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From commodities to cosmic riddles - it is good to be back!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Coming back to The Sound Barrier chair after five weeks away in Germany was always going to be a thrill. But I wasn't really ready for just how much of a thrill that would be until Eugene Ughetti, Matthias Schack-Arnott, and Kaylie Melville kicked off the show with their trio of electronic instruments, smashing out the sounds of mechanics and process, performing live in the studio one of the movements from Assembly Operation, the new show that will be premiered this week at North Melbourne Town Hall by the indefatigably inventive Speak Percussion.

Listening to this brilliant to of musicians play live in the studio and then talking with them afterwards about it was a powerful reminder of why I so much love presenting The Sound Barrier. Assembly Operation is a work that draws on ideas of process, commodification, global capitalism, in a multimedia creation that emerges from the concept of the one Yuan note – the basic unit of Chinese currency. Its composer, and artistic director of Speak Percussion, described the work as one that will resonate with its audiences in diversity of ways, as people draw their own connections with its themes of production, utility, and everyday life.

But what surely everyone will share in their experience of the work is the thrill of the new – new ideas, new music, new connections of sounds and vision – sculpted with that melding of energetic dynamism and artistic discipline that is so much the trademark of Speak Percussion's work.

These are, of course, the very reasons why it is such a privilege and pleasure to present The Sound Barrier: the showcasing of music at its frontline of innovation and exploration, and the ways in which it engages with new sound, new modes of artistic expression, and new ways of connecting ideas and concepts with each other and with us.

My programming of the music for the rest of tonight's show took its lead from the percussive flavour with which Speak Percussion has imbued this drive to invention and vision.

After my time with Eugene, Matthias, and Kaylie, the rest of the show kicked off with an early work, and finished with a late work, by the composer whose music I spent the last month studying in Germany: Karlheinz Stockhausen (just in case you wondered!!).

The early work was his very first percussion piece: SCHLAGTRIO ('Percussive Trio'), composed in 1952, initially as a quartet but then recast in 1974 in its current form as a trio, for piano and two sets of three timpani. As the members of Speak Percussion left the studio, Matthias Schack-Arnott remarked at how the work in some ways epitomised modernist music and, indeed, its composer's interest at the time in pointillist music, where each note is separately defined across all its musical parameters, was part both of what helped defined much of the modernist movement in music that emerged in the middle of the 20th Century and of what contributed to the distinctive sounds of the SCHALGTRIO, where piano and timpani pick out notes, the piano gradually drawing together material from the extreme ends of its registers, its six octaves reflected by the six timpani. Some of these very early works of Stockhausen tend to get overlooked in the shadow of the hugely ground-smashing works that followed them, but I was reminded of the energy and originality of SCHLAGTRIO when I saw it performed by so superbly by three young Course Participants in Kürten in early August – Tilman Wolf on piano and Shiau-Shiuan Hung an Songyi Kim on timpani. Tonight I played the recording of the work made in 1976, with Aloys Kontarsky (piano) and Jean Batigne and Georges von Gucht (timpani). The broadcast tonight is dedicated to the memory of Aloys Kontarsky, who died on 22 August, at the age of 86. Aloys, together with his brother, Alfons, played seminal roles in new music, including through premiering works of Stockhausen, most famously through their world premiere recording of MANTRA for two pianos and ring modulation.

The late work from Stockhausen's musical output, and with which I closed tonight's show, was UVERSA, for basset-horn and electronic music, composed in 2007. It is the 16th part of his cycle KLANG ('Sound'), a proposed set of 24 pieces, one to represent each hour of the day. Stockhausen died after the 21st part was composed but, even so, it is hard to imagine where the remaining three pieces would have taken his creative output. The 13th hour of KLANG is COSMIC PULSES, a 24-layered piece of electronic music spatialised over eight channels in 241 different trajectories. The piece of KLANG that follow this, hours 14 to 21, each take three of these 24 layers and add a solo instrument or singer, capturing a different aspect of the cosmos as described in The Urantia Book, reputedly channelled science-theological text of the 1950s that had so intrigued Stockhausen from the time he was first introduced to it in the 1970s. Uversa is, in The Urantia Book, the capital of Orvonton, the Superuniverse to which our own universe, Nebadon, belongs. In this piece, which uses layers 18, 17, and 16 from COSMIC PULSES, punctuated with the voice of Kathinka Pasveer, the basset-horn seems to listen to and translate the music it hears thrown around it in the octophonic electronic sound. It was played in this recording, as it was when I heard it in Kürten, by Michele Marelli whose performance captures both the deep musicality and the huge cosmic import of the work. The score's notation, despite its precision, also gives a great deal of freedom to the performer in how sounds are shaped, and in some of the extended techniques that can be adopted. Michele Marelli's performance meets those challenges with dazzling vigour and intensity, musical and universal, as if really could be the centre of a Superuniverse speaking a secret message to us.

In between these two bookends of Stockhausen's musical output, I played two percussion works by composers who I have come to know through my visits to Kürten, including my time there last month.

The first of these was Florian Zwißler, who is primarily known to the Kürten audiences for his work as a sound projectionist in many of the concerts that take place there but who is also an exciting and adventurous composer in his own right. Tonight I played his work Fellen ('Skins') for snare drum, which navigates, it seems, every nook and cranny of the instrument in what is sometimes a veritable flurry of musical and sonic intensity.

In contrast to all this percussive colour emanating and coagulating from this single source, Dutch composer Eric Verbugt takes in the opposite direction in his work for oboe and percussion, verval ('decay') in which the intense energy and drive with which the piece opens, gradually dissipates and breaks apart, as its component pieces separate and take on their own solitary lives. It makes us question the notion of decay – is it really the loss of one thing, or the regeneration of something else?

In a way that question, like the exploration of commodification that Speak Percussion undertake in Assembly Operation with which the show began, and like the translation of cosmic riddles in Stockhausen's UVERSA with which it closed, captures much of what new music is all about and why it is always such a special thing for me to present it to you each week on The Sound Barrier: the curiosity to explore and question and discover, which grows out of a recognition of the infinite possibilities that a creative and open mind enables. In the decay of the old, the new is made possible.

It is good to be back.

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