BackStage Music | The Mechanical Fiddle – long may the scene live!

by | Feb 5, 2023 | Ambassador thoughts, Percussion, Violin


Backstage Music: The Mechanical Fiddle

Saturday, 4 February 7:30pm, Woodburn Creatives, Waterloo

Featuring Kyla Matsuura-Miller on violin, and Claire Edwardes with Niki Johnson, Jack Peggie, Kerryn Joyce and Alison Pratt on percussion.


For those not familiar with Backstage Music, it is a Sydney based collective of musicians who foster new and adventurous music performed by both emerging and established artists; “a sonic melting pot of the new.”

The featured artist at this concert was Melbourne violinist Kyla Matsuura-Miller, winner of the 2021 Freedman Fellowship. She was accompanied by the Sydney new music group Ensemble Offspring, in this case 5 percussionists led by Claire Edwardes.

The Dutch composer Theo Loevendie is a close associate of Edwardes, who performed his works many times in the Netherlands. His “Doppleriana” (2003) is a percussion trio for three cowbells, played with felt mallets. The trio managed to bring forth a huge range of tone colours and pitches from these simple instruments, even with doppler effects as bells were swung around at arms length.  Complex tight rhythms (which  we come to expect from Ensemble  Offspring) were anything but random; a cheeky and compelling piece.

Jaslyn Robertson’s “Dream-state” (2021) is a new piece for solo violin. The score is marked “unstable as if floating in a dream”, meaning to evoke the confusion of identity while growing up. There is an inherent difficulty playing a piece with rhythmic, pitch and tone colour instability on the violin, in that it is in danger of sounding like a beginner scratching around. This was far from the case here. Matsuura-Miller interposed her generous full tone with carefully controlled thinner tone.

fascinating polyrhythms… rendered with Offspring’s impressive rhythmic accuracy and precision

Theo Loevendie’s “The Lonely Cowbell” (2003) is a simply scored work for wood-block resonators, paired with a single cowbell. Unlike the previous cowbell piece, this was without any special variations of pitch and tone. Each instrument had its own rhythmic pattern different in length, creating fascinating polyrhythms, and rendered with Offspring’s impressive rhythmic accuracy and precision.

Andrew Ford’s “War and Peace” for violin and percussion was written specifically for Claire Edwardes in 2004. In this concert we heard just the second movement, “No-mans land.” The piece is complex rhythmically, the violin and percussion being often out of phase by a quaver or semiquaver; the effect is unsettling. Sparse and dreamy, it is more descriptive emotionally than physically. Although mostly soft, it is quite stress inducing and discomforting. A thoughtful and evocative performance.

“Wind (Of Ancestors)” (2022) is a piece for violin and percussion written by the First Nation’s composer Eric Avery. Avery is himself a violinist and has collaborated extensively with Ensemble Offspring.  The work is surprisingly tonal, a lyrical and warm violin melody, played with rich tenderness by Matsuura-Miller, over Edwardes’ simple broken chord accompaniment on the vibraphone.

The “Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra” (1961) by Lou Harrison is considered one of his greatest works and was the centrepiece of this program.  The first two movements predate the final by several decades, so it was a long time in the making.  It is also one of the earliest pieces composed specifically for percussion ensemble.  It combines traditional percussion instruments like bass drum and tom-toms with whacky stuff like a garbage bin, spring coils from a car, flower pots etc. This “junk” percussion very much serves as the orchestra in the concerto, as the violin is definitely up front-and-centre.

Matsuura-Miller’s playing is impressive in its robust tone

The first movement has a heavily syncopated violin part, bravely played against diverse and varied pitched and unpitched percussion backgrounds. The rhythmic impetus and insistence comes mainly from the percussion, beneath the melodic violin. Though the violin melodies are often disjunct in pitch more than rhythm, Matsuura-Miller’s playing is impressive in its robust tone, even at the high extremes of the tessitura. The second movement is mostly scored for violin solo with only occasional light accompaniment.  It is traditional in that it has the typical slow tempo of a melancholy second movement. The third movement starts with a dramatic drum entrance in strong contrast to the quietude of the second. Very dramatic and energetic indeed, showing the violinist’s impressive ability to produce rich and robust tone over the strength of the ensemble playing full orchestra-like textures.

Although very much of the avant gard, the broad structure of this piece is surprisingly classical in its concerto architecture.

I love that there are performance platforms for the type of experimental new music presented in this concert, in venues less salubrious than the big concert halls. A bit on the grungy side in Waterloo is entirely appropriate.  Conversely I am also impressed that musicians of the calibre of Matsuura-Miller and Ensemble Offspring (who frequently play in said salubrious halls) consider this music scene important enough to play such venues and for relatively small audiences. It shows that they are in it for the music.  I respect that indeed; long may the scene live.

Photo Credit – Ollie Miller

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