The Griffyns are mummified

Those Griffyns, if you haven’t realised it from my previous posts, are a brave and versatile bunch. Their latest outing, the Ear of the Cat, was inspired by musical director Michael Sollis’ residency in Egypt last year. Performed last weekend, it was the ensemble’s first real concert of the year and was included – a first for them I think – in this year’s Canberra International Music Festival.

Holly Downes

Brown cat Holly Downes playing her double bass

Another first, sort of, is that it was designed to appeal to children or, as the Ensemble’s promo describes it, it’s “a staged production for the young and young at heart:  a show all about cats, magical keys, video games, and a green soup eaten by ancient kings”. (I say “sort of” because the Griffyns did create and perform a school version of last year’s ANZAC Dirty Red Digger program.)

So, a staged production featuring cats. Here is how the Griffyns explained it:

Come on an adventure of discovery as deep within an underground Egyptian tomb, four mummified cats are woken by a mysterious sound. Join these inquisitive cats and be led by your ears, as you journey through an unfamiliar new world of haunted mazes, video games, and the streets of contemporary Cairo to help the cats find a way to belong in the land of the living.

Chris Stone

Mummified cat, aka violinist Chris Stone

It was a 45-minute (or thereabouts) program that took us from a mummy’s tomb to the streets of Cairo. As we walked into the performance space we were confronted with four colour-coded mummified “cats” (Holly Downes, Susan Ellis, Chris Stone and Michael Sollis) lying on pallets down the length of the hall (in the Ainslie Arts Centre). Gradually, to the call of sophisticated cat Kiri Sollis’ gorgeous piccolo – acting like a Pied Piper, perhaps? – the cats awoke and shed their mummy bindings, and started looking for a way out. A key was found but were they brave enough to venture out? Perhaps not – or not quite yet. This was, though, a multi-media performance, so while the cats crept about, uncertain of what to do, we were entertained by video interviews with young Egyptians about life and cats in Cairo. They were engaging as young people can be and added a dose of reality to the fantasy being enacted in front of us – but finally we discovered that the “ear of the cat” is the shape into which you tear and then fold pita bread to eat green Mulukhiyah soup. You can always be sure to learn something new from the Griffyns!

Now, what else to say? Michael Sollis’ clever music, which supported the narrative, varied from cattish-wailing to foot-stomping, from discordant sounds reflecting anxiety and uncertainty to lyrical jig-like and sometimes jazzy ensemble pieces conveying confidence. Laura Tanata’s harp played a gentle encouraging role throughout. Soprano Susan Ellis, reminding me of a spunky (less tatty) Grizabella from Cats*, prowled the room looking for answers, and at one point carried on an evocative and entertaining squeaky “conversation” with Kiri Sollis’ piccolo (if I’ve remembered correctly). The whole ended with a “miao chorus” inviting audience participation.

While the “story” was about mummified cats, it called up, for me, a broader archetype – sophisticated town cat versus nervous country cousins – and, as in all good stories, they all got together in the end.

I must admit that I’m not sure I fully comprehended all the connections being made as the story progressed, perhaps because coming from an older generation I’m not so good at quickly absorbing multiple inputs, but I always enjoy seeing what these skilled performers come up with. They make music meaningful and fun, and present it with a great deal of warmth towards their audience. I look forward to their next concert.

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Piccolo), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).

* Ian McLean who reviewed the performance for City News was also reminded of Grizabella! I think it was the long fur coat.

Delicious descriptions: Emma Ayres on music

If the bicycle trip gives Emma Ayres’ travel memoir Cadence its chronological spine, it is music which provides its skeleton.

However, before I discuss music, I need to respond to those commenters on my review who noted that “cadence” is also a cycling term. As I’d heard the book rather than read it, I couldn’t quite recollect her mentioning this but felt she must have. I have now checked the book itself and indeed she did. For example, near the end of the book is a paragraph which starts:

Cadence on a bicycle is a vitally important thing. Turn your pedals too slowly, with too hard a gear, and you wear out your muscles and your chain. The trick is to have a light, quick cadence, an allegro cadence, not andante, one where your lungs do the heavy work and your muscles hardly have to strain at all …

But, see how even here some musical imagery slips in! Anyhow, she talks about cadence on the bicycle at other times too, such as the “perfect cadence” when riding downhill one day in Pakistan.

It’s all about the keys

The book’s chapters are named for groups of keys starting and ending with C major/minor, the simplest keys. She writes at the beginning of the last chapter:

Here we are, back at the beginning. The flats have gone and the sharps are yet to come. It is a moment of stillness, before the journey begins again.

This is the aspect of the book that was least familiar to me. What playing one key versus another means to a musician, and how playing different keys varies from instrument to instrument, are not things I can experientially relate to.

That didn’t stop me, however, finding many of her descriptions interesting, if not moving at times. Here she is on C sharp major/minor/D flat major/minor:

This is it. It’s the end of the road for the sharp keys. Every single note is a sharp – FCGDAEB … We have travelled all the way from simple open G major, through the brightness of E major to the unearthliness of B major, and we have arrived in a key that stretches and strains on every instrument, even somehow the even-tempered piano. Music written in C sharp major has a wildness to it, a frenzy even. C sharp major is used by a composer who has seen a new super reality from an escarpment. They are looking through a high window. It’s a shocking key at first, but ultimately I find it very spiritual. It is an extremely brave and rare key.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that this is one of the keys she uses for her trip through Pakistan, the country she’d been warned against, and the one she fell in love with. Another key in this chapter, D flat major, is, she writes, great for the piano:

Easy, like breathing out.

I felt like Pakistan was the right key for me. I didn’t want to ever leave Pakistan, or at least lose the feeling Pakistan had given me.

It helped, of course, that much of her time in Pakistan she travelled dressed as, and was in fact believed to be, a man, Emmett. As a woman, she may not have found it quite so easy, as she implies through one of her musical analogies:

Women in Pakistan, though, were like absent notes in the scale. D naturals in a D flat world.

On composers

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Bach statue in Leipzig, where he wrote the violin pieces!

Accompanying Ayres on her trip was Aurelia, a 3/4-sized violin, because, she says, “you never feel truly alone, anyway, if you have an instrument with you”. She decided she needed a musical journey to parallel the cycle one. Her choice? To learn Bach’s cello suites, violin sonatas and partitas.

Consequently, throughout the journey she gave little impromptu Bach concerts. It seems Bach is loved the world around. She shares wonderful stories and gives insights into all sorts of composers, not just Bach, but the one I want to share here is Shostakovich. She spends a few pages on his 13th quartet, which was written in B flat minor. She writes, and I’m excerpting furiously:

His thirteenth, though, depicts the horror of life in a way that is unrelenting from beginning to end. In our life, the police often protect us from knowledge of the most horrific crimes, but in this B flat minor work Shostakovich offers us no protection. If you are going to listen to this piece, make sure you have a friend to call afterwards. Seriously.

… This piece is written in one dreadful movement. Listening to and playing this piece dozens of times, I can find no moment of joy, no moment of exhilaration, no relaxation, no optimism.

[…]

… it is a hell on earth. It is a hell of small-minded, picky, tight-mouthed people, people who decide matters of life and death and art; a hell of the violins as they pick out mean, starved sounds from their instruments while the others around them mock and sneer; a hell of music for all the ugly-souled, unthinking, self-serving people in the world, of whom many had power over Shostakovich. This hell never ended for him, neither in his life nor in this piece; it just kept on getting worse.

And she says more – about Shostakovich’s life and this piece. I loved reading these sorts of insights from a practising musician. I also enjoyed her explanations of the modern composers many love to hate, Webern and Schoenberg. She talks of Schoenberg using music’s power to unsettle, and Webern distilling emotion (even if reading a Webern score is “like poring over an ordnance survey”!)

Viola to Violin to Cello to …

The other musical thread I wanted to mention is her discussion of her musical career. The book starts with her mother asking her “the most important question of my life”. What was it? It was to ask her what instrument she wanted to play! She chose cello, but got a violin! Paralleling the story of her cycle journey is the story of her musical life: how she started with violin, then moved to viola – her professional instrument at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – but always hankering for the cello. She returned to the violin for the trip, after which she eventually got to play cello. I won’t tell you where, after all that, she has ended up …

I will tell you, though, that for Ayres music saves people’s souls, and it saved her. As a musician, she says, you take people into your care. You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that “to share the value of music is the resolve of my life”.

Ayres is warm, yet fearless, a woman who marries action with reflection, all of which make Cadence the excellent read my friends told me it was.

Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

Emma Ayres, CadenceAlthough Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence had been passed around my reading group with much enthusiasm over the last year or so, I wasn’t intending to read it – not because I wasn’t interested, but because there were other books I wanted to read more. However, when I found the audiobook at my aunt’s house while we were clearing it out, Mr Gums and I decided to listen to it on our trips to and from Sydney. It proved to be a great car book. However, a warning: we listened to it intermittently over two months, so this will be more a post of reflections than a coherent review.

Emma Ayres is probably known to most Australian readers of my blog, but perhaps not to others so let’s start with a potted bio. Born in England in 1967, Ayres is a professional musician – a viola player in fact – who has also worked as a radio presenter. She lived in Hong Kong for eight years, playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but in 2000 she rode a bicycle, fundraising for charity, from Shropshire, England, through the Middle East and central Asia, to Hong Kong. She moved to Australia in 2003, and worked as an ABC Classical Music radio presenter for eight years, from 2008 to 2014.

Now to the memoir. Cadence is ostensibly a travel memoir, but it covers a lot of ground within its seemingly narrow construct of chronicling her year-long bicycle journey. The ground it covers, besides the story of her travel, which is exciting enough given the regions she rode though, includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, and her analyses of classical music. Some of her technical descriptions went over my head, but I found her discussions of composers to be not only accessible and eye-opening, but deeply interesting. And it’s all told with a thoughtful philosophical underpinning.

Cadence is an excellent title for a musician’s memoir, and she plays with its meanings throughout, referring, for example, to a “perfect cadence”, or a “slow cadence”, or more frequently to  “interrupted cadences … moments when the direction is changed”. Indeed, the memoir could be seen as comprising almost continuous interrupted cadences because, although the bicycle trip provides her memoir’s chronological backbone, she skips around frequently, going backwards to her childhood and early years as a musician and forwards to her life after the trip when she briefly toyed with being a cellist. It can take a little concentration to keep track of exactly which part of her life she is writing about at any one time, but it’s not too hard. After all …

Cadences are waypoints in the music, places where you can take a breather, readjust your instrument and hurtle on to the next bit of the adventure.

I greatly enjoyed Ayres’ reflections on life and travel. The book is full of her insights, many learnt on the road. For example, regarding the challenge of deciding whether to do the trip she says:

If you are not sure whether or not you should do something, ask your ninety-year-old self.

At another point she discusses how much she loved Pakistan despite all the nay-saying she had received when she was planning her trip. She was treated, she writes, almost without exception, with kindness and generosity everywhere she went. “Do we make our own welcome?” she wonders, and goes on to suggest that before we criticise another country, we should perhaps look at ourselves first.

Being a woman cycling alone is risky business, particularly in some of those male-dominated countries through which she travelled. She frequently took advantage of her androgynous look, helping it along by keeping her hair very short and wearing non-feminine clothes (where she could). Consequently, she was regularly taken for a man. She discusses gender often, commenting on how we are ruled by it and its associated expectations. She sees herself as “a border dweller in the world of gender”, writing:

I do admire people who are by birth penumbral but have the courage and desire to be firmly one or the other and go through a sex change, but I like the fluidity of being able to float around the middle. I really to think that the basic this or that of male and female is shallow and limiting. How simplistic to think, with all those opposing hormones flowing in each of our bodies, that we are one and therefore not the other. And how much better in countries like India and Thailand that they recognise more than two sexes. More variations in the octave, more variations in gender.

Another theme that runs through the book is the idea of being in the moment. She tells the story of being taken to task for reading Anna Karenina when on a bus in Pakistan. Her young seat-mate is mystified by her passionate rendering to him of the story, saying to her “but you are here!” She genuinely sees his point, and puts the book down. Later in the trip, she regrets not spending more time with a fellow-traveller who crosses her path because “I was too focused on destination and again forgot the importance of the here and now”.

Cadence is a generous, warm-hearted book which abounds with travel anecdotes to delight any lover of travel literature. There are scary moments, and funny ones, and others that are just plain interesting. It also contains intelligent, considered insights into music, some of which I plan to share in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll conclude with a comment she makes early in the book:  “Travel”, she says, “goes inwards as much as outwards”. That is exactly what she demonstrates with this book. I can see why all those in my reading group who read the book urged it onto the next person.

awwchallenge2016

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir
Sydney: ABC Books (by HarperCollins), 2014
284pp.
ISBN: 9780733331893

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir (audio)
(read by Emma Ayres)
ABC Commercial, 2014
8 hours (approx) running time (on 7 CDs)

Virgil Thomson, Taste in music (Review)

Virgil Thomson portrait, 1947

Virgil Thomson, 1947 (Public Domain, from the Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

There are several reasons why now seemed an opportune time to write my first Library of America (LOA) post for 2015. The first reason is obvious. It’s June and I haven’t featured one yet. The second is because my last post was on music, so writing about an article by American composer Virgil Thomson seemed apposite. The third reason relates to an interesting comment Thomson makes about reviewing, recalling my recent post on the AustLit anthology of criticism.

And then there’s reason why this article, published by LOA back in February, initially attracted my attention. It’s because of Virgil Thomson himself. I first heard of him back in the 1970s as the composer of two beautiful American government sponsored documentaries, The plow that broke the plains (1936) and The river (1938), made by filmmaker Pare Lorents. I won’t reminisce about this now, but I enjoy noting these connections we make over our lives.

In my post on the Austlist anthology of criticism, I quoted the editors as defining criticism as  “interpretation”, something they differentiated from “reviews” which they saw as focusing on “evaluation”. In LOA’s introductory notes to Thomson’s piece, they quote Thomson’s explanation as to why, as music critic and editor for the New York Herald Tribune, he only used composers and performers as reviewers. He said:

It’s a writing job, but the subject is music and you’ve got to know a good deal about the subject in order to be believable. In order to be a reviewer, you have to forget whether you liked it or not and tell your reader what it was like.

Hmmm … a rose by any other name, eh? What Thomson calls “reviewing” is what the anthology editors call “criticism”. Whatever name we give it, I realise that I tend to prefer reviews/criticism that focus on analysing what the work is like, what makes it tick, more than whether the reviewer liked it. “Liking” is such a subjective thing and can depend so much on one’s experiences, preferences, personality even, whereas describing “what it was like” involves knowledge of the art form, the ability to “see” it in context, to understand how it does what it does, and to describe, perhaps, what it “means”. This is not to say that “liking” isn’t important, but that it is not necessarily the most important aspect – for me anyhow.

So, then, Thomson’s “Taste in Music”. He starts by differentiating taste “for” music, which he sees as the ability to enjoy music, pretty much indiscriminately, and taste “in” music, which involves liking certain kinds of music over others. He then discusses admiration versus liking, suggesting that “there are often striking contradictions between what musical people admire and what they like”. Admiration is about “reason” while “liking is an inspiration”. You can’t alter “liking”, he says, “by any act of will”. But “it will frequently alter itself … without warning”. I think we have all experienced that! Loving something, and then suddenly tiring of it, growing out of it perhaps.

Thomson’s main argument is that “development of taste” is not the main objective of music education, that the important thing is “understanding, that whole paraphernalia of analysis and synthesis whereby a piece is broken down into its component details, mastered, restored to integrity, and possessed”. This is true of literature too. How often have you heard people say that studying literature put them off reading, or off the classics. And yet, pulling apart books is the only way you learn to understand them, what makes them tick. Thomson goes on:

Persons unprepared by training to roam the world of music in freedom but who enjoy music and wish to increase that enjoyment are constantly searching for a key, a passport that will hasten their progress. There is none, really, except study.

Oh dear, he’s right, I know he is. And this is why I constantly say that my reports of Griffyn Ensemble concerts do not constitute reviews. They are reports of what I enjoyed, and what I made of the performance. I do not have the skills or training to review music.

Thomson also discusses the familiar versus unfamiliar in music. He writes that “the too old, the too new, the in-any-way strange, we resist simply because we do not know how to take them on”. We enjoy the familiar, he says, and this leads toward “a timid conservatism with regard to unfamiliar music”. He writes that:

The lay public will try anything, but it will be disappointed, on first hearing, in anything it has no method for remembering. We like the idea of being musically progressive, because progress is one of our national ideals; but we do not always know how to conduct a progress.

This is probably true of the new in all of the arts, don’t you think? “To hear music correctly”, he wrote, to “know one’s mind”, we need to be able to “hear patterns in sound”. This is what I feel about all music, but particularly new, unfamiliar work. I might sense patterns but on one hearing, and with almost no musical training, I don’t feel capable of “reviewing” it, of understanding let alone explaining what makes it tick, the same way I can, for example, with a novel. I am experienced at looking for patterns in literature, but not so for music. Thomson suggests that the untrained will “rarely know the difference between their tastes and their opinions”. Hmm … probably true.

His next point is that while professional musicians express “responsible opinions” based on knowledge, it is “lay opinion” which creates the “modes or fashions in consumption that make up the history of taste”.  Interesting. He admits that knowledgeable persons play some role in developing these “fashions” but that they can’t force the public to like what it doesn’t want. He argues that creators cannot behave freely with trendy music. You can’t tinker with what people like. For this reason, he says, unsuccessful or unfashionable music “is sometimes the best music, the freest, the most original”.

What I most enjoyed about Thomson’s essay, though, is that he doesn’t lay down the law. He knows music, like all arts I’d say, is a slippery beast. There “is no rule” that can’t be broken. He writes that:

Those who think themselves most individual in their likings are most easily trapped by the appeal of chic, since chic is no more than the ability to accept trends in fashion with grace, to vary them ever so slightly, to follow a movement under the sincere illusion that one is being oneself.

He then has a dig at intellectuals. “You can always sell to the world of learning” he says, “acquaintance with that which it does not know”!

In other words, the only real answer to understanding and appreciating music, is “labor, much study, and inveterate wariness [because] the pleasures of taste, at best, are transitory”. “Nobody”, he says, “professional or layman, can be sure that what he finds beautiful this year may not be just another piece of music to him next.”

So, having logically argued the meaning of responsible reviewing and the importance of understanding music, Thomson concludes that in the end “the pleasures of taste … are transitory”. The best we can do, he says, is consult our appetite about what we consume and after consuming it “argue about the thing interminably” with all our friends. On that basis, I think, the important thing is to enjoy what we read, hear or see, and when we write about it to be clear about the basis on which we are writing. Our readers can then assess our opinion on the basis of what they understand to be our background, knowledge and prejudices. What do you think?

Virgil Thomson
“Taste in music”
First published: In The musical scene, 1945.
Available: Online at the Library of America

The Griffyns take us north – way north

The time has come, I think, to talk about disclosures. I have been blogging for just over six years now, mostly on literature but also, occasionally, on other cultural experiences – including the Griffyn Ensemble. The thing is that Canberra is a small place and we who move around it start to get to know each other. This is not unusual, but it does complicate the issue of reviewing/blogging. I’ve attended seminars and/or read discussions on reviewing “in a small world”. How do you be “objective” (not that we can ever be totally objective) when there’s been personal contact? And yet, how many literary reviewers in Australia do not know, have not met, the writers they review? Similarly, for music reviewers, or theatre reviewers?  Few, I’d say, once they’ve been in the game for a while and are reviewing people who’ve also been in the game for a while.

So, what does this mean? To what degree are “reviews” invalidated by such connections? To date I have disclosed when I have received books for review, but what other disclosures should be made? I’d love to know what you think. Meanwhile, I will say that Mr Gums and I identify as Griffyn Ensemble supporters. We like what they do and would love others to enjoy them too. This, I think, you need to know.

Mt Stromlo burnt out telescope

Waiting for “Southern Sky”, in the roofless, burnt out telescope, Mt Stromlo, Nov 2013

Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the latest concert, Northern Lights. It was unusual for the Griffyns in that it comprised one piece, albeit encompassing 14 movements, composed by their musical director Michael Sollis. As Sollis explained to us at the beginning, it was his response to Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s piano piece Southern Sky. The Griffyns had performed Sollis’ arrangement of this, with narration by astronomer Fred Watson, in the Mt Stromlo observatory ruin in 2012, reprised in 2013. That concert too comprised one multi-movement piece. To compose his “response”, Sollis visited the Arctic Circle with Fred Watson in November 2014.

Now, here’s where I want to reiterate the comment I made regarding rereading in my recent review of Peter Carey’s Amnesia. The same goes, surely, for other art forms. Consequently, when Northern Lights finished I knew I’d love to hear it again because there was a lot going on: I know I’ve missed some musical connections and relationships, and some finer points of the story being told. But, I did enjoy it. Let me set the scene …

Griffon Ensemble's Northern Lights

Part of the stage set for “Northern Lights”

The performance took place in semi-darkness in the James O. Fairfax theatre at the National Gallery of Australia. We were given a glossy program booklet which featured photographs taken by Sollis on his tour, one photograph for each movement. It was a bit of a challenge to follow the program in the semi-dark but I managed pretty well. In his introduction, Sollis told us that, while Watson’s tour focused on the northern lights, he was aware of other lights too – particularly the long twilights – and that he wanted to capture this fuller experience in his piece. The semi-dark ambience, with occasional soft changes in light levels, was intended to convey some of this. I rather liked the dark – it certainly helped keep our focus on the music and the musicians for a start!

In keeping with the Griffyn Ensemble’s style, this was more performance than pure concert. Sollis incorporated both science and myth into his work, by paralleling a scientific narration by Fred Watson (via recording) with a Snow-White-like-fairy-story-cum-norse-myth about a young girl who, cursed, is banished from the sunny sky to a dark earth where the sun can’t reach. She must find the sun to break the curse. Consequently, the culmination of Northern Lights was not “The Aurora” (Movement 12), but “Celestial Sunlight” (Movement 15*). The story takes place over 24 hours, with the times marked against the movements in the program (except for the first and last movement).

Now the music. I guess you would broadly define it as modern or contemporary classical – but, before you think it, this does not mean it was discordant or inaccessible. It wasn’t traditional by any means in form or sound, but it was evocative music, impressionistic even, if I dare invoke that term.

The ensemble, in its current line-up, has been together for around 18 months now and they look comfortable together. It’s an unusual grouping of instruments but for the audience, or me at least, it provides some exciting opportunities to hear different combinations of sounds. In Northern Lights, Sollis pushed the instruments, including Susan Ellis’ voice, to convey a range of moods and sensations. We heard whales singing, water dropping, ice creaking, particles popping; we sensed the melancholy of the long nights and the joy of the aurora.

I can’t possibly talk about all 14 movements, so I’ll just mention a few highlights which I hope I’ve remembered correctly. In “Amnesia near a  Stream” (2) played by the full ensemble, I particularly enjoyed the swelling sounds of Laura Tanata’s harp to evoke dawn or, at least, the awakening of the girl sent to earth. I also loved the harp’s gentle repetitive phrases in “Goodnight Aurora” (14), but in other movements this traditionally angelic instrument surprised us with more grating sounds. There was a lovely, melodic, singing folk-like tune, reminding me somehow of the American west, from Chris Stone’s violin in “Under Ground” (8). This piece was accompanied by some beautiful percussive effects from Holly Downes’ double bass. “Floating” (9) featured Susan Ellis, with eerie echo, and the violin. Ellis also moved us with what must surely have been challenging high humming in “Emerging Dots of White” (7). Kiri Sollis was kept busy playing piccolo, flute and alto flute (thought not all at once!) In “Excited Particles Flying High” (11) the piccolo shone as the excitement built. The sound of sheets of paper vibrating and crackling at the end of this movement was wonderfully effective. Through all this Sollis was busy conducting (with his body or eyes), attending to the mixing in of the spoken word components, or playing his guitar or mandolin.

The overriding questions are, I suppose, how well did the science work with the fairy story, and does the music hang together as a whole work. I can’t answer that on one performance, but I certainly came away feeling I’d once again experienced excellent musicians playing music that engaged both my brain and my spirit. What more can you ask, really?

Ensemble: Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes), Chris Stone (violin), Laura Tanata (harp), Michael Sollis (director/composer plus plucked strings).

* Although the last movement was no. 15, there were only 14 movements, as there was no no. 13 – a nod, presumably, to superstition and perhaps to the mystical aspects of the journey we were taken on.

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:

The Griffyns are on fire

Stage, pre-show

Preshow setting up

And now for something completely different. If Griffyn Ensemble’s last concert, Do you believe? (my review)kept us on our intellectual toes from go to whoa, their third concert* of 2014, House on Fire, had our toes-a-tapping and feet-a-walking in a program that owed more to folk traditions than classical. Collaborating this time with Canberra pop-duo The Cashews (Alison Procter and Pete Lyons), they presented “a new program of original music” composed by them and The Cashews. The programme was  inspired by Arthur Boyd’s imaginative, surreal exploration of “place and identity” and was performed at the National Gallery of Australia’s Gandel Hall to coincide with the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition. Mr Gums and I made a day of it. We visited the exhibition, had lunch overlooking the gorgeous sculpture garden and lake, and then went to the afternoon concert.

When I describe this program as more folk than classical, though, I don’t mean to suggest it was simple. This is the Griffyns after all, and their intent was serious even if the presentation had a lighter – and yes, probably more musically accessible – touch.

The programme opened with an empty stage and the sounds of birds which became more intense as the Griffyns took up their places on the stage and started playing music that sounded like dawn – like birds congregating around a waterhole, as the sun comes up. This segued immediately to the Cashews who performed a beautiful acknowledgement of traditional owners. It was an inspired change from the usual spoken one. “I’ll begin where you began”, they sang, “with connection to this land … I acknowledge you”, concluding with “and pause to acknowledge all that is yours”*. Truly moving.

Pete Lyons then introduced the program, and acted as emcee for the rest of the concert. This was interesting given that it was a Griffyn Ensemble concert, but it spoke beautifully to the fact that this was a real collaboration. Lyons told us that the concert would explore such ideas as belonging and unbelonging, connectedness and unconnectedness, metamorphosis, space, landscape, and silence. All of these made sense to an Australian audience, particularly when also viewed through the prism of Arthur Boyd’s complex depiction of landscape and intense relationship with the environment.

I’d love to describe the whole programme but that would take too long. Unfortunately there was no printed program so I can’t list the pieces. In fact I don’t really know the names of them all, but there were 11 or 12 interspersed with commentary, some brief interviews with Griffyn musicians, and a little walk on the outside! The program ran for nearly 2 hours without an interval, but I don’t think anyone cared.

“Moving to a discordant beat”

Susan Ellis singing inside "Skyspace"

Susan Ellis singing inside “Skyspace”

I did wonder how well the two sets of performers would meld their very different sounds – one folk-pop and the other contemporary classical. I needn’t have worried. These are all seasoned musicians, flexible in their ability and eclectic in their interests. It was particularly interesting to hear Susan Ellis’ classically trained voice mix with Alison Procter’s lighter one. They had (of course) practised and it worked beautifully, invoking for me the way Arthur Boyd had blended so many competing influences and tensions in his work. In several of the pieces of music, this tension was also conveyed by interspersing lyrical sections with more discordant sounds. Surprising how discordant a harp can sound when it tries – and Laura Tanata certainly tried, to great effect.

I enjoyed Holly Downes’ double bass playing in the last concert, and again in this one. Chris Stone produced some gorgeous mournful tones on his violin. A particularly moving piece was the song that expressed the concert’s theme of House on Fire. It drew on Canberra’s tragic bushfire of 2003 and the fire at Arthur Boyd’s childhood home that destroyed his father and renowned potter Merric Boyd’s kiln. The piece opened with Susan Ellis and Laura Tanata, with the whole ensemble then joining in. It conveyed, in words and music, a sense of “moving to a discordant beat”, but also recognised that there is “strength in adversity”.

The Arthur Boyd “theme” played out in various ways throughout the concert. In another piece, “Metamorphosis”, Susan Ellis, in voice, and Holly Downes’ on double bass, led the ensemble in a piece that explored Boyd’s sense of being “out of kilter”. There was a lovely melancholy in the playing here, too, particularly in the opening double bass.

“Listen … I know exactly what I’m looking at”

Kiri Sollis outside "Skyspace"

Kiri Sollis outside “Skyspace”

As always, Kiri Sollis shone with her flute, but we were entertained to discover in one of the little “impromptu” interviews that this concert was a departure for her. Classically-trained Sollis is used, she said, to practising lots to get what’s on the page in front of her right. However, in this show, she didn’t have much on the page in front of her and had to draw on her improvisational skills. She mentioned the sense of liberation and the terror of “not having stuff on the page”, reminding us again of Boyd and his terrors! She, like Boyd, needn’t have worried.

We were informed at the beginning that there would be silence and a walk. The silence occurred around the halfway mark, and was introduced by Pete who talked of Boyd’s silence about his work. We can understand why, agreeing with Pete’s comment that Boyd’s imagery and metaphors are complex and not easily unravelled. Best, really, for each person to make of it what they will.

The walk occurred a little later in the concert and involved the audience following Susan Ellis (emulating the Pied Piper in voice) out of the Hall, across the lawn and into James Turrell’s “Skyspace”. Once there, we filed inside the cone in small groups and found three Griffyns sitting on the bench humming/chanting into the space. It was peaceful, harmonious – and reminded Mr Gums and me of some moving “art space” experiences in Japan, particularly from the Setouchi International Art Festival.

“Come walk with me”

Following Susan Ellis

Following Susan Ellis

The concert/show/performance (have you noticed that I don’t quite know what to call these events?) concluded on three pieces of music: “Umbilical Link” composed by Michael Sollis, with words by Alison Procter, “Landscape Escape”, and  “Mountain Song”. “Umbilical Link” was inspired by Sollis’ walking around the suburb in which he grew up, and now lives in again. It’s about belonging, and it also connected to Boyd, to the fact that in the last two decades of his life he found a place he loved, Bundanon. In 1993 he gave Bundanon to the people of Australia because “you can’t own a landscape”.

Being Whispering Gums, I loved this line from “Umbilical Link”:

… big trees whispering moments from my histories.

“Landscape Escape”, a new song by the Cashews, referred specifically to Boyd’s finding Bundanon – “an intricate seduction on a canvas so vast”. The show then closed with an older Cashews’ work (I believe), “Mountain Song”, which neatly tied together the various themes that had been put to us – belonging, disconnection and discordance, respect for indigenous ownership, and a nurturing of the spirit. Australians will get the allusion in Lyons’ words, “the great divide is the great unification”. And with that, a few of the Griffyns picked up stones and sticks and playfully duelled with each other, percussively, before all took their well-deserved bows.

* For the second time this year, the programme was preceded by a support act, this time, appropriately, the local folk/folk-rock/hug pop group, Pocket Fox. We heard the last few songs and were impressed.
** I was trying to capture some lyrics as they were sung, so my quotations may not be exact.

Performers and the audience

Have you ever been to a show – a concert, a play, a ballet, for example – and wondered about the performers? How do they relate to each other? What do they do in their spare time? Well, quite coincidentally, two shows I went to last week looked at this question from different angles.

First, Musica Viva. We in Canberra were the last concert in the tour by young London-based trio, the Sitkovetsky Trio which comprises Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano), and Leonard Eischenbroich (cello). They are all in their twenties and have been good friends since they met as young children – preteen – at the Yehudi Menuhin School. We decided to attend the after concert Q&A. While some of the questions related to their artistic practice and influences, some addressed those questions that clearly I’m not the only one to ponder, such as whether they remember their first meetings with each other, and how their current extra-curricular interests might influence their playing.

In the program, Chinese pianist Wu Qian talked about her fascination with English literature and how she read all the Jane Austen novels after arriving in England. She was 13 years old, I believe, when she started at the school. Most interesting though was Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky’s answer at the Q&A. He arrived at the school when he was around 8 years old and, being so young, apparently lost all facility with his language. He returned to Russia for the first time when he was 17 years old and was embarrassed by his lack of skill in his own language. He couldn’t even read billboards he said. And so he set about rectifying that. It’s so wonderful, he said, to be able to read Tolstoy and Pushkin in the original language. As a reader, I totally understood that. German cellist Leonard Eischenbroich, on the other had, spoke of the importance of recognising the moment when you are independent of teachers and influences – not in the sense that you stop learning from others but in terms of being confident in the sort of musician you are and able to assess external input on your own terms.

And then, the next night we attended the Sydney Dance Company’s show, Interplay. It comprised three dances, “2 in D Minor” (by Rafael Bonachela), “Raw Models” (by Jacopo Godani), and “L’Chaim” (Gideon Obarzanek). They were three wonderful and very different performances, but the one I want to talk about here is the last, “L’Chaim”, which, you might know, means “To life” in Hebrew/Yiddish. It is a dance that directly addresses both the audience’s curiosity about the artists as well as what an audience member might seek from attending a performance. It’s a clever, entertaining and provocative piece.

“L’Chaim” is a work that combines dance (choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek) and text (written by David Woods). It commences with the dancers on stage in – hmm – play clothes, dancing or, perhaps, rehearsing a dance. They dance, stop and talk, and dance again. But, while this is going on, they are being asked questions from the audience. Often the questions are directed to individual dancers – “the German-looking one”, “the youngest”, “you with the spiky hair” – and so a microphone is passed around from dancer to dancer who attempts to answer questions while continuing to dance. And the questions are those we might like to ask: “Who is the youngest?”, “Are you grumpy”, “Does it take a lot of strength to do that?”, “Say your cat died yesterday and you had to bury it – would you be sad when you were dancing? What would it look like?”, and “Do you know what we want?”. The dancer’s answer to the latter was “to be entertained”. She went on to suggest that the audience doesn’t want to be made to feel sad”. The interrogation ends only when the questioner admits to being sad and is invited onto the stage.

The writer of the text, David Wood, writes in the program that we audience members fear being asked “What did you think”? (I know that feeling!). He says that “it isn’t easy to put into words the event that we have just been a part of”. And so, he says:

In “L’Chaim” we have attempted to dive into this murky zone … some of the questions are shallow and some downright disrespectful but our voice needs to wade through this initial trivia to get to the heart of its dilemma – to articulate something beyond the literal.

After the intensity of “2 in D Minor” and the confronting power of “Raw Models”, “L’Chaim” brought us back to reality, to thinking about what it is that we seek in dance, or, indeed, in any performance we attend. It didn’t provide an answer, of course, because there isn’t a simple one, but it gave us freedom to explore our reactions on multiple levels – the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. It’s an unusual piece, and may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I laughed when I recognised myself in the superficial questions and I appreciated its acknowledgement of my uncertainty about articulating the meaning of what I’ve experienced.

What do you ponder when attending live performances?

The Shows:

  • Musica Viva, The Sitkovetsky Trio, performed Lewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, April 14, 2014
  • Sydney Dance Company, Interplay, performed Canberra Theatre Centre, April 10-12, 2014

The Griffyn Ensemble’s paean to the weather

It’s pretty much a given that a Griffyn Ensemble concert will be both entertaining and challenging – and their latest concert, Cloudy With a Chance of Rain, was no exception. But this concert had an added fillip: it was unashamedly political in addressing the thorny (for some) issue of climate change. Good on the Griffyns I thought.

Before I continue though, I’ll list the current line-up:

  • Kiri Sollis (Flute, etc)
  • Matthew O’Keeffe (Clarinets)
  • Wyana O’Keeffe (Percussion – hmm, it seems there’s been another wedding amongst the Griffyns as Wyana was previously Etherington)
  • Meriel Own (Harp)
  • Susan Ellis (Soprano)
  • Michael Sollis (Director, Composer, and Mandolin, etc)

That’s six, where there was once seven. I wonder what has happened to Carly Brown, their French Horn player? Anyhow, for this concert there was a seventh – geomorphologist and ex-weather presenter, Rob Gell.

So to the concert, which was described in the program as including works “spanning geography and genre contextualised through the four seasons, from the ancient ice ages to the distant future.” It commenced with Rob Gell introducing the climate theme by talking about the ice age and leading us nicely into the first part of the concert, labeled Winter, because the concert was organised by the four seasons. It was, in fact, the four seasons without the Four Seasons! Now that’s original programming, though poor old Vivaldi probably turned in his grave!

The music itself was highly varied, as we expect from the Griffyns. The concert started with a moody, contemporary piece, “White Scenery”, by Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks. Originally a piano piece, it had been arranged by the Griffyns for harp, mandolin, flute and vibraphone. The other wintry pieces were Debussy’s “Snow is Dancing” played on harp, and Schubert’s song “The Linden Tree”. We then moved through the seasons, hearing a mix of traditional classic, contemporary, jazz and popular music. I can’t possibly list all the pieces now (which, in addition to Europe, came from places as varied as Japan, Uruguay and the southern US) … so will move onto …

Desert south of Woomera, South Australia

Desert south of Woomera, South Australia

What I, a reader who enjoys music, particularly love about the Griffyns: there’s always a literary element to their concerts and they always credit writers in their simple but useful programs. In this concert there were songs set to works by Wilhelm Müller (“The Linden Tree”), Ruth Valadares Corrêa, Rainer Maria Rilke and Herman Hesse among others, as well as an original work inspired by Patrick White. This work, “Mirage”, was composed by the group’s director, Michael Sollis, for piccolo and glockenspiel. It was inspired, the notes say, by “Patrick White’s image of the harsh Australian desert landscape – full of emptiness, desolation, relentless heat, and an unnerving sense of ritual”. Now, if I was intrigued and impressed by how the comparatively high registers of the flute could convey the depths of winter in Vasks’ “White scenery”, I thoroughly enjoyed the piccolo’s representation of a mirage for this summer piece. The piece played out a little like a cat-and-mouse game between the two instruments, with, surprisingly for the subject matter, an element of humour. Kiri Sollis and Wyana O’Keeffe did a lovely job with what was a musically and intellectually challenging but evocative piece. It was in the Summer narration that Gell made his strongest points about climate change, sharing some now well-known but still scary data about increasing temperatures, increasing rain, and the havoc these will cause.

I would love to list all my favourite pieces from the concert, but that would be most of them. While Vivaldi, thankfully really, wasn’t there, another obvious selection was – “Summertime”. I also loved Susan Ellis’ rendition of another favourite of mine, “Autumn Leaves”. The notes describe it as a 1945 French song made famous by Edith Piaf, but I know it best in a version by the lovely Eva Cassidy.

It was a good concert. It may have had a rough spot here and there, but it had life, and it teased our minds and moved our hearts. I’ll close with some words from Wilhelm Müller’s “The Linden Tree”:

When dreaming there I carved
Some words of love upon the bark
Both joy and sorrow
Drew me to that shady spot

“Joy and sorrow” in a “shady spot”. That just about says it all.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary poetry and music

telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
(from “Homecoming” by Bruce Dawe)

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a private function at which a small, local, male a capella group, the Pocket Score Company, performed. Their repertoire is primarily early music (medieval and Renaissance) but last night they also sang one modern composition set to a poem by Australian poet Bruce Dawe. The poem, bitterly titled “Homecoming” (1968), is about the bodies of soldiers being brought home from Vietnam. The composer is, I believe, Philip Griffin. As far as I can work out, he was born in England, grew up in Western Australia and now lives in New Zealand but info about him is pretty minimal.

My main point here, though, is not Philip Griffin but the close relationship between poetry and music. I often hear people who love to read say they’d like to read poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, but find it difficult … and it sure can be, but, set to music, poetry can suddenly become way more comprehensible. There is a lot of synergy between poetry and music – just think ballads, for a start – and I have touched on the poetry-music relationship in past posts on musical ensembles. Today, though, I decided to do a quick Internet search to see what else I could find. One exciting idea I discovered was the Pure Poetry Project  which was established by Bronwyn Blaiklock and the Ballarat Writers Inc.

The first Pure Poetry event occurred in 2004 and focused on the performance of new poetry and new music rather than expressly requiring a crossover between the two. However, this year, it was decided to specifically encourage integration between the two art forms:

selected poets and composers have been asked to write specific new works in a two-part process. In the first part composers have been asked to musically respond to recently written poems, whilst poets have been asked to respond to recently composed works. The second part of the process is more of a direct collaboration where poet and composer work together to create a new work. (Anthony Lyons, composer)

The recital took place in May this year, in Ballarat. It sounds like an exciting event and I would love to have been there.

Australian poet Les Murray, photographed at hi...

Les Murray, 2004 (Courtesy: Brian Jenkins, using CC-BY 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Another exciting project combining contemporary poetry and music is that between The Song Company (whom I’ve reviewed here before) and Australian poet Les Murray, in which composers from around the world have set selected Murray poems to music. One of the composers, Andrew Ford, asked Murray many years ago about an early collaboration with the Song Company and his view on the relationship between poetry and music. Murray said:

… My wife’s very musical, and some of the family are, and I think all of the Murrays believe that music was the art that mattered. I’ve always had rather a poor ear I think and tried to make music out of words. But I have this instinct to stretch words out to the edge, where they start crumbling away in music. […] I’d love to write a good song, and particularly a good hymn before I check out of this profession. But yes, we’re all hovering on the edge of music, we’re always hovering on the edge of all the other arts I guess. Dance, for one; a lot of dance underlies poetry.

Finally, another musical ensemble I have reviewed here before, the Griffyn Ensemble, also regularly performs modern poetry set to music, and sometimes poetry recited alongside music, at their concerts.

None of these ideas are new of course. Poetry has been set to music for centuries and it clearly still is – but it can be hard to find, party because it may not be promoted as such. I’d love to hear of other collaborations and events, in Australia or elsewhere.