Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
September 29, 2018

“Spectral Tech” was both the name of Sydney new music group Ensemble Offspring’s most recent concert, and the ensemble’s umbrella term for the wide-ranging styles of the three brand new works on the program, drawing, at the same time, a line back to the spectral music of the 1970s – represented here by Tristan Murail’s Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (Thirteen Colours of the Setting Sun).

The curtain-raiser was Holly Harrison’s third work in a series composed for Ensemble Offspring commissioned by Penny Le Couteur and Greg Dickson, the title Bend/Boogie/Break evoking the piece’s siren-like slides, grooving funk rhythms and harder beats respectively. Zubin Kanga delivered gritty bass lines from the keyboard, offset at the other end by Claire Edwardes on vibraphone and woodblock – not to mention the sharper punctuation of hi-hat and bass drum. Rowena Macneish’s string-slapping cello stoked the work’s momentum, while Véronique Serret on violin, Lamorna Nightingale on flute and Jason noble and clarinets offered plenty of colour, and some nods to spectral music – which drills down into the acoustic components of music, frequencies, fundamentals and overtones – in gentler moments of mingling upper registers, Edwardes’ taking to the vibes with a bow.

In contrast to Harrison’s driving energy, Tristan Coelho’s A line is a dot that went for a walk – commissioned by Baiba Berzins for her 70th birthday – was reflective, particularly in the beautiful and meditative first movement. The title for this percussion solo, with vibraphone at its heart, comes from a quote by the artist Paul Klee and the work pays homage to Franco Donatoni’s vibraphone solo Omar. With a couple of simple ‘preparations’ – one mallet headless, another sporting a delicate metal chain that rang hauntingly against the bars of the vibraphone – Edwardes gave a magical performance, creating a distinctive sound world, gently reminiscent of the Indonesian gamelan in its variety of timbres, supplemented by an assortment of singing bowls. Edwardes described the work’s second movement as a “sonic onslaught” for vibraphone, and it saw her give a virtuosic performance carving out crisper, rhythmic timbres against the vibraphone’s glow with tom-tom and bongo. The piece finished movingly with the slow beat of shoulder-rubbing frequencies fading into silence. While Edwardes created a wonderfully focussed, meditative atmosphere, it was unfortunately marred at one point by a tremendous crash from the corridors behind the Music Workshop’s stage.

The most venerable work on the program was Tristan Murail’s classic spectral work Treize couleurs du soleil couchant, an exquisitely drawn out exploration of timbres, overtones and microtonal colour-shifts which – in the hands of the EO musicians, conducted by Roland Peelman – unspooled hypnotically as the concert’s extended slow movement.

Spectral Tech finished with the premiere of a larger scale work, En Masse, by Alex Pozniak (commissioned by Charles Davidson), a movement of which had been aired at EO’s Kontiki Racket in 2016. Clocking in at about half an hour, En Masse is a muscular work, jagged and brooding – “elemental” as Peelman described it. While there were a few moments when the balance seemed weighted too far to the roaring piano and percussion – the other instruments, unamplified, getting slightly lost – there were effective moments of bold, surging power and sighing slides and sonic afterglows. Noble’s dark bass clarinet was a particular highlight. If there was little in the way of real lightness in this work, it was a gripping finale to what was ultimately a beautifully shaped and balanced program.

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