We found our way on a cold winters night to a dark, dingy Darlinghurst lane with a steel roller shutter door and wondered what we had let ourselves in for. Inside however, we found a cosy space with chairs and a lot of people sipping wine. A small stage was set up with some high tech gear and music stands. Encouraging.
The concert was divided into two distinct halves. Before interval we heard pieces performed by The Music Box Project, a group of early career musicians with a strong bent towards improvised and experimental music.
They opened with a piece by Berlin based Australian composer Cathy Milliken: “Memorial/Traces (12 card pieces)“. All the performers of the group (voice, flute, accordion, sax, trumpet, violin and double bass) were scattered around the space with the audience in the middle. Graphic score cards inspired the improvised performance and a silent video of a children’s music class (taken by the singer Tina Stephanou) was shown simultaneously. The music was not directly related to the video but it is amazing how the mind ascribes connections and meaning, where objectively these are at best tenuous; the experience was thus deepened considerably.
Two further pieces based on graphic scores were inspired by the exhibition at the venue’s gallery upstairs: Jane Aubourg & Elizabeth Jigalin’s “Ornaments” and Joseph Franklin & Joseph Lisk’s “Opera“. These pieces used a wide tonal range exploring the experimental limits of the instruments involved.
The final piece from The Music Box Project was Natalie Williams’ “Vignettes of Paul Klee” which featured the unusual instrumentation of piccolo (Naomi Johnson) and soprano sax (Peter Leung). They claimed to be the rebels of the group because they were playing from fully scored music. The lengths people will go to to shock! The pieces, albeit very high in pitch, were evocative of birdsong and at other times of veils billowing in the wind. Interesting work.
The headline artist, American cellist Ashley Bathgate, was up after interval. She played a series of works mostly composed, I suspect, specifically for her by five composers all of whom are her friends. The pieces were all for solo cello (amplified by microphone) and prerecorded cello and/or sound effects. All the pieces (except the last) were pretty much tonal and the rhythms on the whole were not terribly complex. If that sounds like a recipe for a new-age wafty music for listening to as you drift of to sleep, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Bathgate played throughout with passionate intensity, impressive accuracy of timing, and above all gripping musicality. Her pitch control was impressive even in very highest end of the range and her technique of deliberate sharpening notes to increase intensity worked a treat. Apart from structured glissandos, I did not hear a flat attack to a note all night. And there was certainly no shying away from dissonance. What a gutsy and courageous performance!
Emotionally she ranged over gentle lyrical longing, fiery tempest, visceral resonance, and disturbing clashes and cross-rhythms.
There were too many pieces to go into detail here, but I will single out the work “Velvet” by the Australian composer Kate Moore, who lives in the Netherlands. Her work is inspired by the representation of cloth in the paintings of Dutch Renaissance masters. What a brilliant idea. And tonally ideally suited to the warmth of Bathgate’s cello and the folds of light and dark it affords. A fascinating work beautifully rendered.
The other composers represented were Fjola Evans, Emily Cooley, Pamela Madsen and Fay Wang. All equally engaging.
It is a rare experience to walk out of a performance of contemporary music by various composers and to have enjoyed it unreservedly and been riveted throughout. I had never heard Bathgate before this concert, but I will not be forgetting her in a hurry. Although I was delighted to experience her performance at such close quarters, frankly I am surprised to hear an artist of her calibre in such a small venue. She deserves to be heard on the concert stages of the City Recital Hall and Sydney Opera House. I am sure we have not heard the last of this impressive musician.