The Electronic and The Contemporary at Sydney Festival

There was a welcome shift this year in programming for the Sydney Festival. Art Music made a comeback. Sure, there had been some inclusions in the recent past, but 2013 represented a significant change. For the better? Perhaps. Or for the worse.

Your correspondent sampled a number of contemporary offerings, with mixed personal responses. At the outset it is important to stress that all the performances warranted the effort, by audience, musicians and, to be sure, artistic director Lieven Bertels. What are festivals for if not to present the challenging and different. But sometimes, nonetheless, the fare is bitter.

Four performances presented real challenges: Ligetti Morphed, Sandglasses, Wreck and Chronometer. Some presenters delivered delightful examples of well designed music, intricately interwoven with theatre. The best examples of this were the active involvement of Solistenensemble Kaleidoscop in Semele Walk and the wonderful weaving of sound into the narrative of The Secret River. Less successful was the songwriting in Rape of Lucrece. Channelling Dylan and Cave in this instance produced rather bland music which added little to Shakespeare’s words. Kaleidoscop’s other interventions, as a chamber group at City Recital Hall, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, presented a heady mix of baroque, contemporary and a wonderful Transylvanian folk piece, seemingly improvised but probably carefully rehearsed. yMusic may have had something to offer but time and financial constraint allowed your correspondent only a brief interface at AGNSW which suggested they were a lesser breed than their Berlin colleagues, Kaleidoscop. Those of us who pay our own way have our limits, so Sacre, Satie, and Symphony did not appear on the menu.

The challenging performances were, in many respects, the most striking. They begged the question: “What is music”. The outcome of the four experiences for your correspondent was clear: whatever your definition of music, it is imperative the listener can see a meaningful link between performer and the sound (noise) produced. The two worst examples of failure to demonstrate the links were some of Ensemble Offspring’s Ligetti Morphed pieces and Lithuanian import, Sandglasses. In both, the work of the “noisemaker” (for which, read person with computer) was so far removed from the players and hence the audience that there was little to elicit wonderment, emotion or any other feeling. In Sandglasses the fifth”player” morphing the sounds made by the four cellists enveloped in cylindrical light shows, was not even in evidence. So much for being part of the ensemble. Ligetti Morphed was, perhaps, an exercise in musicology. The average audience member was, however, left far behind in the mire of noise, wondering what the hell all this electronic manipulation was supposed to achieve. At least, in this case, the manipulating disc jockey was on stage. More conventional, at least in a contemporary sense, was a piece for two marimbas. A minimalist work, it brought back memories of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, and reminded why there is so much respect for Claire Edwardes and her Ensemble Offspring.

In your correspondent’s defence it must be emphasised, he has spent time listening to the ABC’s “The Listening Room”. Audio files of sound shifts from distant stars have flowed, unemotionally, over his head. He has wondered at the early electronic work of the makers of the Dr Who theme, incredible and intensely moving, quite unlike the sound shifting vibrations from those distant stars. The Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire electronic work from 1963 has stood the test of time. Ligetti Morphed’s amplified resonances of two bass drums will not.

So why did ”Wreck”, involving a car body and a couple of percussionists (Jon Rose and Claire Edwardes) work, whereas Sandglasses did not? The difference was the abiilty to recognise the players’ influence on the sound produced. Hence a real transfer of emotions was possible. Who has not drummed their fingers, or a stick on an old beaten up can or found object? It is primeval. The audience sees the link and feels the involved. The visual elements certainly helped along the way, but here again they had context. Sandglasses, on the other hand, with the cellists in their psychedelic tubes, had visual impact too, but with out any possible discernible link between what the four musicians were doing, or what the light show was communicating. The audience was forced to wonder in silence what it could all be about. It was almost certainly not music. Only in the last few bars was it possible to work out some connection between the visible cellists and the invisible sound technician. Sadly it was too late to have any influence on audience reaction. The audience was simply not engaged.

The oldest electronic work presented at the Festival was Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s Chronometer. To listen through this work was a remarkable experience. Sure, the location, with a view over the harbour, was ravishing, but the key was for the listener to have the knowledge that this was one of the earliest pieces of electronic music. Yet it had context and relevance sufficient to allow the intellect to gather it all up: the links between Big Ben and the sounds of London Town were subtle, but were clear enough to allow the emotions to respond. This perhaps is the clearest distinction your correspondent can make between music and noise. If the noise does not tap the emotions in some way or another, then it is surely not music. It may keep academics enthused and a few tech-heads excited, but know it for what it is: noise. Intellectual noise perhaps, but not music.

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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