New Music … in Brisbane

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In two nights, I heard Schoenberg’s Pierrot, Ives’ Unanswered Question, Birtwhistle’s Secret Theatre, Messiaen’s Cinq Rechants and Hurel’s …à mesure! But this is not Amsterdam, Vienna, or Berlin – this is little old Brisbane!!

Things really are changing up a little around here. When I was at the Con, Vanessa Tomlinson was fairly newly in town, and Clocked Out was really the only ensemble playing contemporary art music on any regular basis. There were no student ensembles putting on their own performances of works by 20th/21st century greats and young composers – in fact, the first such things to come out of QCGU in some time (when Richard Haynes was around, he and some other students were reportedly doing very exciting things) were Sounding Out and MAC. And now no less than six student/recent alumni ensembles/concert projects exist that focus exclusively on new music (including Peter Clark’s ensemble coruscate and choir the Menard Ensemble, who performed most admirably last night)! In addition, whether by Vanessa’s attraction or not, seriously incredible new music specialists are settling back into Brisbane – Graeme Jennings and his wife Yoko Okayasu, John Addison, Kathleen Gallager, Liam Viney and his wife Anna Grinberg… These people were not around just three years ago, and we are terribly lucky to have them now.

Although Vanessa would proclaim that Brisbane is turning into some kind of hotbed for contemporary art music, I would have to argue that there is some way to go yet – there is some way to go before Australia can produce music on its own shores to rival European/American counterparts. This is not to say that there are not completely brilliant Australian musicians getting about, but for the most part these are people who have spent a great deal of their time playing in international ensembles. Composers on the other hand … well, let’s say that I have high expectations for members of the emerging generation (and they’d better bloody well live up to them!).

Friday’s concert by the ‘newly formed’ Lunaire Collective (‘formed’ is a loose term – the Collective consists of some twenty musicians, mostly QCGU staff, supplemented by their own students) actually disappointed me. A bunch of pretty amazing musicians thrown together – with the odd dud, let it be known – doesn’t necessarily equal incredible ensemble. Especially if you rehearse in the fashion of Australian orchestras, that is, three or four times before performance. The Birtwhistle, although not the world’s best piece, suffered because of this. Pierrot no doubt received more attention (though I doubt it got a sniff on the 70 rehearsals before its premiere!), but it really lacked a collective energy. I didn’t find it especially engaging for the most part, and due to the soprano’s (fearless though she no doubt is) choice of erring well on the speech side of Sprechstimme without significant dramatic variation, it lost much of it’s charm as well as it’s grotesqueness. Instead it came across a little sardonic. The only really wonderful moments to me were the instrumental solos – Patrick’s play at being moon, John at being Pierrot’s viola, Stephen as the little boat.

I shouldn’t like to sound ungrateful, I’m so very glad the piece was played! But …


At home after the concert I confessed my fears to Liam – I don’t want to be one of these musicians, I want to be truly dedicated to art, and to me that means investing a very great deal of rehearsal time and physical energy into a performance. Of all the musicians playing Birtwhistle on stage, just three looked comfortable in their bodies. This may seem a moot point, but in live performance there is that crossover between the visual and the aural – there is a theatre in music performance. Without visible physical engagement, it is rare that there is true musical engagement in the work performed, and certainly any kind of ensemble energy is compromised. I also increasingly want to be a part of a tight knit ensemble that rehearses together very regularly, and not just a series of ensembles or a collective that comes together to play something without really knowing the ins and outs of the other members.

To be honest, the Saturday night performance by Menard/coruscate was – at least in some of the works performed – far more thrilling. I sadly missed the Webern Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen due to being a single minute late! But the Messiaen and the Hurel were so utterly spectacular, well exceeding the expectations I had. Sure, these were student ensembles, there were occasional mistakes or spots of untidiness, and some musicians stood out against the rest. On the whole, however, they worked well as ensembles in these works, which I suspect is largely due to the combination of many rehearsals, significant emotional, time and practise commitment by the musicians, and a pretty crash hot conductor. Unfortunately the new compositions did not come off with quite the same flair, and it’s hard – there’s often not so clear a procedure for rehearsing these works, and the ideas of the composers themselves are still in a stage of development. They may have an unfamiliar musical language, or an unclear one, and there’s no recordings to fall back on. Perhaps the way in which young interpreters work with young composers needs a little re-thinking…

These are all good thoughts to apply to my own (and Liam’s) little project – MAC, which we have just recently renamed Kupka’s Piano with reference to this magnificent painting (and the A Major chord is significant! See also Liam’s thoughts on the name). And anyway, perhaps it is a promising thing indeed that I found more to be excited about in a performance by undergraduate students than by the experienced musicians.

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One thought on “New Music … in Brisbane

  1. Peter Clark

    Thanks, Hanne, for your kind words regarding coruscate and menard’s concert. Yes, we do need to reconsider the process of preparing and performing new works by young composers. I also hope that some of the new generation of Australian composers live up to your standards! That would be brilliant.

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