This post is truly hard to write. It feels that as my fingers touch these keys that I am living again in the final hours of the festival. The final hours of sound which brought the festival to a spectacular close. These past two weeks have ripped through in a relentless whirlwind of activity and I have found these moments of reflection through writing to grant me a sense of pause and breath. I now sit on the plane completing this entry, it is my third attempt and I hope I will be able to express the depth of my feelings towards the last two weeks which were the Nief-Norf Summer Festival.
2018 x 11 = a taste of the new
I shall start a few days back, at the Composer’s Concert. This concert was a showcase of the composition fellow’s new works performed by the performance fellows. Never have I seen a program which lists the same year which we are living in as the composition date for each composition. All were composed this year and that was just so incredibly refreshing. Almost so new you could still see the steam rising. Each work had its own compositional style, none exuded or were the offspring of another composer’s idiomatic style. I thought this was quite a remarkable thing. I played in a composition titled Arithmetic by Jonathan Newmark for voice, flutes (flute and piccolo), violoncello and percussion. This piece was written to be fun and was quite the whimsical work set to a text by Carl Sandburg. This piece certainly had its own particular challenges. Apart from being one of the more ‘tonal’ works I played during the festival this piece also held some challenging ‘licks’ and passages that required particular attention to the cleanliness of articulation and technique (which is of course important across all works). The composing fellows would always be at every concert, listening to the various works we were performing. During my time at the festival I had the privilege to speak with each of them about their compositional practice and language. I was particularly intrigued by one of the composers, Varun Rangaswamy who had undergone a metamorphosis in compositional identity. In the composition presentation he gave us an insight into how his style had evolved through a reflection on his cultural identity as well as the current political situation in America regarding immigration and foreigners. I have always felt that new music has a crucial perspective in regards to current political, environmental and social situations in the world, as a vehicle for reflection and as a medium to translate its chaos. It is undeniable that every work written bears the weight of the present, of the composer’s internal thoughts and the noise and activity of the external world. For this very reason, I believe that composers who reflect upon their own compositional language and trajectory will have a clearer image of what they want to sonically depict in future compositions. However, this thought does not always reign supreme. Experimentation is an integral part of the compositional process and for many emerging composers this practice is a crucial aspect of developing a compositional identity. During the festival I worked with one of the fellows, Sebastian Zel from whom I requested an electro-acoustic piece for alto flute. We set aside a time where I could show him some techniques characteristic of the alto flute and see how electronics could manipulate these ideas. Some of the most surprising sounds were key clicks and jet whistles. The harmonic richness of the alto in the higher registers also was translated in a unique way by the patches he was using. It certainly was such a intriguing interaction between the interplay of the alto flute and real-time manipulation. I also invited many of the of the composers to send me their flute pieces when they wrote one. This will also tie into a commissioning project from flute and percussion and in future flute/violoncello/percussion which is my dream ensemble configuration. I received a surprise email from Christopher Adler, the Head of Composition at Nief-Norf, with a wonderful solo flute work as well as a duo for alto flute and violoncello both commissioned and to be recorded by Lisa Cella. I am excited to see what works will come my way from the connections and friends I made at the festival. But for now I have so many projects of my own which I shall bring back with me to Brisbane.
Have a look at some of the highlights from Concert 10.
Hyper from Varèse’s Hyperprism to New York’s Hypercube
The 11th concert of the festival was not only special as it was our evening to rest before the colossal marathon concert to come but was a concert featuring guest ensemble Hypercube from New York. The ensemble has a signature instrumentation of saxophones, guitars, percussion and pianos. The pieces they played apart from Hout (1991) by Louis Andriessen were either written for or revised for the instrumentation of the ensemble. I have this guilty pleasure for the sound of a well-played accordion you see. Andrea Lodge played the piano-accordion (as well as the piano) and it added this wonderful visual and sonic depth to Sam Pluta‘s American Toyko Daydream IV (Data Structures/Monoliths). After that piece it was announced that they solidify then tilt by (2018) Nicholas Deyoe had to be taken off the program as in the throws of passionate performance the accordion had been injured. The other pieces on the program included Liminal Bridges (2016) by Philip Schuessler and Mastodon Rises (2017) by Christopher Adler. It was a wonderful smorgasbord of music exploring the timbral interactions between the instruments of the ensemble. I was most captured by the ensemble synchronicity and dynamic. They had that telepathic way of communication of an ensemble which has been working together for some time. I think part of this observation came from a craving to have a deeper connection with my ensembles during the festival. Of course, my connection towards musicians I have worked with numerous times becomes strengthened each time we re-engage musically with one another. I noticed in some groups this was better than others, for example Unlit Cigarettes, Pangkur, Terrestre, Mouthpiece 28 held more ensemble glue than some of the other ensembles I worked with. Part of this can certainly be attributet to having minimal rehearsal time, often only with three days to put together a work.
Naturally, ensemble communication comes from experience. The experience of working in a chamber setting and professional performance. Its both a quantative and qualitative experience. One may have the fortunate opportunity for their first chamber music immersion to be with a group of seasoned chamber musicians. I see a salient point in my musical future, where once having played, performed and engaged in myriad chamber configurations I will come face-to-face with a collision. And from this collision I know I will feel the ground beneath as bedrock, a place where the people around me will exude an intricate, telepathic electricity moving from their fingertips, breath, gesture to the synapses of my understanding. I have felt this synergy before, but in ensembles where time seems evanescent. However, one of my upcoming chamber projects this year involves making this desire a reality, incarnate and establishing it as a robust concept.
Have a look at some of the highlights from Concert 11.
counting by hours, closing in songs
Concert twelve– the final concert, they even call it a marathon.
I ran towards the Natalie L. Haslam Music Centre to catch the beginning of what I knew would be seven hours of intense and gripping music-making. As I slowly opened the doors I was immersed by George Lewis’ Calder which was performed in the echo chamber of the foyer, the sounds of trombones, percussion and piano bouncing off the tiled floors and walls. I was set to play two pieces in the line-up of over 20 works– Christopher Burns‘ Injunctions (2013) and Jordan Munson‘s Heartless Fools: Union + Awaken (2018). Despite the enormous length of the program I listened to a majority of the pieces, only sitting out the works immediately before mine.
There were a few pieces which completely had me entranced with all my senses locked in deep fixation. I begin with Daniel Fawcett‘s Radiant Cry II (2018), composed for soprano and electronics, and I honestly am led to believe, infused with some sort of magic. Katherine Ambrester, soprano and a very dear friend whom I had the lucky privilege of living with during the festival, was the soloist in this piece. Bathed in a blue light emerged whispered words, spoken articulations to sung thoughts. From her body, her fingers and hands were enveloped in gloves with cables travelling from fingertips to a device made only in a few hours of the night. There was a feeling of pause and beautiful ascension. Amongst the many wonderful works, I was particularly excited hear Rain by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and 2.5 Nighmares, for Jessie by Natacha Diels. I was enchanted and so very drawn towards Jessie Marino’s Rot Blau (2009) which is for two identical performers, modified gloves, lights, cups and mouth lamps. This was such a quirky piece performed by Alex Richard and Hannah Dick each wearing a blue and red wig. The piece was so full of character and I really would love to try this with my duo partner Joyce in one of our upcoming concerts. I was eager to hear the work by Tomas La Porta titled Haikus sin palabras (2018) which had been chosen from the Call For Scores. This young composer wrote beautifully for flute, piano and percussion with lines which gave space and room for stillness. I had the opportunity to speak with him after about his work and musical ambitions. He said he had to return to Argentina the next day for school. I spoke further with him on social media and he informed me that he had completed his piano quintet on the plane and was working on a piece for soprano and orchestra inspired on the Mystery of the macabre by György Ligeti as well as his second piano concerto. I am excited to hear many more of his pieces and hopefully even play one of his works in the near future. I also was quite eager to hear the work of Weijun Chen, another composition fellow who I was fortunate to meet at the festival. His work, Three Early Songs (2018) was initially intended to be performed in the Composer’s Concert but was moved to the final concert, and fit perfectly into the program. It was beautifully scored for soprano and piano with a peaceful and intimately warm presence.
As I looked down the list of the program which we seemed to be moving through quite rapidly I spotted a work by Matthew Burtner, a composer who had recently featured in my university essay on Ecoacousticology. His work Cloudprints (2008-2012) was featured in the marathon program. This work is primarily scored and contains a section with images of cloud shapes and formations. The piece has a beautiful and leisurely sense of movement and I found it incredibly refreshing to listen to.
Throughout the festival I’ve been exposed to the honest, conceptual and almost extraterrestrial work of Carolyn Chen. Every time her name was on the program I would be so excited to hear/see/feel what would occur in the recital hall. For the marathon concert her piece Drown (2011/2018) was performed by the wonderful soprano, Alexandra Porter. It’s a piece which involves singing of course, then singing into a fish tank with a hydrophone which receives sounds outside and inside of the glass. If that wasn’t enough, then a camera was also placed looking at the tank to capture the image Alexandra plunging her face and singing into the water and well as the faces she was making on the other side of the tank. This was projected in real-time on a screen above the stage. Carolyn is full of wonderful and whacky ideas in all sorts of unpredictable places of the quotidian and using objects and combinations of things you wouldn’t quite expect. And…. she has a flute piece which I certainly will be playing sometime in the near future! It was such a joy to be able to meet Carolyn and discover her works and witness absolute fun unravelling.
I now move to the works that I was performing in. Injuctions is a work by Christopher Burns for five or more improvisers and involves a series of ‘injunctions’ given by hand cues. For example, one thumb is ‘no pattern’, vulcan salute is ‘no quarter’ and an open palm is ‘no development’ amongst several other gestures. It seemed only fitting to have performed a Burns work for the first concert I played in and now to be ending with another Burns in the closing concert. Unlike Unlit Cigarettes I found this work so incredibly challenging to engage in as a performer and improviser. There were several times when we would run the piece where I would just feel an urge to sit out, to not contribute as there was an incredible amount of activity happening already and any further contribution would muffle what was already unravelling, perhaps creating a cacophony. I think my difficulty with this piece may have been attributed to the large number of people involved. There were around fifteen improvisers involved all with strong and wonderful ideas and because of this I felt there was minimal space for silence or even a solo, duet or small ensemble interaction. I think I often take for granted the courtesy and practice of listening that I have experienced with working regularly with a small group of improvisers in Brisbane. It almost seemed that everyone played for the entire fifteen minutes of stage time we had during the marathon. But the part of the performance which struck me like a big face palm was when a fellow improviser introduced ‘the lick‘ to the performance. Now, I haven’t got any prejudice against this Jazz cliche, I just felt that it’s introduction seemed alien from the improvisational realm we were weaving. Once it was introduced the realm unravelled into a world of quotations. Improvising with musicians I have never worked with previously has its own challenges as I have mostly identified. However it also presents its own charms, offering fresh ideas and sonic perspectives which may not have arisen if not given the chance and space to improvise together. It is truly rare that I come out of an improvisation feeling unsettled but the version of Injunctions that we performed certainly made me feel this way. Perhaps I could have steered it in the direction I would have preferred through the given hand gestures but in some ways the performers had each taken to their own anarchical ideas and it seemed an unshakable trajectory. I won’t forsake myself of the knowledge that I had fun. I had fun playing my flute, piano, percussion and engaging in the chaotic scenes which unravelled on stage. There was this wonderful moment of interplay between spoken/sprechstimme statements, chewing gum and a rhythmic ostinato. I always find with all improvisations that I am able to remember some truly wonderful moments which even after the close present me with a feeling of satisfaction. Our version of Injuctions made the audience laugh and smile as the chaos, stories and humour which transpired on-stage. I think that despite my own discomforts, that the work was a perfect piece in the lengthy program to perk the audience up.
Do you ever have one of those nights where you put your weary body to bed at a decent hour of the night? Well, I certainly indulged in one of those nights, perhaps when I shouldn’t have. I initially thought I was only going to be performing Injunctions in the marathon concert and had slowly unwinded since having performed Terrestre. The morning after my early slumber, I checked my messages to see if there were any updates or changes. It was 9:50am and I had missed a 9am rehearsal which was only established at 11:30pm the night before for a piece which had been added to the marathon program. Of course due to the late nature of the addition my absence was excused but I am always strict with myself with rehearsal attendance and early arrival as you never know if the person who is hiring you is very particular. Anyhow, I was overjoyed to be involved in Jordan Munson’s Heartless Fools: Union + Awaken a work for flute, bass clarinet, trombone, electric guitar, piano and electronics. I know I have previously expressed my love of working with living composers and how Nief-Norf truly made an effort to invite composers to the performance of their pieces and have composers workshop their pieces, and this was another opportunity to do so. Jordan had been present throughout the whole festival as the Technology faculty, predominantly making sure everything would run smoothly from performance to performance. It was very exciting to hear and be involved on one of his works. The piece revolved around F-sharp Phrygian and would rise and fall in a sort of drunken climb again and again then fall to short melodies and eventually dissipate. Jordan made use of lights which would respond to sound and the intensity of sound, so if I played a forte-fortissimo B7 the light would be at its brightest whilst the light would be duller if I played much softer and lower. We were bathed in a blue light and as our sounds intensified flashes of the bulbs would greet us. It was truly a spectacular and beautiful work to be part of and I am so very thankful I had the opportunity to perform with such incredible musicians. It was certainly a spectacular way to close the festival.
…no fall of a curtain but only applause and goodbyes to know it was over…
So here I am, I’ve attempted to write this post a fair few times and now I’m completing it. It’s been hard trying to put this festival into words when I often run to music to express what words cannot.
Two weeks, twelve concerts, and thousands of memories. Ok, this totally is not a weeping moment. I’ve already done that. But in all honesty Nief-Norf Summer Festival made me experience an infinite amount of thoughts, sounds, sights, ideas and emotions. I’ve met many incredibly prolific and passionate musicians who also are hooked on this world of whacky and weird noises and want to celebrate and create much more. I was given the opportunity to play pieces that may not have been so easy to facilitate in Brisbane. And I now I have the confidence that I can tackle ALL repertoire no matter how gnarly it appears. Coming from classical performance, contemporary music often is a sort of secret identity I engage with outside of my studies. At Nief-Norf I felt completely welcomed into the outstretched arms of the festival and through the pieces I played, the people I met and the things I experienced I was invigorated and in many ways rejuvenated. It was hard work but I honestly would do it all again. The people I met gave me names of other festivals and intensives which I am so excited to look into for next year. I also have many couches to sleep on and homes which have open their doors to me as part of the new friendships that have been born. So, of course, this will make the United States much more accessible to me in future. These friends are indeed musical colleagues which I see myself working and collaborating with in the near future. To the entire Nief-Norf family (especially Andrew Bliss, Eric Retterer and Abby Fisher) I thank you for the noisy and incredible time that was the Nief-Norf Summer Festival. See you and hear you soon!
P.S Nief-norf friends please keep me updated with your musical movements and beyond!
If you’re a fellow lover of noise and want to hear more or have any questions about the Nief-Norf Summer Festival please don’t hesitate to contact me using my contact form.