BY MYLES OAKEY, 2016 CUTCOMMON YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR
‘How is this going to work?’
That was my first thought.
Three is a trio that pulls together the most unique and fascinating instrumentation I’ve come across: trumpet, trombone, and classical guitar. The guitar, for instance, is a soft, delicate, intimate thing. In an ensemble it has to fight – to be heard, that is. Its sound dies. But its attack is momentarily alive. Vivid. Brass, on the other hand, is steady, valorous, bold and boisterous. Or so its reputation goes.
But ignore my initial inklings – it works.
Midnight Songs is an intriguingly beautiful record. And it’s not only something fresh to our ears; it’s something fresh to our classical music culture. Music intended for us and now.
There’s a valuable ethos that drives and binds ensemble Three members Joel Brennan, Don Immel, and Ken Murray. The trio, also Melbourne Conservatorium colleagues, established the project to commission and perform works that resonate with contemporary audiences, while contributing to the their instrument’s chamber repertoire base.
Midnight Songs continues Three’s longstanding project with an album that speaks to those who aren’t concerned with the confines of genre. The Australian compositions employ a variety of contemporary harmonic language, electronic soundscapes and minimalist delay, and subject matters that are of our time.
So, how does it sound?
It’s never as often as I’d like that I sit down and listen to an album in its entirety. But what a great opportunity to make use of my handmade, hammertone green, floorstanding Moratori speakers. No one ever understands us audiophiles. Regardless, they’re a real sight; and their horn bass design puts the brass in your living room – the neighbours love it. I’m enveloped in a soundstage of unique textures and timbres; and on my first listen, lost. It’s eerie. The sparse textures, rhythmic repetition, digital delay and imitation resemble and evoke the environment of night, and the mood of static introspection that night can induce.
Before long, I have no expectation of where these works will lead. Australian composers Andrew Batterham, Christian O’Brien, Katy Abbott, and Ken Murray allow their eclectic listening and performance experiences to penetrate their works. An open mind comes in handy.
Opening Midnight Songs, O’Brien’s track PIT_T addresses suicide as the highest killer of men under 44. PIT_T contains three distinct sections that explore physical activity as a means of suicide prevention. The opening minimalist section ends into silence before repetitive contrapuntal lines are introduced over a rhythmic pattern of guitar harmonics. The brief final coda suddenly increases in tempo, driven by a pre-recorded stomp track, before ending abruptly. There’s no sense of assurance. You experience each section as the music commands.
Batterman’s Organica functions rhythmically and harmonically as its title suggests: developing from its initial material. It combines classical guitar with delay, an effect imitated in the writing for brass. In Organica, the trio frequently shifts and contrasts stylistic voices: the brass spontaneously enters with be-bop lines that end in sustained growls, while the guitar is at home in idiomatic tremolo, rasgueado, and improvisatory melodic lines.
In contrast to the rhythmic intensity and physicality of the opening works, Abbott’s four-movement Midnight Songs explores the unique timbres and textures that emerge through the interaction between these unlikely instruments. The meditative, expansive, and delicately beautiful sounds allow you to appreciate the sensitivity and musicality in the performances of both flugelhorn player Joel Brennan and trombonist Don Immel. The crescendo entries and legato lines of the brass and the naturally instantaneous attack of Ken Murray’s classical guitar are performed with impressive accuracy, creating the effect of an enveloping texture rather than individual roles.
Finally, Murray rounds off the album by tipping his hat to Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa in his own composition Torque, quoting and appropriating Brazilian rhythmic patterns in an exhilarating and dynamic piece.
Ensemble Three is a valuable contributor to – and an inspiring example of – forward-thinking classical music culture in Australia. The ensemble brings together contemporary composers and audiences, and original instrumentation for a sonic experience that is introspective, intriguing, and refreshingly relevant. You should know about it. And you owe it a listen.