Sunday, 27 May 2012

Blonde Russian charm

Tomorrow I'm interviewing Russian conductor Vladimir Verbitsky. With a translator! (Language tips anyone?!)

He has conducted WASO as their guest conductor every year for 25 years - is that an Australian record? I think it could be.

Perth audiences love his emtional performances and his blonde Russian charm. Even more impressive is the fact that in every performance the musicians respect him and go with him every inch of the way.

He must know the orchestra so well after all these years. What should I ask him?

Thursday, 24 May 2012


Decibel ensemble with student composers
WA Academy of Performing Arts

The conductor cued the beginning and the members of Decibel ensemble simultaneously pressed the space bar on their computers. This almost-comic choreographed moment demonstrated the relationship between electronic and acoustic instruments which is now a big part of contemporary composition.

Decibel ensemble was performing a program of music created by WAAPA students in response to the philosophies of musical revolutionary John Cage. The piece in question was Chance Images by Kevin Penkin which required performers to play cells of music as they appeared randomly on the computer screen. Jack Moriarty used chance to determine the construction of Music for Digital Spaces. His 3D score – potentially the first of its kind in music history – was projected on a screen and the spinning mobile of blocks and circles interpreted by bass clarinet, bass flute, cello and electronics. Meg Travers updated Cage’s fascination with radio to the medium of twitter, using message feeds from CNN and related Morse code rhythms as the basis for Breaking News. Jake Steele’s Bleep Test extrapolated Cage’s interest in games into a sprint test for the performers who had to deliver their passage of music before the next beep.

Henry Andersen’s Pulmonary Sketches was a standout with its throbbing rhythms and eerie ending. The sounds were derived from the recording of a heartbeat, the sound Cage couldn’t escape when he famously visited an anechoic chamber to listen to silence.

The award for best composition went to Samuel Gillies for Music of Transitions which, in contrast to Cage’s preference of listening to sounds as isolated entities, explored the properties of music as it moved between sounds. The performers followed a graphic score and their contributions were looped and played through opposing speakers. The darker timbres of bass clarinet, viola and bass flute muttered conversationally while tom-tom drums thudded and the manipulated electronic sounds added an industrial and sometime bird-like quality to the soundscape.

The depth and diversity of works paid tribute not only to the innovations of Cage but also indirectly to the vibrant composition program currently running at the academy under Lindsay Vickery.

copyright The West Australian May 2012

Monday, 21 May 2012

Famous author (!) speaking at Cambridge Library

I'm talking at Cambridge Library in Floreat on Wednesday.

Go on, do come along. There is free morning tea!

Make sure you ask a curly question, like "I heard one of the composers in your book is threatening legal action", or "Isn't feminist musicology for lesbians?"

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Rule Britannia!

One thing about the Poms, they know how to sing! The concert hall resounded for over three hours with British music and at every opportunity the capacity audience roared along to golden classics like Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. It was the twenty first and final Best of British concert and I was well out of my depth, not only because I had to keep checking the lyrics (sorry, not a pom), but I wasn’t wearing red white and blue.

When compere David Hawkes (Curtin FM) asked if there were any ten pound poms in the audience it seemed like half the crowd raised their hands, which gives you an indication of the average age. Several audience members had attended all 21 of the last-night-at-the-proms-styled concerts.

The hugely successful tradition is the brainchild of conductor and entrepreneur John Christmass who pulled out all the stops for the last concert. Guest soloists included the Alasdair Kent with his shining tenor voice, Mark Alderson with his flair for the dramatic, the sweet-voiced soprano Alexandra Bak, the polished tenor Matthew Reardon, pure-voiced Josephine Christmass, limber David Grace and the entertaining Justin Friend. David Grace also took to the stage with his ukulele for some George Formby favourites and David Murray joined the orchestra on bagpipes for two Scottish numbers.

The New I Voci Singers sparkled in several choral solos and the Perth Pops Orchestra under conductor Jessica Gethin were diligent accompanists across a wide range of repertoire, coming most alive in a Beatles tribute medley.

 As 10:30pm came and went I was the only one thinking about dressing gown and slippers - the old time rockers in the audience were only just warming up. But as streamers and balloons floated down and the British nostalgia took over I found myself waving a Union Jack flag furiously. A fitting tribute was paid to the remarkable octogenarian John Christmass whose closing words were, “If you think I’m done you’re wrong”. Christmass is moving on to new projects but hinted that other organisers were keen to continue the Best of British tradition. It felt like an important part of Perth’s music history had been honoured.

Copyright The West Australian May 2012

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Surf meets Shostakovich

It's got to be the dream commission.
Iain Grandage has been asked to hang out with Richard Tognetti at Ningaloo Reef and write some music. Not just any music but something to accompany wild surf footage and played by some of the best orchestral players in the world from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

The adventurous project involves pro-surfers Derek Hynd and Tom Carroll, Broome singer Steve Pigram and didgeridu player Mark Atkins. Photographer Jon Frank will film the surf footage. The project is called The Reef and I'm not sure who gets the credit for the idea but it is part of Tura new music's 25th birthday program. The residency at Gnaraloo Bay includes workshops with Carnarvon and Geraldton school students, a performance at Gnaraloo Station and in July the project will tour from Darwin to Perth with a final concert in Sydney.

Iain is the lynchpin between all the creative artists. Originally from Perth, Iain will draw on his experiences as an improvising artist, a theatre composer and his collaborations with indigenous Australians to create the music.

“The aim is to create a collaborative media piece that reflects the ethos of surfing and the manifestation of Gnaraloo reef,” Iain says. “I’m hoping people will get a sense of the intensity of surfing transformed into music, so they can feel the thrill and excitement.”

Grandage’s composition will link together music by George Crumb and Dmitri Shostakovich with surf rock music and his own reflections on the physical and historical landscape of Gnaraloo Bay. The final structure will be shaped in collaboration with the musicians on the tour.

“The piece starts with a surf wipeout where you are dragged underwater. Music by Crumb and Shostakovich will be colliding with my music so it will sound confused with lots of sliding glissandi in the instruments. Then we’ll launch into Alice in Chains’ Them Bones.”

The Perth concert is July 18th and I'm there!
Wanna come?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Fisch out of water?

The WA Symphony Orchestra this week announced Asher Fisch will take up the baton as principal conductor and artistic advisor from 2014.

Asher began his conducting career as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant during the 1990's and has built his career as a conductor of opera. The Israeli maestro has served as music director of the Israeli Opera and the Vienna Opera and is currently the principal guest conductor of the Seattle Opera.

 I first saw him in 2005 conducting State Opera of South Australia's production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and there is no doubt he is an excellent conductor in the pit. But he has very little experience in the concert hall. Does anyone else see this as a concern?

 Asher has already made it clear he intends to focus on the 19th and early 20th century repertoire  "especially the music of Wagner, which I think is essential in developing the symphonic style of playing of the late Romantic and early modern-expressionist eras."

He has made some perceptive comments about WASO, describing them as "a wonderful blend of British professionalism, American work ethic and German precision." He wants to help the orchestra develop its own unique style of playing, to 'loosen up, move around while playing, take more risks and avoid playing in what I call the ‘safety zone’."

Perhaps Asher sees this as his opportunity to broaden his repertoire. Or maybe WASO will be playing a lot of Wagner for three years!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Giving it a Whirl

I'm always impressed by how versatile Australian composers are. Last night Sarah Hopkins put in an appearance on Australia's Got Talent. She is one of the composers who features in my book Women of Note.

She's rather overqualified for the show, in fact her audition was at the request of the show's producers who 'discovered' her online. I think she's incredibly brave because television is so manipulative in its goal to create entertainment value. But she survived it with dignity intact and made it through to the next round. She has chosen not to continue with the show because she has too many projects on the go already.

The Whirlies she is playing are instruments she invented to facilitate her philosophy of ‘music for everyone’. THey are made from corrugated hoses of various lengths that produce different pitches from the harmonic series when they are whirled through the air. The pitches change depending on the speed they are being whirled. She uses them in workshops with students and community groups.

The show provided a brief history of Sarah's classical background and you get a sense of her hippy personality and explorations into music as a healing tool.

For a long time she was into more radical experimental music but more recently her focus has been community music. She has written some powerful choral pieces including her signature piece Past Life Melodies (1991) which has become the most performed Australian choral work in the United States. It channels a melody that came to Sarah while meditating and features harmonic overtone singing in it.  There are lots of versions on Youtube, below is one of the better ones.

Spellbindingly simple.
Past Life Melodies has been hugely popular in the US and with school and professional choirs around the world. Some say it is a bit spooky. I'd be interested in people's reactions if anyone wants to post a comment.