I went to this concert because I am a great admirer of Genevieve Lacey's work. Last time I saw her was after her involvement with the brilliant Indigenous play Namatjira, for which she composed and played the music. I would walk miles over hot bricks to hear anything she's involved in. What a treat it was then, also to encounter the compositions of Melbourne-based pianist Andrea Keller.
The hour-long program consisted of a chain of nine of Keller's compositions written especially for this ensemble – herself on piano, Genevieve Lacey on multiple recorders, and Joe Talia on electronics. Talia also used and old Revox tape recorder, and as the ABC presenter engagingly remarked, these pieces were written for recorders of different kinds revived from the 17th and 20th centuries. The concert was the first ever given by the ensemble, so all the pieces were premieres.
The nine pieces had titles which I found hard to keep track of, not knowing quite what to look out for in a piece called Little Sweet Pea 1, for example. But that may just be a combination of unimaginativeness and approaching senility on my part. In any case, all of them revealed in various ways the moments of "strange beauty" alluded to by Keller in the program note. One might think that the combination of sound-making devices she had chosen would be unrewarding – do recorders blend with a piano? The answer to that question is that she wrote not for the instruments but for the superb musicians playing them, and in the hands of Lacey recorders can blend with anything. Indeed, Keller experimented artfully with the integration of sounds by using tape delay and transformation applied to both piano and recorders, in ways that were, unlike the titles, very easy to follow.
The first three pieces began innocuously, with the piano playing music of the genre favoured by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. (one of the later pieces used a texture more related to John Adams). In the opening pieces, Lacey would play some of her array of recorders, squawking with the descant, cooing seductively with the tenor, or flapping with the extraordinary contrabass recorder. Then, without me noticing how, the piano textures would become more complex, occasionally reaching the virtuosic, and then expand to higher and lower registers, becoming really entrancing as they embraced the recorders and mingled with their own transformations.
These transformations were always performed in a sensitive, intelligible, and musically satisfying way by Talia. But he did something else from time to time, which left me much less convinced. He would pull lengths of tape across the heads of the tape recorder manually, producing a wide range of effects, from resembling static on a radio through paper scraping on the floor, to much deeper sounds like furniture being shoved around. I have to say I didn't like any of them, and failed, unversed as I am in such musical media, to see their point.
The contrabass recorder warrants more comment. I hadn't even heard of it before, let alone heard it. It resembles nothing so much as one of the tall, thin mortuary statues used in some areas by indigenous Australians, but undecorated. It is played using a mouthpiece about a quarter of the way down, like a bassoon. Its keys are made of the same wood as the instrument itself, and produce a clatter when played that resembles, greatly amplified, the sound of the trackers of a tracker action organ. Without the key noise, the sound is most similar to that of a bass clarinet – at least it sounded like that at the start of the final piece, Stay. I was deeply intrigued.
Altogether, the concert was a triumph for the ensemble, and for Andrea Keller in particular, giving birth not just to new music but a new genre. And at the end of the concert it was revealed that she had recently given birth in a more literal sense – her 13-day old son Luke was back-stage (inaudibly, I am happy to say), having arrived not only on his due date but also on the date of the release of the CD containing the pieces premiered yesterday.
2012 Adelaide Festival
Venue: Elder Hall
Date: Thu 15 Mar 1pm
Duration: 60 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: $20 – $15
Bookings: BASS Online | 131 246