Live review: Blair Harris @ Melbourne Warehouse Music Festival

Lewis Ingham reviews



Blair Harris: All That is Dust…
Melbourne Warehouse Music Festival

Schoolhouse Studios, Collingwood, November 4

What’d you miss?

  • Electric (and acoustic) cello in a warehouse
  • Ghostly murmurs and extended techniques
  • Death knocking on an iron roof


As Blair Harris explains the implications of life and death existing within the cello works he is about to perform, I can hear an infrequent tapping on the corrugated iron roof high above the audience. We’re in the Collingwood warehouse that is Schoolhouse Studios. The strong southerly wind blowing through Melbourne is no doubt responsible for this tapping, but I can’t help but think that ‘death is knocking’ after learning of the themes behind the cellist’s program. This unintentional environmental noise, relating so naturally to Harris’ concert themes, is only the beginning of a virtuosic display of solo cello repertoire as part of the inaugural Melbourne Warehouse Music Festival.

I’m not the first person to marvel at the elegance of Kaija Saariaho’s extended techniques in Sept Papillons (2000), but I am hardly expecting Harris to perform this piece on an electric cello. I’ve only known Sept Papillons to be realised with an acoustic cello, however, experiencing classical music in a warehouse is the perfect context to throw out all preconceived expectations about a composition. Harris’ choice to use the electric cello proves to be an inspired one, with the intricacies and delicacies of the numerous extended techniques receiving beautiful amplification across the seven miniatures.

My initial fear that the overpressure bowing technique in Papillon IV would be overwhelming with an electric cello is unfounded, as Harris navigates the dynamic spectrum of the work with great authority. The left hand pizzicato in this same miniature also obtains a lovely punchiness at the command of Harris and his amplified instrument. It is at the beginning of Papillon VI, though, where the electric cello really offers a new dimension to Saariaho’s composition. The light string tapping occurring at the beginning of this part is nearly inaudible on most recordings of the work, however, the electric cello gives this tapping greater prominence and presence, really evoking the sense of butterfly wings flittering – papillons, of course, translating to butterflies.

Karen Tanaka’s The Song of Songs (1996) has Harris swapping for the acoustic cello, this time performing with an electronics track. A warble of drones and bells in the electronics track form a bedrock for Harris to let Tanaka’s expressive melodies sing, the melodies bringing a strong contrast to Saariaho’s phrases laden with extended techniques. Although not as texturally or virtuosically engaging as Sept Papillons, Tanaka’s composition still contains striking moments; the cello melody suddenly appearing as a ghostly murmur in the electronics track, and shimmering cymbals and gongs rising with an intense ascending cello phrase.

The third and final composition in the program, Benjamin Britten’s Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87 (1971), doesn’t utilise any electronics, providing contrast from the opening two pieces and offering a lovely progression in the use of electronics across the overall program. Harris’ performance of this piece is entirely captivating, capturing the emotion of the piece within a display of technical proficiency. Even the cellist’s audible inhalations and exhalations seem to serve a function, notably adding an additional texture around the solemn passages of the fifth movement where strummed triple stops are combined with sharp melodic phrases.

In a broader appreciation, Harris’ noticeable breathing can be seen as a symbol of life, beautifully juxtaposing the Kontakion theme (Russian Orthodox Hymn for the Dead) at the conclusion of Britten’s cello suite – I swear that the ongoing knock of death on the warehouse roof is at its loudest at this point, too. In a less symbolic appreciation, Harris’ breathing is just one of the many characteristics of a cellist who is in complete control. Harris’ phrasing throughout the Third Suite for Cello carries both a purposefulness and a consideration for the unique space in which the piece is performed; a sense for silence allowing the stirring set of variations to appropriately resound within the harsher acoustic environment of Schoolhouse Studios.

All That is Dust… showed thoughtfulness in the themes conveyed by the individual pieces, the use of electric cello and electronics, and the contrast between the three compositions. However, the main treat for the audience was to experience Blair Harris’ prowess as an interpreter of 20th and 21st Century cello compositions.

Images supplied.

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