Tag Archives: Tim Freedman

Stonnington Jazz — Day 9

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”.

Phil Slater
Phil Slater

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).

Katie Noonan
Katie Noonan

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
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
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.

Katie Noonan
Katie Noonan

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
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
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
Phil Slater and Matt McMahon

Steve Elphick and Aaron Barnden
Steve Elphick and Aaron Barnden

McMahon, Elphick, Slater and Aaron Barnden
Matt McMahon, Steve Elphick, Phil Slater and Aaron Barnden

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The composer’s work torn apart

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun on May 22, 2009.)

Former students are turning their musical mentor’s work on its ear

PETER Sculthorpe has received more than half a dozen 80th birthday cakes so far, but his most valued gift may be to have his music pulled apart and rebuilt.
Tim Freedman, of the Whitlams, and vocalist Katie Noonan will play their parts in the reconstruction, but the Sculthorpe Songbook will be aired in two concerts at Stonnington Jazz primarily as a result of work by trumpeter Phil Slater and pianist Matt McMahon.

It may sound like a demolition job, but for Slater and McMahon, who were students of Australia’s great composer at Sydney University, the reinterpretation of Sculthorpe’s works is a tribute recognising what he gave them in his classes on composition.

“Often you get musicians interpreting composers from the past, but the composer we’re doing it to is alive in the room and we get to talk to him about his music,” Slater says. “He’s like a mentor who’s giving everything approval and inspiring us. It’s very brave of him to submit his music to … it’s not even interpretation — we pull it to pieces.”

An example of what’s in store from the Sculthorpe Songbook will be Freeman singing It’ll Rise Again, originally performed by the 1970s rock group Tully in the style of a rock opera.

“Jazz pianist Matt McMahon has completely rewritten the composition. It’s amazing what he does. He works out what the chords are and what features of the original to retain and what to play around with and just arranges specifically for Tim,” Slater says.

He concedes there is a risk that messing around with the works of a world-renowned composer or attempting to gild the lily will end badly, but says the new works try to tap into “part of Peter’s identity, the characteristics of his music, his sound — it’s more than just the notes he writes down”.
Sculthorpe began composing music about the age of seven, assuming after his first piano lesson that he should be writing music rather than practising the instrument.

“I went home and wrote music like crazy and took it to my teacher a week later and she was furious, and caned me,” he told ABC Radio National in 2004. “So I wrote under the bedclothes with a torch, for a year…”

Years later, while studying at Oxford, Sculthorpe tried to interest his peers in Japanese music, which he loved, and in Australian Aboriginal music. Their lack of enthusiasm helped him decide to pursue his own path. His compositions since have reflected a deep concern with social justice and regard for the land.

The deaths of women and children in Iraq were significant in his Requiem and the plight of asylum seekers in detention for String Quartet No. 16.
“I’m not sure that music can state those issues, but it can convey the feeling,” Sculthorpe says.

“For example, in the Quartet the last movement is called Freedom and it reflects the anger and loneliness of those in detention. But at the end they are dreaming of loved ones and being free, so the piece is ultimately uplifting.”

Sculthorpe turned 80 on April 29, but his workload shows no sign of slowing. He anticipates that a large piano concerto and two string quartets he will compose will have climate change as their focus.

“Australia is lagging on climate change, with only 5 per cent emissions reduction by 2020 and billions of dollars going to polluting industries. That’s appalling. But I have to find a metaphor for these compositions — it would be a little bombastic to use, say, the collapse of the ice bridge in Antarctica as a metaphor for climate change. I need something smaller.”

Sculthorpe’s love of music from Japan, Bali and other parts of Asia may find expression in the Songbook works for Stonnington’s festival.
The jazz musicians involved — Slater, McMahon, drummer Simon Barker, guitarist Carl Dewhurst and bassist Brett Hirst — have travelled to Japan and experimented with gamelan rhythms.

“Simon travels regularly to study with Korean drummers and we play with a traditional Korean opera,” Slater says. “Simon’s playing is so original and mind-blowing that it’s drawing attention from all around the world. It’s a fusion between American or Western jazz drumming techniques with Korean rhythms. As the drummer, he sets the tone for all of us, so we’re all plugged in to taking influences from these regions.”

Peter Sculthorpe will be at Stonnington to hear his works reconstructed as jazz. He may do some readings — possibly from Tim Flannery’s writing on the environment. But there is little doubt he will be quietly proud of the creativity that has emerged from seeds he planted in the minds of students Phil Slater and Matt McMahon.

Stonnington Jazz runs from May 14 to 23
Sculthorpe Songbook, Malvern Town Hall, May 22 and 23, 8pm.

Stonnington Jazz