Review: Sounds of Asia – western style

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Violinist Shaun Lee Chen
“Inspired by Gamelan”

National Library of Australia, May 12.

Reviewed by Ian McLean

THE National Library of Australia holds the largest collection of music manuscripts in the country, so it was fitting that the one concert of the 2012 Canberra International Music Festival to be presented in the excellent venue should feature three Australian composers who have works housed within its confines. 

Indonesian gamelan (a Javanese word meaning to strike predominantly percussion instruments of varied pitch) was the inspiration for the intriguing concert.

It is said that Peter Sculthorpe would not have discovered the “sound of Australia” without having first delved into the “sound of Asia” and his Tabuk Tabuhan (all kinds of gamelan music) is reflective of that heritage. While finding the work somewhat difficult to understand on first hearing, I was fascinated by the rhythmic bass complemented excellently by wind quintet overlay.

Originally a meditative work for solo piano the Michael Askill arranged Anne Boyd Angklung was similarly hard to initially comprehend, even though it was easy to appreciate its repetitive rhythms being delicately and dynamically controlled by the DRUMatiX percussion ensemble.

This group was joined by outstanding violinist Shaun Lee Chen for the Australian premiere of Lou Harrison’s “Suite for Violin and American Gamelon” and what a fine pairing this turned out to be. Violin both soared above and hovered below the often driving percussion during this diverse seven-movement suite, which drew origins from as far apart as medieval Europe and northern India.

However, for me the most fascinating contribution of the evening was Richard Meale’s “Palimpsest.” A pretty melody developed over a simple repetitive chord and suddenly parallels with the overpowering emotional quality of John William’s “Schindler’s List” were evident. Touches of complex Bernstein-like rhythm presented an image of the hustle and bustle of Asia then, in a tranquil final section, winds in their upper register completed a moving musical picture.

Meale died impoverished and lonely just a few years ago. His personal story is of pain and sadness and his music is sinfully not sufficiently known nor performed. His treasures lie within the NLA. A film maker needs to discover those riches and broadcast them to the world.

Jonathan Griffiths and Adam Copoer-Stanbury of DRUMatiX with the "American gamelan."

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