As the Brisbane heatwave sets in like thick soup, an afternoon of lying under the fan, listening to music is a welcome reprieve. The volume knob has to keep being turned up, so the speakers can compete with the beats of reversing bobcats next-door. Hopefully, the builders are receptive to experimental, big-band jazz.
Ellen Kirkwood’s latest album, [A]part, in collaboration with Sirens Big Band, is an atmospheric blend of jazzy woodwind and brass, high-pitched vocals, disjointed drums, percussion and also, static, buzzing, white noise. This work is a response to the constant noise and chaos of our world, channelling this into music.
[A]part reacts to current social upheaval and change, using jazz to express inner fears, anxieties and rebellions. This album is broken into four movements, each around fifteen minutes in duration, which explore four overarching themes. [A]part explores ideas of the internet, the refugee crisis, climate change, and post-truth. [A]part attempts to comprehend the changing world.
The first movement, [A]part 1: The Internet: Wonder and Malignance, opens so quietly that it seems as though the cd is not working. This part opens with scratchy, fuzzy, static noise, like an old tv. Gradually, the vocals come in, with soft, non-lexical vocables, using sound rather than words. Kirkwood’s use of sound, rather than music, conveys the constant noise of the internet. The lack of words evokes a loss of language, as the internet, and world leaders, simplify everything to fit on a twenty-character tweet. The vocals are dissonant, against the mechanical buzzing. The static noise grows louder, like a plane taking off, and then gentle, calm woodwinds enter. The flutes and clarinets flutter like a windchime, or ripples on a lake, gradually building louder. This woodwind melody becomes a refrain, repeated in various ways throughout the album, showing how the internet is always there, always watching.
The second movement, [A]part 2: On the Refugee Crisis, opens with gentle piano, vocals and brass, with a minor, slightly dissonant mood, to evoke images of calm before the storm. This is quickly replaced by heavy double bass, harsh static noises, scratches, rattles, building to forte with bass, drums and brass. The war, conflict, violence begins. Then, there is brief, uneasy quiet, with long semibreve bass chords, punctuated by static bursts. The French horn and trombone return with frantic, quick, staccato notes, like a chase in a cartoon. A vocalist screams. Then the piano takes the floor, with a disjointed, flourished tune, rolling knuckles up and down the keys. This sense of rocking, rolling, evokes images of a sea journey, water flowing, waves slapping the boat, currents dragging, pulling. Nasally, fast brass come like shouts, warnings, cries, gulls calling.
[A]part 3: Greed and Climate Change begins with clapping, maracas, percussion and pizzicato bass, in complex counter rhythms, in a fast, up-beat tempo. The trumpet solo is groovy, fast, with a bit of swing. Loud, forte, and bold, as trumpets usually are. Two beats for a breath. Piano joins in with the timpani. Eventually, the trumpet fades out for a drum solo. Then, there’s a smooth, flowing, rippling piano melody, accompanied by moaning, sighing trombone, sax, oboe and bassoon. Flutes, piccolo and clarinet add whistles, trembles and whirls, mimicking bird calls. The piano and woodwind mirror each other, like dragonflies skimming the water surface. The gentle, reflective piano, woodwind and brass evoke ideas of calm, tranquillity, like a lush green rainforest. The bold, bossy trumpet evokes ideas of ignorance, greed, of those in power continuing to destroy nature, and to ignore the realities of climate change. Kirkwood explores ideas of fiction, reality, facts and opinion, exploitation, sustainability and consequences.
[A]part 4: The Present: Reflections and Reactions begins with disjointed, plucked, slap bass, contrasted with slow, smooth woodwinds. This is reminiscent of insects hitting glass, falling, thunk. The bass becomes faster and faster, bouncing back and forth, like a trapped bird. The tempo lulls, peaceful. Clarinet and piano take the melody, joined slowly by brass and drums. Drum solo, then fast pace and bass returns. The soprano sax then takes the melody. The piece builds to a dramatic, chaotic, fortissimo finish, with many complex countermelodies, rhythms and competing voices. In this piece, Kirkwood explores issues of our present day, in the constant stream of information, in the conflicts, bickering world leaders, in post-truth. This piece evokes an individual struggling to make a difference, before being drowned out by stronger voices.
Kirkwood’s [A]part is an astounding achievement in the jazz genre, through her experimental use of theme and narrative. Jazz has always been a form to push boundaries and break away from audience expectations, through swing, improvisation and syncopation. Jazz can respond to the world, and reflect back the world’s own issues and provocations, as Kirkwood has done here.
[A]part is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, to allow yourself to be taken on a journey. Through exploring the internet, refugees, climate change and post-truth, Kirkwood allows the listener to participate in wider discussions. She challenges listeners to live [a]part from the crowd.
[A]part will be featured at Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival
Tuesday November 13th, 7:30pm
Foundry 616, Ultimo
Tickets – $34/$28 concession