MELBOURNE JAZZ FRINGE 2009 — COMMISSION CONCERT

Gian Slater

Gian Slater and the Silo String Quartet

THE Melbourne Jazz Fringe opened at the Iwaki Auditorium hard on the heels of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and will overlap Stonnington Jazz by a day or two. It’s great to have all this live music, but perhaps it would be better if they were spaced a little apart on the calendar. It makes it hard for popular media to sustain interest when they are bombarded with all this jazz. Still, bring on the music.

Before this moving set, Gian Slater paid tribute to Will Poskitt — the pianist who worked with her on the soon-to-be released album Creatures at the Crossroads and who has since died. Slater said this was her chance to keep the music alive and also to honour her “very dear friend”.

She sang four songs from the album: Mrs Stalwart, Fall and Trust, Love and Hard Work (shared on the album by singer songwriter Lior) and Predators. Despite the control and clarity of Slater’s voice, my imperfect ears were unable at times to pick up the words, which I was sorry about, because they seemed to be worth pondering. It was Slater’s “first go” at writing for strings, but voice and strings seemed almost always to be perfectly complementary. Only when the voice was its most fragile was it overtaken as the strings blended, then moved gently away, leaving Slater to soar and dip — at times suddenly, with emotion.

Indeed, so seamless was the symbiosis between voice and strings that it seemed hard to see the Quartet members as other than the intended or original backing players — in other words, Slater’s writing worked, due to the sensitivity of the Silo players, Aaron Barnden (first violin), Andrea Keeble (second violin),
Ceridwen Davies (viola) and Caerwen Martin (cello).

Slater conveyed vulnerability and strength, coupled with lyrics that prompted reflection. In Love and Hard Work, she sang, “Love is a burden, it softens my shield … it could be a weapon against me.” In Predators her lyrics and vocal delivery captured the fears and susceptibility of children to harm.

The set was over all too soon.

Ren Walters — Surrounded by C

Carolyn Connors

Ren Walters won the APRA commission, but sat in the audience, having surrendered control to his musicians. They were: voice artist Carolyn Connors, percussionist Dur-e Dara, trombonists Adrian Sherriff, Shannon Barnett and James Wilkinson, bass clarinettists Adam Simmons, Brigid Burke and Karen Heath, and Ray Luckhurst on sound.

The setting was arranged so the audience, surrounded by speakers, sat around a ring of alternating trombones and clarinets, with Luckhurst off to one side and Dur-e Dara and Connors fairly central. The auditorium was darkened, but the players were still visible.

Walters concert

Expectations influence how we perceive performances, of course, but in this case — when Walters had guided the players, but left it up to them to go with the flow — one question was whether we would have a sound narrative or journey, or whether it would be sounds that seemed to be disparate or hardly related. Would it be a conversation, a dialogue, or a crowd who were not listening to each other? Would it evoke emotion or would we listen with distance, or analysis of what was happening and how it was occurring?

There is no answer that can hope to meet some ideal of group perception. That’s enough sitting on the fence. I’ll dive in with my reactions.

I found it hard to be completely lost in the sounds or entirely unconscious of how they were being created. But I found that, with eyes closed, I could at times indulge in a rich feast of sound, even to the extent of finding some of the offerings physically annoying — a bit like the fingernail on the blackboard (kids these days will not know what that is … a marker on a whiteboard is fairly inoffensive). The sounds — especially those from the percussion bench of Dur-e Dara — were so tangible that they seemed the epitome or paradigm of their type. So, metals sounded like metals, utterly metallic. Tin was tin in some intrinsic sense. Rasping and scraping was irritatingly rasp and scrape.

Connors

Connors’ vocals were amazing, incredible. Explosions of breath, guttural extrusions of air and then piercing whistles. Earlier there had been organic vocals, some form of life, then chattering — perhaps of animal, perhaps bird. There was a touch of scat, which unfortunately served only to bring me back to observer status, noting that this was a woman performing with her voice. But that was momentary. Connors was often arresting in her vocal power and versatility.

As a chance to hear unadulterated, pure (in some sense) sounds, the work succeeded for me. We don’t often get the chance to focus in this way and too often sounds are lost amid too many competitors. This was a chance to listen.

But I was not taken on a journey by Surrounded by C. I did not feel there was a lot of growth and development, yet it would be absolutely wrong to suggest any insensibility of the musicians involved. They were alive to possibilities. Perhaps they did not quite become caught up in a group dynamic that would have given the sounds more cohesion and taken them somewhere uncharted.

Others will have had different experiences. Ren Walters commented at the end that he wished they had gone on for longer. And there would have been no objection to that from most of those present, I expect.

Another commission concert worth the effort this performance undoubtedly took.

Dur-e Dara

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