littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Music and Art: Roger Kemp

Students of Australian National Academy of Music, curated by ANAM faculty member, percussionist, Peter Neville, performed a fascinating concert: ‘A Choreography of the Spirit’ in a gallery of paintings by Australian abstract artist, Roger Kemp (1908 – 1987). We sat in a gallery that displayed Kemp’s later works while the ANAM students performed music inspired by Kemp’s work.

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Kemp was a young artist in the 1940s when the Ballet Rambert came to Melbourne — it had a tremendous influence on many young artistic people, particularly Kemp, whose early paintings are full of rhythm and some actually seem to be choreographed. It was therefore appropriate to start the concert with Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz. This was followed by a masterfully arranged selection of Bach, jazz, Mozart flute quartet, ending with Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti (1967). I never thought I would like Thelonious Monk played on harspichord — but the arrangement of Epistrophy worked well.

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There was no break in the music — it had been arranged so that Coltrane flowed into Bach, which flowed into Monk. Kemp’s work became more abstract and the figures in his later works merge into the design itself. We sat there, listening, and taking in the abstract shapes that danced around us.

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Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler, who wrote the play Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, claims not to be a scientist. Neither am I, but I do think that the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA — the structure of our unique genetic code —  must be one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century.  So much that we already take for granted has developed from this discovery, announced in February 1953: pre-natal screening for disease genes, ability to identify human remains and to accurately analyse evidence that can convict or exonerate criminals, to list but a few examples.

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For me, the play lacked passion and energy. Maybe this was partly the Melbourne Theatre Company production — a bare stage setting, aptly introduced by Mary Finisterer’s music, written especially for the play — I didn’t notice it after the introduction, which suggests it was probably well-suited and not over-intrusive.

Photo 51 Nadine Garner

Nadine Garner as Rosalind Franklin

It is believed that scientists Watson and Crick appropriated Rosalind Franklin’s work on X-ray diffraction photography enabling them to be recognised as the ‘discoverers’ of the double-helix structure and to be awarded the Nobel Prize whereas Franklin was overlooked (not helped by the fact that she died of ovarian cancer before the prize was awarded).

Photo 51 Crick and Watson

Crick and Watson

It is said that on the day that Watson and Crick ‘confirmed’ their ‘discovery’ Crick went into The Eagle pub and blurted out, ‘We have found the secret of life!’ and the play makes much of the role of personality in scientific inquiry. The double-helix is a pairing, and Watson and Crick worked well together whereas Franklin and her work partner, Wilkins, did not.

The play refers to what is presumably a fact, that one weekend Franklin and Wilkins separately went to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, but didn’t talk to each other although Wilkins did see that Franklin was there. A shame that something couldn’t have been made about false accusation, or a statue coming to life.

Photo 51

I came away from the play feeling rather flat — had I missed something? Was it the stark stage setting? The only props were models of the DNA structure which, with lighting, blended together as did Crick and Watson, elated by their ‘discovery’. Certainly, the reserved, serious female scientist was overlooked — she didn’t attempt to ‘sell’ herself or her discovery. She died at the age of thirty-seven — possibly her ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to X-ray during the course of her work.

Discussion of Lily Campbell’s Secret on Community Radio

Here is a podcast of a recent broadcast on the 3CR program Published or Not where we discuss my book, Lily Campbell’s Secrethttps://audio.3cr.org.au/3cr/publishedor-not/2019/10/03/1130/201910031130_publishedor-not_64.mp3

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ANAM Concerto Competition

Today, Sunday 29th September, we heard the Melbourne final of the ANAM Concerto Competition at the ANAM ‘home’: the South Melbourne Town Hall. As the director said, in his introduction to the concert, the Australian National Academy of Music is not a competitive institution — the musicians there work collaboratively to perform at their very best. But this competition is an annual event. We were hearing the ‘Melbourne Final’, where the three finalists perform their concertos with piano accompaniment and the audience votes for a ‘winner’. In a week’s time, the same musicians will perform in Hobart with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and professional judges will decide on a winner. I’ll keep you posted…

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South Melbourne Town Hall: home of ANAM

The concert opened with Cassandra Slater playing Ibert’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra Opus 37, written in 1934. The considerable task of playing a piano reduction of all the orchestra parts was performed by ANAM associate artist Louisa Breen.

ANAM Concerto Ibert 2

Jacques Ibert

Cassandra played with a beautiful ringing tone — plenty of dynamic variation and, what seemed to me, flawless technique. What I found most admirable was her engagement with the audience. Although Cassandra played with music in front of her, this was in no way a barrier between her and the audience — she looked at us frequently and she moved appropriately with the music: she seemed to ‘live’ the music.

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Cassandra Slater, flautist

After the Ibert we heard Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, performed by Johnny van Gend and the fearsome orchestral reduction was performed superbly on piano by  Peter de Jager.

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Bela Bartok

This substantial work is almost twice as long as the Ibert flute concerto. Johnny played the whole piece from memory. This should have freed him to communicate with the audience, but I did feel that it was a more cerebral performance than Cassandra’s — he played beautifully, but I felt as though he was locked into his own brain rather than sharing his musicianship with us. It is an exciting piece of music and Johnny and Peter displayed both its fiery and lyrical themes.

Anam Concerto Bartok Johnny

Johnny van Gend, violinist

There was an interval, then we were treated to a performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for ‘cello and orchestra, composed in 1950. This is one of my favourite pieces of music — a late work; Prokofiev had experienced the Russian revolutions, Stalinism, and his life had witnessed the holocaust and two world wars — much of this seems to me to be encapsulated in this work.

ANAM Concerto James Morley

James Morley, ‘cellist

James Morley and Leigh Harold (associate artist — piano) gave a fine performance. James played from memory, and he played to the audience — his sound is resonant and beautiful with an evenness that extended to some of the very high notes in the music.

Up to interval, I was giving my vote to Cassandra — she lived the music and conveyed this feeling to the audience. Johnny’s playing was technically excellent — and the piece he had chosen was challenging — but he hadn’t reached my heart. But now, having heard James Morley play, I was torn. It is difficult enough to compare two different instruments — particularly from two different families, woodwind and strings. How much more difficult when  one piece (the ‘cello concerto) is more substantial than the other. When it comes to concerto competitions, wind players may be at a disadvantage. Has anything like the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante (or, indeed the Bartok concerto) been written for flute? Some may challenge this, but I don’t think so. What does a judge do? Cassandra probably couldn’t have chosen a better piece of music (indeed the Ibert is a fine piece) but, as they say, it’s like judging apples and oranges. In the end, I gave my vote to James playing the Prokofiev. In a week’s time, we will know the result of the professional judges after the performances with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

 

Astra and Inland : a pleasing mix of contemporary and medieval music

One of the first concerts I went to as a primary school student was the Astra Ladies Orchestra — probably thought appropriate because it showed that women could, unassisted, put on an orchestral concert. I remember giggling at the ladies in floppy pink dresses. I think that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was on the program. By the time I was at secondary school and during my student days, George Logie-Smith had taken over the orchestra — he added a choir (and men) — and, indeed, I sometimes played oboe in the orchestra. I recall it as fairly traditional fare, but he apparently included composers such as Bartok, Britten and Penderecki.

Astra George LogieSmith

The days of George Logie-Smith

Forty years ago John McCaughey took over Astra — he is still their Musical Director. My impression at the time was that he had vision — he could see that there were quite a few competent choirs around Melbourne — how could Astra be something special? He took on new music and encouraged commissions particularly from Australian composers. He is quoted as having said: ‘Music has to renew itself or it dies, and there is a feeling that a lot of it is dying’. Thanks to organisations such as Astra and John McCaughey, music in Melbourne is far from dying. This is apparent when we attend an Astra concert — such as the one I heard in the Church of All Nations last night, where McCaughey had deftly interposed Stravinsky, music composed within the last couple of years, and medieval music. The concert was presented by Astra and Inland, a group of instrumentalists with aims and styles similar to those of Astra, presenting new and unfamiliar music.

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The program flowed from one item to the next with applause only at interval and at the end of the concert.

Interposed between instrumental compositions (of 2018 and 2019) by Filippo Perocco and Anthony Pateras were  excerpts from Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, which we were told in comprehensive program notes offered ‘both a metaphor for the concert… and a musical source radiating to different forms of future and past’. Apparently Stravinsky (in his late 70s) took a long time to compose this work, reaching to medieval and folk music and the serial world of 12-tone music. The Agon excerpts were brilliantly played on two pianos by Kim Bastin and Joy Lee.

Astra Agon ballet

Dancing the Argon ballet — although the performances at this concert were purely instrumental

Between Agon Parts III and IV were two superb pieces for choir by Stravinsky,  The Dove Descending (from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) and an arrangement of Full Fathom Five from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Astra stravisnksy agon

Stravinsky at a rehearsal of Argon in the 1950s

After interval the choir and two soloists sang, in Italian, Giovanna Dongu’s Rising Through the Mellow Shade, composed in 2018. It was a first performance. The words are by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Many a night I saw the  Pleiads rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Astra quarter-tone bass flute

Quarter-tone bass flute

There was another first performance: Rohan Drape’s Chalk (2019) played by Rebecca Lane, quarter-tone bass flute, Jon Heilbron, double bass and electronics devised by Rebecca and Jon and manipulated by Rohan Drape. There was a 14th Century madrigal followed by a first performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Ave Maria (2019) for two sopranos and choir, and a piece for double bass by Jon Heilbron, there are wild fires (2019) segued into Maura Capuzzo’s O falce di luna (1995) for choir and double bass. Then came James Rushford’s Leyning (2019) for two portativ organs and electronics (another first performance) — based on the Jewish tradition of textual chanting.

Astra Jon Heilbron

Jon Heilbron

The concert finished with a 14th century Ballata for voices and instruments, sung in Italian, Ecco la primavera, by Francesco Landini, the blind organist of San Lorenzo.

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Portativ organ

What a program! Congratulations to McCaughey and Astra for promoting so much new music and for giving us in the audience such a rewarding experience.

Solaris

In 1962, Stanislaw Lem wrote his masterful science fiction classic, Solaris. It was the year after Russia had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

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Lem’s story takes place on a space station that is orbiting a planet Solaris – there is lack of progress – why? Scientist/ psychologist Kelvin is sent to find out what is going on. He finds a crew haunted by ghosts of figures from their pasts. And this soon befalls him when he is ‘visited’ by his dead wife.

Solaris 3

The planet Solaris is surrounded by a mysterious ocean that disturbingly probes the deepest recesses of the human mind. This ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is not apparent. Can the scientists understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts? As Lem says, ‘Man has gone out to explore other worlds … without having explored his own’ [page 164].

Solaris 1

A play, based on Lem’s book, written by David Greig, was staged at the Malthouse Theatre earlier this year.  The main ingredients of Lem’s novel are retained, although scientist Kelvin is a woman. Greig says of the experience of Gagarin’s historic flight, ‘It was as if, after 100,000 years of human existence, we were suddenly offered a mirror. It was a strange and disorienting experience.’ (Malthouse Theatre program notes) The realisation that we may not be alone is strangely disorienting, and, in the play and the book, the characters are confronted with the question, do we or don’t we attempt to make contact?

Solaris 5

A film has been made of Solaris, and I have not yet seen it. Film may be a more successful medium because it can be more versatile. The stage provides an excellent opportunity for conveying people confined in a space station — and this was portrayed with alarming reality. But the sea, which for me was central to the story — a constant, looming presence – could not be conveyed successfully on stage. The sea was shown by film, but the way it was done, between the many deftly executed scene changes, inevitably emphasised the psychology of the claustrophobic space station more than the powers of the manipulating and mysterious sea. Nevertheless, the central message of Solaris comes across: that humankind has ventured into other worlds without thoroughly examining its own.

Solaris 4

Never Look Away

 

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I recommend this movie — it is well worth the 3 + hours of viewing. On one level, it follows the life of an artist, Kurt – modeled on the German artist Gerhard Richter. But it is much more than a biography of someone who grew up in the terrifying circumstances of Germany during World War II, who was forced to study Social Realism in painting in East Germany, then escaped with his young wife to the freedom of West Germany in the early 1960s.

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As I viewed the film, at times I thought of Antonioni’s Blow Up – the kernel of the story is about intense observation. The film opens with 6 year-old Kurt attending an art exhibition with his young aunt, Elisabeth, whom he adores. She dares to divulge to him that she actually likes the Kandinsky that the gallery guard has been denigrating.  The intent way that young Kurt observes the world has been described as ‘like a camera with the shutter left open’.

Nver look away 3

On the surface Elisabeth is a fine example of what the Nazi party wants in youth – fair and good looking. But she is diagnosed, by party doctors, as insane. Kurt observes her being forced into a vehicle and whisked off to an asylum. Sterilization follows (so that no more people like that will be born) and then, with other ‘insane’ women, she is euthanased. The SS doctor who authorises this is Professor Carl Seeband (he insists on being addressed as ‘professor’).

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Kurt has always wanted to be an artist. After the war, he is painting road signs in East Germany, then he gets into an art school where everyone must paint according to socialist realism.

Never look away 1

We, the audience, ultimately come to realise that the girl Kurt falls in love with is the daughter of Professor Seeband, whose grossly inhuman attitude is underlined when he performs an abortion on his daughter – supposedly because she has become pregnant before marriage; Seeband doesn’t approve of the young man, he believes that if the couple are confronted with the distress of losing their child, the relationship will break up. The couple doesn’t break up. But much later (after they’ve married and escaped to Western Germany) the daughter is told that because of the way that abortion was performed she won’t be able to have children. Devastating for the couple. However, some time later, they do successfully have a child. Seeband and his wife have been advised to flee to the West. Money is no problem and we see slides of the luxurious holiday they have.

Never look away 4

Kurt seems to be gradually piecing together the truth that Seeband worked for the SS – particularly when there is news that Seeband’s previous leader has been arrested (this is announced by a newsboy and Seeband leaves a restaurant hurriedly, where he was lunching with his son-in-law, Kurt). Kurt takes up a style of painting (that was actually practised by Richter) based on photographs (particularly of Seeband and the SS). Kurt seems to confirm his significant discovery when he juxtaposes a photograph of Seeband with one of himself and his beloved young aunt. Seeband sees the painting, obviously recognises young Elisabeth, and leaves in a state of agitation.

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a painting by Gerhard Richter

Apparently artist Gerhard Richter doesn’t recognise the film (or the book on which it is based) as an accurate depiction of his life.

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a painting by Gerhard Richter

 

 

 

 

Up-coming Q & A on Lily Campbell’s Secret

People who live in Melbourne will be able to attend an event on Monday 12th August, 6.30 pm at Readings Bookshop, Acland Street, St Kilda. I will be ‘in conversation’ with Peter Craven, discussing the writing of Lily Campbell’s Secret. Members of my writing group, Elwood Writers elwoodwriters.com  will be there too, to give insights into the way members of a writing group can support each other.

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The Readings Carlton book launch

Elwood Writers meets together every second Tuesday and we have been doing this for over 10 years. Some keys to our success may be that the group is small: just four people — so there is always time to discuss everyone’s work. We work on somewhat different genres: short stories, memoir, poetry, and I focus on longer fiction. Our meetings run for about three hours with a formal agenda that also allows time for a bit of general chat. The formal agenda enables everyone to have some time devoted to their writing, which we usually circulate by email before the meeting. The agenda also ensures that we don’t overlook matters such as planning for events such as soirees or preparing material for our forthcoming anthology.

readings st kilda 2

The group was invaluable as a support for me while I was writing Lily Campbell’s Secret. Everyone was intimately acquainted with the characters, they knew the general story line. I could try out ideas, always knowing that the advice I received was well informed.

We will discuss some of these things on Monday 12th August — if you live in Melbourne, I do hope you will be able to come.

Readings st kilda

Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But The Mountains

It is terribly hard to write about this book. For years, along with many other Australians, I have been deeply ashamed of the government’s treatment of refugees. When I think of it, I am humiliated. But here I am, sitting at my comfortable desk, groaning along with the crowd who voted against Scott Morrison as Prime Minister — yet my life hasn’t changed radically. I won’t become homeless, stateless or incarcerated.

BOOCHANI 1

Behrouz Boochani, a professional journalist who fled oppression via Indonesia, wrote this book using a mobile phone and Whatsapp. It was mainly written after he was forcibly removed from Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre – Manus Prison – following a 23 day siege. He is still living on Manus Island and has no idea of his future.

Boochani was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. And I remember feeling personally embarrassed when a self-righteous aspiring writer wrote a letter to The Age complaining that the rules, which she had followed assiduously, had been broken, because Boochani is not an Australian citizen. Why not? Read the book.

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Indeed, the award may offer Boochani a degree of protection, as he says: ‘Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.’

BOOCHANI 2

The book is a beautiful piece of writing. It has been described as ‘anti-genre’. In one sense it is a piece of social reporting, yet it is also a poem that has grown from the Kurdish literary tradition. What courage — what persistence!

He graphically describes the horrific outcomes of the use in Manus Prison of a Kyriarchal system of social domination where the principle is to turn prisoners against each other. He also writes poetic descriptions — flowers, ‘gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breezes’.

We start off by experiencing, through his poetry, the truck ride to the boat in Indonesia: ‘we look up at a sky the colour of intense anxiety. Every so often someone slightly adjusts their position on the truck’s wooden floor to allow the blood to circulate through tired muscles’.

A terrifying boat trip. Inhumane and unexpected imprisonment on Christmas Island, and then a plane to Manus. Where there is ‘a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh’, and where  ‘the untreated sewage spilling out around the facility produces a smell … so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species.’

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I don’t suppose any of the government personnel who make decisions about immigration policy have read this book. Quite apart from being a beautiful piece of literature it is an important document and we must not blench from reading it.

Boochani’s work will continue to be revered in Australian literary circles. Indeed, his poem ‘The Black Kite’ is in a book, The Sky Falls Down, to be launched next Saturday 13th July at Readings bookstore, Glenferrie Road Hawthorn, 2.00 pm.

Book cover Sky Falls Down (1)

Brett Dean’s Hidden Agendas String Quartet

Book-ended by a refreshing Haydn string quartet  (opus 33 no 4) and a dramatic, 21st century interpretation of Beethoven’s late quartet in C-sharp minor (opus 131), the brilliant Doric Quartet performed last night a new work by Brett Dean for Musica Viva.

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The Doric Quartet, from England

Brett Dean is an outstanding, internationally recognised Australian composer. I have written before about the performance of his opera Hamlethttps://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1010 .

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Before the performance, Brett Dean came on stage and told us that he composed this piece in London just recently, during the present ‘democratic challenges’ posed by the Brexit situation in Britain. The piece was commissioned  through Musica Viva for the tenth anniverary of the Melbourne Recital Centre.

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Brett Dean at work

It is absolutely a piece of the moment. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time. The very idea of ‘Hidden Agendas’ evokes ‘aspects of the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities, Twitter outrage, groupthink and other challenges to the democratic process in which we seem to find ourselves as we enter the 2020s’ [Limelight Magazine].

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There are five movements. The first movement, entitled ‘Hubris’ conveys a false sense of confidence, an unease, that pervades the whole work. The music gives an expectation of change — but it doesn’t happen (reflecting, for me, very much Britain’s dealing with the European Community). By the second and third movements, ‘Response’ and ‘Retreat’, the musical lines become more fragmentary. After the third movement, before the fourth, titled ‘Self Censorship’, the players clean the resin off their strings and take up resin-free bows — resin helps the bow to grip the strings, so without it the sound is more tentative: whisperings and flutterings. Gradually, led by the ‘cello, the players start to play with resin again and embark on the fifth movement: ‘On-message’. Is it a kind of reconciliation? There is a sense of confidence, but it came across to me as a false confidence.

Doric 2

This work depicts our times: the bombardment of messages, fakeness, uncertainty. The work ends violently with finely wrought energetic aggression. I am sure that the work requires performers of the calibre of the Doric Quartet, who achieved magical contrasts in tone and dynamics with mind-blowing technical facility.

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