Subterranean Sonorities

by Jennifer Bryce

On Saturday afternoon there was a concert presented as part of a cultural exchange between the Melbourne Composers’ League and the Japan Federation of Composers. Instruments available to composers represented in this concert were: flute (concert, alto, bass, contrabass and subcontrabass), viola, didjeridu, and harp. It was mentioned that Debussy composed for flute, viola and harp. Eight pieces were performed – this instrumentation lent itself particularly to depiction of birds. All but one of the pieces had been composed in 2016; there were five world premiere performances.

I won’t describe every piece in detail. Silvia Simons’s Dreaming in the 21st Century was a duet for bass flute and didjeridu. This piece evokes laws of living in harmony with animals and the land, but the program notes tell us: ‘it does not refer to a ‘’Golden Age’’ in the past, rather to a living, continuous dimension’. I found it interesting to listen to the western flute and didjeridu playing together – although the flute is essentially diatonic, based on western scales and the didjeridu is not, if you shut your eyes, at times the two melded as one.

I particularly liked Paul Moulatlet’s Dark Star, for solo bass flute. The piece was structured in a manner where there were notated sections followed by the performer’s own improvisation. I thought of the universe, and stars imploding. Later I read in the program notes that the piece: ‘expresses the composer’s foreboding about the undercurrent of totalitarianism that permeates many democratic societies’ – indeed, a suggestion of democracies imploding.

There was a fascinating set of variations by John Arthur Grant for subcontrabass flute – an instrument I had never seen before and possibly had never heard. It is at least as big as a contrabassoon and the one played at this concert was made of a form of plastic – if it were metal, like a conventional flute, one instrument  would apparently cost upwards of $70,000. The piece was called Henso-Kyoku in honour of the Japanese composers and the long tradition of the Japanese flute.


Peter Sheridan with a subcontrabass flute

Another favourite, for me, was Time of Birds, by Isao Matsushita. The flute (this time an ‘ordinary’ concert flute) and viola start off stage – entering from left and right – the harp remaining at centre, viola and flute walk on as the piece progresses and then, near the end, return to their starting places. The piece was inspired by a three-dimensional design made of stainless steel, where the surrounding scenery is reflected in the mirror-like surface and birds fly freely on it. This piece displayed the beautiful flute playing of Peter Sheridan who had played all the different kinds of flutes used in this concert.