Too Jazzy: The Melbourne Composers’ League

by Jennifer Bryce

The Melbourne Composers’ League was formed in 1997. It promotes the indigenous and art music of Australia in an Asian Pacific context. Over the years it has presented 640 works in concerts, including 544 compositions from Australia and 92 from the Asia-Pacific region. Over recent years I have attended several of these concerts. The concert held on Saturday 11th February was the best I have been to so far.

This concert presented recently composed music from Australia, Thailand and the Philippines. ‘Too Jazzy’ is the title of the final item on the program. One reason why this concert came over so well was the excellent performers: Michael Kieran Harvey, piano, Tristram Williams, trumpet, Peter Neville and Hamish Upton, percussion and Nic Synot, contrabass. It was held in a venue with excellent acoustics: The Church of All Nations in Carlton, Melbourne.

Tristram Williams

Trumpeter Tristram Williams was kept very busy, and the program started appropriately with a trumpet fanfare composed in 2021 by Andrew Batterham. Several minutes long, the fanfare culminates in what the program describes as a ‘mash up’ of two styles: grand processions and fast, exciting statements. Tristram had a rest during the next two pieces: Brendan Colbert’s Alter(n)ations for piano and vibraphone, and Annie Pirotta’s Musical Experiment with Phonesthemes. Then came Weerachat Premananda’s Panchromatic of the North Winter Wind Dance, for Trumpet and Piano, composed in 2022. Weerachat Premananda is Professor of Music Composition at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. I had naively expected this music to sound very ‘Asian’, with gongs, bells and little cymbals but it was far more international in flavour punctuated with loud short discords from piano and trumpet. Inspired by the Lantern Festival of Lan Na, the program notes told us that ‘the two instruments move characteristically and independently whilst the music preserves the uniqueness of the tradition’.

Next came a very challenging piano solo, L’architecture du cosmos, by local composer Andrián Pertout. In fact, I wondered whether anyone other than Michael Kieran Harvey could have played it, it is so technically demanding. It is a hommage to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007). I listened to the piece prior to reading the program and thought I could hear snatches of Franz Liszt and Debussy, which indeed were included along with other composers — Stockhausen , Bertrand, Ravel and Ornstein. Quite apart from marvelling at Michael Kieran Harvey’s virtuosity, I thoroughly enjoyed the music.

Michael Kieran Harvey

A piece for Trumpet, Piano, Percussion and Contrabass by Australian composer Joseph Giovinazzo followed, a homage to jazz fusion. The title, Miles of Blue in Green is a play on the composition of renowned jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s Blue in Green. It uses the same instrumentation as the Miles Davis Quartet.

After interval we heard a work by Filipino composer Ramon Pagayon Santos. This piece, Abot-Tanaw IV, scored for Trumpet and Percussion, aims to simulate the different techniques in a kulintang (gong) ensemble. I was amused by the next very energetic piano solo composed and performed by Michael Kieran Harvey, entitled Lawyers Are Lovely Misunderstood People And We Should Be Much Kinder To Them. In the program notes Michael Kieran Harvey said: ‘After years spent tussling with a particularly gnarly legal issue for my wife and I, Craig Mackie jokingly asked for a piece of music with this title as payment and this is the result.’ This was contrasted by local composer Eve Duncan’s Winter Persephone, based on the myth where Zeus and Demeter’s daughter Persephone is to be abducted by Hades to the Underworld. In response, grief-stricken Demeter caused many years of famine, which prompted Zeus and Hades to allow Persephone to return to her mother — but, she is offered a single pomegranate seed and eating it condemns her to go back to the Underworld each winter.

I expected Bruce Crossman’s Fragrant Rainclouds of Love, for Percussion and Piano, to be a gentle piece but there was interesting use of ‘Stopped piano’, where, with a device, the piano sound is blunted and after some sonorous ‘fragile’ sounds there is eruption to ‘climactic jazzy extemporization-like’ sonorities. At the close of the piece, percussion in particular suggests ‘whisperings of young lovers’.

The final piece, ‘Too Jazzy’, for Flugelhorn (played by Tristram Williams), Piano, Contrabass and Percussion by Scott McIntyre was indeed ‘jazzy’. The composer says he is intrested in the harmonic elements of jazz. Apparently the opening interval is a Major 14th — which I’d never heard of before. The piece was constructed around particular modes, each tied to a specific player in the group.

This was a fascinating concert. Do we realise how many talented composers are working in Melbourne, quite apart from the guests who contributed from the Asia Pacific?