Review – In Honour of Earle Brown and Morton Feldman – Melba Hall, 7 May 2018

This was the second performance of this programme of graphic scores staged by Carmen Chan Schoenborn as part of her multi-faceted Do You See What I Hear? project. The first iteration took place at the Church of All Nations in June 2017. It had been a unique (for Melbourne) collaboration of graphic notation and contemporary dance; an obvious artistic success that demanded a repeat performance. This time it took place in the slightly different confines of Melba Hall, across the other side of Carlton in the Conservatorium, with the same compositions and similar personnel.

The concert opened with Schoenborn delivering another quality rendition of Feldman’s piece for solo percussionist, The King of Denmark (1964). The score calls for the percussionist to use only hands, fingers or arms (no sticks or mallets) to strike the percussion (Schoenborn used a variety of pitched percussion, bells and timpani), resulting in very quiet music. Schoenborn displayed her confidence as a percussionist along with her understanding of the score in resisting any urge to play any parts louder than was absolutely necessary. At times, you could feel the audience straining to hear some parts (as the building’s air-conditioning became apparent), but this feels to me very much in line with the composer’s intention. Like many of Feldman’s compositions, the music has not dated and retains a timeless quality that has the potential to take the listener to a meditative space; it’s not easy listening by any means, but it can put you in a state of mind where listening is primary.

The next piece, For E.B. & M.F. (2017), was a duo composed and performed by Schoenborn and Warren Burt (on smart phones and tablets, often approximating sounds similar to the vibraphone played by Schoenborn). This piece seemed more precise and focussed than when I first heard it last year; possibly the performers’ interpretation of the graphic score has evolved and/or been refined, but more likely it is the addition of two dancers in Tony Yap and Brendan O’Connor to the performance. Yap and O’Connor have a long history of working together, and each of their individual dance vocabularies seamlessly integrates with the other. Their presence seemed to focus the composition, grounding it somehow, unlike in the 2017 premiere where it had drifted at times, partly through a sameness of dynamics and timbre.

The programming of these first two pieces formed a logical development towards the third item; Earle Brown’s FOLIO (1952/3) and Four Systems (1954), where four more musicians joined Schoenborn and Burt along another three dancers (all associated with Yap). According to the informative programme notes, this collection of eight pieces consists of both traditional and graphic notation, some of which was originally composed for a choreography (now lost) by Carolyn, Brown’s first wife. Yap and his dancers have a created a new choreographic structure that is integral to music, and a pleasure to experience. The set of works began with a profound statement on piano by Michael Kieren Harvey (the only new addition to the ensemble from the 2017 concert; returning alongside Schoenborn and Burt were Miranda Hill on double bass, David Brown on electric guitar, and Gelareh Pour on kamancheh), before the rest of the musicians provide sparse, largely un-ornamented phrases at irregular intervals. The effect is a spartan, dry approach that could create an initial impression of severe mid-twentieth century asceticism that, unlike the Feldman, has perhaps not aged well. However, this is not the case. These opening parts presented the basic materials which would come into play throughout the following works.

The structure of this collection of Brown’s pieces appeared to alternate between solo piano interludes and episodes with the full ensemble, where each player contributes short, relatively simple gestures that overlap each other at different points. The ensemble’s instrumental palate is far from traditional, especially with Pour’s kamancheh (a stringed Persian instrument) and Burt’s electronics. The combination of these instruments alongside piano and double bass, etc, can sound a little jarring at times, but Schoenborn has shown in the past that she has little time for tradition for its own sake. The eclectic instrumentation of the ensemble possibly has something to do with the freshness of how these compositions sounded, adding elements of diversity to what could be austere music, and instead bringing a new dimension to the openness of the graphic notation.

Earle Brown (photo by Takashi Takiguchi)
Photo by Takashi Takiguchi


It was when the dancers took the stage (three new performers at first in Rodrigo Calderon, Kathleen Gonzalez and Takashi Takiguchi, later joined by Yap and O’Connor) that Brown’s work suddenly came to life. A canvas materialised in this listener’s mind of elements entering and leaving the tableau throughout, creating long-form rhythms. The key to this staging of the work is that the dancers follow a similar structure to Brown’s music; of entering and leaving the space. Each dancer performed individually, with no interaction, and working to a spatial structure mapped out on the stage floor in white tape. This mapping of the stage area had the practical effect of ensuring minimal collisions between entering and exiting dancers, but it also had the character of a graphic score in itself. In fact (as shown in the photo above), the form of the stage markings are not dissimilar to Brown’s graphic score. The 2017 performance of this programme took place on the hall floor, on the same level as the audience was seated, where the schema used by the dancers was clear to all. The lack of a stage at this earlier performance meant the dancers sat amongst the audience between entries and exits, which had emphasised the impression of elements entering and leaving the composition. I’m sure the performers were much happier to have a traditional stage in Melba Hall on this occasion, but the subsequent hiding of the choreographic schema along with dancers waiting at stage left and right in between entries, lessened this symmetry with the music a little.

This event was, however, a rare reimagining of these landmark works of twentieth century new music that deserves a wider audience. It would fit perfectly in a new music or contemporary arts festival programme, where a new performance setting could further explore the intersection of bodies and sound.

Clinton Green

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