Mofo #1: Ensemble Offspring

BY THOMAS MISSON

 

Ensemble Offspring
Mofo
Nolan Gallery, Mona, 16 January

 

The Nolan Gallery played host to a large, unattended percussion set-up with scores perched on the stands dominated by pencil and highlighter markings, indicative of the serious challenge facing the players. After a short wait, Ensemble Offspring percussionists Claire Edwardes and Bree van Reyk emerged, approached one of the set-ups, blindfolded themselves and begun van Reyk’s own composition, ‘Duet with Blindfold’. A lively piece of slightly Reichian textural development, the performers quickly demonstrating a strong alliance as the textural detail amassed. In lieu of their vision, the ears were clearly working overtime as the piece ended with one of the widest and smoothest diminuendos I’ve ever heard, demonstrating the oft-forgotten dynamic capabilities of the percussion instruments.

Now vision-capable, the duo faced each other to begin Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’, arranged for two wood block sets. As is typical in Reich’s music, a steady, static rhythm opens while an increasingly complex series of counter rhythms ricochet off it. The pitch sets and rhythms in Reich are chosen with such precision and deliberateness that there is much counterpoint and secondary melody to be brought out. Edwardes and van Reyk had no trouble in achieving this with their wide range of articulation multiplying the amount of audible lines, constantly giving the listener more and defying the inherent, relentless repetition of the work and adding new timbrel dimensions to the instruments (machinery bleeping, synthesised undertones). Edwardes even managed to guide the listener structurally with her body language. In some sections, she was relaxed as if in a jam with a mate. At other times, she engaged in a more serious, full-bodied, physical commitment. The action fittingly stopped without any fuss, drama or unnecessary flair.

A change of pace followed with van Reyk’s two-parter, ‘A Series of Breaths’ for solo vibraphone. Various dead-strokes and using the end of the stick adding colour and variety to the misty sound-world of the first piece. Although semi-improvised in nature, the structure was taut and the expression and phrasing was clear and poetic. There were moments of much more accessible harmony (a la Philip Glass) made all the more novel and striking by the repertoire that surrounds it on the programme. The technique was the real wonder here, though; so natural and unmuscular in effort, which really suited the repertoire. The second piece was built on a hypnotic and calming repeated sixth ostinato with outer slow melodic lines surrounding it in higher or lower registers with meditative patience.

After the listener had gained back some headspace, Edwardes took most of it away as she locked horns with Xenakis’s ‘Rebonds A/B’ (played in reverse order) in a brave and commanding performance. The shape of each rhythmic figure being constantly knocked out of shape with spontaneous accents and it was impossible to guess what would follow. Some stylishly handled woodblock maintenance was incorporated into the piece as if routine, further cementing her authority over this notorious repertoire.

The second ‘Rebonds’ piece (A) began in a less frantic fashion but soon proved to be as much of a handful as B. Edwardes gave a well choreographed performance keeping every movement towards each drum proportional, natural and controlled and full of tension and drama in the less frantic moments.

The finale of the program was Ligeti’s ‘Continuum’ arranged for vibraphone and marimba with the blurred, shifting sound-mass style of the original harpsichord version perhaps not as successful in this instrumentation. Of course, the instruments themselves are at a loss when it comes to the requisite ‘shocking’ level of velocity, the original version benefiting from an instrument that can, from a capable enough technician, produce 15-16 notes per second. The performance still came across as a very impressive display of speed, physical and mental stamina, technique and bravery but the Ligeti needed an extra 10 per cent to enter the realm of unrelenting, mad, volcanic excitement and activity that much of his music is known for.

 

Image courtesy of Mofo 2016/ Mona.

%d bloggers like this: