Astra Concert: 21 Rational Melodies, 14 instruments, 7 composers

by Jennifer Bryce

I remember being taken to Astra concerts when I was in primary school — a string orchestra of old ladies playing works such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Apparently the orchestra started officially in 1951, but there were concerts earlier than that. A little later, Astra was taken over by George Logie Smith — it was then a choir and orchestra, and by the 1970s I was playing oboe in the orchestra. I remember the music as fairly conventional, but perusal of Astra’s extensive archive suggests that this was not always the case In 1978, John McCaughey became director, and his vision has led the organisation into exciting territory and has brought to Melbourne leading-edge works and concerts such as the ’21 Rational Melodies…’ we heard on Saturday 27th August.

Andrew Byrne

The Church of All Nations was set up for a concert ‘in the round’, with chairs grouped around an assortment of keyboard and percussion instruments in the middle. The concert was curated by composer Andrew Byrne, who has worked in New York and Australia and is known here in Melbourne for his work with Chamber Made Opera . Indeed, as he said, the array of keyboard and percussion instruments provided ‘a glittering palette of sound’.

Tom Johnson (b 1939) is one of the American composers who founded ‘minimalism’ — perhaps better known through the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is believed to have coined the term. One of his compositions dating from 1982, but not performed before in Australia, is Rational Melodies, which, according to Andrew Byrne’s program notes, ‘offers a compendium of minimalist systematic procedures in 21 pieces’.

During the course of the evening we heard these twenty-one melodies, though not in numerical order but, perhaps more interestingly, five Melbourne composers had been invited to write responses to these melodies. For example, David Chesworth wrote two irrational melodies, surd 1 and 2 — an ancient mathematician had called irrational numbers ‘inaudible’. In phonetics, a ‘surd’ refers to voiceless consonants, uttered by breath and mouth: f,k,p,s,t. The program notes informed us that ‘Surd 1 combines phonetic surds with the expulsion of air from various organ bellows to create a subtle force that aerates the performance space, temporarily blowing away any residual pitches and patterns from Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies‘.

Quite different was Warren Burt’s electronic piece, Through the Studio Door, a reponse, he said, to the general permutation process used by Johnson, rather than to any one particular ‘melody’. As a piece of music I found this more satisfying than some of the other responses. I very much liked Catherine Schieve’s reponse: Three Foghorns for Rational Melodies. She describes her composition as ‘a performed soundscape surrounding a segment of Rational Melody performances… The foghorns appear “out of the mist” and create an ambient environment’. Each of the three pieces was aligned with a particular foghorn — for example, Foghorn 1 was Heceta Head, Oregon USA: ‘During obscure conditions, the horn will blast 3, over a slow count of 6, followed by a count of 7 rests’. The foghorns were performed by organs.

The concert was book-ended by Johnson’s melodies (as well as a scattering throughout the body of the concert). The final piece we heard was rational melody 15, played on the amazing array of harpsichord, organ positiv, celeste, regal, toy piano and qanun. The performers did an amazing job of switching from one (often obscure) instrument to another, they were: Alexander Meagher, Kate Tempany, Kim Bastin, Jennifer Yu, Vahideh Eisaei, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee.