University composers undergo a Metamorphosis

Image credit: PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

Metamorphosis, University of Melbourne Honours composition concert

28th October 2020, streamed on YouTube

By George Cox

On the evening of 28th October, six Honours composition students from the University of Melbourne broadcast a YouTube premiere of their new works. The critical dimension of this review will be moderated by the fact that this was a free concert, consisting of works submitted for university assessments.

I’ve never been to a virtual composition concert, and they’ve stepped up to the pandemic challenge with great confidence. Several performances were conventionally recorded in the conservatorium concert hall, while others featured split-screen videos, home footage, multiple camera angles, and a particularly dramatic black silhouette of Lindsay Hicks performing against the Melbourne skyline as seen through a practice room. We were also treated to several films, live action and animated – which made it a lot easier to appreciate the film score techniques of John Li and Sue-Anne Tan – and some non-narrative animated visuals. In combination with spoken introductions and stylish title cards, this made the online format really come into its own.

Much of Metamorphosis could perhaps be described as post-minimalist, taking a cue from that other well-known “Metamorphosis,” those piano pieces by Philip Glass from 1989. Laura Abraham, Sue-Anne Tan, and John Li continue mining Glass, generating material through largely tonal means and familiar minimalist devices, such as open-ended movement structures that grow out of repeating phrases. They moved confidently between pop or jazz flavours and a more neutral, contemporary-classical feeling for consonance.

Robert McIntyre incorporated more explicitly polytonal devices. In Figure 1, from Intercept for oboe and piano, we see how the bold oboe part moves through harmonies based on fifths and fourths, rather than the familiar third. Rhythmically, a familiar 4-semiquaver unit predominated, subject to additive and syncopated repetition.

Figure 1. Excerpt from Intercept (2020) by Robert McIntyre, bars 23–24.

Lilijana Matičevska and Benjamin Drury both operate in more dissonant sound worlds. Matičevska veers towards New Complexity in her conventional but intricate notation, pushing expressive limits in three pieces that eschew, or even actively satirise, tonal forms (Palimpsest, for example, mockingly quotes Mozart in a non-tonal universe). Drury, conversely, approaches performance and noise art, electronically processing ‘found sound objects’ to blend the pitched and the unpitched.

Drury’s experimental electronic work Touch was one of this concert’s most dramatic and daring events. As the program note explains, “all the sounds heard come from contact microphones sewn into gloves worn by the performers.” This piece was performed split-screen, with piano on the left and suspended cymbal on the right, but Drury managed to be in two places at once.

The music of the begloved touch is pandemically topical, although ‘contact’ between foreground and background operates as an aesthetic figure throughout Metamorphosis. In order to bring us together, in Touch, Drury had to wear a barrier, a kind of PPE, or Personal Performance Equipment. Midas-like, everything that Drury touches turns to music. However, what’s interesting to me about this strange phenomenon is how oddly familiar it is: all instruments are played through touch, all musical discipline transforms the body into a sound-machine.

I particularly loved Abolish the Police, Matičevska’s work for solo garklein (tiny recorder) and pedal pad effects. This work is programmatic and yet specifies “nothing concrete:” as the program note explains, “it is a piece derived from [Matičevska’s] strong feelings against state-enforced violence against all civilians and [her] hope for a more peaceful future.”

This piece begins with deep inhalations and breathing ‘over’ rather than ‘into’ the recorder, as performer Ryan Williams rapidly moved his fingers along the instrument while producing no sound. It hesitates; it asks whether the police may be abolished, whether the garklein can even be played (it’s so tiny!). The unfamiliarity of the garklein’s sound is utopian, and we tremble before the possibility of abolition just as Williams trembles before the possibility of performance.

Figure 2. Excerpt from Abolish the Police (2020), bars 60–61.

There is a staged mimicry at work here: Williams plays, the microphone picks it up, Williams stops, but the pad continues, escaping the body. Given Matičevska’s political titles, we could interpret the pad, which picks up the solo garklein’s melody and then transforms it into accompaniment, as the translation of individual praxis into collective action. The pad produces the sonic/material background against which we make sense of melodies and of the gestures of the individual. Every piece in this program could perhaps be interpreted according to the politics that are implied by this figure/ground relationship. Do we fade away into the ground, or do we produce and reproduce it? How do we come to know our bodies as belonging to the earth?

Abraham acknowledges the inspiration and ecopolitical influence of Karen Tanaka’s 1998–1999 work Children of Light. Tanaka aimed to write a “message to children of the future;” Abraham identifies herself as one of these children and, through aesthetically reproducing Tanaka’s message, carries on that musical and ecological heritage. Light Years, like Abolish the Police, can be listened to politically, I suggest, because it insists on the possibility of hope under capitalism and the beauty of nature.

Tanaka’s work reflects, at times painfully, on the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Listening to Abraham’s flute part touch and merge with its electro-acoustic backing makes me think not of how distant we are from the animals on this list, but rather, how close we are to them. We, too, are a part of nature, at risk of becoming Threatened in turn. This is what I took from the way Metamorphosis staged our relationships to our natural and social environments through sonic figures and sonic grounds.

This proximity to nature is, finally, made explicit in Sue-Anne Tan’s spectrally emergent electronic work The Insects Inside my Head, which included a video of a very scary-looking caterpillar. The music tracked a range of visuals, approaching an almost cyberpunk aesthetic of thermal imaging, nuclear sunset, and neural processors. Tan is a virtuoso of the Digital Audio Workstation: melodic figures and deep ostinatos shift from clean and cutting to washed-out and fuzzy depending on their electro-acoustic treatment. It was satisfying to conclude this program with her affectively-charged rendition of human anxiety as a kind of insectitude. I was jolted somewhat by the final appearance of the larval creature whose metamorphosis, political or otherwise, we have yet to encounter.

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