Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
February 11, 2018

New York composer Annie Gosfield’s spiky (and delightfully titled) Cranks and Cactus Needles opened Sydney new music group Ensemble Offspring’s first concert of 2018 – and the inaugural concert of the Sydney Opera House’s new Crescendo series – Hark the Machine. Gosfield – dubbed by the BBC as “a one woman Hadron collider” – named her 2003 work for the hand cranks used to wind up ancient phonographs and the cactus spines that made for cheap needles. In the hands of Veronique Serret on violin, Blair Harris on cello, Lamorna Nightingale on flute and Jacob Abela on piano it lurched through warping pitches and crunching, driving rhythms, a visceral conjuring of the decay of now defunct technology.

Hark the Machine, Ensemble OffspringBlair Harris, Lamorna Nightingale, Claire Edwardes and Jason Noble in Ensemble Offspring’s Hark the Machine. Photo © Ensemble Offspring

The tone softened with Australian composer Andrea Keller’s Love in Solitude (composed for the 2017 Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission). Shimmering textures of piano, bass flute and bass clarinet (Jason Noble) were shot through with gleaming percussion from Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director Claire Edwardes before a voice emerged from the electronic track – text from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – in a reflective and gently haunting work.

At the centre of the program was the world premiere of a new work commissioned through Ensemble Offspring’s Noisy Egg Creation Fund, Australian composer Fiona Hill’s Pentography, which draws inspiration from Traditional Chinese Medicine and the five seasons. The hypnotic work charted a course through Spring, Summer, Earth, Autumn and Winter, from jagging attacks – flute (kitted out with wooden head joint) flitting over hard accents from the ensemble – to tranquil warmth and dream-like passages with bending pitches echoing the Gosfield, and finally a sense of stillness and calm, Nightingale playing a small wooden flute over the ethereal hum of singing bowls.

Thomas Meadowcraft’s Medieval Rococo also channelled tranquillity. The Australian composer’s 2016 work was written for Ensemble Offspring and explores a tension between the medieval, in the composer’s note “crude and backward”, and rococo, “garish and arty”. Layered textures glistened with percussion and harpsichord sounds (Abela on keyboard), the sprawling, meditative layers eventually receding beneath an electronic track of more complex decoration that begins to pull the players in more rhythmic directions.

Finishing with the hard-edged swagger of American composer David Lang’s 1993 (revised in 1996) Cheating, Lying, Stealing – a piece that wedges itself into the “dirty seams” of music with heavy, though pitched, percussive drive – this was a cracking start to Ensemble Offspring’s 2018.