One interesting offshoot of the annual Conference of the Musicology Society of Australia was a concert given in the Music Workshop of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music by the Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s finest contemporary-music outfits. To entertain the musicologists convened at the Con, Offspring brought along three performers (violin, clarinet and percussion), playback electronics and an assortment of filmed material that was projected over the heads of the musicians.
The Ensemble quite rightly assumed that the conference members, weary from listening all day to scholarly papers on subjects ranging from Wabi-sabi folk music to the reception of Panufnik’s music in the UK, would be in no mood for any gut-wrenching contemporary stuff. Indeed most of the music was minimalist or thereabouts: definitely friendly and mostly upbeat. And what with the accompanying playback tracks and films, one always had the impression that quite a lot was going on even when there was only one person on the stage.
The first three pieces in the program formed a kind of block, illustrating as many different ways of mixing soloists, electronic backings (patterns, drones, soundscapes) and video. In Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling the very slow bowing of the solo violin combines enigmatically with some pulsating, otherworldly electronics and a blotchy fragment from a 1920s silent film (cleverly manipulated by Bill Morrison) recounting the fortuitous – and, one imagines, auspicious – meeting of a handsome young officer and an attractive country girl. Nico Muhly’s It Goes without Saying also pits a soloist (this time the clarinet) against a soundtrack (more clarinets, droning harmonium, an assortment of clicking noises) and video (by Una Lorenzon), though this time the connection between the different media is more obvious, resulting in a cartoon ballet of abstract, animal and human shapes. An even closer mix of sound and image emerges in Chris Perren’s Dive Process, where the rhythmic patterns played by the instruments and electronics are precisely mirrored on screen. What gives the work a certain zany individuality is the image chosen to do the endless mirroring: three divers (actually the same girl, triplicated) who plunge into the water and wriggle around a bit before being whisked back to the surface.
The last two pieces of the program, both of which featured Offspring artists as composers, heavily reduced the video component and asked us to focus more single-mindedly on the music. First was Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint: though definitely an ‘old’ work (from the last century, for goodness sake), it was given a completely fresh coat of paint in the new arrangement by percussionist Claire Edwardes. Finally, bringing this wisely programmed concert to an end was Damien Ricketson’s Fractured Again, a ‘suite version’ of a longer work all about glass, which ranged through a variety of styles from snippets of Mozart and Donizetti to some fittingly glassy atmospheric effects.