Hourglass: The Silence of Thousands

Hourglass Ensemble presents new music

BY SAMUEL COTTELL

 

The musicians of Sydney’s Hourglass Ensemble have been performing together for more than a year, during which time they’ve premiered new Australian works, collaborated with artists, and performed in Poland.

Now, they return to the iconic Utzon Room at Sydney Opera House to present a unique program of works featuring American minimalist composer Michael Torke, as well new works by artistic director and clarinettist Andrew Kennedy. We caught up with Andrew Kennedy before he travelled to New Zealand to report on netball (but that’s a story for another day).

 

Andrew, great to chat again. Hourglass Ensemble has been going about a year now. How have you found it’s progressed and developed, and what are some of the proudest moments you have experienced so far?

For me as artistic director, it’s always the surprises that I remember best. There’s so much work going on day to day; lots of planning, deadlines, and decidedly non-artistic things, so the reminders of the audience appreciation, our recognition in media, and the high quality performances are the greatest parts. So these moments include the two standing ovations we had at the Chopin Hall in Duszniki, Poland, and at the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House, showing how much enthusiasm and emotion was in the room; being featured in the ‘Spectrum’ section of the Sydney Morning Herald; premiering and recording amazing music by Marge Smith and Andrew Ball and other Australians; demonstrating the possibilities of unusual combinations in chamber music; and growing into our own skin in terms of curating programs, getting to know our audience, and just the sheer fun of all the exchanges of opinion and jokes during rehearsals!

You recently did a tour overseas – how did it go for you?

Ewa Kowalski, our brilliant flautist, was born in Poland, and she moved to Sydney in 2004. Through her connections and hard work, we constructed a tour through southwestern Poland in April this year. Hourglass has a mission to champion Australian music, and as such we played the European premieres of works by Carl Vine, Andrew Ball, Colin Brumby, myself, and Michal Rosiak who is Polish and now an Australian citizen. We collaborated with the piano and harp professors of the Wroclaw Academy of Music, where we were special international guest recitalists, and performed at some amazing venues like the Frederick Chopin Hall. It’s so brilliant to have the keen and educated European audiences, who are thirsty for new music, and of course to meet and exchange pieces with locals. Next year we’ll meet the same two guest Polish musicians and tour Poland, Austria and Germany.  

One of the most exciting aspects to your concerts is that there are always world premieres – and we’ve heard some great music so far. In this concert, your latest piece The Silence of Thousands is about someone falling overboard on a cruise ship. Could you tell us a bit more about this piece and what inspired this? 

Sure! The Silence of Thousands recounts a story I heard at a barbecue from a cruise liner entertainer. Coincidentally, a similar story has hit the news recently. About 10 years ago, an elderly man deliberately jumped off a ship, and the captain turned the boat around then shut off the engines, asking people to be quiet and help find the passenger. I was shocked and inspired by what it might feel like to be standing there with 2,000 other people, all intensely silent and experiencing a communal emotion. A lot of the biggest shared emotions in life are loud, like the crowd at a football match, or singing and dancing at a wedding – this one was totally silent. So, my new piece is a song cycle based on that narrative. The style is like my other music, in exploring surreal and metaphysical ideas, it wanders between bright minimalism, heavy powerful dance and folk music, polytonal cacophony as suits the screaming of seabirds and engines, and songs, this time in the style of a lullaby, and a sea-shanty. It’s a great challenge for the singer, Jenny Duck-Chong, because I often treat the voice like an ensemble instrument rather than soloist.

You also have another piece on the program, Parent’s Wedding Blessing. Could you tell us a bit about this work?

In complete contrast, Parent’s Wedding Blessing has been described as ‘ear candy’!  Well, it’s certainly supposed to be as delicious as wedding cake… I wrote it as a gift for my best friend when she was hitched in the Scottish highlands in February. Me, as bridesmate, was to play clarinet, and her other best friend was a bridesmaid and soprano. The text is from Scottish-Australian poet William Tainsh. It’s written from the perspective of the parents, and talks of the hushed excitement before, the unhinged dancing at the reception, and the nostalgia as the children go out on their own. I was also motivated to make a new Australian wedding song, because apparently the only one available is the fantastic Love Me Sweet by Carl Vine. I wrote it to be playable on a variety of instruments, singable by almost all voice types, and easy enough to learn for amateurs, to be played as a gift to their friends.

You’ve composed quite a few works in the last year which have received premieres by Hourglass Ensemble. Tell us a bit about how you got into composing and how would you describe your compositional ‘voice’ or ‘sound’?

I’ve always had an instinct to chase all the possibilities of music. Originally my brother and I wrote songs using our flute and clarinet, literally in the park as we travelled around Australia in a caravan aged 12 and 10. I couldn’t help but play, sing, write, listen to music. My wise classroom music teacher back in 1991 showed me a composing competition for Shakespearean plays, and I won the state final with music for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, mezzo-soprano, and piano. You can see I was always using this kind of palette in my works! I was accepted for composition to Queensland Conservatorium but studied clarinet and physics instead.

The essential reason I write now is that I want all the performers to finish the concert on stage together, and usually no pieces exist for our configuration! Hourglass chooses an ensemble based on the cameraderie of the people, rather than the available repertoire. I have two main ‘sounds’ in composing – one is frankly modernist and involves minimalism, riffs, and often a sadly beautiful tone contrasted with vigour and anger. The other one is very sweet and nostalgic, and can involve reworking of familiar music just to give a warm feeling to the audience – like when I quoted I Will Survive in Poema de la Despedida, or mashed up Time To Say Goodbye and Bolero with Pachelbel’s Canon and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I’ve also done a theme and variations on each of Bound for Botany Bay and The Wild Colonial Boy. I believe there has to be a time for brooding and depth, and a time for fun and beauty. I also believe in music that the audience can grasp and enjoy on the first listening.

Margaret Tesch-Muller’s Voices of a Northern Year is also receiving its premiere in this concert. How would you describe this work and how did this composition come about?

Margaret is a friend of mine from Brisbane who generally writes choral music or art song, and as such her approach to the song cycle is strongly based in the melody and text, rather than texture and harmony – that’s totally the other way around in my music. When she was in Scotland in winter she was stunned by the beauty (and the cold) of the snow, the feeling of the air, and the palpable history and pride. She’s used New Zealander Katharine Mansfield’s words to impart the changes in energy throughout the year. The first piece, about winter, is bleak, slow, not highly contrasted, and has no dulcet flute tones. Moving through spring to summer, there’s imitation of insect sounds and a messy vibrant texture. Movements three and four ride on the fun of sunshine and heat mid-year. I think the cycle echoes the evolution of a relationship or a life, when the optimism turns to complex fragmented brooding in the last movement, There Is A Solemn Wind Tonight, with sparse semi-tonal piano and voice alone.

A work I’m also interested in knowing more about is Michael Torke’s The Telephone Book – this was composed when Torke was still a student at Yale and it was later revised. It’s quite a fun piece, full of great musical ideas. When did you first discover this work and how did you react to it?

My clarinet professor mentioned it to me about five years ago and I loved it so much I bought the sheet music immediately, without having an idea when I would get to play it! It is written brilliantly, in such a way that the performers simply must move their bodies and communicate with each other fastidiously, sometimes pushed right to the edge of playability, and that is always carried across as infectious passion to the audience. Torke is one of the biggest current American composers, with a bit of a reputation for scarily difficult works – in this one, it’s the way he suddenly and subtly moves the rhythm and beat emphasis that can make everything fall apart in the space of a quaver! All three movements are just so groovy; it’s minimalism with a totally jazz palette, so much spunk, so much cheekiness and life. Every time someone hears it, they are amazed by how cool it is! I’m chuffed that I have brought this new work to my group, they all love playing it.

Finally, talks us through your programming choices and how you go about selecting the music for these concerts. What can audiences expect from you at the next event?

The vital part of Hourglass is that we play with people we admire, who have a unique and irresistible personality on stage, who are expert and experienced, and have a great sense of humour. After all, we spend so many hours together, we’d better enjoy them! From there, we put together a changing lineup that always mixes families of instruments and voices, and that starts the ball rolling on repertoire. I will find a major chamber work or two – in this concert it’s the Brahms Clarinet Trio, and Torke’s Telephone Book. Then we will commission two or more pieces from Australian composers, with an emphasis on song cycles and some music that could be played by students rather than always-virtuosic pieces.

Next I have to think about workload for the performers, and variety for the audience – for example, in this concert every piece has piano and the parts are extremely tough, so we have two pianists, Jo Allan as a guest, and our regular keyboardist, Gregory Kinda. Using fewer people can provide breaks, and that also makes it more stimulating and dramatic for the listeners. Thus, I’ll ask the members to think about a solo piece that could fit with the theme, which this time around is the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Carl Vine. And finally we’ll make sure the concert is balanced, with peaks of excitement and noise, plus periods of beauty and relaxation, to help the audience on its journey through the event. I have to make sure each half of the gig opens and closes well, and that might suggest a new arrangement or composition for the start or end of the show.

The audience is part of the three-way dialogue – composer, performer, listener – and we always orientate our guests with specific musical knowledge, anecdotes, and pointers on how to enjoy or understand the pieces. It’s our role to be like a guide at an art gallery, shining light on the key aspects to maximise appreciation, and we do that not only through our playing and interaction with each other, but by bringing the audience into the performance. We certainly aren’t a group who wears all black and maintains any kind of stiff formal separation between the crowd and us! And we have been told time and again that this is the experience the audience wants.

 

 

See the Hourglass Ensemble present The Silence of Thousands this November 12 in the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House.


Image supplied.

 

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