Review / ‘Thought-provoking and evocative’ new music

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Ensemble Offspring. L to R, Nightingale, Edwardes, Noble. Photo: Keith Saunders

“Songbirds” (ABC Music) by Ensemble Offspring. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

A NEW recording by Ensemble Offspring is a timely reminder of the innovative brand of music Canberra audiences would have heard if the 2020 Canberra International Music Festival had gone ahead live.

For centuries, composers the world over have been emulating birdcalls. Beethoven had cuckoos in his sixth symphony. Prokofiev had birds in “Peter & the Wolf”. One of Vaughan Williams’ most celebrated works is “The Lark Ascending”. Handel had nightingales in his oratorio, “Solomon”.

One of the members of Ensemble Offspring even sports a bird in her name – flautist Lamorna Nightingale. She, along with clarinettist Jason Noble, and vibraphonist Claire Edwardes, have created a stunning new album with, as the title suggests, bird songs as the central theme.

But it’s not your garden variety aviary soundalikes. This music, while inspired by birdcalls, has them soaring to new heights of interpretation, light and life.

The listener does not have to wait long to be right up there soaring with those sounds. The very first tune, “Lorikeet Corroboree”, written for the Ensemble in 2015 by Australian composer, Fiona Loader, has a flock on the wing, flitting, diving and swerving in and out and calling to and answering each other between the flute and clarinet, to a happy rhythm on the vibes, then coming to a peaceful rest, only to fly off again in flights of colourful fancy.

This album is graced with 11 compositions by nine Australian composers. Five of them are women, and all nine have created music of wonderful imagination, brought to life by this exceptional ensemble.

Not all the works are for trio ensemble. There are solos for each of the three instruments, along with duets and trios.

There even are some works with additional elements. Hollis Taylor and Jon Rose’s “Owen Springs Reserve” (2014, 2015) for vibraphone, includes a field recording, made early on a winter’s morning, west of Alice Springs. Here, the improvised birdcalls are mimicked and answered by improvised vibes. The result is completely natural.

But it’s not all about birds. Jane Stanley’s “Desert Rose”, the first of four movements from the suite, “Four Desert Flowers” (2010), for flute and vibraphone, is inspired by the Sturt Desert Rose. If you’ve travelled to the outback, this music and its evocative playing takes you right back there. The loneliness, the starkness, the shimmering heat, the sometimes scary beauty is caught superbly in this music and its performance.

Another work, written for Jason Noble by Felicity Wilcox – “People of This Place” (2016) – is for bass clarinet and is inspired by her sense of shared space. Consulting with D’harawal man Gawain Bodkin-Andrews, the piece begins with a very convincing didgeridoo sound, which recurs through the piece, and evolves into a series of sounds that have the mind imagining people, animals, places and even specifics of those elements. Noble pulls some extraordinary sounds from his instrument that keep the listeners listening – active and ever moving.

Wearing good-quality Sennheiser HD600 headphones truly brings another piece to life – Tristan Coelho’s “Daybreak” (2018), for flute and live electronics – the sounds go round and round, sometimes floating above and at others flashing from side to side. It is a wonderful stereophonic experience. Beginning in a kind of pre-dawn the quiet, ethereal sound of the flute, given plenty of reverb, is supported by live electronic interpretations and enhancements of the flute. After slowly evolving into the sunlit busy-ness of dawn, the chatter of birds and animals follows in excited anticipation of what the day will bring.

There’s plenty more besides in the more than one hour of music on Ensemble Offspring’s “Songbirds”. Nicely presented, with extensive notes and bios, there’s plenty to help the imagination paint vivid, colourful mind’s eye pictures to illustrate the stories in the music.  Recording quality is, as would be expected from the ABC, excellent.

“Songbirds” is an album of splendid, thought-provoking and evocative new music, released on the ABC Music label.

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