The Sculthorpe Songbook
It was a great pity that Peter Sculthorpe, who inspired Phil Slater and Matt McMahon as students and later as the accomplished jazz musicians who brought us this incarnation of the Sculthorpe Songbook, was at the last moment, due to illness, unable to travel to Melbourne for this concert.
It was a fitting tribute to one of Australia’s living treasures soon after his 80th birthday. The reinterpretations of Sculthorpe pieces reflected the diversity of his music, as well as his commitment to compositions that drew on influences from this country and the region, rather than hanging on the coat tails of Europe. Phil Slater said Sculthorpe had placed great importance on “finding your place and representing that place in music”, on conveying “the feel of places”, so it was the intent of the jazz musicians, with Silo String Quartet, “to play the feelings of Peter’s music”.
With Simon Barker on drums and percussion, Carl Dewhurst (hidden behind the grand piano) on guitar and Steve Elphick on double bass, the ensemble began by linking adaptations of Singing Sun (a Sculthorpe melody), From Nourlangie (1993), and the Calmo movement from a piano concerto (first recorded on the album Paths and Streams). Katie Noonan joined the group to sing Maranoa Lullaby (Aboriginal plainsong based on an east Arnhem Land melody, 1996), which was followed by Pemungkah (a version of a melody by Balinese composer Lotring, originally aired in Sun Music 3). Tim Freedman (The Whitlams) took the microphone for It’ll Rise Again (from rock opera Love 200).
I can’t wait to digress about a discovery that was a highlight for me after the concert, in the early hours. When Freedman sang the words of It’ll Rise Again (“Sun down, it’ll rise again, Ice melt, it’ll ice again, Drowning boat, she can float again … Sun down, boat rise … Judas chose, and he chose again, Christ died, and he rose again, … ) I recalled that Jeannie Lewis sang this with great power on Free Fall Through Featherless Flight in the 1970s. I had never known it was a Sculthorpe song, with lyrics by Tony Morphett, and it was exciting to make that connection. I wanted to listen to Lewis’s version and, after some fossicking, found it on a blog. Yeh!
That was a digression, but I should say that, while Freedman sang competently, his voice seemed to lack the depth that the song needed — it has such a beautiful melody and moving lyrics, which refer to Captain James Cook’s need to repair damage to a boat in what was to be the north of Queensland. Earlier, when Noonan (and I am not a big fan of her voice, or of the material she has been singing recently) performed Maranoa Lullaby, I was captivated and moved.
Phil Slater and Katie Noonan
From the shimmering sound of guitar and percussion that opened Singing Sun, interrupted momentarily by an ambulance siren from beyond our world, the Malvern Town Hall audience was embraced by a sense of stillness. The gentle vibrato seemed to suggest a didgeridoo, and, later, gamelan influence. Slater’s amplified trumpet spoke in fiery terms, then blew out the flames over gentle piano. The breathy infusion of horn notes occurred often during the evening, setting me off in search of tips on how to achieve this manifestation of an incredibly versatile and atmospheric instrument.
Permungkah began with static and chatter from Dewhurst and Barker, with a beat gradually forming and the tempo increasing. The melody was catchy, but sad. In trumpet sorties over the rhythm, Slater darted in and climbed a few trees (the image worked for me) in what became a journey in rhythm overlaid by some melody. It seemed to be quite different from classical or what I expected of Balinese influenced music. The piece ended slowly, with only guitar to close. In It’ll Rise Again, guitar and horn solos were compelling.
Silo String Quartet
I did feel that the strings seemed a little forlorn, with not that much to do in the first set.
The second set brought us interpretations of Kakadu (written before Sculthorpe had visited there), The Stars Turn (from Love 200), Jakily (unsure of name) and Music From Japan, Out the Back (by Freedman, arranged by Sculthorpe in 2002), Love (from Love 200), and Bone Epilogue.
In Kakadu, horn floated serenely over ceaseless, muted percussion that behaved with quiet busyness. Then, while trumpet screamed, the ensemble built drama — a lot of this music was about layering.
Noonan’s voice seemed again entirely appropriate for The Stars Turn, and the cello intro was superb. In the third piece, combining two, I fell in love with the trumpet intro, and continued the affair throughout.
Katie Noonan and Tim Freedman
Sculthorpe called Out the Back “some of the prettiest music I’ve written”, Freedman told us, and also said after composing the piece he felt like Duke Ellington, with whom he shares a birth date. The audience was wowed by Freedman’s rendition of lines such as “I’m not surfin’, I’m sittin’ out the back” — his light and laid back vocals suited the song. But Noonan had moved me, and when the two sang Love, it was the quality in her voice that stood out. (What am I saying? Have I been converted?)
Steve Elphick and Aaron Barnden
Bone Epilogue began with bowed bass sounding much like a didgeridoo and Elphick’s long solo was superb. Some beautiful horn playing recalled Slater’s comment (see Press Articles) that playing trumpet for Anzac ceremonies was one of the most moving occasions for a musician playing this instrument. McMahon, who contributed a lot but seemed to avoid the limelight throughout the evening, burst in with a tinkle jumble of notes that had virtuosic flourish and added a cinematic feel. I scribbled: The piece is expanding, as wide as this country, a journey in sound, an exploration of the land.” OK, so I was carried away, but I believe many others were also.
Phil Slater and Matt McMahon
Steve Elphick and Aaron Barnden
Matt McMahon, Steve Elphick, Phil Slater and Aaron Barnden