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Th old, the ruined, and the scheußlich - restored and renewed on The Sound Barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

The value of what is old and damaged is not typically well assimilated into a highly commodified society where things have their moment in the sun and are then discarded.

But when photographer Jane Brown captures the bushfire-charred landscape of Lake Mountain, Victoria, with its wisps of life emerging out of the shadows, you get a different sense of what it means to be old and ruined. You get a sense not of something destroyed and finished, but of something that is still beautiful, that still endures, and that regenerates again and again.

This is what Melbourne composer Kitty Xiao sought to capture in her work Novum that opened the latest edition of The Sound Barrier, the title track from her new album just out on Move records.

In our chat, Kitty talked about how she sought to give musical voice not only to the subtle and vulnerable colours of that charred but tentatively budding land, but also to its textures, its smells, its history, and, perhaps most of all, its potential. You will certainly hear this in the music - music that crystallises that fragile strength that seems to always grow out even the things that are hurt and damaged.

It is a concept that will be explored in different ways in a project which Kitty is helping to bring to Melbourne audiences at the end of October, by the Six Piano Project. The Six Piano Project brings together an ensemble of old, refurbished pianos in a way that both celebrates their history and lays down for them a future: pianos that might otherwise have been discarded or destroyed altogether.

A recognition of what can be found in what might otherwise be discarded, and the celebration of this, was at the core of the music which initially inspired the Six Piano Project: Ross Bolleter's compositions for ruined pianos – old and broken instruments found rotting and crumbling in sheds and barns on remote Australian farms. We heard one of these pieces, Unfinished Business, where, indeed, a new and ragged beauty is found in that old and worn-out instrument. You can almost hear the insects crawling out of its rotting wood.

It is a sound which resurfaces in a piece for prepared piano, Burleske für 6 Hände, from the experimental music series Musterhaus by German avant-industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. Quite probably, the Neubauten piece was created without any knowledge of Bolleter's work – but the point is this: when we learn to recognise the beauty in what is broken, it begins to seep into a wider aesthetic and consciousness, not as something to be discarded, but as something to be created and recreated anew, because of its own creative fertility.

That fertility, and the diversity of what it can produce, is a core theme throughout the Monday instalment of Karlheinz Stockhausen's seven-part opera cycle LICHT ('Light'). Monday is Eve's day in LICHT – the day of birth and rebirth. In the opera's first Act the huge Eve statue that dominates the stage gives birth to fourteen creatures: seven animal-child hybrids, and seven Heinzelmännchen, the little gnomes of Cologne folklore who would do your housework at night while you slept, as long as no one ever saw them. This delightful, whacky brood of creatures to which Eve gives birth bounce out onto the stage in the marvellously raucous music of the HEINZELMÄNNCHEN scene, which ends with Lucifer emerging from the sea and looking derisively at them all, and uttering just one word: 'scheußlich!' ('repulsive').

It, too, is music about that which is discarded – ultimately the 14 creatures are sent, by Lucifer, back into Eve's womb to be born all over again. This rebirth happens in the second Act of the opera where seven boys are born, one representing each day of the week and each of them learning the meanings and symbols and sounds of the days - the days upon which the whole of the LICHT cycle is built. That scene is called WOCHENKREIS ('Circle of the Week') and, like many of the scenes throughout LICHT, it can be performed as an independent work, out of its original place in the opera. I played that separate piece, for basset-horn and synthesiser, after the HEINZELMÄNNCHEN excerpt from Act One.

Together, the two pieces in a way completed the picture that had had its components sketched in the first half of the show: the constant renewal of life, not by the commodified process that we have come to think of as the way things have to be, where something has its day and then is gone, but by a process where things move on from what they once were to what they next become, each stage celebrated by someone, abhorred by someone else, but all connected to and reliant on one another.

Whether it be the horrific destruction of bushfires that nevertheless give us the charred beauty of Jane Brown's photographs and Kitty Xiao's music; or Eve's Heinzelmännchen that repulse Lucifer but that nevertheless clean our houses when we sleep at night; they all find new life eventually and somewhere. They are all part of a cycle that grows and generates, rather than one that ends and leaves nothing but a space for a new commodity.

As always, you can check out the show on the playlist and audio page if you want to listen back to any of the music, my interview with Kitty Xiao, or follow up the details of the recordings!

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