31 May 2014

Young guns

They were some decent musos. I was expecting a band with Mike Price, but we got a series of young players, mostly in the first year course at ANU, and they were good. They ran through a series of jazz tunes and standards. They got the lines and complexities. Several drummers and guitarists, one bass and one sax. I knew Calum from previous gigs and he played really well. I enjoyed all the guitarists, and interestingly, preferred different guitarists on different tunes. They featured on the styles that they obviously preferred, or maybe practiced. Bass was impressive with some very melodic solos and drums were solid. It all bodes well for the future. Not sure I got all the names right, though. I didn't stay for the jam session, but this part was worth the visit.

Mike Price (guitar) gathered a series of young players and sat in for some tunes. Players included Calum Builder (alto), Stephen Read (guitar), Pat Quin-Quirke (guitar), Tyson Jones (guitar), Brendan Keller-Tuberg (bass), Hayden Fritzlaff (drums), Kaitlin Ashley-Thomas (drums). Perhaps others.

30 May 2014

Strange disjunction

There's a strange disjunction at the moment between public policy and science. I hear scientists and there's no doubt about climate change (outside normal scientific skepticism, of course) but you could think there's doubt if you followed the media or the recent actions by our new government. I know people who have that doubt and I, for one, can't understand it. As someone involved in risk management, I can't understand it, let alone as a citizen and as a parent. Scientists are talking death-ray-emergency and government is dismantling anything we may do about it. Strange and scary. I tend to take the generous view of people, that they believe what they are saying, and I understand that people read what they trust and believe it. But even this requires someone to start all the misinformation off (and the giveaway, to pay for it) and people who will sell their souls and the future of civilisation for the sake of a few bucks. What is happening?

So what's today's presentation. This was a forum, chaired by Genevieve Jacobs of ABC666 with Tony McMichael AO, Prof Barbara Norman and Dr Peter Tait. Admittedly, these are all anthropomorphic climate change recognisers. You can look up their roles (below); they were an impressive trio. The topic was Making us sick! : understanding the health effects of climate change. The session was sponsored by the Dept of Industry as an Science & Technology Australia (STA) Topical Science Forum. This was mostly questions to three speakers, so no one particular line of reasoning, but lots of factoids and quotes of note. Here are some. "Potentially catastrophic threat". There's an interdependency of health, society and environment. Human health features little in climate change discourse, and when it does, at a "trivial " level (eg, heatwaves) but the environment is essential for human physical survival. We can't expect the "white coated" view of climate scientists (this is a complex multidisciplinary topic with uncertainties) but "many of our poorly informed parliamentarians hold this image". We can quantify some issues (eg, 1deg rise = 7% rise in diarrhoeal diseases) but the biggie is food and less easily predicted. The requirement of certainly before action is a "red herring"; we need "adaptive governance". The least advantaged and more peripheral are the most vulnerable. The pathways to solutions are through cities (Ban Ki-Moon). Canberra has an opportunity to be a leader, given one government and intelligent, often expert, population (Canberra can seem like a town of "300,000 planners"). There's anecdotal evidence only in GP practice, not at epidemiological level. "Moderation in all things" must include the ruminants, thus meat and dairy. Weather influences discussions on climate change [just watch as the next El Niño sets in]. We must change systems [yes, we are all products of our social environment]. Cuts in Foreign aid display a "barricade mentality developing in this country" and it's stupid, given the implications for security and defence ("not only mean but also totally stupid"). Climate refugees will come to our doorstep and "they won't not come in because we've removed [climate change] from our budget". I liked this one: talking of not having to live in caves if we move to renewables, "in fact, if we don't reduce use of resources, we're more likely to return to living in caves". "Working in this field you can get depressed" but the best antidote is activity. This budget shows a government can do anything it wants to do [but I wondered if it can without the Senate in tow]. Surprisingly and carelessly, mud brick houses fail the environmental star system, so changes are required. Panelists desired measurements "beyond GDP" and broader news on TV replacing Alan Kohler and the share market. And following a discussion of words like sustainable, "whatever word we use, it will be misused". And some despair: "I feel we're living in mediaeval times". Thoughts on mental health and youth: "mental health is the great Cinderella problem". There was more, but this was a taste.

Tony McMichael AO is Professor Emeritus of Population Health at ANU, an elected member of the US National Academies of Science, Honorary Professor of Climate Change and Health at the University of Copenhagen and a Director of The Climate Institute.

Professor Barbara Norman is Foundation Chair of Urban and Regional Planning in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, Univ of Canberra, Director of Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF), an Adjunct Professor at ANU, Chair of the ACT Climate Change Council, Deputy Chair of Regional Development Australia (ACT), Life Fellow and past national president of the Planning Institute of Australia and Life Honorary Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute (UK).

Dr Peter Tait is a General Practitioner for 32 years, 29 in Aboriginal health in Central Australia. He was the 2007 Royal Australian College of General Practitioners GP of the Year, is Adjunct Senior Lecturer at ANU Medical School and involved in climate change research at the UNSW and ANU.

29 May 2014

Why worry

Andrew Glikson gave us a perfectly good reason to worry. Andrew is an Earth and paleo-climate scientist. He spoke at a public lecture at ANU entitled From the dinosaurs to sapiens : The origin of mass extinctions of species . Now this isn't necessarily happy talk; it's talk of extinctions. I thought there had been 5 mass extinctions (given the book I borrowed called The sixth extinction), but it seems there have been more. Maybe some were mini-mass extinctions. As I explained to Andrew, I am no geologist and some of the earlier talk was reasonably (although not very) concerned with chemistry and geology and the rest and the questions were more so. But I got enough to realise we should worry. Basically he argued this. Following Catastropthism (Couvier) and Uniformitarianism (Hutton, Lyell) we had another paradigm shift, in 1980, when the KT (Cretaceous–Tertiary) Boundary was discovered by father and son team, Luis and Walter Alvarez in rocks near Gubbio in the Apennines. Basically, they found a layer with a high level of iridium (6ppb vs normal 1ppb) but with no plutonium. This means the layer is of extraterrestrial origin but not from a supernova (given no plutonium), thus from an asteroid strike. Subsequent work discovered various craters, mostly hidden by Earth's weathering, especially Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Suffice to say, changed fossil record, 200 finds of the iridium anomalies around the world and a string of other evidence led to this new paradigm being accepted in 2010. Interestingly, Andrew spoke of various impact craters around Australia, including one we've seen, Gosse Bluff, a 24 km diameter crater formed by an asteroid of 5km diameter. He talked of shock morphism and various stony finds, but the essential discussion that followed was on the resulting carbon emissions, interestingly called the carbon winter and subsequent (very lengthy) carbon summer. Think indications of climate change, global warming. The KT impact released ~4,600Gt of carbon, raising atmospheric carbon from ~500ppm to 2,300ppm. Our little experiment in anthropomorphic carbon emissions has released ~560Gt of carbon in the 250 years since the industrial revolution and has raised atmospheric carbon from 280ppm to 401pp. [It's going up ~2.5ppm pa]. Interestingly, it's not primarily the level of carbon but the speed of change that really worried Andrew. The problem is that biology can't compensate; life doesn't evolve so quickly. But the real killer was this diagram above. The X-axis is time: from 20,000BCE through 0 and present to 4,000CE. The Y-axis is temperature, from -4deg to +6deg. Look at this. At 20,000BCE, the temperature is -3deg. Agriculture begins ~8,000BCE, part way along the comfy period when the temperature is 0deg. Average temperature starts cooling, but then the Industrial Revolution comes and the temperature spikes. It's currently ~+0.9deg. For all intents and purposed, the temperature rise is vertical at this scale. A very, very good reason to be worried. Andrew mentioned civilisation collapse in paleo-climatic studies and how they were associated with changes to rivers. He mentioned the IPCC projections of 3-6deg warming by 2100 (yes, Virginia, during the lives of our grandchildren). He highlighted the danger of sudden change and displayed a table of atmospheric carbon and temperature rises in previous mass extinctions (the other graph). Nothing approached 0.9deg in 250 years. His last words were that it's "far more serious than the public has been led to believe". Why worry? Too true, it's probably too late to bother.

Dr Andrew Glikson gave a public lecture at ANU.

28 May 2014

Sunday interlude

Quick visit to Smith's on a Sunday afternoon. The hot locals were playing. This was the Wayne Kelly trio with James Luke and Mark Sutton and they were ripping it and they should have had a bigger audience. I had to leave, too, but I heard several of Wayne's - Mr Hank Jones, King of Kings, Empathy (?) - one by James - Q2 Bass - dedicated to one of his basses, presumably the new one and presumably the one he was playing, and one standard, I'm old fashioned. They were all cutting it although Mark had a smirk, obviously noticing errors that I didn't pick up. I took note of Wayne's blues-solid touch (not classical, this) and readiness to do the simplest melodic expositions amongst some rich harmonies, chromatics and sequences and easy inventiveness. James was a force, too, woody toned and lyrically fluent, playing across the strings and right up into the thumb positions; but primarily, so lyrical. Mark was all polyrhythms and angular fills and sharp articulation, even sitting back with the snare leaning between his legs. Never seen such laid-back sharpness before. A pleasure, as always. Not for nothing that these guys are busy. Wayne Kelly (piano) played with James Luke (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums).

27 May 2014

Jubilate SCUNA

This was one big gig and the best that I've heard from SCUNA. A big choir; lots of music; a fascinating series of takes on common themes. We heard two versions of Psalm 100, Jauchzet dem Herrn by Schütz and Jubilate Deo by Gabrieli. We heard a pair of Magnificats from Anerio and Anon and four Cantate Dominos from Monteverdi, Pitoni, Croce and Hassler. Two masses, Symphoniae Sacrae a 12 and Missa Brevis in F, both by Gabrieli and a Renaissance bracket with four songs of des Pres, Arcadelt, di Lasso and Parsons. To top it off, we heard an original piece by a member of the choir, in the style of all this, Domine, quid est homo? by Mark Chapman. I was speaking to a few of the choir before the performance and they were insistent on this. So they should be. What a link of past to present, that we have early music written today at ANU.

This was the best I've seen SCUNA, the most confident and the most hard working. The space was big and wet and the sound was full and rounded with voices merged to one. Just as the choristers like it (although too wet for many other styles). I thought I could identify the difference of Italian and northern - the Italian as more exultant and gregarious and the German as less ornate, more respectful, but I didn't convince myself from this collection, mainly because he balance was too Italian so statistically unreliable. Also one piece (the Cantate Domino of Giovanni Croce?) seemed to change in national character, firstly slow and devout, then more independent and outgoing, so what value that judgement? A Monteverdi Cantate Domino had me thinking of pop embellishments and how nothing is new. I enjoyed following a few sounds. The Allen organ was dramatic when it let go those low notes, deep and space filling and persistent, and it was ever present, more so than a little baroque pipe organ. The voice of Paul Eldon, visiting tenor, stood out a mile. The majesty of the baroque trumpets that sounded for several tunes. There was variation, too. Full choir or small choir, or full choir with semi-chorus, two small orchestras and that organ. St Christopher's doesn't have the presence of a mediaeval stone buttressed cathedral, but it's an apt place for all this religious joy and exultation. So this was a wonderful concert, much enjoyed and very extensive and intellectually challenging with its revisitations of common works.

The ANU Choral Society (SCUNA) was conducted by Andrew Koll (musical director) with cantor Paul Eldon (tenor), Anthony Smith (organ) and Charis Messalina (concert director, soprano). Too many others to mention, but suffice to say about 70 singers in two choirs and 17 instrumentalists in two orchestras.

26 May 2014


Martin Taylor didn't play much, but what he played was revelatory. We tend to just accept great skills workaday. We hear them all the time; if we don't actually do it, we don't realise the level of skills; we don't conceive of the alternative. I often think of how rich is a modern Western life, with the best orchestras on CD and radio and education to promote excellence. The life of a mediaeval villager would have seen a troubadour visit every so often and this would be a memorable event. Our life is nothing like this. I was taken by Martin's playing of Like something in love. I noted that the melody was clear, the bass was there and chordal accompaniment, that he played with his hands in chordal shapes, occasionally dropping into scales for fills. He was playing solo fingerpicked guitar, and he was portraying the whole of the tune. But it was later when he demonstrated the detail within, after he'd been talking of different sounds available up and down the string, and the use of soft fingerpads then missing with fairly short nails, that I really heard this. He played straight, even, and the tune was there but the life wasn't. Then with the full articulation and the song came alive, giving prominence to melody or bass and living the tune. Not surprising, really, but a great demonstration.

Martin has played with Stephanne Grappelli and Chet Atkins and played on 100 albums and he's Visiting Professor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He mostly chatted for an hour and took a few questions. He played ukelele in 1959 and put it down for guitar. Guitar was a game for him in his childhood. his father was a jazz bassist. The guitar is "complete instrument". He used to daydream at school, but it was thinking through tunes on guitar; he'd then go home and play virtually perfectly first time. Thus, he spoke of thinking first, playing later, "internalise music". he's never had a guitar lesson, but he had an aptitude. The guitar is ultimately just a piece of wood; the music is in the player. Practice scales, whatever; start slow and build up; get "beyond thinking". "Do it slowly and over and over again". "What are the three secrets of playing the guitar? Repetition, repetition, repetition". The difference between music as a hobby and as a life or job. 'The life of a professional musician is actually a very, very hard life". Musicality and instrumental ability must go hand in hand. You must know theory: it's the framework, language, vocabulary. Sight reading? Perhaps not required, but you must be able to read. Find who you are and this is not always a shredder. Tone and flesh and nails. Rhythm can be stated (walking) or suggested (using silence). There are two sides to music: sound and silence. You'll never go wrong if you accompany with just playing chord tones 3 and 7 in the middle register.

Matthew Fagan opened with hand exercised and some examples of Spanish style strumming. And again, talk of the uke: "The revolution will not pass you by".

Martin Taylor (guitar) gave a workshop at Street 3 and Matthew Fagan (guitar) introduced.

25 May 2014

Good for the gander

... Tate was running off to play with Victor Rufus Reverberation at Smiths. It's a common run these Thursdays: Thursday is performance day School of Music and jazz night at Smiths. I came in to a decent crowd and a band playing Dave Holland Conference of the birds. I enjoyed hearing that. It's well know but not too often played. This was a medley that ran into Nirvana Teen Spirit then Kurt Rosenwinkel's Next step. Difficult electric jazz. Then Brian Blade Fellowship Evinrude-fifty and Donny McCaslin Casting for gravity. Nothing like the preceding ballads. This was outright boys' blowing and skilled reading adn chops on hot stuff heads with no thought of love and life. Boys and girls: long last the difference. I enjoyed this hot flashy stuff, especially the contorted heads, some considered and structured and very controlled solos, including one that let go of diatonism and the planet, from Tate, a fluent and fast bass solo form Barnaby, an impressive drum solo from Rhys that was based on a very jumpy, stop-start groove, intelligent tenor and Victor's generous presence and guitar. It was only a few tunes (they had started before I arrived and Tate moved faster than I did, having to farewell some friends on the way) and it seemed short. An encore that was unplanned, on a Bb blues (Victor chose Bird's Relaxing at Camarillo) and the end. I was recording, and I had almost one hour. I was surprised. It didn't feel so long. Lively and choppy; the other side of Tate's interests. Nice one.

Victor Rufus Reverberation comprised Victor Rufus (guitar), Doug Hall (tenor), Tate Sheridan (piano), Barnaby Briggs (bass) and Rhys Lintern (drums).

24 May 2014

Balladic icons

It was called Icons and the songs certainly were. This was a group of singers from the ANU School of Music performing pop songs: five women and one man. Tate Sheridan was the man, and at one stage he argued for the depth of the popular song, being about love and life. I can easily agree, at least with this set of songs, but then they are the cream of the cream: Elton John, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush (who is more visible again recently, and must have been a challenge and fascination for these women). They sang 19 songs over two sets in Biginelli's Cafe, upstairs in the School of Music. This was civilised with cafe tables and provided with antipasto, and it was generous. I was not surprised by the age of the attendees (the performers were younger) and the music fitted. These were great songs, no doubt, but also none too recent. No grunge here, let alone hip-hop. These were also overwhelmingly ballads with overt seriousness. Perhaps too serious rather than entertaining. I'm more worried about climate change and the recent budget than love stories, but then I'm a bloke and past a time of hormones. There were some wonderful harmonies to such special songs. There were arrangements, some digging deeper into introversion. I loved the Kate Bush by both Rachael Thoms and Bec Taylor. Rachael especially had me poring over every controlled note and liquid vibrato and precise embellishment in Wuthering Heights. It shows that she's the teacher here, opera trained and an older (but not old) woman with a mature voice. They tell me that singers' voices improve with age and it's not just a matter of technique and experience. Not just that, though. She's jazz trained and was playful and daring when she performed a version of Come together with loops for bass and drums and harmonies and used effects for an authentic guitar solo. Fun and astonishing and obviously new for many in the crowd. [Hint: TC Helicon]. I loved Tate's commitment and unexpectedly decent voice and his dissonances and flexibility on piano. Seriously good. When he was playing Your song, I was reminded how the best musicians can just play the tune with all the right lines and chords and feels. Weaker musicians twist tunes because that's what they know. Tate was just spot on. Ben Taylor is a local star of the Canberra Musicians Club but I've heard her too little. I enjoyed her professionalism and presence and some decent piano and voice, and particularly admired her take on Babooshka. She did Joni Mitchell's Woodstock, too, and this was apt. Kirrah Amosa, Jacqui Douglas and Amy Jenkins perform as a trio called Kaleid (pronounced as in collide) and it was obvious that they'd played together a bit. These are quite different voices. Kirrah's is deep and powered, Jacqui higher and Amy in the stars and it works nicely together. Kirrah also accompanies on guitar and Jacqui on piano. As Kaleid they performed Carole King's Natural woman, but they also supported each other otherwise. The final song was Let it be, and everyone was up and we could sing along and wave electronic candles and that was fun. It was pretty serious stuff for an older bloke, but it certainly was a wonderful collection of songs which most of the audience remembered from their first releases and there were some great performances to convey them. Much enjoyed and would gladly do this over. Then it ended and Tate ran off, with me in hot pursuit...

Icons was a celebration of the great singer / songwriters of our time, performed by Tate Sheridan (piano, vocals), Jacqui Douglas (piano, vocals), Amy Jenkins (piano, vocals), Kirrah Amosa (guitar, vocals), Bec Taylor (piano, vocals) and Rachael Thoms (piano, vocals). Kirrah, Jacqui and Amy also performed as Kaleid.

23 May 2014

More Budget

There wasn't too much new when the Australia Institute ran its commentary on the recent Budget. The Budget has been all over the papers and media for days, and it's a first budget for a new government and this is always controversial. This one is more controversial than others, given the direction of its cuts. For all the hysteria of budget emergency, there were not really great changes in the overall budget position. One speaker said the cut was only 0.1% of GDP in FY2014/2015. But the cuts are real for some poorer parts of society. See NATSEM and ANU Crawford School for some figures. Three speakers appeared at this session. David Richardson spoke of debt. Australia's is 14% of GDP (read, small, esp vs other countries; small vs BHP-Billiton which was said to have profit of $19b pa and debt of $66b). Australia had debt of over 100% in the 1950s after WW2, and also after WW1. He also queried that we are living beyond our means, given GDP is $1.5t and our consumption (excludes education, hospitals, infrastructure, etc, which he seemed to treat as investment) spending is $1.1t. So Budget emergency is "unquestioned rhetoric". Matt Grudnoff spoke of the Worst and Best of the budget. He gave the Medicare co-payment, indexing of school and hospital payments to CPI (the missing $80b), the Newstart 6 month cuts for under 30s and the $6b cut in Foreign aid as his worst (and the Newstart cut as "nasty"). Then the Goods: reindexing of fuel and means testing for Family Tax Benefit B. He also gave an honorary mention for the Deficit levy despite the high marginal rate and its short duration. He also talked of the "rhetoric" around "unsustainable" and "Labor's reckless spending". Then Ben Oquist spoke of the political aspects, especially in the Senate, the "muddled messaging" as well as the "savage cuts". He made the interesting observation that the Right wishes to reduce taxes because "Government is [essentially] redistributive" and observed that we are a very rich country in the richest period of our existence [maybe excepting the gold rushes?]. He suggested the strategy is for a bad budget then to get through to the next election with some tax cuts on a GST promise. But the reception is worse than expected, partly due partly to poor messaging. He considered the Senate's role and the positions of Greens and Palmer and stated it's the "toughest Senate [for a Government] since 1975". And he mused over Labor and their response and whether they can present a real challenge with real policies. Questions were on the reduction company tax and the involvement of the BCA. The rough figures are: company tax is 30% and raises $60b, thus the 1.5% reduction is a $4.5b cost to the budget. [But then, on forward estimates, getting rid of Mining tax costs $5.3b and Carbon tax costs $12.7b]. They considered electricity pricing (where carbon tax made up 9% of rises, widely agreed) noting that rollout of updated infrastructure is largely done now so electricity prices will return to CPI increases. I found it interesting when a speaker noted that it's "harder to lie in Government than in Opposition". Someone spoke of a son and friends at College who were starting a letter-writing campaign, and this was welcomed by one speaker. Someone asked about Royal Commissions and failed infrastructure, with rhetorical implications. There was talk of research on the likely health costs of a Medicare surcharge. (Hawke introduced a Medicare copayment and it became an issue in the leadership tussle with Keating and was removed, so there are interesting resonances with Labor). Martin Parkinson even got a run with his recent statement on the budget. David said it reminded him of Keynes' response to Treasury officials who worried about the post-war while bombs dropped in WW2: "The future can look after itself". Matt observed that it's strange that we are now living longer, and we find this a problem [such is economics]. There was a clarification of the "structural budget deficit" created by tax cuts (permanent) during a boom (temporary) and also the distribution of these changes. There was an interesting observation that Old Business dominates in influence now, and that New Business is yet to find its voice; also that they don't always have common interests. [I heard a solar business leader commented negatively on changes related to climate policy the other day. That's not the lines from the coal industry]. There were some comments on Rural/Regional and how the budget has a disproportionate effect on them, and how they continue to support the Nationals. David finished by saying why Australia can't end like Greece and Spain, as we are an independent economy with our own central bank: evidence is Greece debt 160% > crisis; Japan debt 250% > no crisis. Interesting, but nothing particularly new. And I wonder how much influence this can have. We live in interesting times, damn it!

Three researchers from the Australia Institute, David Richardson, Matt Grudnoff and Ben Oquist, spoke at Politics in the Pub.

20 May 2014

A German-Australian synthesis ... despite wars

I admire Chris Latham's CIMF and this was his last. Unfortunately, we had clashes and couldn't be so involved this year. Chris gathers some fascinating batches of musicians to play varied music around festival themes. It's the discovery that's most interesting about this festival - new music, composers, musicians - and it suits the educated nature of Canberra. Journalists take care here; as Jack Waterford says, there's always someone who's an expert in Canberra to provide corrections. This week was busy for us so we only managed 3 concerts (and one workshop) and they were the blockbusters: not quite the adventure of CIMF but a treat none-the-less.

The final concert was Brahms Australian Requiem. Actually, it's his German Requiem, but sung in English as it was first performed in full in Australia in 1898. This was the biggest concert of the three we attended this year, with perhaps 200 performers including choir, orchestra and two soloists. It's a grand work, classical in conception, in seven movements, deep with cellos and basses and variously mournful and recovering. The choir was big in the wet environment of the Fitters' workshop with all the voices nicely merged into one. We were up front, on the aisle but nearer the cellos and basses, and we strained to hear the violins and various woodwinds and organ, although I heard gentle harp later when the chart was sparser. It's a feeling of being involved but perhaps not the best balance. This is a great space for choirs and power and passion if less so for clarity. But what a passion and volume this work has. The two soloist, bass-baritone and soprano, were big voices. This was in English but I didn't catch more than a phrase or two, from chorus or male soloist. There was a transcript (good on CIMF!) but I chose to listen. This was a big and passionate work in a big-sounding space.

To finish was a simpler composition, a song arranged by local Calvin Bowman, To Gratiana by W Denis Browne, a composer-soldier who died in WW1. It was a fitting, simple and touching ending for the festival called The Fire and the Rose, with twin themes of the 100th anniversary of WW1 and the 75th anniversary of the start of WW2. Then some short speeches and introductions and a last post, minute of silence and reveille. Mmmm. You can't fault the music in this festival. The little we heard this year were just the big works and they were revelatory. I hope we can be more involved and more adventurous next year, under the new CIMF musical director, Roland Peelman.

Brahms German Requiem was performed in English by the Wallfisch Band, ACO2, Canberra Festival Chorus, Simone Riksman (soprano), Alexander Knight (bass-baritone) under Roland Peelman (conductor). W Denis Browne To Gratiano was arranged for voice and orchestra by Calvin Bowman (arranger), with Christopher Saunders (tenor) and the others above.

18 May 2014

Lesson for an amateur

It's not just the music that fascinates. The piano is a complex and beautiful thing and it was honoured when Ara Vartoukian gave a workshop for the CIMF Fringe yesterday. Ara is a piano technician based in Sydney; he looks after the pianos in the Angel Place Recital Hall amongst others; the session was called the Piano whisperer. He was talking of pianos, especially Steinways, and tuning. It was the tuning that particularly interested me, being myself a very amateur tuner of an old piano. Ara spoke of equal temperament; how it's necessary but scientifically incorrect; how it has a human element (we hear high notes as flat and low notes as sharp); how he uses thirds and cycles and intervals; how he tunes not just for pitch but for maintenance of that pitch (releasing stress with fortissimo staccatos then, unlike guitar, tuning down to a note); how often he tunes and registers instruments; how he stretches the tuning and how different stretches serve different purposes; how to make a piano sound honkytonk. If I got it right, tuning is built on overtones and the beats between intervals: around 0.7 sec for a major third. It all happened quickly with his experience. Firstly the strings are damped with felt, so only the middle of three strings plays; he tunes the middle octave, then spreads over the piano, then removes the felt string-by-string and adjusts the partner strings. It's quick, although I noticed even on an ANU Steinway grand there were a few notes that demanded extra tweaks. He removed the keyboard and the mechanism was laid bare. It's a strange sight: an open mouth on a grand piano and the complex, repetitive mechanism of the keys laying on a table. This is all a mix of craft and art and even some science on the most essential of instruments and the product of a year's training and subsequent experience. Fascinating and aurally challenging.

Ara Vartoukian (piano tuner) talked pianos and tuning at the ANU School of Music for the Canberra International Music Festival Fringe.

15 May 2014

Music for my funeral

People have music at their funerals and I've often thought what I might wish to have at mine. We heard Mozart's Requiem tonight at the Albert Hall for the CIMF and it's profoundly melancholy and touching, but who would have the self-regard to think they justified it? Who could deserve it? We've heard a performance before. Everyone knows it. It was played here on period instruments (A430Mhz). It's tragic; it's truthful; it's redemptive and ecstatic. How can you respond to the choir singing ever-rising sequences? With tears or with unhinged laughter? It's just too profound. It's mostly choral, but there are passages of four solo voices: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass. They sometimes sing individually, but mostly with entwined voices, perhaps the tenor appearing through, or the soprano soaring, or the two women in harmony. This version was shortened from the commonly performed one. It was a version by Richard Maunder that's missing three passages (Sanctus, Hosanna and Benedictus) that appear to be Süssmayr not Mozart. Süssmayr was the student of Mozart who was supposed to have completed the work when Mozart died. I'll check our CD later to hear the missing passages, but there were more than enough renowned and deeply affecting passages here. This is music that you wish won't end. I heard it as a little rough in the orchestra at times but very nicely performed by both choir and soloists. The string sections were led by seasoned performers, but these were young players and they were apparently playing on gut strings for the first time. I know gut on a double bass and it is a very different experience so I feel for them; a baptism of fire. Mozart's Requiem was performed by Simone Riksman (soprano), Hannah Fraser (mezzo-soprano), Christopher Saunders (tenor), Andrew Fysh (bass), the Wallfisch Band with ACO2, Elisabeth LeGuin (cello), Albert-Jan Roelofs (organ), Song company with the Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists and Roland Peelman (conductor).

Preceding the Requiem was another work of death and immense sadness, a Stabat Mater. Stabat Mater is a 13th Century Catholic hymn of Maria dolorosa standing under the Cross of Jesus. You can only imagine the depth of sorrow in this image. Stabat Maters have been written by many composers. Pergolesi's is the famous one; this was by Luigi Boccherini of Lucca. This version was a new edition by Elisabeth Le Guin for three voices. Elisabeth ventured from the US to play cello for this performance. I enjoyed this performance but was a little non-plussed by Boccherini's work. The first notes are appropriately mournful, but then the music becomes merely dignified, then perhaps dramatic, sometimes almost light and danceable and not sufficiently pathetic to my ears. None-the-less it's a worthy work, Elisabeth's work is admirable and I loved the three voices, tenor and two sopranos. I particularly enjoyed the tenor, although intertwined sopranos were also luxurious. Boccherini Stabat Mater was performed by Susannah Lawergren and Anna Fraser (sopranos), Christopher Saunders (tenor), the Wallfisch Band with ACO2 and Roland Peelman (conductor).

  • The painting is Pietro Perugino, Mary at the Cross (1482) National Gallery, Washington DC, USA. Click on pic to view larger
  • 12 May 2014

    Just perfect music

    There's so much that goes through your head after a decent concert. This was the Canberra International Music Festival and the concert was Bach (with some ring-ins) and we could only leave with beaming smiles and a rollicking gait. Firstly, we were talking of the Albert Hall as a concert venue, and how it's so good for chamber work of this size with an audience to sop up the reverb: live but not soppy; clear voices and ringing baroque trumpets; perhaps a little bass heavy (Max McBride was alone but filled the bottom end). And the experience is so European concert hall with an architectural experience that is so out of place in our new metropolis, with the large windows and suggested columns with Ionian scrolls and hinted flowers. Then the music. A jazzer said to me in passing that "he sure can write", meaning Bach can compose. It's an ironic throwaway line, of course.

    I'd read that the Magnificat was originally written in Eb (the current version is D major). It was first performed at Christmas 1723 with two other new works. Bach had arrived in Leipzig in May that year and had already written 30 cantatas by Christmas. Genius. Magnificat (D major, BWV243) is ~27 mins in 11 movements for 5 voices and 5 instrumental parts. It starts with a joyous, vibrant canon on "Magnificat anima mea Dominum" (My soul magnifies the Lord), through various solo sung parts; two very different sopranos, perhaps over oboes or strings; bass over a ponderous but amusing accompaniment of cellos and double bass; countertenor and tenor with lyrical melody over violins with pizz bass and short cello. Always the lanky but sinuous Roland Peelman conducting by feeling every nuance. I can understand the value of a conductor when I see this man. Through more choir with a sudden stop (on 1+?) and an end with baroque trumpets and timpani; a 3/4 introduced with violins and cello responses, and again that neat, square and brisk bass; then countertenor with pure flute tones; three females singing over one cello and organ; a vocal canon starting elephantine and rising through male to male to female to female, dignified, then into an exultant final Gloria with trumpets and timp. This is not all, but an impression. Half an hour of the most perfect of music. I'd first thought this is the most perfect music during the final movement of the previous work, Bach Concerto for violin and oboe in Cmin BWV1060. This is three movements, instrumental with two solo melody instruments, with a middle movement in 3/4. It is fabulous and beautiful and unrelenting and sequenced, but it's also a piece I've heard a billion times on ABC RN LNL so it has the advantage of being ridiculously familiar. Elizabeth Wallfisch was to solo, but had fallen off a bike so was replaced by Matthew Greco at short notice. He did a great job, although he was often a bit quiet for the oboe. A fabulous work and very well done. I'm thinking European familiarity with this music, now. Albert Hall suited the baroque with intimacy and acoustics, but also the informality, reminding me of unexpectedly casual canteens at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Berlin Concerthouse.

    What else? Before the interval was a short fanfare, Handel Battaglia from his opera Rinaldo, all trumpets and timpani and suggestions of battle (I missed this) and agitation and ferment. Then a change to the program due to Elizabeth's bike accident. Another Bach was replaced with an oddly unexpected but fascinating duo playing 900yo Armenian music of Gurdjieff and the Silk Road. These were two tunes played on duduk and organ: Grigor Naretski Fowl of the air was a mutating scale over a single note organ drone; Khatchatur Taronetsi Mystery profound had a more complex duduk melody over small organ chords. I heard lots of long notes; (I guessed) flat 3s and 6s but the scales changed; slithering legato and strangely Mid-Eastern vibrato. Lovely, diverse and meditative. Then one more Bach, his Cantata Es erhub sich ein steit (There arose a war) BWV19. It's magnificent but I don't hear the war reference without reading the German. As for performers, I couldn't help but love the baroque trumpets and timpanis when they let fly. I admired all manner of instruments - strings, oboes who had several featured passages, the lovely baroque organ, the cellos and bass that also had their features. But most of all I loved the voices. This was the Song Company presumably with a friend or two and they were glorious, as solo voices or intertwined in a canon. Precise and beautiful voices, both men and women. So, this was a huge pleasure and more coming.

    The various Bach and Handel were performed by the Song Company with guests Sonya Holowell (soprano), Susannah Bishop (soprano), Tobias Cole (counter tenor) and Richard Butler (tenor). Musicians included Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin, unexpectedly not soloing) and the Wallfisch Band, Elizabeth's replacement Matthew Greco (violin) and Leo Duarte (baroque oboe). All around Roland Peelman (conductor). The Armenian players were from the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble: Emmanuel Hovhannisyan (duduk) and Levan Eskenian (?) (baroque organ).