by Jennifer Bryce


A month or so ago I wrote of the first concert presented by an exciting new enterprise in Melbourne, the New Music Studio of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Just recently, in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre, the group presented music of Australian composer Tim Dargaville.

Tim Dargaville

The first three pieces referenced Tim’s special interest in Indian music –  particularly drumming. Indeed at the opening of Kolam, for saxophone quartet, Tim seemed to speak in tongues when he vocalised in a kind of drumming language. A kolam is a mandala-like drawing composed of a continuous line curving around a matrix of dots.  The traditional mandala, fashioned with rice, was usually at the entrance to a home; it was walked on and disappeared by the end of the day, so the next day another one would be made. This idea of continuity was apparent in the shape of the music. After a gentle introduction the music builds to a climax with some beautiful lyrical phrases for the soprano saxophone (played by Justin Kenealy). I had thought that, like the mandala fashioned with rice, the music might ‘blow away’ at the end, but in fact the ending is quite loud and abrupt.


The second piece, In the Spirit House, for oboe and piano was beautifully played by oboist Brienne Gawler, accompanied by Bernadette Harvey. The piece exploits the whole range of the oboe and is both percussive and lyrical. Then there was another Kolam, this time for solo piano (Bernadette Harvey) – a world premiere. The next piece, Under Freshwater, was for the somewhat unusual combination of harp (Marshall McGuire), soprano saxophone (Justin Kenealy) and string trio. It is described by the composer as ‘a brief reflection on the gentle movement of water’.

The final piece, Between Breath and Word, for wind trio, harp, piano and string trio had been composed especially for this event, a commission through the Albert Maggs award. Albert Maggs was a bookmaker, who granted money to encourage and assist composers of classical music who might otherwise abandon their efforts for want of means. The award has been running since the 1960s and has been won by composers such as Nigel Butterley, Larry Sitsky, George Dreyfus, Mary Finsterer and Lawrence Whiffin. The composer describes this piece as spanning ‘solitary monologues and distant echoes with a trajectory that leads to an intense ensemble climax before finally gradually dissolving’. Indeed, at the beginning, the clarinet and oboe start playing off stage, then join the ensemble. At the end they leave the group and finish their playing off stage – a sense of ‘dissolving’.

The next day I attended another concert of new music where it seemed as though the composers were experimenting to see what extraordinary sounds they might get from distorting a conventional instrument – placing a double reed in the mouthpiece of an alto flute, or playing a clarinet without the middle joint. For the audience, this was interesting but unsatisfying. Tim Dargaville’s music, driven, it seemed, by a philosophy and a particular structure was, for me, far more appealing.