Review: Putting an ear to art

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SCIENCE, art and music came together with trees, bugs and birds and even a cameo by Marion and Walter Griffin in “Earth”, a most interesting and enjoyable concert by The Griffyn Ensemble that stretched from Scandinavia to the US and Australia.

An illustration by Annika Romeyn
An illustration by Annika Romeyn
It was not a concert of comfortable, well-known tunes, in which the audience could just settle back and drift off into a safe state of musical bliss.  Indeed, we were asked to move around, look at pictures and engage in active imagination.

And much of the program featured some quite ethereal, almost tuneless music in the post-20th century avant-garde idiom.  Even music of Cold Chisel was included.  But all of it was highly contextual and, best of all, stimulating.

On entry, we were handed a beautiful program booklet, featuring artworks by Annika Romeyn, strongly themed to the music.  (The originals were on display in the adjacent exhibition room.)  Ensemble director, Michael Sollis, forbade us advancing through the book ahead of the music, rather we were to view the artworks while listening to the associated music to see if we could “hear the art through the music”.

On our adventure we experienced “Fall” by Finnish composer, Kaija Saaiaho and “Modell 2” by Swedish composer Henrik Strindberg.  And, yes, we could “hear the art”.

Then there was a series of songs, collectively called “Der Andreasgarten” (“The Garden of San Andreas”) by German-born American composer Ursula Mamlock.  The work, comprising nine short songs, was very much in that ethereal style, but superbly sung by soprano, Susan Ellis.  The hidden threat of San Andreas was softened by the garden; trees, spiders, roses and even a hummingbird, a dragonfly and a dove.

“Plastmusikk”, by Swedish composer Fredrik Högberg, was as rhythmically and harmonically disjointed as the bugs it was emulating and featured strange sounds coming from somewhere unknown.  As soloist, clarinettist Matthew O’Keefe, mid-audience, brought the sounds firmly to earth and took the audience on a lively ride as we followed the bugs this way and that.

Then it was back to Australia with “Caterpillar”, by Martin Wesley Smith.  The Griffyns created a lumbering, munching, leafy interpretation bringing the accompanying picture very much to life.

The second half of the program, performed in a different space in the Discovery Centre, began with a song by Michael Sollis.  “Song of Trees” was composed for the opening of the National Arboretum, with all of the words naming the many species planted there.  All seven of the ensemble members sang this very rhythmic, multi-layered harmonised song unaccompanied and with a clarity of enunciation that many choral ensembles would envy.

Finishing the program was another Sollis composition, “City of Trees”, commissioned for a series of audio plays.  There was narration and dialogue introducing each movement and, with the accompanying artworks, the audience was taken on an historical journey beginning with the Griffin’s view over the Limestone Plains from the top of Mt Ainslie.

Audiences never know quite what to expect from a Griffyn Ensemble concert.  Indeed, at the start of the concert, Sollis remarked that the Griffyn Ensemble “tries to do things a bit differently”.  With “Earth”, the Ensemble very much achieved that goal.

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  1. […] The second concert was themed Earth, focusing on Trees and celebrating National Science Week). It took place in the CSIRO Discovery Centre’s atrium, where we were surrounded by trees, and displays and models from nature. It was mid-August and therefore winter in Canberra. Just as well we brought our winter woollies as the Griffyns took us on a musical and physical journey, upstairs and downstairs in this atmospheric, open-plan-glass-walled building. The concert was accompanied by a stylish booklet designed by local artist Annika Romeyn (whose illustrations were on display at the concert). That concert was some time ago now – or at least, I have done much since then including a 2-month overseas trip – so the memory has dimmed. It was, however, a typically eclectic Griffyn concert, as Annika Romeyn describes on her blog. It started with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho‘s lovely, wistful piece “Fall” which, to me, had at times a rather Japanese sound. It featured the harp (Meriel Owen). And it ended with Michael Sollis’ composition, “City of Trees”, which was commissioned by Robyn Archer for our Centenary. In between were pieces like Martin Wesley-Smith‘s now well-known and fun “Caterpillar”; German-American composer Ursula Mamlock’s “Der Andreasgarten” featuring critters like dragonflies and hummingbirds; an arrangement of Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees”; and, dear to my heart, Michael Sollis’ “Song of Trees”. It was composed for the opening of the National Arboretum and comprises an extensive list of tree names starting, of course, with gums. It was sung with aplomb by the Ensemble. You can read Clinton White’s review of this concert at CityNews. […]

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