HALCYON, EXTREME NATURE
Verbrughen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
RealTime October-November 2009
Reviewed by Keith Gallasch
Seeing, hearing, believing
Concerts, topology and halcyon
AS CHRIS REID WRITES IN HIS REVIEW OF THE SOUNDSTREAM NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL (P49), SOME MUSIC HAS TO BE SEEN AND NOT JUST HEARD. BRISBANE-BASED TOPOLOGY’S EAST COAST TOUR GAVE US A LIVE, WORKING BAND WITH A CASUALLY THEATRICAL AND JAZZY SPONTANEITY YOU MIGHT NOT BE EXPECTING FROM THEIR NEW CD, BIG DECISIONS, WHICH OFFERS OTHER PLEASURES. SYDNEY’S HALCYON DELIVERED A MORE FORMAL CONCERT WITH AN OPERATIC INTENSITY IN WORKS WITH BIG AMBITIONS AND VISIBLY COMPLEX INTERPLAY BETWEEN PERFORMERS.
The Sydney duo, Halcyon (soprano Alison Morgan, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong) gather composers, instrumentalists and other singers around them to create distinctive, inventive concert programs. Extreme Nature featured bold new works from expat composers recently returned to Australia, Elliott Gyger and Nicholas Vines.
Gyger’s From the Hungry Waiting country (2006) draws on Australian poems (mostly of an older generation: Harwood, Stow, Riddell, Hart-Smith, Buckley, Hope) and Near Eastern religious texts in response to “a profoundly ethical dimension to the emerging ecological crises” (Gyger, program note). Morgan and Duck-Chong were joined by soprano Belinda Montgomery and mezzo Jo Burton to execute the demanding interweaving and layering of texts, surprising glissandi and humming, buzzing insectile vocal noise. Genevieve Lang’s harp entwined beautifully and at times dramatically (buzzing too and twanging) with the singing, making the instrumental interplay with the four superb voices the highlight of the work. It was fascinating to watch the exchanges between these artists, heightened by the various re-groupings of the singers, with the harpist a logical extension of the line-up rather than as sidelined accompanist.
Save for the final text, AD Hope’s Australia (an odd choice, Gyger admits, but deployed to target political rather than intellectual poverty), making sense of the poems is hard work and best left until a recording is made available. Countering Hope’s bitterness, the work ends moving from an almost staccato rendering of lines that then flow into neat harmonies, with an almost Swingle Singers’ jazziness, and a final, musing lyricism. From the Hungry Waiting Country is a complex, consuming work, at once grim and beautiful.
In their onstage intermission dialogue, Gyger and Vines discussed the relationship of their music to “large masses of text.” There was agreement that their approach is “not directly semantic...not every word will be understood, but the work will be ‘semantic’ from a different direction [as] a lattice of reference, starting with poetry that is already complex.” It was suggested that “words are musical regardless of meaning” and that “the poem is a kind of music.”
Nicholas Vines writes that his Torrid Nature Scene (2008) “is at its core a squelchy, lusty romp” but one intended to counter the technologising of our lives and values. In the dialogue with Gyger, Vines said he thought “lush” was not a word typically associated with Australia, but that he wanted to create “a febrile density” in his work, and so he does. The text, a poem by Andrew Robbie, is already dense with ideas and images, and Vines adds nine instrumentalists to engage with Morgan and Duck-Chong. After the opening Wagnerian flourish we are introduced to a sonic world that is certainly lush, rich in operatic soaring, quackings, glides, post-orgasmic gasps, relished words chewed over, and ringing, starry bursts of voices and ensemble as one. In memorable, intense, sustained passages for one singer, the other counters with an undercurrent of noises evocative of nature and the body’s own musical otherworld. Torrid Nature Scene is almost overwhelmingly dense on a first hearing, but its strange beauties are many (its hyper-literary text best left impressionistic). Extreme Nature was an exhilarating if demanding concert, its cogency in no small part the contribution of conductor Matthew Coorey.