The Griffyns end the year on, hmm, a macabre note

Only the Griffyn Ensemble could put together a concert that included Arvo Pärt and Bob Dylan, that started with eerie sounds from a tape and ended with mysterious knockings and bumpings from who knows where to the strains of Silent Night. Intrigued? Then read on …

This year the Griffyns’ theme has been Fairy Stories – loosely defined (and I do love loose definitions). We have wandered though strange maps, worried about what we believe, and thought about our place. In their final concert, “The shearer that could have been”, we were scared witless – well, not really, but they gave it their best shot. It all started with the setting – and a story …

Yarralumla Woolshed, 1925

Yarralumla Woolshed, 1925 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

The Griffyn Ensemble like to mix up their venues – partly because they like to choose venues that add to their music, to the stories they want to tell – and so this last concert of the year was in yet another very new venue for them, the old Yarralumla Woolshed. Built in 1904, and still surviving in what is pretty close to the geographic centre of Canberra, the Woolshed has seen many uses over its lifetime – and one of these, in my twenties, was as Canberra’s most popular bush dance venue. It was this history, and its previous history as – of course – a woolshed, that the Griffyns drew on for their performance. And, as they have done all year, they had a collaborator, this time local author Katie Taylor.

Taylor created an appropriately spooky story, about shearers’ tales, mysterious disappearances, loss and hope, about beginnings and endings, and how endings are found in beginnings and vice versa. It was performed expressively by Kate Hosking who told the tale through and between the music performed by the ensemble. We were warned there’d be exaggerations because, as Taylor’s text told us,

exaggerations are what you want from a story-teller.

And so there were – at least we hope they were exaggerations, though you never know!

The eerie tone was set with Juan Pablo Nicoletti’s electroacoustic “Abismo al Abismo” played via tape. Its weird otherworldly impressions of wind and water were enhanced by the sound of Australia’s favourite cockatoos screeching over the woolshed. We were consequently well prepared for Susan Ellis’ unusual rendition of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas … it may be your last”!

From this, and with the story continuing, the ensemble moved on to play two of my favourite Erik Satie pieces (“Gymnopedie No. 3” and “Gnossienne No. 3”), followed by “Swamp Song”, composed by Griffyn violinist Chris Stone, and Shawn Jaegar’s “Pastor Hicks Farewell”. Then, in keeping with the venue, we were invited to take part in a bush dance called by Chris Stone and led by Michael Sollis, as the rest of the band played a “Bush Dance Macabre Suite”. Mr Gums and I aren’t unfamiliar with bush dance moves but “the stab”, “strangle your partner”, and “chop, chop like the guillotine”, were new moves to us! We think playing the spoons was a new move for flautist Kiri Sollis too, but, unlike our dancing, we felt she could easily take up a new bush band career. The suite ended with Susan Ellis singing Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” in character, as Ellis always does with aplomb.

We returned after a brief intermission to a dramatic change of pace – from jigs and ballads to Arvo Pärt’s minimalist “Fratres” played by Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp). I’m a bit of an Arvo Pärt fan, so enjoyed their thoughtful rendition. According to Wikipedia, this piece encapsulates Pärt’s “observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us'”. That fits rather nicely, I think, with the night’s theme of beginnings and endings, of moving forwards and backwards. This piece segued nicely to two very moody pieces: “so she moaned, and as she uttered her moans” composed by Michael Sollis, and featuring the double bass (Holly Downes), mandolin (Michael Sollis), violin (Chris Stone) and flute (Kiri Sollis), and  “Ghost” by Myrto Korkokiou and Apostolos Loufopoulos, with Kiri Sollis on alto flute accompanied by more electroacoustic music. These three pieces showed off the ensemble’s musicianship perfectly.

The concert concluded with Jeff Buckley’s “Dream brother” performed with some lovely singing by the whole ensemble:

Don’t be like the one who made me so old
Don’t be like the one who left behind his name
‘Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine
And nobody ever came

Oh dear … And then, as Ellis moved onto “Stille nacht” (“Silent night”), the rest of the ensemble quietly left the stage, and it wasn’t long before we heard the ghosts of woolsheds past (or were they of our future?) a-knocking and tapping beneath us.

It was a beautifully coherent yet quirky concert that gave its audience a night to remember – and, just so we wouldn’t be left too spooked, they served us lamingtons at the end.

I look forward their Global Chronicles concert series in 2015.

You can hear other versions, online, of some of the music we heard:

10 thoughts on “The Griffyns end the year on, hmm, a macabre note

  1. Thanks for intro. me to the Griffyn Ensemble, and posting their program here. I’d love to hear them, sounds very ‘postmodern’. But that will not be so easy, since I’m half a world away. We have the Gryphon Trio here in Canada, albeit I haven’t heard them live in concert either. But right now, as I type, my heart goes out to those people held hostages inside the Lindt Chocolate Café at Martin Place, Sydney. Hope the situation can be resolved safely.

    • Oh, thanks Arti, I’ve looked them up. They sound interesting too. It would be great if Musica Viva brought them out here. I couldn’t see how they chose their name. Ours chose theirs as a play on gryphons/griffins/griffons and the Griffins who did the original town design for our city.

      As for the Lindt Cafe siege, thanks. It’s rather distressing, and I’m frustrating by the media who keep asking police questions they can’t answer or won’t answer for safety reasons. As far as I’m concerned if the police say they don’t know and they have protocols in place, I’d leave them to it. We don’t NEED to know right now, but we do need it to end with no injury or worse. And then, a commercial TV station has just used terribly inflammatory language about it without knowing exactly what it’s about. Sickening.

    • Hi Stefanie … Yes it’s a bit though it comes more from English and Scottish country dancing I think. A lot of dances are done in long lines, or even a big circle, rather than squares though there are some done in smaller sets. We don’t have the traditional costume of square dancing.

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