Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival’s APRA Composer Commission Concert at BMW Edge, Friday May 6, 2011
Commission concerts are always a highlight of the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, but by their nature they involve taking risks. Whether it is Ren Walters carefully placing a group of musicians in the Iwaki Auditorium and giving them minimal guidelines in a work that could go anywhere, or Gian Slater bringing 13 singers to BMW Edge in a work for voices designed to explore the notion of communication between and without words, the works commissioned are always going to venture into new territory. And it is worth keeping in mind that the winner of the commission has been chosen from among proposals that may have been more daring, or may have been less risky, but perhaps more likely to come into being with or without the help of APRA and the MJFF.
Fran Swinn‘s project, “inform” was a huge ask in a practical sense, calling for rehearsals in a much different space, last-minute rigging and a run-through in the relatively unknown conditions at BMW Edge, and all the safety precautions required for an acrobat / aerialist.
But to warm up the crowd, Andrew Walker introduced “three turks and a wasp” for a lively set. The crowd was smallish, but building.
First set: Allan Browne drums, Phil Noy alto sax, Steve Grant cornet, Sam Pankhurst bass
I’m not too sure where the “turks” and “wasp” originated, except that bassist Ben Robertson, guitarist Geoff Hughes and drummer Allan Browne used to play in the famous Melbourne restaurant Mietta’s in the 1990s. Apparently they were often known as “Two turks and a Wasp”. Why? I’m sure someone can enlighten me. Meanwhile this new incarnation got stuck straight in with I’m Not Much But I’m All I Think About, followed by the melodic bush epic The Magpie Stomp (Al Browne insisted the band members had studied Magpie language at the VCA). An improvisation on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo followed and the set closed with a track I didn’t catch, but there was a great exchange between drums and bass towards the end. It was a lively, bright opening in what seemed sound-wise to be a lively, bright auditorium, though Steve Grant said there were some odd currents floating around which were a little hard to predict.
Second set: “Inform” by Fran Swinn, featuring Rockie Stone, with Fran Swinn guitar, Tamara Murphy bass, Ben Hendry drums, Eugene Ball trumpet
Now for the main event in the “big top”. We were on the edge of our seats. And what I was wondering, between distracting interludes in which I worried about why I could not seem to get even the band members in focus, was whether we would see a circus act accompanied by music or music accompanied by circus acrobatics. I must say that the task of taking pictures claimed enough of my attention to rule out proper judgement, but nevertheless I was from the beginning struck by the coherence of what we saw and heard.
I’ll let the pictures tell their story, leaving out many that were completely out of focus. But I felt tension and fluidity in the music, though I would say that the edgy aspect was most apparent to me. Rockie Stone performed amazing feats, but I’m fairly certain we could have seen similar skills on display at Circus Oz.
What I found enthralling about Rockie’s performance was the sense of poise and smoothness of transition. Movements were deliberate and careful, unhurried and definitely part of a continuum. I felt there was as much interest in the way that Rockie placed chairs or bottles; in the way she moved a row of chairs and the way she moved through chairs as there was in the more daring deeds. In other words, though the feats of exquisite balance and rope work were worthy of our admiration and applause, there was a clear commitment to this being much more than a collection of virtuosic actions.
For me, the music and the spectacle were inseparable. As for what deeper meanings or emotions could be drawn for this congruence, it is hard to say. To read what Fran Swinn had in mind, read Alice Body’s interview commissioned by extempore.
I think probably this was an experience in which music and actions fused into a continuum in which the audience could become totally engrossed, totally focused, without any need to seek interpretations, but simply to marvel at the human body in motion.
There were moments of stricture, of enclosure and of escape. But there seemed always to be a smooth progression from restriction to freedom.
I found the walking on bottles one of the most elegant and potentially catastrophic of Stone’s feats, not because there was the prospect of falling from a great height (though that may have been a possibility), but because at every step there was a tiny test that had to be passed. In the event, Stone did appear to lose balance once or twice, but simply resumed her bottle-top walk. Apparently she was finding the reflections of herself in the glass walls disconcerting, but we did not know that then. There was gentle humour when Ben Hendry walked behind her, knocking over the bottles, leaving only one, which Stone casually nudged aside with her foot.
Stone seemed studious in the placement of the four bottles on which she would mount her monument to meetings — the tower of chairs. I thought momentarily of meeting-lovers everywhere, especially those who aspire to be in the chair.
Of course I was changing lenses when Hendry took one of the bottles away, but there was no change to the stability of Stone. She descended, with care, and took to the rope.
All that needs to be said now that this commissioned work has been exposed to an audience is that it must be performed again — preferably before a larger crowd, but one that will give it the attention it was given on this occasion. Full marks to Fran Swinn, Rockie Stone and the quartet, and also to those who took a risk with this concert. Commission accomplished.