Review – The Virtuous Woman with The Watermelon
Richmond Uniting Church
Forest Collective teamed up with their ensemble in residence Rubiks to provide a folk-inflected final concert of 2015.
Michael Bakrnčev’s The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon is a lighthearted piece for narrator and small ensemble based on a Macedonian folk tale. Commissioned expressly for this concert, the piece was an appropriate companion to Berio’s Folk Songs. The narrator (Stefanie Dingnis) tells the story of the ideal married couple receiving visitors, but all is not as it seems. The fussy husband constantly sends his wife back to the market to buy a better watermelon for their guests and the wife simply returns to the kitchen and polishes the watermelon until the husband declares that she has indeed found the very best watermelon in town. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Don’t be a demanding partner? Do make pragmatic shortcuts? “The husband and wife are a team” explained Bakrnčev after the concert, the story hinging on our guessing at the husband’s knowledge of the wife’s actions and the slow transformation of the meaning of the word “virtuous” in the story’s title. Bakrnčev accompanies the story with a mock-military march. A flute trembles stertorously over a snare drum. At one point the narrator vocalises beautifully over a cheery piano tune. Next to the Folk Songs Bakrnčev’s musical accompaniment sounded very light indeed.
There is always time for another performance of Berio’s Folk Songs. In arranging eleven folk songs from the United States and Europe (including two original compositions), Berio sought “a unity between folk music and our music.” I assume that by “our music” he means contemporary art music rather than the classical tradition more broadly. Berio surrounds the folk tunes with an atmosphere of extended techniques evoking natural environments. Thorny instrumental interjections paint a sound-world far removed from the singing tones of a modern orchestra. Does the listener really hear the spirit of ancient music brought alive to modern ears, or a fantasy of a lost world? Whether real or imagined, in 1964 Berio constructed a bridge between pre-modern tones and the overblown, underbowed techniques of contemporary music. This bridge has since grown to a widely acknowledged superhighway between early and contemporary music. The Folk Songs may have been a striking statement in 1964, but this conduit has now passed over into ideology and is ripe for interrogation.
Today’s culturally-aware listeners are sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. Performers need to carefully balance their preconceptions of ancient and modern music. Too “folksy” a performance and the performance will slide into parody, too straight a performance and the songs will lose much of their appeal. Stefanie Dingnis chose a relatively restrained performance style, letting the beauty of the tunes speak for themselves. Dingnis came alive in the Sicilian song “A la femminisca” with its clashing, explosive opening that cannot be mistaken for anything but an invitation to let loose. The ensemble, conducted by Evan Lawson, provided plenty of colour in their masterfully balanced accompaniment. The sensitive articulation of harpist Samantha Ramirez and thrilling execution of the piece’s signature viola solo by Anthony Chataway deserve special mention.
Listening to and watching old recordings, I wonder whether anyone could or would want to perform the Folk Songs with the same accents and dance moves today as the Songs‘ dedicatee Cathy Berberian.
The concert also included a stunning performance by Nicholas Yates of Berio’s Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone. The piece’s drone was provided by string players spaced around the Richmond Uniting Church. So subtle was their movement and quiet was their playing that I became conscious of the ethereal sound over a minute or so. What a beautiful effect. Yates’ agile execution of the popping, pointillist piece was something to behold! The concert concluded with Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? performed by Rubiks Collective. Jacob Abela (piano), Tamara Kohler (flute), and Kaylie Melville (percussion) move through their sparse parts at their own rate, coming together at certain vertiginous moments. These meeting-points become moments of great focus as the performers become aware that they are a page or so away from each other. The performers have to make so many decisions in executing their part that I was put in mind of Alistair Noble’s recent lecture on Feldman at the Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School. Noble argued that, given the tight-knit community within which Feldman’s works were composed and performed, he assumed a certain stylistic palette when composing indeterminate elements in his works. For the most part we cannot hope to—and may not want to—recover the assumed stylistic traits of the early performances of Feldman’s works, but there is certainly interesting work to be done in that direction.
Rubiks and Forest Collective
Richmond Uniting Church
19 December 2015
Michael Bakrnčev, The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon; Luciano Berio, Sequenza VIIb, Folk Songs; Morton Feldman, Why Patterns?
Matthew Lorenzon, 2015
Interview – Fortified Echoes
Queensland State Library
All things Australian – An Interview with composer Michael Bakrnčev
Kupka pianist Alex takes a break from rehearsals for a yarn with composer Michael Bakrnčev. We’re super excited to be giving the premiere of his new trio for flute, percussion and piano entitled ‘Fortified Echoes’ this Saturday 16th May at the State Library of Queensland as part of QSOCurrent.
Alex Raineri: You’re a very active young composer! I’m interested to hear about your latest and upcoming projects?
Michael Bakrnčev: Thank you, yeah it’s important to be active, especially as a young composer – I think that’s the best way to learn, by doing and learning from your actions. I have just written a clarinet quartet for Blackwood who will premiere it over in Madrid, it was really cool writing for them because I got to write for two bass clarinets which isn’t something that you get to do very often. My Piano Trio based on a Macedonian folk melody will be performed later this year in Melbourne which i’m really looking forward to.
I’m currently writing a piece for sax and piano which is inspired by heavy metal and thrash metal music, lots of bashing on the piano which seems to be something that i’m interested in lately, that’ll be performed in the Netherlands and here in Melbourne later in the year. I’m also writing a work for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the Cybec composers program, which i’m looking forward to – it’ll be my best and latest attempt at writing for orchestra, and I have a feeling that not everybody is going to like it, but I know that i’ll probably be able to look at it from afar and think “fuck yeah mate, this isn’t so bad!”
Other than that, i’m curating concerts with my orchestra, The Melbourne Met, which is going really well, the next concert is all female Aussie composers, so it should be top shelf. I’ve also written this fairly bad arse piece for you guys, which i’d say is one of the best pieces i’ve ever written.
AR: Fortified Echoes was commissioned specifically for QSOCurrent and QANZAC100. Could you tell us how the piece explores this thematic context?
MB: For me, the main thing that I had in my mind was that part in the movie “Gallipoli” (with Mel Gibson) right at the end, when the main actor (the runner) gets shot and killed and that’s where the movie freeze-frames and it rolls to credits. Thats always stuck in my mind, from the first time I watched it as a kid, and the second time as an adult. The work isn’t supposed to go with that scene at all, it’s just what I had in my mind while writing.
AR: How then did that affect the way you approached musical materials?
MB: The frantic-ness of the piccolo part and bashing of the piano as well as machine-gun style percussion part is all reminiscent of war. The only thing that makes any obvious reference is the alto flute part in the end, which has the beginning of the last post – the fifths – which is basically what the entire piece is based on, harmonically speaking. It’s always shifting in fifths.
AR: Who are some musical idols – eg. performers/composers/colleagues/mentors?
MB: These days i’m making a shift in my musical consciousness to revolve around all things Australian. I’m not quite there yet, but the main ones that are sticking with me are my current teacher Elliott Gyger, Peter Sculthorpe, Sun-Ju Song, Phillip Gearing, Martin Crook, Mary Finsterer, Paul Grabowski, Larry Sitsky, and ensembles such as Chamber Made Opera, The Song Company, Syzygy, Plexus, Kupka’s Piano, Chronology Arts, Speak Percussion and others.
But, if I look back, then influences are – Macedonian folk music, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy – Guns n Roses, AC/DC, Queen, Children of Bodom, Powderfinger, The Cat Empire, Michael Jackson & JET.
AR: What are you listening to at the moment? Top five desert island pieces?
MB: I’ve been listening to Peter Sculthorpe’s ABC boxed set recording, with a focus on his orchestral works – it’s been interesting to map his musical style from the very beginning of his professional career. I’ve also bought my 4th cousin’s CD boxed set – Anthony Pateras’ collected works – which is pretty wicked.
Top five desert island pieces … 1) Pushteno Oro by the Boys from Buf 2) Tchaikovsky’s 5th 3) Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring 4) My own ‘Vidi’ 5) Any recording of my nephew and girlfriend talking/singing
Alex Raineri, 2015
Interview – Metallic Structures, for two percussionists on one prepared vibraphone (Homage to John Cage & Gerard Brophy).
Australian National Academy of Music
When did you start composing? Can you tell us about the first piece of music you ever wrote?
I started composing in 2010 I guess, which was the year I made a very direct decision to pursue a career in composition. I’d have to say though, that in retrospect I really went into it all rather blind. A more historically accurate response would be that I started writing when I was probably around thirteen or fourteen years old, if not younger. All of that musical material has since been lost (which is probably ideal…) but it is heartbreaking to me from a historical and sentimental perspective too, you know. “Early Bakrnchev” or something.
My earliest composition, I believe was for clarinet & piano, in an impressionist style, mimicking Debussy – who’s music I mostly adore. Not a terrible way to start composing, really. When asked this question though I generally say my first composition was Water (2010) for flute quartet, as it was pretty much the first composition I wrote as a student in my undergraduate degree. This piece has gone on to be performed & recorded in Brisbane, Serbia, Macedonia & Canada (of the places that I know of at least).
What or who are your influences?
I love, and despise this question, because ‘what’ influences me changes so drastically sometimes that I find it impossible to keep track, let alone answer! Let’s just say that consistent influences in my music include “Macedonianism”, political events, religion & spirituality, the cosmos, and of late – ancient philosophy.
As for ‘who’ … well this is a question I can say I enjoy answering most of the time, and is slightly less problematic for me to respond to. Composers who I always seem to go back to include Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky, Janaček, Tchaikovsky, Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Debussy, Stockhausen & Takemitsu. This is all of course stemming from a strictly ‘classical’ format, when in reality I am particularly drawn to a great variety of music – I especially love the music of Australian bands The Cat Empire and Powderfinger, I think Michael Jackson was a hands-down genius, and there’s been this one album of Macedonian dance music that I basically always have on repeat in my head ever since I first listened to it as a little boy growing up in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
Have you written for percussion before?
Yes, I certainly have. The real first interesting work I wrote for percussion was Ajde – for six percussion which won me the prestigious Adolph Spivakovsky Scholarship for Excellence in Musical Composition. I was encouraged to think about very specific sounds which could be created by percussion. In fact it was Australian percussionist Angus Wilson – a good friend of mine, who sat me down and said ‘look, why write in such an obvious orchestration style of writing? There’s so much more you can do – here, have a listen to this’ and he proceeded to show me a huge variety of sounds on various standard percussion instruments – it really set me on my path to writing for percussion. It has helped that he said that Aussie percussionists love to do more experimental things with percussion and are really receptive to it. I think that’s proven directly in this instance with the bricolage collective. Australian percussionists I’ve worked with are really at the forefront of new music in Australia in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I love writing for percussion – I find it inspiring.
If I had to describe my piece in five words…
What are you listening to at the moment?
Well, when I first started typing out my responses, I was listening to Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, followed by Roberto Prosseda performing Passacaglia in C minor BWV582 by Bach for pedal-piano (I’ve been commissioned to write a work for him) but am currently totally entranced, listening to Takemitsu’s Bryce for Flute, 2 harps, Marimba & Percussion.
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the bricolage collective for allowing me the opportunity to write for them, it has been a wonderful journey and I am forever indebted.
Kaylie Melville, 2014
Review – Waltzing Matilda
Arts at St. Dominic’s
The International Low Brass Trio, San Francisco, 2014
At the end of last month, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church launched a concert series called Arts at St. Dominic’s. The first performance took place on July 25 and featured the Alchemy Trio with guest artist flutist Joshua Romatowski in a relatively short program of chamber music by George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Last night the series presented its second concert. The International Low Brass Trio (ILBTrio) prepared a program of seven recent compositions (one an arrangement), including three world premieres.
The performers were ILBTrio founders Jeff Dittmer on horn and Jess Rodda on tuba, joined by guest artist Caroline Juster on trombone. This is a relatively unconventional ensemble; and, as a result, much of the music they perform was written on commission. Nevertheless, it affords opportunities for a variety of different “sonorous pursuits.” Each instrument has its own characteristic set of timbres, making them easily distinguishable when they play as a group. At the same time, however, the overall brass sonorities allow for some unifying blends that one would not encounter, for example, in a wind quintet. All of the composers on the program seemed aware of these affordances, but each approached them in a distinctive way.
The first of the premieres was by local composer Kyle Hovatter and was inspired by Hovatter’s “day job” work as a church organist. The title, “Strength, my fainting heart,” is a line from Lowell Mason’s hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Ironically, this is a Protestant hymn; but Hovatter’s reworking (he calls it “tinkering”) of it did not seem out of place in St. Dominic’s Lady Chapel. (This space was relatively modest, but the entire sanctuary reverberated with ILBTrio’s brass sonorities.) The result was a latter-day approach to the traditional form of the chorale prelude, whose departure from the source was particularly adventurous.
Hovatter’s composition was complemented by a similar reworking of three plainchant themes by the Belgian composer Bernhard Krol. These were collected as a suite entitled Cathedral: in three naves, and each of the three movements found its own way to elaborate its source as interleaving lines of counterpoint. The result was an impressive rethinking of traditional structure through a strikingly contemporary rhetoric.
This same approach to rethinking also emerged in a secular setting. In this case the source was Christina Macpherson’s tune “Waltzing Matilda.” (Rodd is Australian.) Michael Bakrnčev deconstructed the tune by having each note sound as a sustained tone. The melody then emerged through the gradual superposition of those tones, rather than the usual sequential ordering.
Another rethinking of form emerged in the second world premiere, Collin Whitfield’s “Chorale and Fanfare.” In this case the conjunction is very much an operative part of the title, since the chorale and fanfare sections interleave over the course of the piece, rather than being presented as two distinct movements. By the conclusion the two genres have integrated into a distinctively unique texture.
The final world premiere had more of a “pop” style. It was entitled Trois Petites Danses pour Trio de Cuivres Bas (three little dances for low brass trio) by New York composer Erik Branch. The composer’s use of French seemed to evoke dance forms that were popular at Parisian clubs at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in the Latin rhythms of the maxixe (a dance form that also appealed to Darius Milhaud). This “micro-suite” had engaging sassy qualities, concluding the recital in such a way as to leave both audience and performers in high spirits.
Stephen Smoliar, San Francisco, 2014
Review – Three Macedonian Songs
The Song Company, Sydney, 2013
Three Macedonian Songs by Michael Bakrnchev
Michael Bakrnchev’s three Macedonian songs provided a viscerally energetic close to the concert, by strongly drawing on Eastern European folk traditions and idioms. Michael noted the typically Macedonian spirit of the three short texts, in their revealing of hard-earned and sometimes bitter life lessons. The first, Tri Godini se Libejme, is a dialogue between a woman and her lover: she chastises him for not returning home to her after going off to battle; he laments that he cannot, for the cold black earth lies over him and worms have drunk his eyes. The piece’s opening is the kind that hits you right between the eyes: the three women’s voices piercing the air with a chesty, nasal drone and rock-solid open fifths. The female voices and then the male voices each in turn launched into a robustly strophic melody, pulsing vigorously in 7/8, before concluding with a fiery tutti.
In the second song, Vidi (see), the three female voices incanted a simple prayer for protection and guidance. Hovering between suspensions, the harmony had a Pärtian simplicity, made beautifully vulnerable by microtonal inflections.
And from the sacred to the profane, the final helter-skelter Oj Mori Vino warns of the pitfalls of liberal wine consumption. Another dazzling opening featured the female voices winding an elaborate counterpoint of ornamented lines over the male voices’ drone. And then the male voices took off at a rate of knots, charging through the text on a rousing monotone like charismatic auctioneers, before screeching to a halt with a final flourish of the gavel.
Celeste Oram – Sydney, 2013
Review – Falling Light
ABC Classic Fm, Melbourne Recital Centre, 2013
Melbourne Recital Centre
The last of this series for the year showcased a quartet of students from the Australian National Academy of Music, all of them percussionists.
As you would expect, all the music played was contemporary and all the voices heard were Australian.
Peter Neville is, for most of us, Melbourne’s Mr Percussion. A notable performer himself, he has fostered the development of several musicians.
On Thursday night, in his role as Head of Percussion at ANAM, he curated the program, introduced four musicians in his charge and conducted works requiring larger ensembles, like Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh’s busy Tightrope scena and Brisbane composer Michael Bakrnchev’s delicate, high-pitched Falling Light.
The playing of Matthew Brennan, Kaylie Melville, Brent Miller and Hugh Tidy demonstrated the rapid and responsive calibre of their musicianship, best exemplified in the Conlon Nancarrow-inspired Canon Y trio by Peter Wilson and Andrian Pertout’s 2008 Pi (Obstruction) for Melville and Neville on two vibraphones.
It also showcased the vast range of emotional and technical territory covered by these composers, from Christopher Healey’s sonorously appealing sound mesh in La reve to the n-your-face neo-Cagean amplified rattles and scrapes of Work of Friction by Matthew Horsley.
Overview – Melbourne Prize for Music
Finalists have been announced for the 2013 Melbourne Prize for Music, one of Australia’s most valuable music awards.
The Melbourne Prize for Music is one of Australia’s most valuable music awards, acknowledging those who have made outstanding contributions to Australian music and those who may do so in the future.
Since Melbourne has been recognised as the music capital of the Southern Hemisphere, it’s only fitting that the finalists for the 2013 Melbourne Music Prize present an abundance of musical talent from across Victoria.
First up, the $60,000 Melbourne Prize for Music. It will be awarded to a musician or group of musicians who have made an ‘outstanding contribution to Australian music and [have] enriched cultural and public life’.
The finalists are:
- Brett Dean, a composer and performer who has written an opera titled Bliss. Dean has been a resident at the Australian National Academy of Music and a curator of the 2006 2011 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis series.
- Tony Gould, a pianist, composer and teacher of improvised music and jazz. He holds a Bachelor of Music, a Master of Arts and a Doctorate in Philosophy. Gould was the Head of the School of Music at the Victoria College of the Arts until 2005. Presently, he’s performing, writing and working part time at Monash University.
- Mick Harvey, a musician, record producer and composer with spanning the past 35 years. He’s a member of multiple bands and has contributed to ten feature films. He’s spent the past few years touring.
- Shane Howard, a songwriter, producer, mentor, performer and musician. Howard has been in the industry for over 30 years, much of which was been spent mentoring and educating others.
- Wilma Smith, a violinist. Smith has been the concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra since 2003. She launched her own chamber music series called Wilma and Friends in 2012. She also teaches music privately at the University of Melbourne.
A second award, the $30,000 Outstanding Musicians Award, will be presented to a musician (or group) who recently released work that’s an ‘outstanding’ example of creativity and skill. It comes with $2,500 worth of Qantas international travel.
The following may be flying high:
- Ros Bandt, a sound artist, wind player and pioneer of the bowed spike fiddle.
- The Grigoryan Brothers, live performance artists.
- Stephen Magnusson, an animator inspired by colour, light, sound effects and music.
- Gian Slater, a composer, arranger, performer and recording artist.
- Eugene Ughetti, a composer, performer and Artistic Director of Speak Percussion.
- Erkki Veltheim, a composer, arranger, conductor, soloist and sound artist.
- Bart Willoughby, creator and promoter of Aboriginal rock-reggae with the Bart Willoughby Band.
- Ainslie Wills, vocalist, composer and instrumentalist.
- Julien Wilson, stalwart of the Melbourne jazz scene known for his tenor saxophone.
- Lisa Young, a vocal stylist and improviser known in the jazz world for the Indian and African elements of her work.
Finally, the $13,000 Development Award is up for grabs for musicians under 30 years old who demonstrate ‘outstanding’ musical talent with the potential to forge a professional career. It consists of $6,000 worth of music equipment from Yamaha Music Australia and $7,000 cash.
The nominees are:
- Michael Bakrnchev, a composer who was named as the youngest member of the Society of Composers of Macedonia in 2012.
- Helen Croome, a signer-songwriter who tours as Gossling.
- Jessica Jiang, a flutist who has performed with the National Orchestra of France.
- Adam Katz, a front-man known for his work with the Adam Katz Trio, the Adam Katz Group and the Adam Katz and Charlie Lim Duo.
- Kate Kelsey-Sugg, a performer since the age of 10 and known at many jazz festivals.
The winner from each category will be offered a residency with the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne.
The public can vote on their favourite musician (or group) as part of the Civic Choice Award. The winner will receive $4,000. Head to the Melbourne Prize for Music website to do so.
(Pictured: The Melbourne Prize for Music offers a pool of $109,500 in prizes to Victorian musicians.)
Cory Zanoni, Melbourne, 2013