Paul Cutlan String Project
Riverside Parramatta Feb 7, 2021
The Lennox Theatre at Riverside Parramatta last Sunday was the setting for my first encounter with the music of Paul Cutlan, improvising reed player and genre-bending composer/arranger. At once lyrical yet rhythmically vibrant, conjuring a host of familiar references but fully original, his music consistently treads a tightrope between jazz and contemporary classical music – yet even the most dogmatic adherent to either camp would be sure to leave curiously satiated.
His writing for strings seems particularly effective in that within a couple of bars he can mould them from delivering slender polyrhythmic punctuation to providing lush orchestral textures. The wise choice of filling the double bass chair with a bona fide jazzer such as Brett Hirst, along with pianist Gary Daley, means the group can almost imperceptibly flit between “serious” classical ensemble and genuine jazz outfit.
Polyrhythms and Lullabies
The opening number ‘Living’, characterised by a 5-against-4 polyrhythmic groove, was an excellent example of this, with plenty of jazz-flavoured dialogue between Hirst, Cutlan on bass clarinet, and the string group, yet retaining that sense of filmic freshness.
Sydney jazz composer Jenna Cave’s ode to motherhood ’Sleep in my Arms’, replete with vocalised shushings and knee taps from 1st violinist Liisa Pallandi, was a vehicle for Cutlan’s gentle clarinet improvisations, while a tapestry of held notes in the upper strings seemed to suggest the security of a quilted blanket.
Time and Place
The late Jan Rutherford’s ‘Thanks for the Espresso’ and Gary Daley’s ‘Middle of the Moment’ delivered some of the more expressly jazz-styled improvisation of the concert. With both works featuring Cutlan on soprano sax and the strings once again playing an integral role, I was reminded of Wayne Shorter’s more recent work on Alegría and other albums, which is something to celebrate. In keeping with the latter work’s theme of being absorbed in a particular time and place, Daley’s piece had the added novelty of featuring the sounds of commuters at Venice’s Santa Luzia train station, recorded by the composer with his phone. Having lived near that part of the world myself for quite a while, it was a somewhat poignant experience to hear those sounds again, given the lingering travel restrictions we still face here.
The Eleventh Hour
The central work of the afternoon, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, Cutlan’s multipartite evocation of the horrors of WWI, was predictably the most serious in tone and ambitious in scope, close to 30 minutes in duration. Alternately brooding and impassioned, violent and redemptive, there were seemingly endless references to 20th-century musical luminaries – Bartok, Shostakovich, Britten, Stravinsky, Penderecki, the list could go on.
The biggest heroes of the work proved to be the string section, who were unrelentingly called upon to deliver page after page of plaintive gloom, vicious savagery and religious zeal. At one point violist James Eccles attacked his instrument so ferociously that he became enshrouded in a cloud of his own rosin dust, a possibly coincidental allusion to the poison gas which defined the early years of the war.
Despite the serious nature of the music, I couldn’t help but smile when, at the conclusion of the most violent section of the piece, each string player had to frantically yank off multiple bow hairs before proceeding with the next part. Nonetheless, the most inspired effect was The Last Post played on bass harmonics, emerging from an eerie haze of other string harmonics, before dispersing into the ether.
The afternoon concluded with an exquisite arrangement of John Coltrane’s ‘After the Rain’, with beautiful solo work from cellist Oliver Miller, sending us all out into the languid Parramatta sun where, appropriately enough, it had just finished raining.