The Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s Reef Talk explores environmental issues through music.

George Crumb Vox Balaenae
Vernon Hill, fl; Julian Smiles, vc; Daniel de Borah, p
Townsville Civic Theatre, July 31

In a day and age when we can pay next to nothing for a “new age” CD of whale song for “relaxation”, it is difficult to imagine the profound impact an early recording of humpback whales had on American composer George Crumb more than forty years ago. In 1971 these enigmatic sounds of the deep served as inspiration for his hauntingly beautiful trio Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale).

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s annual Reef Talk series presents music inet the context of Townsville’s tropical surroundings and community concerns. It was a master stroke of creative programming to introduce Vox Balaenae in such a sympathetic setting, following two short presentations from James Cook University marine life researchers Dr Mark Hamann (a turtle specialist) and Dr Alastair Birtles, the latter having spent years studying and interacting with a new species of minke whale discovered in North Queensland waters in the 1980s.

Against a projected backdrop of humpback whale footage, the intense theatricality Crumb demands of his performers – often quite confronting for audiences – was invested with a deeply engaging local connection.

The trio of flute, cello and piano wore the composer’s requisite black masks, de-humanising the performers and shrouding the sound of nature in mystery. From the supple, almost Debussy-esque (think La Mer) “sea theme” that opens the work, flautist Vernon Hill imbued every phrase with gravitas, particularly when he sings and moans into his instrument while playing – an ethereal approximation of whale song.

This is just one of Crumb’s arsenal of extended instrumental techniques, among the most innovative in 20th-century music and always employed sensitively and with great dramatic effect. In this work, even the most subtle near-inaudible gestures are writ large through amplification. Pianist Daniel de Borah’s task was to create an otherworldly musical language by manipulating the inside of the instrument and bending pitch with a chisel. At the keyboard his playing was by turns strikingly powerful and exquisitely delicate, set against the low rumble of piano strings and sharply percussive soundscape he produced elsewhere.

Julian Smiles’ cello lines were lyrical and luminous. Melodic fragments passed as echoes between the players evoked the vastness and isolation of the ocean, and the final movement’s “Sea-Nocturne” – a meditative passage intoned again and again until it has faded into nothing – paid final tribute to the ancient majesty of the gentle giants that dwell within.

Congratulations must go to the festival and performers for bringing audiences to Vox Balaenae actively engaged, with community spirit and an open mind.

A recording of Queensland’s dwarf minke whales was played as a prelude to the piece. To these ears the sound was comparable to that of a finger tapping a low, amplified guitar string. I wonder what Crumb would have made of it?

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