Resonant Bodies Festival, Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, 5th May

by Jennifer Bryce


Resonant Bodies has come to us from New York. I’m not sure that it’s accurate to call it an organisation. According to program notes, ‘Resonant Bodies is not just a series of concerts but a community’. It was launched in New York in 2013 and is an annual festival that has become an indispensable part of the New York music scene. Rather than curating programs around musical works, the singers are central – singers from around the world, some famous, some just starting out. Here in Melbourne we had just one concert – a festival in miniature, co-directed by singers Jessica Aszodi and Jane Sheldon.

jessica and jane

The program included four world premières: by Elliott Gyger, Natasha Anderson, Carolyn Connors and Odeya Nini.

The two pieces that stood out for me were Gyger’s A Church Made of Glass (world première) and Eight Songs for a Mad King, composed in 1969 by Peter Maxwell Davies.

oscar and lucinda

The text for A Church Made of Glass is by Peter Carey – it is central to Oscar and Lucinda – one of the ideas is the ‘doomed fragility’ of glass; ‘I cannot separate love from glass’ and another memorable part was reference to insects being trapped in glass:

‘They did not understand

For one hundred thousand years

Their progenitors had inhabited that valley

Without once encountering glass

Suddenly the air was hard where it should be soft


Bashing against nothing.’

insect trapped in glass

The form used by Gyger was a deconstructed Baroque cantata. There were two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano accompanied by (or, more accurately perhaps, working with) piano, clarinet and percussion. I was surprised that the impression was not top heavy but rather it helped at times to convey fragile delicacy.

shards of glass.jpg

Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (libretto by Randolph Stowe) is about England’s ‘mad’ King George III, who loved birds – and hence the musicians wore bird costumes. Much of the instrumental music (played by clarinet, flute/piccolo, ‘cello, violin and percussion) imitates exaggerated bird sounds. On the surface it is highly amusing and indeed greatly demanding of bass-baritone Matthew Thomas who did a great job of making all kinds of mad, sometimes bird-like sounds ranging over 5 octaves. But it is also a poignant portrait of madness. The eight songs are based on songs that George III would have known and apparently tried to train his birds to sing. In the end, the mad king grabs the violin and smashes it – we in the audience didn’t notice the subtle substitution of a cheap variety for the valuable instrument Elizabeth Welsh had been playing.

eight songs for a mad king