Over the past 30 years, members of ELISION Ensemble have built up intimate musical relationships with composers as well as their fellow performers, and as a way of staying connected in our currently highly unconnected world some of these collaborations have been put up on YouTube as part of their Performance Series.
So far there are eight videos, filmed by Agatha Yim with sound by Alistair McLean, recorded at the Primrose Potter Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre. In them we see five of ELISION’s regular members superbly captured in close-up as they perform on both conventional and their famously unusual instruments, including a Heath Robinson-like double-belled trombone and an eclectic array of percussion.
The films range in length from a little under two minutes to 18 minutes and there are five featured composers – Australian Liza Lim, Americans Aaron Cassidy and Evan Johnson, John Aulich from England and Welshman Richard Barrett, some of whose works are played by percussionist Peter Neville in the first film.
The first work Delta features a row of hanging bamboo rods which are knocked together as a human-driven wind chime, while individual bamboos are vibrated and precisely manipulated. For the second piece Neville switches to a vibraphone with an array of add-ons including prayer cymbals, a steel pan drum and a pedal-operated gong. A table top of carefully arranged overturned tins, ceramic dishes, bottles and wooden blocks, struck with chopsticks, is a feature of the final work.
In the second film trumpeter Tristram Williams and Neville perform Liza Lim’s Ehwaz (Journeying) written in 2010. Lim is one of Australia’s most important contemporary composers, having written four operas and worked as Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence in 2005–6. Her works draw on several different cultures – in this case an ancient Germanic rune.
Virtuosic trumpet effects include using a CD as a mini mute as well as a conventional one. Mouthing, tonguing effects and trills, with wild and fast runs across the range of the instrument, make this a truly virtuosic piece, brilliantly executed by Williams. Neville’s use of vibraphone, bottles, gongs struck in water and steel tubes creates a fascinating combination of sounds and effects between the two performers.
ELISION’s Artistic Director Daryl Buckley performs Cassidy’s 2015 piece The Wreck of Former Boundaries on lap steel guitar in the third in the series. If you thought Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner performance at Woodstock was powerful and dramatic just listen to the first couple of minutes of this piece. Buckley slides along the fretboard and steers a vast assemblage of foot-operated effects pedals as the work builds to a white-knuckle F1 ride.
Flautist Paula Rae has performed Melbourne-based Lim’s works for several years and the fourth film showcases a 2019 piece, Bioluminescence, composed for her. Rae’s superb use of flutter tonguing, harmonics, slides and airy trills all help to create that glowing sense of light suggested by the title.
Trombonist Ben Marks plays a rare double-belled instrument in Lim’s remarkable 2014 work The Green Lion Eats The Sun, originally composed for a double-belled euphonium. Marks knocked up a prototype double trombone and got one made and it is a showstopper. One bell is muted, the other open, and the two seem to have a Q & A session at times with Marks’ use of his voice setting up a three-way conversation.
Neville is back for the short sixth video, Johnson’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hyphen, a tinkling solo in which miniature cymbals are struck with fingers or knuckle and flicked as well as being struck by sticks.
Marks appears in film number seven for two substantial trombone solos by Cassidy, this time with a conventional instrument. The first, from 2008, is First Study for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, which features a series of long pauses between anguished passages with heavy use of vibrato. By way of complete contrast this is followed by the mournful Songs only as sad as their listener, from 2006, in which the mute makes the high wavering single note sound like a boat’s foghorn on a misty harbour. This ten-minute plus composition is minimalism writ large (or small!). Marks has a strong affinity with the works of Cassidy, having premiered some of them, and shows wonderful control in both these pieces.
For the final video in the series so far Marks and Neville perform a fascinating new work written for them by Aulich, Green, or Beautiful in Green, inspired by verdigris-covered statues of the ancient Egyptian Apis Bull.
The work depicts the bull’s capture and imprisonment before he dies and becomes Osiris, dematerialising as he goes to the other world across the sky. A glass harmonica sets up an eerie, celestial background while a cello bow scraped across polystyrene blocks augments Marks’ breathy bull-like roars as the animal dies with its horns scraping the prison walls.
It fades to near silence, Marks sighing through the mouthpiece and Neville, barely audibly, twisting and wringing a bunch of thick twine. Powerful and moving, it makes a fitting close to the series to date.
ELISION’s Performance Series can be viewed on YouTube.