One arrives at Melbourne venue fortyfivedownstairs by walking down several flights of stairs into a warehouse-style basement with beautiful old hardwood floors and painted brick walls. Descending into this peaceful space felt almost like time travelling into the past.
As soon as the concert began, that illusion broke, thanks to a brand new arrangement by Peter Neville of Ross Edwards’ Full Moon Dances. Originally for orchestra with solo alto saxophone, this concerto was premiered in June 2012 with Amy Dickson as the soloist (to whom the piece is dedicated). It is a fabulous work, but so complex both for the soloist and particularly for the orchestra that it has never joined the canon of frequently played saxophone repertoire. The piece relies heavily on nuances of the different orchestral timbres: regal horn calls, the dreamlike quality of the harp, the profoundly deep buzz of the contrabassoon, the dynamic subtleties of the strings, and so on.
Furthermore, Edwards says of this work on his website: “In my saxophone concerto, Full Moon Dances, a female soloist is proffered the role of universal Moon Goddess incarnate, source of plant life and protector of the environment, in which she performs a series of ritual healing ceremonies. Serene and mysterious, she nonetheless has power to unleash ecstasy and terror beyond the bounds of reason.”
By explicitly linking the gender of the performer with the performance of this piece, some might argue that it could be inauthentic or perhaps inappropriate for anyone who does not identify as female to perform as soloist on this piece. Certainly for the performance to be successful, the work requires the saxophone soloist to have incredible sensitivity, attention to detail, emotional maturity and depth, absolute control over the instrument, and the ability to tap into a raw and guttural power. Full Moon Dances was performed by Amy Dickson a number of times in 2012 and once in 2013 with different orchestras around Australia, it was recorded for the album Island Songs, and then fell into obscurity.
Given all this, one might wonder how an arrangement for piano, saxophone, and percussion might work: how could so few musicians possibly account for the timbral variety that makes this piece so special? But though there are some moments where a particular timbre feels like it is missing, Peter Neville has so cleverly incorporated the percussion parts that you would never know that any timbre was absent. Neville himself expertly performed these difficult, complex, and critical percussion parts, always precisely in time with the piano and saxophone, as if the three ensemble members were working from a single mind.
Full Moon Dances has five movements, each representing a particular ritual healing ceremony by the Moon Goddess. In the first movement, Mantra with Night Birds and Dark Moon Blossoms, an allusion to an ancient mantra, consisting of a repeated two-note ascending figure, is performed by pianist Coady Green to open the piece. This mantra invokes the Goddess, represented by a swirling saxophone melody that quickly climbs into the altissimo (ultra-high, extended) range. Saxophonist Justin Kenealy navigates this range with ease while also – through tonal nuances – creates the impression that perhaps this whirling Goddess, coming out of the mist, is at first hesitant to appear. Then the glockenspiel and piano join together in perfect synchronization to play a sparse, eerie moon melody. Kenealy and Green pass off melodic lines in flawless rhythm, intonation, and tonal blend before a gong accentuates the return of the chant-like mantra motive, and the saxophone holds a note that fades away beautifully into nothingness and into the night.
The second movement is the First Ritual Dance, where rhythmic, non-repetitive low note hits synchronized between all three players are vaguely reminiscent of the Dance of the Adolescents from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Yet here, Edwards increases the intensity of the dance by including guttural multiphonics in the saxophone part. Multiphonics are an extended technique where the saxophone, which usually only plays one pitch at a time, plays multiple pitches at once. The piece gradually builds force in pitch and dynamics, higher and higher, louder and louder, until it peaks and the piano and percussion return with their sparse, rhythmic motive. Kenealy then plays a meandering saxophone melody over top, building up even higher to a new climax, and the piece ends with a final low piano note that fades into the third movement.
The third movement, Water Moon, venerates the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, Guan Yin, who, like the Christian Mary, is often depicted as a graceful woman in a robe with an aureole of moonlight. This movement begins with a flowing piano introduction. When Kenealy enters, his smoothness makes the first three chromatic notes sound almost like a pitch bend, adding a slight sultriness. The saxophone’s melodic line flows up into the gentlest of altissimo, and Kenealy’s mellow tone blends perfectly with the vibraphone. As saxophone and vibraphone meander up and down, they illustrate the gentle ebb and flow of quiet, undisturbed, moonlit water. Then the two-note ascending motive from the first movement returns in the piano, recalling the moon. As the saxophone and piano’s melodic lines blend into one another, the gentlest cymbal and gong notes suggest ripples in the water. Then the vibraphone joins the piano in playing a melody with pentatonic elements, fading to the piano by itself. The saxophone returns along with bowed vibraphone, creating a sense of wonder and mystery. Again, the movement gradually fades out, this time imperceptibly blurring into the next movement.
In the fourth movement, Sanctus, lone bells played by Neville create a sombre, peaceful, quiet atmosphere. When the saxophone enters, Kenealy continues this trance-like feeling by keeping a straight tone and perfect smoothness between notes. He then uses the most carefully controlled, gentlest vibrato, mostly on his mid-range E-flats, which is the central pitch for the saxophone’s melody. In this movement, the saxophone keeps coming back to its E-flat, holding this pitch, and finally ending the movement as this same note fades out. Continually coming back to this same, emphasized pitch provides a sense of centre and meditation.
The final movement of Full Moon Dances is a Second Ritual Dance where we again hear those rhythmic low notes in the piano at the beginning. However, this time, the saxophone and vibraphone enter with a joyous melody, as if all pain from the world has briefly been erased. The percussionist then beats out a cool rhythm on a hand drum as the saxophone plays fast-moving runs and figures spanning the full range of the horn and into the altissimo, and then, silence! …. Next, there is a reflective passage with only saxophone and piano, followed by a sparse rhythm on a woodblock and then a brief piano interlude which brings us back to the rhythmic ritual dance. However, this time the piano includes hints of the happy melody, which returns with the entrance of the saxophone and vibraphone. Kenealy brings us to the moment of highest energy in the piece with a fast run building up to a high note, and then a single low note quaver performed synchronously with saxophone and piano ends the piece.
To my surprise, the main place where I missed the orchestral timbres in this arrangement was in the fourth movement, where the muted strings from the original version added depth to the serenity of the ambiance. Aside from that, several factors made up for the lack of orchestra. Most importantly, the interactions between the three musicians were flawless. Green’s unique skill in timbral and character adjustment on the piano made it seem as though the different instrumental colours were still present. Finally, Neville’s percussion arrangement and performance provided particular shades of emphasis to special sonic moments.
The second and final piece on the program was a sensory overload in seven ‘scenes’. Jane Hammond’s Songs of the Helmeted Honeyeater for soprano saxophone, piano, and narrator – with text by Theresa Borg, who also directed the work and collaborated with Hammond from inception – also includes a soundscape, as well as a film by Angus Hamilton. Before beginning this piece, Coady Green gave an acknowledgment of country as well as an explanation of how human behaviour caused the decline of the Helmeted Honeyeater, the state bird of Victoria, to only around fifty birds in 1989. That year saw the formation of the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, an organisation dedicated to restoring the habitat for this endangered species. Thanks to their efforts, there are now more than 250 Helmeted Honeyeaters in the wild. The piece is a reminder of our human relationship with the environment and the delicate balance of the complex ecological communities in nature. In bombarding the audience with auditory and visual stimuli, this multimedia work is a call to environmental action that will be long remembered by its audience. As Green highlighted, for him the most powerful words in the piece caution that the species is only “one bush fire away from extinction.”
The piece begins with a pre-recorded soundscape of flowing water, birds chirping, and gently rustling leaves. This soundscape can be heard at different volumes throughout most of the work. The soprano saxophone enters with a slow melody with descending motives, and the piano meanders in the upper octaves, like a small flowing river, just as a video image of a creek is projected behind the performers. We see the lush, green bush as the saxophone plays a hopeful melody. Then the piano imitates the bird calls as you hear them in the background soundscape. Green uses the lightest, most flurrying touch on the piano keys, making his chirping imitations sound almost like echoes of the actual birds. As the narrator begins to speak, we see someone walking through the bush, alone. This first scene is an introduction to the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. The video shows wild mushrooms growing on logs, a helmeted honeyeater on a branch that flits away as the saxophone melody flurries off, and kookaburras laughing as saxophone and piano imitate them.
The second scene focuses on the water. It begins without the saxophone and piano so that the audience can focus on the narrator’s voice and the visuals. The narrator describes the different creeks in the Yellingbo Reserve that feed into the Yarra. All of the narration text comes from recorded conversations with members of the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater at Yellingbo. As speaker Theresa Borg finishes, Green plays a series of repeated upwards flourishes on the piano, like fast-moving water. Then we see a Honeyeater dive into the water and back out as Kenealy plays a descending and ascending melody flying over top. The saxophone’s notes slow down as if we are now soaring high above in a majestic flight, with a few quick, repeated figures that simulate the flapping of wings to keep us aloft. Some repeated piano notes denote the end of this section.
The narrator enters again in Scene Three. The phrase, “you can see they’re always buzzing about” sticks out as some quick, repeated piano notes imitate the birds buzzing. Then the speaker explains that the Honeyeaters take dust baths to get rid of parasites. We hear Honeyeaters chirping again, as the saxophone and piano imitate the bird calls which then evolve into a saxophone melody, sometimes shared in unison with the piano. Another flying saxophone melody begins, but this time more winding and not quite so high. Here in the film, we see the foliage as if we are flying through the leaves. The melody slows to nearly a halt as we see Honeyeaters settled on branches, chirping happily. All of a sudden, loud, nearly deafening kookaburra laughter takes over. The saxophone and piano make the Honeyeater calls, attempting to sound through the kookaburras, but until the laughter dies down, the kookaburras have taken over.
In Scene Four the narrator explains how people have systematically drained the swamps where the Helmeted Honeyeater and other wildlife live, and how the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater are really protecting the whole swamp, not just the one species. The piano gently flows under the voice as if it were the flowing creek water, with a special flourish on the word “magic.” This is the scene where those most powerful words appear: “species on the brink” … “one. ONE fire away from extinction.” As the piano repeats high notes along with some sparse left-hand chords, the saxophone interjects with short, high, squeaking motives, as if speaking to the piano. Green calls back with the same motive as if to say, “yes, I hear you! This is an urgent matter, but what can we do about it?” In response, the saxophone and piano join together on these repeated high notes, accelerating until it feels like they will explode, and at the breaking point Kenealy ceases his long note and all three performers turn to look at the projected screen, watching as a Helmeted Honeyeater flies away. The background soundscape track stops at this point, allowing for a slow and sombre saxophone solo. The message here is clear: people must notice this species and take action together, or else we will all watch these beautiful little birds disappear forever.
Scene Five emphasizes the many people involved in trying to save the Helmeted Honeyeaters’ habitat. The saxophone and piano become like the natural background as the soundscape is faded to a much quieter volume so that we can focus on the narrator. However, here the words are somewhat harder to follow as they become more poetic with less cohesive grammatical structure. As the speaker finishes, the piano’s fast, upward, flowing water motive returns along with the saxophone’s high-flying melody. It is difficult to tell where Scene Five ends and Scene Six begins, as they flow together seamlessly. The natural beauty projected in the film is mesmerising, showing all kinds of wildlife, from wallabies to shiny, crimson rosellas. As the background nature sounds grow louder, the images of the stream return. We again see the Honeyeaters diving into the water for a quick dip. This time, the saxophone’s melody merges with the piano’s flowing water motive. Scenes Six and Seven blur together as Kenealy plays a slow, meandering melody which is picked up by the piano before the saxophone rises slowly upward. The room darkens, but we still hear the sounds of nature as the video fades to black. Finally we hear a few more chirps from the Helmeted Honeyeaters as the soundscape fades out and we are left in darkness and silence.
Jane Hammond’s piece, commissioned by Duo Eclettico, is an important new large-scale work for the saxophone by an Australian composer. However, this piece is even more significant for its effort to increase environmental awareness and protect native species. Music has long been used as a call to action, to incite change, and for social justice. Hammond’s multimedia work goes beyond mere music, using the spoken word, natural sound recordings, a carefully crafted film, and even physical gesture to ensure her message reaches each audience member and will not be forgotten.
Duo Eclettico beautifully navigated these two large-scale, highly difficult and complex works so that they seemed nearly effortless. Kenealy and Green’s attention to detail, and particularly their sensitivity and thoughtfulness regarding the emotive aspects of Full Moon Dances, shone through in this performance. Songs of the Helmeted Honeyeater, while powerful, contains too much multisensory information to fully absorb on a single hearing/viewing, and it begs to be seen and heard several times to truly understand it. Hopefully, Duo Eclettico will continue to perform both of these works many times in the future.