Nothing mechanical about ‘Machines’ music

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Violinist Dan Russell performs in “Intricate machines”. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / “Intricate Machines”, The Phoenix Collective. At the Larry Sitsky Room, ANU, February 21. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

INSPIRATION for music comes from every known source on earth, even the motion of machines have stirred composers as we found out in “Intricate Machines” by The Phoenix Collective.

In a concert “inspired by mechanics, wheels, cogs, precision, construction and repetition”, as the program said, the evening began with JS Bach, his “Contrapunctus 1-3” from “The Art of the Fugue”. Dressed all in black, in the Phoenix Collective were Dan Russell, violin; Yuhki Mayne, violin; Ella Brinch, viola and Andy Wilson, cello.

Phoenix delivered the Bach with wonderful synchronicity and a few special touches that were added to make the sound fit the theme of the concert, which was a metallic scraping on several instruments.

Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” for string quartet and pre-recorded performance tape, by the Kronos Quartet is an inventive, captivating and complex work that goes for 27 minutes almost nonstop. Over the three connected movements, the audience is taken on a journey from before to after World War II. We hear the voices of people talking about their war experiences combined with the lush and mesmerising music of Reich. The concentration of the players through this demanding work was stoic.

After the interval, Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres”, which was arranged by Russell included a cello drone recorded and performed by Tristen Parr from Perth WA. This is a piece that almost defies description. Inventive, curious and ethereal, which it is, only describes its effect. It’s a standalone piece that is almost unearthly. It does not have a home or central place where it sits, yet it feels emotionally connected to the human experience. Phoenix made it sound supernatural.

Sarah Wallin Huff is an American composer, violinist/violist, instructor, and author of the science-fiction saga “The Kesher Chronicles”. Her work “Anima Mechanicae – Soul of the Machine”, which was an Australian premiere, had a touch of the old and the new. The baroque was clearly heard and minimalism and futurism. That was quite a feat for a work composed in 2007. This fascinating and unconventional work was dedicated to the computers and robots of the future. Who, as Huff says, “long to dream as the humans do”.

Russell described the String Quartet No.12 Op.96, “American” by Dvořák as the meat and three veg of the concert. I hardly thought that the other pieces were just appetisers, but this work has so much in it, it does feel like a full meal. 

The variations, power and folk tunes of the first movement; the longing in the second and the liveliness and gaiety of the third was a sheer delight. The final movement brought it all together in a flourish of colour, jumping rhythms and dynamic playing.

The Phoenix Collective has brought a new voice to Canberra. Its vibrant concert programming and enthusiastic and engaging performances are not to be missed. In fact, you have a second chance of hearing them again in Canberra at the Wesley Music Centre, Forrest, 3pm, Sunday, February 23. 


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