New Music Studio: Of Birds and Monuments

How exciting it is now for composers who used COVID lockdown time to collaborate with musicians who planned commissions, dreams and schemes and ideas that grew into the reality of performances this year. What began with pianist Coady Green’s ongoing collaborations and recordings with colleague and composer Professor Linda Kouvaras, has developed into a multi-faceted artistic performance, an inspiring event given its premier performance in the splendid auditorium at the Ian Potter Southbank Centre.

The seeds were sown with the initial commission by Green for Piano Sonata No 1. Responding to Green’s interest in the nature and spirit of “elusive or unknown” locations in the city of Melbourne’s daily life, including indigenous landmarks, Kouvaras suggested the little known Herring Island for inspiration – an environmental place for waterbirds, a small escape from the nearby city, restored to tranquillity and used today as a natural and artistic environment.

And so the Herring Island Piano Sonata developed, with recorded sound and narration completing the first of tonight’s three works in Green’s project.

In all pieces, the powerful message affecting us through music and words was the reality of our modern destruction of the environment, with the loss of history and bird-life being tonight’s central focus. In the beautiful acoustic of Hanson Dyer Hall we were taken out into the bush, immersed in the continual vibrant and colourful conversations of Australian birds in Roger Alsop’s resonant and life-like sound recordings. Short musical “movements” dramatically and colourfully wove a complementary aura between seven texts written by N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs, tonight read by the warm and congenial presenter Yorta Yorta man Tiriki Onus. The readings were engaging, like warm conversations, truth and memories, descriptions and gentle facts.

For the opening Ngargee Tree, Green’s piano captured our attention with strong, dark and assertive chords and vibrant 21st Century harmonies. With clear political statements, Waterways gave us the customary sounds and colours of trills, rising arpeggiated patterns, sparkling flowing scale patterns and movement. In Heartbeat the repetition of a gentle single pitch underpinned higher repeated patterns. In the reading for Tanderrum (a coming together), we were reminded of the Aboriginal ceremony for sharing of gifts, water, eucalyptus leaves and resources, and the history of Melbourne. It also paid tribute to a sculpture with this name, (by indigenous artist Ellen Jose) on Herring Island’s Environmental Sculpture Park. Always Coady Green’s playing showed balanced power, assertiveness and great sensitivity in imitative effervescent sounds of nature and softer bird-like trills and flutters, timed perfectly with pre-recorded soundscapes, although in the second work the Grey Ghost was determined to defy gentle pitch as it expressed its discord with threats of extinction.

Pianist Jane Hammond joined Green at the piano for this interesting piano duet – Grey Ghost (2017), a work by New Zealand/Australian composer Miriama Young that has been described as a meditation in piano and electronics, drawing on the ancient song-calls of the beautiful long-legged Grey Ghost. Her pre-recorded track was derived from recordings of North Island Kokako birdsong and her own recordings of New Zealand birds. Many people thought the bird was extinct in the South Island, but a related species found in the North has given conservationists much hope. The haunting, bell-like calls enveloped us in this strong work. Percussive, dramatic and edgy, a fragmented piano score contrasted against a timeless continuum of amplified birdsong, this was thought-provoking and attention-grabbing music.

Following interval, the third segment of the project added colourful dimensions to this program, with Green’s musical partner from Duo Eclettico, saxophonist Justin Kenealy, coming to the stage, and adding intense colour and feeling to composer Jane Hammond’s Songs of The Helmeted Honeyeater for soprano sax, film (an arresting documentary by extraordinary wildlife photographer Angus Hamilton) and narrator Tiriku Onus. Stunning photography took us to the very heart of the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve just 45 km east of Melbourne, where rare and threatened species of eucalyptus and swamp vegetation are now being actively protected. Carefully spaced narrations of texts, written by Theresa Borg, were educational and direct messages. Superb close-up photography of the distinctive colourful endangered helmeted honeyeater, now existing only in the wild in small numbers at Yellingbo, penetrated our senses and our consciences. From the piano we felt the movement of birds and streams in clusters, trills, fluttering textures, spontaneous animation and musical imitation. Green and Kenealy are highly in tune in their partnership, with perfectly balanced expression and effectiveness. With stronger assertive textures, we felt the strength of the bush, the flow of life in water and tall forests, and silences forced us to take notice. There were beautiful musical conversations between instruments as honeyeaters played in the streams, patterns were reflective in design, and empathetic instrumental solos and intertwining contrapuntal phrases enhanced a very intelligently structured and refreshing score.

A plaintiff solo sax was heard in a final still photo of a broken branch, and how strongly we felt the place where the bird vanished as, in silence, the camera frames slowly moved high through the trees.

Photo supplied.

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Julie McErlain reviewed “Of Birds and Monuments”, presented by New Music Studio at the Hanson Dyer Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music on August 26, 2022.




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