An aural shake-up of fabulous proportions: six-four X SPIRAL

six-four ensemble (Facebook here, Instagram here)

Illustration credit: Katherine Smith Illustration

SPIRAL ensemble (Facebook here, Instagram here)

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Why should we take a chance on new music? More to the point, why is new music something that we feel we need to take a chance on, as if it’s a daunting and potentially spiky experience which might cause our ears to fall off?

I do understand where this reluctance might come from. Anything unfamiliar can be intimating, and for many people, sinking their teeth (ears?) into the classical music canon is daunting enough, let along anything composed recently.  

But I think it would be a great pity to dismiss newly composed contemporary classical/ chamber music. To think of it as somehow less open, less approachable, less fun, or less interesting than new rock, pop, funk, jazz, etc. Genre labels serve a basic purpose, but seeing as composers of broadly classical new works are emerging from hundreds of years of composing traditions, and can be influenced by anything they want to be, why would we ever think of this kind of music as a narrow thing?

On the evening of Thursday 28th November, Melbourne new music ensemble six-four presented a program with special guests, Sydney new music ensemble SPIRAL. As the members of six-four are all alumni of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the concert was presented at the Prudence Myer Studio at the new Ian Potter Southbank Centre and was supported by the New Music Studio at the MCM.

As a young musician and person who is incredibly hopeful for the future of classical music of all shapes and sizes in Melbourne, I have to say that this exactly the kind of concert I hope to see more of. A whopping six out of eight pieces were composed in 2018 (!!!) alongside a piece composed in 2017 and a Phillip Glass piece composed in 1995.

The first set was performed by SPIRAL. All seven members of SPIRAL are composers as well as performers, and the group also collaborates with composers outside the ensemble. The instrumentation consisted of Johannes MacDonald on flute and saxophone, Josephine Macken on flute, Oscar Smith and Sarah Elise Thompson on keyboards, Josh Winestock on electric guitar, Rory Knott on electric bass and Will Hansen on double bass.   

SPIRAL ensemble, from left to right: Johannes MacDonald, Will Hansen, Josh Winestock, Oscar Smith, Sarah Elise Thompson, Rory Knott, Josephine Macken.

The first piece was entitled Hey Let’s Go To Woolies (2018) by Joe Lisk, and was in fact inspired by the length of time and direction of the composer’s walk to his local supermarket. Lisk ‘split the piece into three rhythmic cells’ which are then explored through a rubric in a semi-improvisatory form. The beginning of the piece was meditative and Phillip Glass-esque, and the ensemble displayed a fabulous amount of head-bopping energy as they communicated while moving from one section to the next.

The next three pieces in the set were composed by members of SPIRAL. Oscar Smith’s Iron Filings (2018) featured bold juxtapositions in tone and timbre, and was composed in ‘accordion’ form; namely each section became progressively shorter, before this structure was reversed towards the ending. I enjoyed the thumping energy of the percussive sections featuring flute, keys and electric guitars, and the fact the performers were unafraid to push the timbres of their instruments to breaking point and create a bold ‘ugly’ sound. That being said, the piece ended with a tender interaction between double bass and flute, with Will Hansen and Josephine Macken playing with a beautiful straight-toned sound.

SPIRAL ensemble in 2018. From left to right: Will Hansen, Johannes MacDonald, Oscar Smith, Rory Knott, Josh Winestock, Sarah Elise Thompson, Josephine Macken.

Sarah Elise Thompson’s piece Bixler 225 (2018) created a weaving soundscape built on repeated piano motifs. The entire piece had a dreamlike, hypnotic quality, calling to mind images of the gentle motion of waves, or sunlight shifting through water.  The piano motifs were intertwined with atmospheric straight-tone notes sung softly by members of the ensemble and played on flute and double bass. I found this piece to be especially moving as it took me down an aural rabbit hole, one which led to the place described in Sarah’s program notes. Over a summer spent at a US college, Sarah spent many hours in a particular practice room, ‘[playing] the same three chords over and over’ on a keyboard, absorbed in the effect this created while looking out over ‘New England pines trees and greenery’. You can watch SPIRAL perform Bixler 225 here.

SPIRAL’s finished their set with Scesis Onomation (2018) by Rory Knott, a piece inspired by the concept of repeating different words with very similar meanings. This six minute composition was packed with rollicking rhythmical fragments and was highly energetic.

Six-four began their set with No Distant Place (2018) by Lisa Cheney, a composer and compositional lecturer who was in attendance. The piece was inspired by the poem of the same name, first encountered by Lisa on an engraving in a cemetery garden. The two movements of the piece were composed some time apart and possessed starkly different moods. Lisa alluded to this in her address to the audience, saying that when she returned to the text to write the second movement, she responded to it in a dramatically different way. It was fantastic to see the concentrated communication between Chloe Sanger (violin), Tom D’Ath (clarinet) and Alex Clayton (piano), and they moved through moments of the piece which were alternatively peaceful and introspective, and chaotic. You can listen to the piece and read Lisa’s full program notes here.

six-four in 2018. From left to right: Chloe Sanger, Alex Clayton, Oscar Woinarski, Ollie Iacono, Anna Telfer. (Thomas D’Ath seated behind Anna Telfer)

Ingrid Stölzel’s The Voice of the Rain (2018) was performed by the remaining three members of six-four, Anna Telfer on flute, Ollie Iacono on percussion and Oscar Woinarski on cello. Stölzel’s piece was inspired by the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, particularly the idea of ‘the world as an everlasting cyclical process of giving birth to itself and giving back life to its own origin’. Anna Telfer played with an elegance and lightness of phrasing, and the trio interacted skillfully in creating an absorbing and at times eerie sound world. You can watch a performance of the work here

The final two pieces saw six-four play as a full ensemble. The oldest piece in the program was an arrangement of Symphony No. 3 Part III by Phillip Glass, written in 1996. (It’s a lovely novelty to realise the oldest piece in the program is a year younger than yourself). Six-four played with a great amount of dynamic tension, bringing out the ebb and flow in the phrases of Glass’ work.

six-four in 2018. From left to right: Alex Clayton, Chloe Sanger, Oscar Woinarski, Ollie Iacono, Thomas D’Ath, Anna Telfer.

The last of the night was Bear Trap (2017) composed by Ollie Iacono. Ollie introduced the piece as a ‘fever dream’ which contained a bit of everything, including a bit of ‘bossa nova- so perhaps it’s a fever dream in an elevator’. This was a piece which bubbled along happily at times and unleashed screeching crescendos at other times. As far as fever dreams go, it was an interesting and enjoyable ride.

This review has been a long-winded one. I felt that it was important to me to go into detail because these two ensembles represent everything that gets me excited for the future of new music in Australia. These young composers and musicians are brave and dedicated enough to take risks on new rep, rep which is not guaranteed to put bums on seats, rep which challenges assumptions on what chamber music ‘should’ sound like. I am eager to see what six-four and SPIRAL get up to in the future, and I highly recommend seeing them perform if you are looking for a challenging and inspiring night of music.

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