Saturday, 27 February 2016

PIAF Soft Soft Loud review

Chris van Tuinen in his introduction to Soft Soft Loud described new music as “pieces that people don’t like and that are hard to get audiences for.” The PIAF classical music program manager had his tongue firmly in his cheek; he was speaking to a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Fremantle Arts Centre to hear a piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage, one of the coolest composers currently on the planet.

The compelling emotional impact of Mark-Anthony Turnage's music

The attraction on this windless, starry night was Turnage’s iconic Blood on the Floor for jazz quartet and orchestra which was premiered in a new arrangement by artistic director Matthew Hoy. The orchestra was reduced by almost half its size and – to Hoy’s credit –none of Turnage’s colour or rhythmic flamboyance was lost. Instead there was an organic, intimate intensity with the conducting shared between Hoy (doubling as cellist) and saxophonist Matthew Styles.

Turnage’s skilful fusing of jazz and classical idioms was immediately apparent as bass player Sam Anning and guitarist Carl Morgan joined drummer Benjamin Vanderwal in a funk rhythm while the woodwind and brass snapped out Stravinskian rhythmic offbeats. The fourth movement Sweet and Decay retained its powerful bass sound: two contrabassoons, two clarinets, double bass, timpani and gong created a satisfyingly deep reverberation while chilling solos from alto flute, soprano saxophone and viola completed the soundworld. In contrast Junior Addict and Elegy for Andy (written in memory of the composer’s brother) were sparse with the melancholic air of jazz ballads. Needles and Crackdown were particularly jazz-inflected with Carl Mackey delivering a sweetly swinging saxophone improvisation.

The intensity peaked in Cut Up where big band groove juxtaposed with fragmented instrumental lines, held together by Vanderwal’s flawless transitioning through complex time signatures. Dispelling the Fears concluded the audio rollercoaster with slow-moving block chords and a gradually ascending trumpet solo (Martin Phillipson), the final bars delivered with muted poignancy.

It was another satisfying Soft Soft Loud concert showcasing the versatility of Perth’s musicians and the compelling emotional impact of new music. 

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Limelight magazine sneak preview

Look what has arrived!

 The March edition of Limelight magazine has a four page spread on the history of women composers. I has been awhile since I've had a big glossy spread so I am a bit proud!  The full article will feature on the blog in March as part of International Women's Day celebrations, but here is a sneak preview:

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

PIAF Dark Mirror White Noise review

 Artist Jon Tarry is known for his statues and art installations (including one at Curtin Gallery as part of PIAF). But on Monday night he was sculpting sound. The UWA associate professor was centre stage at Chevron Festival Gardens for a music and art collaboration called Dark Mirror White Noise.

Tarry's interactive pen on paper projected above stage
Tarry introduced the intersection of sound and image from the beginning of his 50 minute improvisation by using an interactive pad and pen (with pickup mic attached) to literally draw sound. The pen movement stimulated electronic sounds and the scribbles were projected onto a screen.

Tarry electronically manipulated the white noise to become low, subterranean globs of sound which his ensemble began to interact with. Peter Knight added high pitched (and somewhat intrusive) computer generated samples plus trumpet calls that he distorted to haunting effect. Vocalist Esther Maria brought a cabaret/operatic vibe to the performance with fragments of poetry delivered in Danish and English. Sam Pankhurst filled out the bottom end of the sound spectrum with his synthesizer and ‘geobass”, a wire suspended from the roof which he played with a bow to produce whispers and shivers.

Cameron Robbins took the cake in terms of visually compelling music making. He began on bass clarinet, interacting with Tarry’s scribbles with wriggling note clusters and multiphonic keening before returning to the stage with a “Fractal horn”, a tube with an extended bell which projected long slow tones over the audience. Then there was the metal swan extending on the arm of a wind gauge and activated by an industrial fan. Robbins also had his own mechanically operated drawing machine with an amplified pen which ricocheted between obstacles and generated a percussive beat. Robbins added a didgeridoo-like pulse on his clarinet, hair streaming out in the wind from the fan while the swan danced wildly above him. It was an incongruous and compelling mix of lo-fi and high brow art.

The performance wasn’t what everyone expected and there were a few walk outs. I had anticipated film work and a broader exploration of sound-generated visuals. Instead the show was more of a live installation performance. But for those who stayed it was an engrossing display of a group of artists’ limitless capacity for musical invention.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Monday, 22 February 2016

PIAF Band of Brothers review

Joseph Tawadros’ personality is as unfettered as his music. His virtuosic oud playing was accompanied by irreverent humour as he and brother James Tawadros (percussion)
opened their concert at the Chevron Festival Gardens in relaxed style, one foot resting on a knee to cradle their instruments.

The siblings are one half of Band of Brothers and Joseph Tawadros’ composition Forbidden Fruit introduced the complexity of their Arabic instruments. Joseph used the bass strings on the oud as a pedal note while his complex pick work created a decorative pentatonic melody line. James’ tambourine-like riq produced sounds ranging from the depth of a bongo drum to the snap of a snare rimshot.

The Band of Brothers line-up was completed by the addition of the Grigoryan brothers Slava and Leonard. Their fretted guitars added a clean purity to the wailing fierceness of the oud and the hypnotic pattering of the riq.

In Ten Ten Slava Grigoryan doubled the oud bass line while Leonard picked out a solo that was spacious, sweet and touched with jazz voicings. The banjo-inspired Bluegrass and Nikriz moved in a different direction again with Slava laying down a funk bass line under a breakneck oud solo with a time signature which seemingly changed every few bars. 

The Grigoryan brothers were the more reticent half of the quartet, preferring to let their fingers do the talking. As a duo they produced a sparkling sound in Fantasy on a Theme by William Lawes while Leonard’s composition This Time was immaculately synchronised.

 Band of Brothers Blackbird
The band regrouped for the final few songs and Joseph explained with typical humour why they chose to do a cover of the Beatle’s Blackbird: “The Grigoryan brothers are Russian so we had to play something by Lennon”. Strangely it was an apt summary of this concert which free-wheeled joyfully and irreverently across multiple cultures and musical boundaries.

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2016

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Johann Johannsson at PIAF

Johann Johannsson ditched formal music studies as a teenager to play rock guitar in Iceland’s experimental scene. Johannsson’s sound palette has since expanded from feedback-drenched guitar layers to full symphony orchestra and the self-taught composer has produced five albums and 27 films scores. Johannsson will bring his hypnotic blend of acoustic and electronic music to the Chevron Festival Gardens on February 29th.

“I am still sculpting noise but with a bigger palette,” Johannsson explains on the phone from his current home in Berlin. “I am fortunate to have access to an orchestra of talented people and that vast sound world but it is still the same as when I was 18 and playing around with a guitar.”

The 46 year old honed his craft in Reykjavik creating unique hybrid art events with artists, musicians, dancers and actors. He began a self-guided exploration of music theory and classical orchestration after discovering the ambient music of Brian Eno. The result was a layering of electronic and acoustic sounds into a spacious minimalist sound world.

I’m obsessed with the texture of sound and interested in minimal forms, with how to say things as simply as possible, how to distill things into their primal form. The simpler the expression the easier it is to communicate ideas.”

The sense of restraint in his debut electro-orchestral album Englaborn (2002) was captured in a Pitchfork review which described “the piano moving like droplets off of slowly melting icicles, and the violin breathing warmth from above. The hesitation of each breath and falling bead feels as though it were a Morton Feldman piece condensed to three minutes.”

Johannsson’s evocative electro-acoustic sound palette and interdisciplinary experience made him well-suited for film music. His music for the 2014 film The Theory of Everything directed by James Marsh won a Golden Globe for best score. Johannsson’s distilled musical ideas added lyrical emotion to the story of physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with Jane Wilde. The film was a critical success and won a Golden Globe for best actor (Eddie Redmayne) and best score.  

The music takes on a darker more menacing tone in his most recent score for the 2015 action thriller Sicaro directed by Denis Villeneuve. But Johannsson says the composing process is always the same.

“I try to get into a receptive frame of mind to be responsive to ideas, impulses, flashes of inspiration when they come.”

He goes for walks, similar to Ludovico Einaudi, the Italian film composer to whom Johannsson is sometimes compared. When ideas come he sits at the piano to expand on them then arranges and orchestrates at the computer.

“That’s the great thing about the computer, everything is possible, and I like to have a wide open palette, to not limit possibilities.”

No idea is ruled out which results in some intriguing creative dichotomies. It is not just the dialogue between acoustic and electronic sounds but the counterbalance in for example Englaborn where an AppleTalk voice recites a Latin poem in a compelling mix of ancient and mechanical. Or the contrast between the lo-fi washed out Super 8 footage of Antarctica and the vivid layered soundtrack in End of Summer, a movie filmed and scored by Johannsson. And scattered through all of his music those moments when a monotonous drone or repetition subtly changes notes and abruptly becomes a gulf of emotion.

“Careful gestures, simple tools and a good mind are all Johannsson needs”, wrote a Pitchfork critic. And it is a winning formula. Film directors March and Villeneuve have requested the composer work with them again on new films in 2016. Johannsson also plans to release his sixth album in (northern hemisphere) autumn.

He will start the year, however, with his first trip to Australia where audiences in Perth and Adelaide will hear him up close and personal. Johannsson will be straddling piano and electronics accompanied by a string quartet of local players. It is a format he has been using for live shows since his album Englaborn.

“It will be like a journey through the spectrum of my music. I like to create an atmosphere that is contemplative but also where the music can communicate on an emotional and visceral level. My music is generally not loud but you still feel it with your body, your senses, your heart and your mind aswell.”

 For tickets to Johannsson on February 27th go toóhann-jóhannsson

This article copyright The West Australian 2015

Monday, 15 February 2016

February Celebrity Soft Spot Ashley William Smith

Long-distance runner, ABC Young Performer winner (2010), lung expert, graduate from UWA, ANAM and the Yale School of Music, Ashley William Smith is one of Australia's most in-demand musicians. Ashley has already appeared on this blog as the winner of Performance of the Year at the 2015 Art Music Awards. But he is well worth a closer look and I hope you'll find his interview in this month's Celebrity Soft Spot as fascinating as I did. We will also get to hear him performing very soon at the Perth Festival Chamber Music Weekend.

What music gets your heart racing?

Quite literally, I use music to deliberately make my heart race! I’m an avid long distance runner and I use music at specific b.p.m. (beats per minute) in order to pace myself correctly. Some of my favourites for setting a tempo at the beginning of a run are Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (which we are performing at UWA this year), or Philip Glass operas.. In very long runs, something like Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben gives me a whole program of tempos and keeps me going through the tough bits in a race.

What calms you down?

Surprisingly music doesn’t calm me down – it has the opposite effect of activating my mind. My ultimate way to de-stress and re-centre myself is to go for a run. We are so lucky in Perth to have both the river and the hills to run around. Sunshine and beauty everywhere, I’m convinced we live in one of the world’s great cities for runners.

What do you sing along to?

Although I think I’m a natural wind player, I often think that if I could start my career again I’d like to be an opera singer. The opera repertoire is the best music there is, and the connection that a singer must make between the body and the instrument must feel incredible. While I was studying in the USA, I would go to the Met Opera in New York up to three times a week. It was the most tremendous experience and the best possible education for myself. I was incredibly lucky to see almost all of the great opera masterworks (plus a heap of contemporary opera as well) performed by the world’s most wonderful singers.

When did you first discover the clarinet was an essential extension of your body?

I’m not sure I’d say the clarinet is an extension of my body – it is only one small part of what I do as a musician. Rather, I’d say that I am living my life through music. To me, this means much more than just the pleasure you receive from playing an instrument, or the thrill of performing - it also encompasses loving the repertoire, listening to and being moved by music, loving the life-long learning process attached to music, keeping up with the physical demands required by the craft. It also encompasses sharing this whole experience with other musicians and audiences. It’s an incredible way to live a life. 

You took on your role as Head of Winds and Artist in Residence at UWA in 2014, just 6 years after you graduated as a student. Your appointment marked the institution’s return to an emphasis on performing and particularly a focus on contemporary music. How are you finding it working as an academic? 

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade my academic job with anyone! It is the ultimate Renaissance-man occupation. My job involves teaching and researching those parts of music that most inspire me, playing with the people who I most want to collaborate with, playing the repertoire that I decide to play, working with the composers that I most admire, being inspired by other art forms, and being inspired by my students. Most of all, I have unbelievably awesome colleagues, a boss that leaves me to my own devices and lets me excel. All of this is wrapped up in a package that places me in the most beautiful location in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. At times managing this job with my performing schedule can be bloody stressful and (if I’m not careful) has the potential to suck all the energy out of me, but the rewards are most definitely worth it.

You are a significant role model for your students at UWA. What do you wish you’d known when you were an undergraduate at the School of Music?

I wish I’d known earlier on that the demands of the profession would require me to physically be an athlete.  This has been something that has taken me years to learn how to balance. In order to maintain the quality and quantity of performances that I do, I have to be constantly in peak condition with my cardio and mobility. Out of all aspects of my playing, I am most proud of the efficiency of my breath control. However, this does not come easily -I Crossfit train for and hour and a half most mornings, as well as run and (most recently) swim. I’m pretty ruthless with not letting anything get in the way of my training - I know all the best running tracks and Crossfit gyms in each city in Australia, so I know there is always somewhere I can train. Most of all, I love it intensely.

I know you’re in the throws of preparing for the PIAF Chamber Music Weekend – five big works across 2 days. Your Ensemble Vagabond is contributing some of the more edgy repertoire with Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles and Barber’s Summer Music. How do you go about learning some of the more complex compositions – I
gather highlighters are involved!

The Vagabonds and I have been rehearsing the repertoire for our PIAF concert for a few weeks now, and I think we are increasingly realising that the edgiest piece in the program is in fact not the Ligeti or Barber, but the Beethoven! Even though the Quintet for Piano and Winds is an early work for Beethoven, it is in fact quite ground-breaking: it has lots of strange detours, interesting mixes of instrumental colour and unusual rhythmic and dynamic effects.  Contrarily, the ideas and structure of both the Barber and Ligeti quintets are remarkably simple – the effect being that the Barber is EXTREMELY beautiful, and the Ligeti is very exciting.

You quote David Thomas on your blog saying one of the most important parts of being a musician is being easy to play with. How do you make yourself easy to play with?

The best musicians are generous, ruthlessly prepared, and not musically stubborn (a skill that I had to work very hard to learn!).

You also star in classic works by Schubert (Octet, Shepherd on the Rock) and Beethoven (Quintet in E-flat). What is your top pick for the weekend?

The Schubert Octet is always an experience! Both the performers and audience need to pack the thermos and a cut lunch for the occasion. It is monumental both in its scale and the demands it places on the performers (for instance, the clarinet melody at the opening of the second movement requires a length of breath that is right on the cusp of what even the fittest lungs are capable of delivering). The Menuetto is the stand-out movement for me - it is breathtakingly simple and so perfectly placed within the emotional ride of the whole work.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

Music allows us to experience emotion, which in turn makes us compassionate people. That is my philosophy on why music is essential to our survival.
Selfie with Lachlan Skipworth, 2015 Art Music Awards.

You are a “Buffet-Crampon Artist” – the clarinet equivalent of being an athlete sponsored by Nike!  How did the sponsorship come about?

Surprisingly I was approached by two different people from, two different events in different countries: one of them was the ABC Young Performer Awards, and the other was a recital which I gave at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Do you have a partner/significant other/pet?

I’m afraid I’m that perpetually single guy and (despite wanting a dog intensely) am unable to have pets because of my travel schedule. However I do have some impressive indoor terrariums. Perhaps the terrariums are the reason why I’m single.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

Can I nominate the whole of the Swan River? Everyday, whether I’m driving down Mounts Bay Rd or running the bridges, the river takes my breath away.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

Most of my favourite things begin with the letter ‘C’: clarinet, Crossfit, coffee, cooking, comedy.

And finally to finish, check out the video below of  Ashley with some of his closest mates performing a disco version of the Rite of Spring:

Chamber Music Weekend concerts featuring Ashley William Smith:

Saturday 27th Feb
2-3pm Ensemble Vagabond "Beethoven to Barber" 
Beethoven Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds
Ligeti Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet
Barber Summer Music for Wind Quintet

Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
Benaud Trio and Ashley Smith (clarinet)
Sunday 28th Feb
10am Schubert Octet in F major
Margaret Blades (violin 1), Zak Rowentree (violin 2), Sally Boud (viola), Michael Goldshlager (cello), Andrew Sinclair (bass), Ashley Smith (clarinet), Adam Mikulicz (bassoon), Julia Brooke (horn)
Schubert The Shepherd on the Rock
Sara Macliver (soprano), Ashley Smith (clarinet), Gladys Chua (piano)

Big thanks to Ashley for appearing in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For more information on Ashley William Smith head to:

Ashley's UWA staff profile
Chamber group the Southern Cross Soloists
Buffet/Crampon artist profile 
Youtube Channel 
UWA Ensemble in Residence Ensemble Vagabond