30 June 2013

eXtant military matters

eX de Medici is perhaps Canberra’s most noted visual artist. I finally got to an exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery on Saturday. I think most people love that style of florid detail, the flower-power exhuberance with its history in Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts Movement and perhaps similar styles back to the Romans and before. Abundant nature has probably been a continual theme in visual arts around the world, even if it's so much under our control these days. Perhaps now the references are as much to Mandelbrot sets and fractals and constant detail however deep you explore.
Obviously, a person can’t do what a computer fractal can, but eX does explore multiple levels so it’s a journey to experience the whole, then delve into the obscured detail. My two favourite pieces supported just this. One was Live the (big black) dream. This was darker than the other pieces, predominantly black, with derailed trains, tyres, thorns, skulls, military paraphernalia, a hidden comment “entropy” and the rest. Most works dealt with military matters, with many rifles turning to embroidery or petals or strips of shells turning to greenery. One large work had helmets lost in prolific flowerbeds and what seeemed like a history of warfare: Prussian coned helmets to the left, well grown over, through to Australia’s fresher, workhorse helmets to the right. The works are watercolour on paper and eX paints on the flat. I expect the runniness of water colours and the precision of doodle-like detail must require that. It’s a fascinating approach with watercolour's clarity and freshness applied to a military context. Some works appear less finished, so there are areas of paper showing, but the really stunning works are alive with detail. I understand this was a retrospective for C100, so there are a few works of other times and themes: Blue Sky Mine with Midnight Oil from the National Portrait Gallery collection, some butterflys, some circular images and a bug or two, but mainly these military works from the her period as a war artist in Iran. I was also taken by a large mountainside scene, and the techniques she used to portray the rocky complexity of it all. (While on the Military theme, it reminds me of George Lambert’s “Anzac the landing 1915” at the War Memorial: same rocks, same colours, same cragginess). This is one work that requires distance: too close and it drops into lines and strokes, but at a few metres, it’s a wonderfully detailed portrayal under a sky of pink and yellow flowers and some phrases of peresumably Arabic script. Fascinating, great technique and some works were beyond my comprehension in this quick visit.

The Drill Hall also had a few works on display from the ANU collection. Most impressive was Sidney Nolan’s Riverbend, a wide work on 9 panels with Ned Kelly-like characters in a Goulburn Valley billabong scene. BTW, Riverbend is on permanent exhibition at the Drill Hall.

29 June 2013

That glorious acoustic twang

Megan and I dropped into the National Press Club for Friday evening jazz and a pre-dinner drink. Mike Price was playing, but this was more delicate than usual: a guitar trio of Mike with Greg Stott and Stuart King. Megan asked me at one stage if it was jazz. Who knows? There’s so much crossover these days. The guitars were nylon strung so the sound was crisp and earthy and acoustic: classical guitars… or John McLaughlin. Greg was miked and the others were using pickups into their amps. They played a few lively standards, but also several tunes that were more harmonically complex and balladic. It’s interesting to hear the different approaches to solos and comping and the different tones of each player, as well as admire the obvious reading skills. Luckily it wasn’t a busy night at the NPC because, even with a small audience, this detailed and intimate music was getting lost. It was a bit jazz-raw, as you’d expect, improvised and with a fairly undecided playlist. This would be a problem in a concert hall with classical players, but they were playing a bar and these are jazz trained, so playing somewhat off-the-cuff is second nature and part of the thrill. And these are capable players. So, one drink and one set was all we caught, but it was delightfully acoustic sounding and capably loose. Perhaps a stretch for the venue, but none-the-less it was worthy music well played.

Mike Price, Stuart King and Greg Stott (guitars) played as a trio at the National Press Club.

28 June 2013

FATs 2013

You just enjoy some gigs and I enjoyed this one. A depleted Jazz Republic appeared as a piano trio supporting Ruth O’Brien at the CIT FAT awards. It’s a nice open format although more work for everyone. Ruth is one of the advanced students in the CIT Music program. We performed various standards but also a few originals by Ruth including Stupid fool, a nicely funky piece that was sat well amongst the walks and dotted latin rhythms. I enjoyed the outing for several reasons. I had a nice amp supplied by CIT – loud and punchy, Hartke and Ashdown - and it was all setup for me. How nice is that? Mike had Nord and Roland, Brenton had Gretsch and the PA was big. So the gear was interesting and entertaining. We sat in a corner of a large hall with trainee stage managers and mixers, playing easy backing for arrival and interval for a decent crowd. The FATs are the 14th annual CIT Film & Television Awards. We saw a range of video and films, original concepts or C100 reports or music clips. Some were early attempts, but others were mature students and quite professional products. Just a pleasant, indulgent performance and for a decent crowd. Thanks Ruth.

Ruth O'Brien (vocals) performed with the Jazz Republic  at CIT Woden.  JR3 were Mike Dooley (piano), Eric Pozza (bass) and Brenton Holmes (drums).

24 June 2013

Triumphs of the blessed

I was going to take this quote from Handel’s Theodora, “Pity suing / Mercy wooing” but Triumphs… seemed to fit. When I checked the libretto I found it’s actually “Triumph o’er her boasted chastity” but I’ll use Triumphs … anyway. I like it.

We saw a performance of Handel’s Theodora by the Canberra Choral Society with various guests and with period instruments. It’s dignified and neat and even touching later in the work, when the Theodora and Didymus, the Christian couple, are sentenced to death by Valens, President of Antioch. Didymus is a Roman soldier who’s fought with friend Septimius, but he’s fallen for the beauty of Theodora and converted for her purity. Valens has declared that all citizens should offer sacrifice to some Roman goddesses to honour Diocletian's birthday. Theodora refuses and is sentenced to a brothel. Didymus goes to Theodora and allows her to escape in his uniform and helmet. Didymus is sentenced to death. Theodora returns, they each offer their own death to save the other and of course they are both sentenced. It’s all strange classical stories which mean so little to us these days and stories of saints and worthy Christians suffering at the hands of heathens and that goes over my head. This performance was a one-off. It felt it started a bit unsteadily, although it was comfortable by the end. The voices were very satisfying, and I could follow most of the story other than Theodora’s words. Soprano training is like that and it’s a weakness when there’s a story like this to follow. I loved the CCS when they sang, all rich and full and smooth, but they were the Christian chorus, after all. Kampactus was the chorus of heathens who chuckled at the promised rape of the pure Theodora and they seemed to have some more intricate lines to sing. I lost a few. I also didn’t particularly notice the period instruments other than the baroque oboe and harpsichord and chamber organ. I assume the strings were gut and perhaps the violins were milder, but I didn’t find it particularly noticeable. I particularly watched cello and bass, partly for the different physical approaches to the instruments: cello is more lightly strung and Anthea attacked it with raised fingers; Helen on double bass was smoother and seemed to be natively conserving her strength given its heftier demands. I admired both their playing. The whole ensemble was warmed up by the end and the end also has some of the best music: the final duo of the lovers and a choral segment that finishes it off. A worthy and satisfying finale.

The musicians did a great job, even if I would have preferred to hear it after half-a-dozen more performances. Oh, and the audience sang. CCS apparently has a habit of introducing singalongs. This time is was three lines of a hymn over four bars that were repeated. The words and music were in the program; the lights came up, we stood and sang, everyone smiled, and we sat down. Nice twist and nice work.

Handel’s Theodora was performed at the Playhouse by Canberra Choral Society with Brett Weymark (conductor), Greta Bradman (Theodora), Tobias Cole (Didymus), Christina Wilson (Irene), Paul McMahon (Septimius), Stephen Barnett (Valens), Kompactus Choir (Heathen chorus), Canberra Choral Society Chorus (Christian chorus) and Evan Kirby (messenger). The ensemble on baroque instruments were Bianca Porcheddu (violin, leader), Lorraine Moxey (violin), Heather Lloyd (viola), Anthea Cottee (continuo cello), Helen Cosgrove (double bass), Kirsten Barry (oboe), Peter Young (chamber organ), James Huntingford (harpsichord).

23 June 2013

No better rehearsal space

I was waiting for the Queensland Youth Orchestra 2 to commence their concert in the Great Hall at Parliament House and one of the parents said that this was the best rehearsal space they could have imagined. The concert was delayed while they waited for harp and timpani to arrive then make it through security and the loading bay. Everything has to pass through x-ray screening at Parliament House. Big things have to go through the big machine in the loading bay, then be shuttled to wherever. So the concert was delayed and the band had practice time. 78 of 90 members made it to Canberra for this weekend. This is QYO2 (Queensland’s second youth orchestra). It was obvious enough that these are students, not professionals, but the concert was intimate, the pieces were wonderfully attractive and, at their best, when the brass blared and the percussion percussed and the strings flailed, this was heart rending and emotional music. They played Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite, then Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an exhibition. Both have some vigorous moments with memorable brass-rich melodies, but there’s also interest between the best-known segments, recounting the story of star-crossed lovers as only youth can experience, or responding to those pictures at that exhibition. The concert wasn’t well advertised (I passed my brochure to the Parliament House visitor desk so they knew when and where and who was playing) and the audience seemed to be Parliament House visitors who lucked on a concert. The audience was probably not as large as the orchestra, but it was appreciative. They played an encore from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, again popular and appealing, this time with a 17-year old female vocalist with a strong voice and surprisingly large presence in that huge space and with that imposing ensemble. Then the applause and relaxation and I expect a lively (although very cold) night in Canberra before their concert the next day with the Canberra Youth Orchestra at Llewellyn. I wish I could have made that one: they were playing Pictures at an exhibition with the combined force of the two orchestras: 130 musicians. It must be a blast for the musicians to play at Parliament House and this was as good a way of spending a lazy Saturday afternoon as I can imagine.

While waiting I discovered more of Parliament House. Firstly, there are fossils in the black marble in the foyer. Secondly, I confirmed our rough-riding democracy by noticing the prominence given in the shop to a book, obviously damning and about the current government, no less: Downfall : how the Labor Party ripped itself apart / Aaron Patrick.

The Queensland Youth Orchestra 2 was conducted by Sergei Korschmin in the Great Hall of Parliament House. They performed Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite, Mussorgsky / Ravel’s Pictures at an exhibition and Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite.

21 June 2013

An arhythmia with rhythm

I’d hoped there would be no rhythm section and there wasn’t. This was three respected brass players performing alone: Miroslav Bukovsky, Reuben Lewis and James Greening. Reuben quipped during the night that you have to work hard without a rhythm section. He told me after that this was performing with risk. They had performed a few tunes and even a set in this configuration, but never a whole performance of two sets. It’s demanding music, heavily improvised, often quite atonal or even just noise, so it’s something for a sophisticated audience.
I think it was Reuben who had pulled this performance together; he certainly provided the patter (other than James’ always amusing interjections) and chose the tunes, even if this was essentially democratic. He was a student of Miro for 9 years and of James for some time. There’s an obvious respect and goodwill between the three as well as a well evolved musical understanding. James first joked about the charts and spun the music stand to show the music. These are not the standard dots-on-staves compositions, although there were some staves. One tune seemed pretty much written (Get well soon); several had clusters of notes on staves, but with various instructions (or not) for how to interpret them or in what order to play them; a few were just squiggles or blots or computer symbols, perhaps with a legend to assist. Compositions that look like this date back 50-or-more years and I’ve seen charts looking like this in front of “classical” new music performers. There’s expectation of more than just the Western trilogy of melody / harmony / rhythm here: there’s also timbre and tone and noise and space and the rest. There are plenty of clear notes and phrases although in all sorts of implied harmonies, although I doubt that, while they are onstage, they think in those terms. The notes and phrases seem to exist as unique sounds, individualised, although influenced by this environment and forming after-the-fact harmonic relationships. These guys handle it with aplomb. I noticed one altered arpeggio as it developed from a first note. This sort of thing happened all night, of course, but this was so pure and unadorned and sharply intoned and so much pulled from silence so perfectly that it took me back. It’s day in the life for musicians of this calibre but it can still surprise me. There were three brass, perhaps three trumpets or a mix of trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and pocket trumpet, a panoply of mutes, perhaps percussion. The tunes were constructed (this seems a deter term in this context) by Reuben. Each player took one solo, but otherwise they were collaborations. None of this is easy, but close your eyes and it’s a landscape you don’t imagine exists. And swinging even without a rhythm section.

Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet, percussion), Reuben Lewis (trumpet, flugelhorn) and James Greening (pocket trumpet, bass and alto (?) trombones, percussion) performed at the Canberra Grammar School Gallery.

19 June 2013

Adel-NYC connections

Australians are everywhere in the jazz world and plenty are in NYC. The Quentin Angus Quintet played at CGS Gallery the other night. Three of five are Adelaide sourced, two of these are currently resident in NYC. I’d actually heard the NYC pair sometime back in Adelaide, so they even have a history on CJ. But any visit from a famed jazz city is exciting to local jazzers and this certainly was.

Quentin leads from guitar, writing most of the tunes and leading the band. They have played widely at festivals around the world, and its shows in their tightness and easy responsiveness to arrangements, all the starts and stops and changing feels, and in the easy responsiveness of the players to each other. It’s a very accessible, attractive music. It reminded me of West Coast guitarists with easy feels and lyrical melodies and some rock influences. John Abercrombie isn’t West Coast, but he is of the fusion camp and I’m pretty sure that Quentin has been studying with him. Quentin’s attractive compositions and echoed tone and crisp runs reminded me of that scene. So did US drummer Kenneth Salters. I asked about his take on technique, playing ride with left hand, not crossing the snare hand. He told me he’s left-handed playing a right-handed kit. I didn’t quite confirm if that’s by preference or loan (the kit was on loan) but his technique didn’t seem to suffer at all. [PS. I checked YouTube later and Kenneth is regularly playing a right hand kit]. It actually seemed that this uncrossed form lent itself to a driving, less riffy/repeating style rich in toms and fills and responsiveness and implied rhythms. This was subtle and colourful playing with dynamics that moved easily with surrounding solos and drum lines that fell effortlessly from his sticks. Chad on soprano and tenor saxes was the major soloist, even if everyone had their spot in the sun. Geoff remarked on the power of his soprano, and it was a satisfying tone. He’s a lanky man and he strangely rocked and cavorted and stepped but his long unstoppable lines moved through tonality and dissonance with structured fours and were a wonderful display of modern-cum-contemporary jazz. Matt on piano was more impressionistic, presumably with classical references. I missed most of his comping because the small grand was not a match for this band in flight, but this was softer, flowing with large scale and range and arpeggiated colours. Bassist Lyndon was the only Australian resident, out of Adelaide and presumably touring with returned mates but no chops lost here. He was strong, fast, responsive and quite an eye-opener in thumb positions. They mostly played originals by Quentin, but there were some standards: takes on Rhythm’a’ning and A weaver of dreams and Ornette’s Turnaround and well altered arrangements of Nardis by Matt and another of All the things you are featuring drums. But the essence of this band was driving and powered jazz with a good deal of post-bop influence and attractive compositions. Great stuff. Adelaide done good here; no doubt about that. Much enjoyed.

Quentin Angus (guitar) led his quintet at the Canberra Grammar School Gallery to launch their new CD, Perception. The Quintet comprised Quentin with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown (soprano, tenor sax), Matthew Sheens (piano), Lyndon Gray (bass) and Kenneth Salters (drums).

17 June 2013

SSO in the raw

I’ve heard the Sydney Symphony Orchestra several times recently, but never raw like this. They were playing Rite of Spring in this 100th anniversary of the work. It was a riot when it was first performed in Paris. It’s not like that now. The audience loved it and I was one. It’s a riotous mix of loud and soft, virginal and savage. You have to think of Picasso and his mates at the time in Paris intrigued and influenced by the primitive. The sounds are anything but classicism: block chords; instruments moving in parallel; riotous and brutal rhythms; great flittering movements of matching phrases and contrasting lines; heavy with drums; lightened by flutes; and the orchestra reading irregular bars. The SSO sounded different: rough, sometimes careless, butit was apt for this departure from staid civilisation. We may not understand that people cared so much in 1913, but given they did, I can understand the riot on the opening night. It was written for Nijinski’s dancers, so this was bigger and more offensive to that changing world than even the music. It reminds me of King Kong at the gate (in these days of a new Australian Kong) taking the maiden sacrifice. Its influence is now so imbibed, through movies, even cartoons, yet it still thrills. We sat next to two cello students from the Sydney Con. Was it rough, like I thought? Were the imprecise orchestral hits written? No, we were right, this was rough, but it had such life. As it should; as is needed. Loved it.

But it was not the whole program, and it was not all so raw. First was another Stravinsky, Song of the nightingale, about real and mechanical nightingales and an Emporer’s sickness. It’s a short opera with plot borrowed from Hans Christian Anderson. The real and mechanical nightingales are obvious when you listen for them: the real is pure and creative on flute; the machanical is abrasive and limited, with perhaps only one song. Second was Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto in E minor. It was an attractive work to my ear, and the conversation between violin and orchestra was neat so the violin was seldom lost. Concerto soloists needs sturdy technique and strong volume: there are a lot of instruments over her shoulder. I enjoyed the purity of the violin and the thrill of the high harmonics she plays to. There were some cadenza passages, too, that intrigued me: triplets shredding over the four strings. I wondered how they could be played and must relisten to a recording. I realise also that it’s a good key for violin, with a low G (minor 3rd) featuring early (the lowest open string) and the E tonic on the highest string and those octave harmonics. Again, a wonderful and neat performance.

I was surprised by the acoustics. The Opera House is not renowned for them, but from where we sat, literally the last row (Y) this sounded good, or maybe a touch toppy. I reckon they’ve done much work with numerous mics hanging down into the auditorium (I am assuming those sausages are mics) and several PA speakers hanging from the roof. The piccolo may have cut too strongly, but I liked this sound.

In summary, I prefered the rabid excitement of the Rite of Spring, but enjoyed both other more staid works. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Song of the nightingale and Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto in E minor. Arabella Steinbacher (violin) soloed for the violin concerto and Charles Dutoit (conductor) led the orchestra.

16 June 2013

Out is not easy

The two sets by the Callum G’Froerer Quintet at the Loft were very different. I found the first was dreamy and meditative; the second had more groove, even some walking bass and rock and jazz rhythms. That’s not to say this was not still a challenge to the ears. I had a good chat with bassist Sam after the gig and he wised me up on the approach of the band. This is not for the faint-hearted musician.
Firstly, there’s lots of listening and considerable risk: these guys are not satisfied with playing the tonics. The tunes were all by Callum, other than one by saxist Andrew. The tunes may be a melody and an underlying chord structure, but all 12 notes are valid here. We chatted about how you make valid those notes that you’ve chosen. You play them with conviction and you play them in response to the other band members, but that’s only part. Sam talked of practising a simple major triad, in all inversions, paired with the triad a major third below, eg, C with Ab. It’s a common movement in jazz composition. I mentioned pentatonics to guide note choices against different chord types, so against C7 you might play a major pentatonic on C, D, Eb, F, Gb, G#, A or Bb and all have their distinct colours which are really extensions with relationships. It’s the relationships that that are important. All notes are not equal; different groups of notes are equal in defining different tonalities or levels of dissonance. Exciting stuff. My interest was also piqued when Callum introduced Andrew’s tune as “constructed” by him. Sam told me afterward how it was “constructed”: each musician selects a phrase that can be looped, then plays that phrase with whatever delay between repeats. It was like the chart I saw for a composition at SoundOut. So how to describe the result of all this? Harmonic understory from guitar and bass with busy percussion only hinting at a rhythm and a slow, often unison, melody overlaid. Not all tunes were like this, but it was a core structure. One tune had a rock groove (totally unexpected here and late in the night). Another had a jazz drum groove with a fast walking bass; Sam explained he fought against muscle memory and standard phrases on this one. The looped tune was all spacey and indeterminate. Another had a four chord pattern. Silver platter was a call and response melody over a 6 x 6/8 pattern. Rocky Mountain had a jagged melody that was the genuine sound equivalent of rocky mountain tops and craggy valleys. So, there was variation but overall this sense of atonality. And maybe one thing left to mention. The stage presence was very moderate, softly spoken; the bass was acoustic and sounding great even if sometimes lost against drums; the overall volume was very restrained, in a fit with this presence. This is a band of seriousness and inventiveness and considerable harmonic skills. The other day a mate said playing out is easier than playing in. I’m not sure I agree, especially after my discussion with Sam. Finding the formally wrong note which is actually right is no small feat. Confidence alone isn’t enough.

Callum G’Froerer (trumpet) led his Quintet’s at the Loft with Andrew Brooks (alto), Brett Thompson (guitar), Sam Zerna (bass) and Hugh Harvey (drums) to launch their CD City speaks.