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A 21st-century goldrush: the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Everybody finds their own thing to find marvellous about the annual Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM). For me, the marvel lies in two of those five words that define it. I mean, it goes without saying that it is music and that I will love it for that. And the fact that it is international, and a festival, of course helps to make it grand and amazing: but it is its exploratory core, and that it happens in Bendigo, that for me makes it so extraordinary.

Bendigo is a delightful regional town in the middle of Victoria. Unless you already live there, or near there, you have to make the journey there to be part of BIFEM. I tend to think that the best way to enjoy music is to make a decent journey to get to it. Many of us know what it's like to rush off to a gig at the end of a full day, negotiating our way through traffic jams and public transport delays, and feeling already exhausted before the first note sounds.

But, with BIFEM, you will probably head up there sometime on the Friday, which you might even have taken off work, or study, or whatever it is that you would otherwise have been doing; you will have organised somewhere to stay, and you will have felt the easing of the soul that comes when you approach this town that is still plated in the gold that was mined there a century-and-a-half ago. You will snuggle into it, into its smells of wood fire that are probably still burning in its cafes, and into its dappled sunlight that peeks through its trees and bounces of its historic architecture.

This is part of what makes BIFEM so special, even before you hear any of its music. It's an environment that relaxes you and lets you turn your attention to what you are there to do – to discover the hidden treasures that BIFEM brings to you: no longer in the goldfields and creek beds, but in the half a dozen or so amazing performance venues scattered around the town's fabulous artistic precinct.

And that's where the exploratory bit comes in. And this is where the enormous creative energy and vision of BIFEM's Founding Artistic Director and CEO, David Chisholm, comes in too. David, himself an important and celebrated composer, spawned BIFEM in 2013. It turned out to be a precocious and unstoppably curious child. Each year the festival has found new things to explore, new ways of realising its mission to bring some of the best, and mostly unknown or little known, local and international new music to its audiences.

There are always in its programme at least some names that people reasonably familiar with 20th- and 21st-century music will know – the BIFEM programme over the years has included works by composers such as Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis – but even these are always extraordinary works that are not often heard, like the six-hour Second String Quartet of Morton Feldman that was performed (at a free concert, no less) at the 2013 Festival, or like a marathon concert of Xenakis's keyboard works that Peter de Jager performed last year (and twice, no less). But by far the bulk of the BIFEM programme is of composers who are either newly emerging, or who have perhaps planted fertile roots on their own patches of the new music landscape, often bearing fruit that already a few people have begun to discover, but are still far from getting the exposure to wider audiences, or the opportunity to be heard in the proper conditions that a festival atmosphere provides.

These are the reasons why BIFEM has so quickly earned its place as one of Australia's leading new music festivals, and indeed one in which artists and composers from around the world now keenly long to be included: exciting new music, performed by exceptional musicians, in an idyllic festival environment.

And it is why I am always so excited about previewing it on The Sound Barrier, and especially about having David come in to chat about what he has put together: a wonderful tradition that has now been part of The Sound Barrier annual fare for as long as BIFEM itself has been growing so brilliantly and brightly on Australia's musical soil.

There are so many brand new works that go to make up this year's Festival that on this latest edition of The Sound Barrier, the best I could do for the most part was to complement my chat with David with other works by just a few of the composers from whom BIFEM 2017 will be premiering really exciting pieces – some getting Australian premieres, some world premieres.

It was in this context I played a recording of Wojtek Blecharz's 3rd Phase for two detuned accordions and two metronomes: a work of symphonic richness in its colour and texture, and of startling intensity and power, composed as part of Wojtek's 2013 installation opera Transcryptum. Wojtek's 2012 work for prepared and amplified violin, Phenotype will receive its Australian premiere at BIFEM, performed by Anna Kwiatkowska, with Kevan Atkins on electronics.

Kevan Atkins is also one of a bunch of new composers emerging from Monash University's School of Music and this year BIFEM is devoting an entire concert to their work – young people who are already displaying such vigour and creativity as they give us glimpses of where new music might be heading over the coming years. Along with Kevan's intensely restrained and quietly unsettled Earthquakes Behind Closed Doors for piano and electronics, in which the piano gently tinkers as ominous electronics drone around it, and then unexpectedly burst out of it, I also played works by two of Kevan's fellow students: Noemi Friedman and Sam Harvey.

From Noemi we heard Cardiac for Saxophone Quartet, which captured both the fortitude and the vulnerability of the human heart – the contradictions and deceptions of its role in our lives and our bodies, an organ that imperceptibly keeps us alive, but that can kill us by failing us for just a few short seconds. Noemi shaped the piece from the cardiogram of a 69-year-old woman, with a pulse that is reimagined in the music as it passes between energy and exhaustion. We also heard her Breslin, a work built out of recorded sounds during an afternoon of conversation with a friend on dialysis. Both pieces are tributes to the fragility and yet endurability of life, and deconstructions of the divide between the machines and bodily organs that keep us alive.

From Sam we heard Inhale/Exhale, which takes us on the path from breath to sound in a piece that hones in on what Sam describes as 'the mechanisms of producing a tone on a saxophone'. It captures the genesis of sound, and then holds that sound up to the light, as one might a crystal, to see what reflects off it and what passes through it, stretching the sound out over time, and seeing the layers and bands that hide within it.

These are not the works that will be heard from these composers, and others from Monash University – Kishore Ryan, Annette Prirotta, Jayden McKinnon, and Scott A Aschauer – at BIFEM's Monash University Composers' Concert, where all the pieces will be world premieres, but they do give you a hint of the range and the richness of ideas that are being brought to life by Melbourne's young composers. I hope to be able to present more of their work on more editions of The Sound Barrier later this year.

In gratitude for David's decision to include in this year's programme a tribute to Australian composer Keith Humble, in honour of the 90th anniversary of his birth, with a concert of his piano and vocal music along with a forum to discuss his legacy, I decided that I, too, would include something of Keith's work: this icon of the 20th century Australian avant-garde who fashioned his own synthesis of many of the opposing schools of music that had begun to flourish in Europe in the middle of the century. I played a recording of his Paraphrase 'In Five' + Mass = Statico 2 for organ and electronic tape, which is a bringing-together of two works that call upon performers to paraphrase given material, and to bring the two together into this single piece, which puts on show Keith Humble's mastery, and moulding, of both acoustic and electronic sound.

The one piece that will be performed at this year's BIFEM that I was also able to bring you on tonight's show was one that opened both: Rebonds B for percussion solo by Iannis Xenakis. It will feature this year at BIFEM as part of the Festival's now traditional Cushion Concert for an audience of under-fiver-year-olds – and what better way to introduce them to new music than this exuberant and vigorous work for drums and wood blocks? If there is anything to get little kids up and moving – their minds at least as much as their bodies – it must surely be the music of Xenakis.

It is still a few weeks until BIFEM 2017 ignites the imaginations of those young kids, and then of its growingly diverse and diversely travelled audiences, in the first weekend of September, but as I will be away yet again in Kürten Germany for more Stockhausen music and study after this week and for the next month, tonight seemed as good a time as any to bring you this little glimpse of what is in store for this year's musical goldrush in central Victoria.

But given that it is Stockhausen I am off to study, it was only right that I finish off this week's show with some of his work, and this time I brought you the grotesquery and humour of LUZIFERs ZORN ('Lucifer's Fury'), a work extracted as a piece to be performed in its own right, from the First Act of his opera MONTAG aus LICHT ('Monday from Light'). It is scored for bass, actor, synthesiser, tape, and sound projectionist. In the opera it is a whackily unsettling scene where Lucifer emerges from the sea as a black polyp to heap scorn and derision on the children born of the archetypal Mother of the World, Eve. It is full of grunts and snorts and mockery as the Lucifer-polyp (Luzipolyp, he is called) spits out sounds for each letter of the alphabet, punctuated by sound scenes of shouts, and a bell, and an alarm clock, and a dog barking, and even of Hitler's voice being flushed down the toilet.

It's a great example of that disconcerting, disquieting humour that Stockhausen associates especially with Lucifer throughout LICHT and which is far from settled at the end of the piece where Luzipolyp is buried in the sand by the women whose celebration of birth he has so savagely ridiculed.

The recording I played, as always with the kind permission of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music from whom these recordings are exclusively available, featured the two soloists who will also be performing it in Kürten while I am there: bass Nicholas Isherwood; and actor-mime, Alain Louafi.

The Sound Barrier will be brought to you by a bunch of other PBS announcers over the next few weeks, including by the station's stalwart champion of electronic and experimental music, Evan Carr, next week. I look forward to being back in the chair when I return. And remember, you can check out the playlist and audio for tonight's show, right here on the website.

Hope to see you at BIFEM!

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