You have to be hardy to be a follower (or subscriber) of Canberra’s chamber group the Griffyn Ensemble, about whom I’ve written several times before. Take, for example, the opening concert of their 2014 season. It was held at the National Library of Australia to coincide with the Mapping Our World exhibition. We started in the foyer on the ground floor – sitting on the few scattered seats or on the marble stairs that lead to the mezzanine floor, or standing. We then moved to the conference room on the fourth floor. With only two lifts (elevators) available, the attendants opened the doors to the stairs, which several of us took, not realising where we were heading. Four floors later we emerged, some puffing more than others, to be met by vivacious soprano, Susan Ellis, singing to us as she gave us our programs. We found our seats and settled in for what we hoped would be an entertaining evening. We were not disappointed – but then, have we ever been?
This year’s theme is Fairy Tales but, as before, the theme is broadly defined. The Lost Mapmaker is described in the season booklet as follows:
A mapmaker, trapped outside reality, is trying to draw her way back into the world. Incomplete maps of Australia allow the lost mapmaker, who is only able to communicate through pen and ink, to create an alternative version of reality.
Our and the mapmaker’s journey started in the foyer with visual artist Annika Romeyn drawing on an easel while four of the Griffyns sat in a circle, performing the second movement from John Gage’s Living Room Music. The work is a percussion and speech quartet, and the second movement, appropriately title “A story”, involves the players presenting a percussive rhythmic reading of words from Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round: “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” Words are repeated, round-like, emulating the meaning of the piece. It was an effective, lively opening to the concert, and certainly got us ready to be told a story or two.
Once upstairs the ensemble performed a varied program, ranging from a movingly rendered traditional song by John Dowland, “In darkness let me dwell”, to pieces by popular musicians Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (“Our prayer”) and Roger Waters and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd (“Comfortably Numb”). It included works by contemporary American composers Lou Harrison (“Song” and “The Clay’s Quintet”), Charles Dodge (“The Waves”) and John Kennedy (“Eagle Poem”). The performance concluded with “Attica” by another American composer, Frederic Rzewski, using words by Sam Melville who was killed in the 1971 Attica Prison Riots. As always, the music challenged us musically and conceptually, but that’s why, I think, most of us love Griffyn Ensemble concerts. We meet new composers or new arrangements of works well-known to us, and we meet them in unusual settings, physical and contextual.
While the ensemble performed, Annika Romeyn drew, using pen, brush and ink on paper that was projected onto a screen. Her drawings took us on a journey through half-made maps, via mythological beings (such as dragons) and gods (such as Aeolus the wind god), a tall ship and a mariner’s compass. It was dynamic, with images being reworked, transformed, as the music moved on. Occasionally, the drawings were replaced by words, devised by author Katie Taylor. “I must name what I see” reminded us of the early explorers and “This country was known before I came” made a pointed reference to “terra nullius”. The Griffyns do not shy from politics.
This year’s ensemble has a new look. Two original members, percussionist Wyana and clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe, have, sadly, decided that new parenthood and being resident in Melbourne make it too hard for them to continue. We’ll miss them. But, their replacements, double bassist Holly Downes and violinist Christ Stone, both from the folk chamber group, The String Contingent, are looking good. Meriel Owen, the current harpist, was replaced for this concert by the ensemble’s original harpist, Laura Tanata. I still remember a haunting piece featuring Tanata and flautist Kiri Sollis, some years ago, so was delighted to see Tanata again.
Musical director Michael Sollis is a talented jack-of-all-trades – performer, conductor, composer, arranger, and administrator/entrepreneur. He has an eye for opportunities around town that will work with the ensemble’s ethos and is keen to encourage collaboration with other artists/creators. This shows not only in the venues they perform in, and the variety of music they play, but in associated aspects such as the printed program. Not for them a set format. This program was presented as a scroll, complete with red seal. Visually beautiful, it needed attention to work it out – which I managed when the lights came up during intermission. What did I say about the Griffyns demanding much of their followers!
I haven’t said much about the playing, which is a bit silly given I’m writing about a concert. There was, I think, more whole-ensemble work in this concert and it worked, though the solo and small group pieces have often provided highlights in the past. The new players have slotted in easily, the new instrument mix is possibly more natural than the old, and I do like a double bass! But I will miss Matthew’s clarinet and Wyana’s engaging personality and percussion work. Life, however, moves on – and now we must wait until August for the next concert in the season.
You can hear other versions of some of the music on You Tube:
- John Cage’s “A story”, performed by Elastic Arts Foundation
- Brian Wilson performing “Our prayer”
- John Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell”, performed by Ellen Hargis
- Pink Floyd performing their “Comfortably Numb”
PS I should mention the concert’s supporting act – a new thing for this season. It was Canberra’s new young group, the Telopea Trio, who gorgeously played pieces by Beethoven, Haydn, Piazzola and Dvorak.