Guitar Dreaming: Australian Music for Guitar (and Beyond)

WAAPA staff and students

Spectrum Project Space, Beaufort Street, Northbridge

September 2009

reviewed by Stuart Hille

l to r: Sidney Brien, Brendan Biddiss, Courtney Hilton

photo: Jacqueline Auty
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The actual space of Spectrum Project Space, for a concert audience, is very small, completely unadorned and has an ambience which relies wholly on the mood the listener brings.  It is much akin to ‘burrows’, still found in Manhattan, where groups cluster  to hear aleatoric music performances, and where listeners are encouraged to move around the players as if taking part in a sonic, glyptic exercise.  However, when one has no option but to find (and I impress ‘find’) seating, as on this occasion, the dynamics and sense of freedom change.  The players might be within half a meter of the first row of listeners but a barrier is drawn nonetheless.  And that barrier affords the ear to pick up all sorts of surrounding sounds – the desirable and not so desirable: the cars  outside, strings not quite in tune, musical lines which start but then break, musical shapes which are either rounded or lack definition…whatever the sound, when we’re seated we hear it more acutely.

This concert, titled ‘Guitar Dreaming’ (and, I hope judiciously, I’m not going to discuss the word choice) contained many promising features and a portion of disappointments.  It also had a couple of surprises, one of which was the realisation of how quickly guitars can lose their tuning, assuming they are correctly tuned to begin the performance (which wasn’t always the case on the night).  This was made even more potent by the limited space of the auditorium.  String tuning is a notorious problem in any concert.  I think it was John Exton who once summed up the inherent difficulty: “There’s only thing worse than two violins, and that’s three violins”.  Violins only have four strings whereas guitars have six, so whenever like instruments are multiplied it is essential to maintain vigilance in tuning.  Then there is the additional problem of intuiting how long it should take to tune or re-tune on stage, before the audience begins to shuffle with impatience.  What’s the solution?  I don’t know, but I observe professionals, like Jonathan Paget (the principal force behind this concert), are able to tune up much faster and more accurately than students.  Perhaps tuning should be made more of a rigorous exercise within the guitar pupil’s panoply of technical armour.

Another surprising aspect of the concert was the choice of the opening item.  Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with an introspective style to raise the curtain, so to speak, nor was there anything seriously amiss with Melissa Branson’s sensitive reading of a reasonably proportioned composition, titled ‘Distant Mirages’, by Jeremy Poole-Johnson.  However, given the features of the space, including a perceived hesitation getting the concert started, a more robust and confidently styled lead-off might have made a better choice.

But perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the concert was unwittingly exposed by Thea Rossen (a UWA percussion student) in her decision to perform ‘Marimba Dances’ (1 and 2) by Ross Edwards.  This music plays to the gallery like few others.  Quite frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear its Madagascan strains pumping through the speakers of an elevator one day!  Aurally judged, it has strong   similarities to his ‘Laikan’, written some three years prior for the ‘Fires of London’ (under the direction of Peter Maxwell-Davies), except in these ‘dances’, notably the first, things have been trimmed down to the tonal bones.  So of all the works Rossen could have chosen, including something by a UWA student composer, it was disheartening to find her making this her prime option.  Additionally, with recorded performances by, for example, no lesser an artist as Evelyn Glennie, she faced the uneviable task of attempting to shed new light on a latter day warhorse.  Rossen’s reading was proficient and tidy, although somewhat over-stylised in gesture.  But no matter how neat the performance, one became overwhelmed by a sense of a wasted opportunity for some young composer.  And there is a lesson here for student percussionists: ‘hot off the press’ writing by contemporary composers, with something interesting to say, may not become their bread-and-butter  but will provide some of the most fulfilling experiences they will have.  A performer shouldn’t be turning his/her back on this at such a young age.

Similar to Edward’s ‘Marimba Dances’, Westlake’s ‘Six Fishes’, at least judging by the three ‘fish’ performed, flamboyantly declared its quasi-tonal affiliations.  However, Westlake is more cloying in his choice of gestures, and more ostentatious in style and rhythm.  Also, despite what many might assume, and despite an apparent subjection to linearity, this music reveals little sense of processive harmony, particularly long-range harmonic relationships.  Consequently, the ‘Plectrum Alpha’ (Jonathan Paget, Brendan Biddiss, Melissa Branson and Claire Bonner) could have been partially forgiven if their performance had been somewhat lacklustre.  And yet, as is – depressingly – so often the case, they showed good rapport and a relaxed, comfortable approach.  The tuning was good and the eye contact was excellent.

Plectrum Alpha’s second appearance, later in the concert, was in a performance of a composition by one their own: Claire Bonner’s ‘Hope Cottage’.  One was grateful for the spoken introduction by the composer (an excellent prelude to any performance, the sustained practise of which in this concert is to be commended) and the sincerity of her sentiments.  However, this music needs to be considered, at best, to be a draft because it is painfully, stylistically ambiguous, rhythmically unadventurous and, most importantly, shows little grasp of quartet thinking.

Yet one can’t honestly lay the blame for these compositional weaknesses at the feet of the composer.  The genuineness of the expression was enough to tell the informed listener she did her best with the creative technical tools at her disposal.  One can say, however, that the hardware –  (in this case) modern counterpoint, functional harmony, rhythmic/motivic variation, and style studies – need to be more carefully introduced and developed so they become part of her consciousness.  Intuitive dabbling is fine, laudable, and can yield very interesting results, but a satisfying artistic product is only possible when intuition and learned discipline or skill are hand in hand.

And after listening to the works of the other student composers on the program – Gareth Koch, Chris Kotchie and Jeremy Poole-Johnson – these same observations, generally, held true.  Clearly though, each writer focussed on different aspects – according to his personality.  Kotchie’s ‘Autumn’ (where, by the way, the instrument should have better tuned) nicely established a background mood but the painting on the canvas had disconcerting textural breaks and a barely identifiable harmonic discourse.  But again,  as we found in Bonner’s work, the sentiment was earnest and for that, one was grateful.  It was the lack of craftsmanship that was the central problem.  With the right inculcation, I’m sure he will emerge as an interesting creator.  Koch’s “Walls of Jerusalem” needed a strong, decisive stroke to be suddenly hurtled, Jackson Pollock style, across its wary and insular landscape.  A more confident approach by the performer, Claire Bonner, might have helped on this occasion.  But the composition, from its early stages of creation, needed better overseeing so the ideas could be reorganised and shaped with a greater sense of purpose.  As mentioned, Poole-Johnson’s sense of climax placement gave his writing some dynamic balance but the weaving of individual strands, upon which the climaxes rely, required a stronger knowledge of linear development (pitch and rhythm) so the listener’s aural perception could find a convincing musical discourse.

The other more established composers on the program – Philip Houghton and Richard Charlton – were presented, on the whole, with with adequate proficiency and stylistic insight.  If the listener had problems grasping the unity of composition + performance they laid mostly within the compositions.  One of these, probably the most important because of its potential for negative influence on student composers, was the use of colouristic gesture without any sort of context.

The guitar, so it seems, has the ability to produce many such ornaments but problems wade in when the composer breaks the line for no reason other than to insert a gesture.  If he wants the gesture to have  raison d’etre then he needs to make this aurally perceptible.  In other words: it should be heard to develop in an interesting way.  Otherwise, he should use the gesture as a splash of colour and nothing more (exactly like an eighteenth century ornament).  Houghton, arguably, more controlled in this respect but there were some passages, nevertheless, such as in his ‘Brolga’ (performed by Jonathan Paget and Craig Lake), where lines, disagreeably modal/tonal as they were, were supplanted by gestures.  The result, nicely highlighted by the excellence of the performance, was colour on colour…and the listener is left wondering: “What happened to that line I heard?  Where did it go?”.

Charlton’s ‘Legend of Fire’, well executed by Courtney Hilton, highlighted the same polarisation, except here it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between what was line and what was ornament.  A less than decisive performance by the ‘Plectrum Ensemble’ and percussionist Thea Rossen of two movements from Charlton’s ‘Three Distractions’ was sufficient enough to convey the notion that the compositional writing was very odd.  At odds with itself, is perhaps more accurate.  One appreciates the circumstances under which it was written, and the difficulties scouring the Australian ‘contemporary’ repertoire to find something tailored to fit the ensemble.  But this wasn’t the answer.  Moreover, given the fact that there were nine guitarists, the texture was far less rich than it could have been, had the composer thought more in terms of counterpoint.

So if the answer wasn’t ‘Three Distractions’ then, to me, the obvious choice would have been to get one the student composers to come up with a closing fanfare.  Perhaps a semi-aleatoric concept?  In fact, guided improvisation with adequate rehearsal, so to speak, could have created something quite magical.  All the players have talent, rapport and, one assumes, imagination, so why not harvest and combine these qualities?  All it would have required was a composer’s bright idea and a willingness to experiment, and, of course, a solid background in improvisation.  And this causes one to note a few final thoughts.

With the encirclement of the limited space of the venue, the critic was confronted with having to make some firm decisions.  Where the student composers need to focus attention has been discussed already: coming to grips with essential technical aspects in the learning of their craft, but not losing sincerity or naturalness.  In a sense, both the young performers and the young composers need also to have a greater awareness of the hierarchical nature of music and which of these hierarchies they wish to project in either performance or composition.  Few will either have or develop the in-built, intuitive feel for hierarchy displayed by Jonathan Paget, their instrumental teacher at ECU, but they can learn, through linear analysis, to shape their statements more persuasively.  Such questions as: ‘Where is the principal climax? What and where are the subsidiary

climaxes leading to it – on the same hierarchical level? What is process? What is closure? How does this affect tempo and the use of rubato?’, need to be asked and resolved, and always done so on the same hierarchy.

Many touring professional performers, be they pianists or violinists or guitarists or whatever, present renditions that are (increasingly) digital masterstrokes, but, because of a confusion of hierarchies, their readings remain in the shallower waters of interpretation.  Now is the time for student composers and performers (remembering that finesse is as much a part of composition as it is of performance) to recognise and avoid this duality – digital expertise/illustrative unity – before they, too, become part of the roundabout.

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