Tag Archives: fortyfivedownstairs

ART AWAKENS EMPATHY

Adam Simmons

Adam Simmons during Travelling Tales

REVIEW

Travelling Tales, The Usefulness of Art concert 3, Adam Simmons with Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, 3pm December 10, 2017 at fortyfive downstairs

The collection of thoughts, inspirations and observations that inspired compositions in the third concert in Adam Simmons’ series collectively titled The Usefulness of Art would have been familiar to anyone who has spent time travelling.

These included the sense of adventure as we set out to explore the unknown, the opportunities to gain cultural and historic insights, the intensity of all-night experiences that extended until dawn, the rewards and risks of getting off the beaten track and the pleasure of tasting bread fresh from a bakery after a night of solving the world’s problems.

But Simmons’ inspirations also invited us to reflect on less positive but still powerful experiences encountered in the world. The program notes for his piece Threnody, a lament, refer to mourning for travellers who are on the road out of necessity rather than for pleasure. For me, this recalled one deeply affecting night spent talking with tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka as they tearfully farewelled families forcibly being repatriated to the south of India the next day.

Threnody was, for me, the most affecting piece in concert 3. It began with sonorous, plaintive strings under red lighting, Simmons standing behind the Arcko players, but not contributing. Then, as he moved forward, his tenor sax began a sour, rasping and agonising cry over the drone of strings that continued until the piece died away. It felt full of suffering and loss.

In this series of concerts Simmons has drawn deeply on Auguste Rodin’s view of the usefulness of the artist, including his declaration: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.”

Threnody felt like a reminder that at times it is important that we are not happy, having had our empathy awakened by the situation of others, able to feel compassion and to be motivated by anger to action.

Reflecting on this since hearing Travelling Tales, I’ve been reminded of how important the artists – painters, poets, musicians – were in motivating change in Iran before the fall of the Shah. The usefulness art was palpably evident then.

Of course the other eight pieces in concert 3 had quite a different flavour.

On the evening after this afternoon recital I recall telling a friend that this concert differed from the previous two in the TUoA series because Simmons was playing solos, with improvisations, while Arcko players acted as a unit playing from musical scores and under the baton of conductor Timothy Phillips. Viewed in that way Simmons was the star of the show, so to speak, and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble the skilled backing band.

But that view was wrong and does not do justice to the interaction between ensemble and soloist. Certainly Adam Simmons’ contributions stood out in this performance — I have never heard him play more evocatively — but it was the unity of the ensemble with soloist that delivered in spades. Everything Simmons created on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones was delivered into a soundscape created by Arcko players with subtlety and verve.

This unity of soloist with ensemble was evident from the opening piece, Beginnings, when Simmons’ light and air-filled musings on soprano sax – his notes wandering freely to give a taste of journeys ahead – were perfectly complemented by a slow undercurrent of strings. And in A Single Step Arcko players contributed drama and built intensity with sharply repetitive patterns as a contrast to soft, deep tenor sax notes and later muted explorations. The strings acted as a subtle drone in A Nod to the Old World, swelling and receding beneath the serenity of floating notes from bass clarinet.

In The City that Never Sleeps Arcko players awaken us to work collaboratively with Simmons in creating a wonderful complexity, soloist and strings taking different paths and varying intensity to build the busyness. And in Living by Numbers the symphonic strength and agility of Arcko was on show as Simmons on soprano sax perfectly captured the disturbing mood of adventure, risk-taking, daring and danger. In A Song for Sharing, ensemble and tenor sax did exactly that, working a melody into a round with strings seemingly egging on the soloist. Strings and soprano sax embraced fondly in the closing Warm Croissants.

The one solo piece in this concert, Milosc, was a sublime demonstration of how expressive a saxophone can be, notes at times soaring and flaring, then fragile.

Adam Simmons has said that each of these TUoA concerts will develop from what has gone before in the series. They have been so different that we await with great expectations the two yet to come. It has always seemed unfortunate and unnecessary that an artist feels the need to prove the usefulness of art. That’s a given. Travelling Tales has demonstrated how powerfully affecting art can be.

ROGER MITCHELL

A few images from the night:

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A WINDOW ON OUR RAISON D’ÊTRE

 

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2: Final moment

REVIEW

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2, performed by the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, August 24, 2017

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since this opening night performance, but vivid recollections remain. I recall thinking as the music faded to silence and a single spotlight played on a suspended “cloud”, that once again Adam Simmons and his crew had demonstrated the power and value of art.

Mundane matters — a computer failure and the need to find a replacement before packing for an imminent flight to Canada — brought me down the many stairs of this wonderful, hidden away venue in an unsettled state of mind.

Yet the sense of excitement and expectation engendered by the colourful Concert 1 of this series, with its streamers, balloons and joie de vivre, was heightened on this occasion by the imaginative set — devised by Diokno Pasilan and Christine Crawshaw — with suspended chairs and clumps of fluffy clouds.

Adam Simmons has recently written about his long preoccupation with Auguste Rodin’s views on The Usefulness of the Artist.

Rodin’s definition of the artist as “the man who takes pleasure in what he does” is immediately appealing — artists in all trades forming part of “an admirable society”. As someone who has come to love beekeeping — not just for the acquisition of honey, but for the deep pleasure it brings — I can identify closely with this concept.

But Rodin’s view is much more expansive than individual fulfilment: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.” And over many years Simmons — an energetic, creative and inspiring multi-instrumentalist and composer — has delved deeply into what art can offer.

“Beyond the more utilitarian nature of art being for economic or personal development, it is also how art can build community,” Adam Simmons has written. “Through performances with my ensembles … I have seen firsthand how music and art can bring disparate people together in shared and transformative experiences. Social connectedness has been identified as an important factor for health and wellbeing. I believe art is fundamental in helping us communicate and connect which other.

Simmons continues: “Artistic expression manages to convey understanding and insight via means other than language. The things that make art so powerful in this regard are the intangibles – the way it helps inspire, question, empathise and unite us, helping create stronger communities. I think that’s useful!”

That unity and sense of community is what has lingered in my mind so long after this second concert in a series of five that will stretch into 2018. The sense of fun and joy was still evident among the ensemble members, although the set and costumes conveyed a darker mood. As collective voices joined Pete Lawler’s distinctive and arresting solo vocals at the culmination of this concert, drawing the audience into their harmonic spell, I felt that we were indeed united and there was much power and benefit in that.

With any offering inspired by Adam Simmons there is going to be more than merely music. But additional elements — in this case the darkly Gothic costumes by Christine Crawshaw — are always beautifully integrated. As Simmons breathed gently and circularly into his bass clarinet to begin the Creative Music Ensemble’s journey through music originally conceived to highlight qualities that art engenders — acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith — we were enfolded in a sense of mystery.

The pieces, named for those qualities, were familiar. Origami’s album The Usefulness of Art was released in 2013. But this rendition, with 13 ensemble members (unfortunately some others were unavailable on opening night), was dramatically different. Simmons has assembled this ensemble with care and utilises their skills imaginatively. Each piece segued into the next in gradual transformations, swelling and receding as Simmons conducted from within, directing the gestation.

This was very much an ensemble work rather than an airing of solos, but there were highlights. Diokno Pasilan on gamelan instruments, Niko Schauble and Hugh Harvey on drums, Peter Lawler on a hand drum and Nat Grant on Marimba provided a rich feast of varied percussion that was at times an underlay and at others more prominent.

Most effective and affecting duos came from Paul Simmons (sax) and Gemma Horbury (trumpet), and Bryn Hills (trombone) with Adam Simmons (bass clarinet). Miranda Hill, with and without bow, was a ball of creative energy on double bass. David Brown, on guitar, not unexpectedly made deft and entirely apposite interventions. Cara Taber and Gideon Brazil on reeds enjoyed making great lamentations. Peter Lawler made fiendishly superb contributions on his mini synth and left a lingering impact with vocals that called to mind the Korean p’ansori singer Bae Il Dong.

This performance lasted 50 minutes, yet it seemed to flash past. Clearly the musicians enjoyed their outing greatly, yet there was a sombre feel in the music that went beyond the mood created by set and costumes. I felt this concert invited the audience to become deeply immersed in the work of creativity and, ultimately, to join in a shared experience.

Art had indeed opened a window on our raison d’être, as Rodin might have put it.

ROGER MITCHELL

Here’s a gallery of images from opening night:

CONFUCIUS SAY, GIVE MUSICIANS LIBERTY

Cara Taber Gideon Brazil

Cara Taber and Gideon Brazil fill the air with colour during Adam Simmons’ Concerto For Piano and Toy Band

PICTORIAL REVIEW

Concert 1: Concerto for Piano and Toy Band
Michael Kieran Harvey with Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble
Composed by Adam Simmons

Thursday 2 March 2017, fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

By the time this post appears the second performance of this concerto will be over, but there will be two more chances to join the audience — on Saturday at 7.30pm and on Sunday at 3pm.

I loved this work. One of the performers, alto saxophonist Cara Taber, described this as “beautiful, thought-provoking, and strong original music by Adam Simmons” and that fits.

The concerto, which has three parts surrounded by a prologue, two interludes and an epilogue, is at times frenzied and at others meditative. Bursts of sudden energy come from the powerful piano of classical musician Michael Kieran Harvey as well as from the Toy Band.

As is always the case with Simmons’ art, we are encouraged to enjoy as well as to reflect on what we are seeing and hearing, what the performers are bringing to us beyond their facility with a range of instruments.

Confucius, a great lover of music, is part of this work, introduced in lines spoken by Simmons as he turns the handles on music boxes, propelling paper tapes into which the words are punched as holes. My googling suggests that Confucius gave ideas on how music should follow the ideal of the ancient pattern and then allow for improvisation while maintaining harmony.

This is the context for the brief spoken passages in Simmons’ concerto, in that Confucius, when talking to the Grand Master of Lu (who had been given the task of teaching music) about the Ancients’ Music, said, “Their music began with a strict unison. Soon the musicians were given more liberty; but the tone remained harmonious, brilliant, consistent, right on ’til the close.”

The spoken passages provide a framework in which the musicians work. The whole work — Simmons’ first long-form composition — is part of his exploration this year of The Usefulness of Art, inspired by French Impressionist sculptor Auguste Rodin‘s view that “I call useful anything that gives us happiness”. Simmons wants us to reflect on art as connection, sharing experience and encouraging understanding between people.

The influences he cites for this effort to highlight the contrast between soloist and ensemble include the words of Confucius, Werner Herzog films he watched when composing the piece in Wye River some years back and John Zorn’s books of interviews, essays and commentaries by musicians.

All this, while interesting as a background to the performance, is not required as a prelude to its enjoyment. There are startling moments in the concerto, there are periods in which Harvey thrills at the piano and there is a time when Taber’s saxophone solo is accompanied by musicians moving quietly and percussively through the audience and performance space.

It is best not to tell that story beforehand, but to experience it. I would thoroughly recommend that you find the time to catch the remaining two performances of Concerto for Piano and Toy Band.

ROGER MITCHELL

The Toy Band: Adam Simmons sopranino, baritone saxophones, shakuhachi; Cara Taber alto saxophone; Gideon Brazil tenor saxophone; Gemma Horbury trumpet; Gavin Cornish trumpet; Bryn Hills trombone; Howard Cairns double bass; Hugh Harvey drums

Below are some images, which are in black and white. The performance certainly is not.