum, the voices mingling but somehow knotted. A kind of break arises where the forces collaborate in what sounds like rising and falling C Major triads, a vocalise for everybody. The throbbing pulse continues into another de Vidas haiku translated into French; then, another poem by the same poet in English. Finally, a culmination where the single line ‘Become so quiet’ is translated into (and sung in) Japanese, French and Tibetan – another fading into nothingness with a revenant, solitary chiming ping to send us on our way.
In these final settings, Selleck follows her theme of yielding to inevitability: our illusions shatter and are gone, personal grief is deleted by indifferent birdsong, human endeavour is momentary, probably futile . . . and the rest is silence. Having said that, the work’s conclusion is far from grim. The composer’s responsiveness to a wide range of texts is highly sympathetic, measured and ecstatic in turn; her application of instrumental colour shows telling restraint; and the performers impress for their clear-voiced delivery of a construct that successfully straddles an aesthetic fence – not too sour, not too sweet.