When I arrived in Australia in 1975 the composing community was still talking about Richard Meale’s extraordinary chamber work, Incredible Floridas. This work, hardly ever played because of its difficulty combined with its uncompromisingly avant-garde musical idiom, was the centrepiece of a concert last nght by Ensemble Offspring, held in Carriageworks, now a space well-known as the venue for experimental art of many kinds. Between its first performances in the early 1970s, (by The Fires of London, who commissioned it, and The Seymour Group) and the present, it may not ever have been played, yet its influence rippled through the young composers of the 70s, such as Ross Edwards and Martin Wesley-Smith.
It is based on a series of poems by Rimbaud, including Une Saison en Enfer. And a season in hell could have been the title of the concert. I don’t at all mean by that that the concert was hellish, but that Meale’s and the other three pieces which made up the program, were all glimpses into a dystopian hell through the medium of the fractured musical language of the 1970s avant-garde. Claire Edwardes, the brilliant percussionist and inspiration behind Ensemble Offspring, described how the alto flute leads the music out of hell at the start of the last of the six movements which comprise the piece, and thet image reminded me of Virgil leading Dante out of his Inferno.
Artur Rimbaud’s hell was not the psychologically tortured state described so vividly by Liszt and other musicians of the 19th century contemporary with Rimbaud; rather it was the foul sewers and criminal violence of the dark side of 19th century Paris. And he enjoyed it – he and his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine used to wallow in the stench of the seamy side of that city which Hausmann had recently tried in vain to clean up. Meale transposes this almost touristic view of hell into six movements in a musical language where one can no longer speak of consonance and dissonance, in which the instruments which can make beautiful sounds are asked to play at the extremes of their registers in sounds which Meale’s most fervent admirers would not call pleasant. This was most clearly exemplified by the fact that flautist Lamorna Nightingale played the alto flute and the piccolo more than the normal flute, and clarinettist Jason Noble played mainly bass clarinet, as well as the piercing Eb clarinet. The jagged rhythms and sporadic sforzandos of much of the music further illustrated the dystopian nature of the inner landscape of this music.
However, the performance was so well prepared, and so brilliantly executed, that despite what I have just written, moments of radiant beaty did indeed emerge from time to time, rather as the protagonist in Liszt’s B Minor piano sonata gazes up out of his hell at the gorgeous melody at the end of the exposition. Claire Edwardes’ isolated soft bell sounds were like broken flower petals; Veronique Serret produced the most extraordinary scrunches on the G and E strings of her violin; and pianist Benjamin Kopp, using mainly the top and bottom octaves, reminded us what most pianists try to conceal, that the piano is a percussion instrument.
The remaining three pieces in the concert consisted of two newly commissioned pieces, and a piece by Martin Wesley Smith called simply For Marimba and Tape. The tape part was produced on the Fairlight computer, an electronic instrument in whose invention Wesley-Smith played a critical part. In this piece the Fairlight generates gorgeous sounds, especially including passages where motifs slow down or speed up, or indulge in gentle glissandi up or down, and these sounds beckon the marimba, played with extremely sensitive virtuosity by Edwardes, to join in, comment, and dance together.
The concert began with a piece written by Josephine Macken for the instruments used in Meale’s piece, called the imaginary line about which the body rotates. I am sure that I saw it called Arachne somewhere, and indeed the most striking feature of the piece was threads being unwound by the players from three or four spindles, creating a spider's web of complexity. I am sure that this had something to do with the unintelligibly pretentious sentence contained in the program note to the piece: “The piece celebrates conceptualisations of sound and temporality through the analogy of the musical line”. (Does that mean the composer likes phrases?)
The third piece, by Augustin Braud was for just cello and vibraphone, and “waterphone”, an instrument I had not come across before that looked like a basket of metal rods. Blair Harris played the disjointed cello part in a grey raincoat, in dialogue with Edwardes, in a piece which I simply couldn’t follow, where tiny fragmented motifs changed before they were able to blossom into anything meaningful.
The concert was a magnificent testament to Ensemble Offspring’s mission – to make audiences aware of the cutting edge of contemporary, especially Australian, music. The commitment and integrity behind the performance of Incredible Floridas was truly remarkable. And though I was unimpressed by the two new pieces, it was ever true that out of ten newly created works one may just be wonderful. Think of the concert programs of Beethoven’s time – who has ever heard of some of the other composers presented? And yet we must continue to encourage and perform new music, if only so that the old music doesn’t wither and die. And some of the new music may just become old music.
Ensemble Offspring presents
by Richard Meale
Conductor Jack Symonds
Venue: Carriageworks | 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh NSW
Dates: 23 – 24 June 2023