Lyle Chan is an established Australian composer. In the 1980s and 1990s he was an AIDS activist: a significant member of the organisation ACTUP both in the USA and Australia. ACTUP was militant and the provocatively witty proponents of people with AIDS and HIV: seeking action by governments (particularly difficult in the USA) and access to drugs that would stem the death toll associated with the HIV virus (an issue for a time in Australia). In the pre-internet days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, its weapons were public protests and fax bombings (fax zaps) of public officials. Eventually the activism led to AIDS campaigners being given ‘a seat at the table’ of public policy formation, where the struggle could be converted into government and ‘approved’ pharmaceutical action. Lyle Chan, amid this activism in the USA and later Australia (where he did his share of unlawful drug distribution) kept a musical diary of key individuals and events in the struggle. Twenty years later he turned these sketches into an extended musical memoir in the form of a string quartet.
Acacia Quartet premiered this quartet at a live broadcast for ABC Classic FM, with Lyle Chan providing a commentary between each ‘movement’. Perhaps there might be some who hold the view that words are superfluous. The music could and did speak for itself. But in sense the composer was speaking the program notes instead of leaving the audience to read them at their leisure. The piece was so long (c 90 minutes); Mr Chan’s commentary enabled the string quartet to rest between each movement (albeit while remaining on the edge of their chairs). Thus it was an historic, historical and musical journey within an integrated sound event. I liked, and more importantly was moved by, the occasion.
The music charts the activities of ACTUP, key ACTUP members such as Dextran Man (Jim Corti), Tony-ony Macaroni (Tony Carden) in the USA who was the main underground supplier of drugs, Bruce Bacon in Sydney who were crucial in the struggle for the free availability of anti-viral drugs in Australia, and of Franca Arena who promoted the interests of ‘innocent’ victims of AIDS while implicitly and very publically rejecting the claims of those who were the largest group of AIDS/HIV sufferers: gay men. Both of her sons Mark and Adrian were gay. As we proceeded through the seventeen movements, the shifts in tone range from humorous (Et tu Bruce) to contemplative (Night Vigil) to soulful (Don’t leave me this way) and joyful (Towards Elysium). The music has its ‘modernist’ moments but it is largely located in the (once radical) French tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lyrical and seamless rather than discordant and confronting given the subject!
As for the playing, we heard four extraordinary musicians gave it everything they had. First violinist Lisa Stewart was first among equals, often leading the way for the others to follow. Mr Chan also gave the lead to the second violin (Myee Clohesey) and at times to the viola (Stefan Duwe). A tireless Anne Martin-Scase anchored it all from her cello. It was playing of the highest order that makes almost Mahler-like demands on the four musicians. Even without the context and the commentary, it would have been a feat of sustained musicianship.
It is rare to hear from a live composer. It is even less common to hear his story through his own words as well as his music. He combined with the Acacia Quartet to provide an evening of remembrance and music that was clearly appreciated by an audience that did not feel constrained from applauding each evocation of a memory as it unfolded.