According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the astronomical definition of the word ‘syzygy’ revolves around “the conjunction or opposition of two heavenly bodies”.

I was also aware that the word enfolds the setting of two James Joyce poems by David del Tredici, the American neo-Romantic composer of all those endless Alice (in Wonderland) pieces. In describing his Syzygy (1966) for soprano, horn and chamber orchestra, he writes: “Through astronomy, zoology and mathematics, the word is used, and the common point of definition can perhaps be summed up as the strong union or opposition of elements that had hitherto been in no such juxtaposition.”

Syzygy Ensemble: Laila Engle, Leigh Harrold, Jenny Khafagi, Campbell Banks and Robin Henry

Somewhere in there is the key to not only the name of this new music ensemble but also to the music of Turning Circles their 10th anniversary concert, performed to a capacity audience of around 120 in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon.

Perhaps the word even defines their mission statement and audience. Clearly, the ensemble has a devoted and enthusiastic following for the Australian music they play (around 50 pieces over the past decade) and their international masterworks (in recent years, Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie 1, a George Crumb tribute and dashes of Rzewski and so on).

In a sense, this is a modern-day resuscitation of the Pierrot line-up: flute, clarinet, keyboard, violin and cello. With the addition of a guest percussionist and electronics operator, their present program was assertively, aggressively, exuberantly delivered. No place for the faint-eared here.

For the program’s first 14 minutes, Liza Lim’s The Turning Dance of the Bee (2016) traced the ‘waggle dance’ of bees as they entice others to fresh pollen in the hive. It’s an attractive, if uncompromising and austere work, a string of lapidary fragments, episodic and disconnected, but with some stunning sonorities amidst its unrelenting buzzing and busy-ness.

Tansy Davies, born in Bristol in 1973, is a name new to me and her Grind Show (electric) (2008) for ensemble and electronic backdrop received its Australian premiere here. Taking Goya’s painting The Pilgrimage of San Isidro as its starting-off point, it imagines a grotesque carnival within the four walls of a dance hall. Bizarre dance fragments are counter-posed alongside and overlaid atop each other, in chaotic disarray. After an electronic storm, the tumult subsides, leaving only faint gasps from the cello.

I’ve long been an admirer of the music of Andrew Byrne, for its contagious energy, captivating ideas and extra-musical impetus. Born in Melbourne in 1966, Byrne studied with Fred Lerdahl at Columbia and later worked in programming at Symphony Space and Carnegie Hall. Last year he returned to Melbourne to embark on a freelance career. With this impressive resumé, some cultural institution or festival should snap him up!

Ghosts in the Machine, revised earlier this year, is a six-movement work for ‘stopped piano’, flute, clarinet, violin and cello. Twenty-eight minutes in all, only three movements were presented because of time constraints.

The first movement invites the non-keyboard players to convene around the grand piano to create a percussive cacophony of non-pitched ostinati. What results is a kind of dance for an ensemble of demented clocks.  The second movement, The Orchid and the Wasp, evokes the ‘insect’-choruses of Crumb’s Makrokosmos pieces. The third selection, the here and now is a wild mix of Reich and rock, exhilarating all the way to its pulsating fff conclusion.

The Syzgy players have performed the entire piece at a festival in Mount Macedon recently. I hope to hear it in performance soon and on recording. Like all the music of Byrne that I know, it leaves the ear and the imagination begging for more.

In the quite distinctive music of Sean Shepherd, born in Melbourne in 1979 but now living in the USA, there is a sense of a potpourri of contemporary American styles, with a sense of Copland-esque openness and wonderment at its base. The very title Lumens (2005) reveals its 15-minute trajectory towards an endless vista. There is a strong sense of dance in the verve and energetic rhythm of this work, amplified by its tone-colour-melodies spun like a multi-hued quilt. It could well become a ballet. The allusions to Appalachian Spring were surely intentional, particularly in the serene chordal moments of the ending, tapering off into silence.

This was a program of music entirely unfamiliar to me, with new two composers as well. It was refreshing to experience such uncompromising newness, so persuasively delivered by all players.

Now, if only they could be persuaded to issue paper program notes to their audience, then we could reflect further on Leigh Harrold’s impenetrable musings on the music…

But, bravi, Syzygy and co-presenter, Melbourne Recital Centre. I look forward to future stimulating concerts in the magical music-box that is Melbourne’s Salon.

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