Live Review: Greywing Ensemble

New works with political undertones



New works by various composers
Greywing Ensemble
WA Academy of Performing Arts, 1 March


There’s little to no repertoire for the harp, guitar and bass clarinet, the instrumentation that makes up the newly formed GreyWing Ensemble. There’s an asymmetry in this instrumentation that threatens to become idiosyncratic to the point of complete isolation from the new music canon. But what unites these three excellent performers, Catherine Ashley (harp/electric harp), Jameson Feakes (electric guitar) and Lindsay Vickery (clarinet/bass clarinet/laptop) is a strong enthusiasm to push the possibilities of new and experimental music. The members of GreyWing Ensemble have strong credentials, putting on some of the most envelope-pushing concerts in Perth’s recent memory, all exploring new music from a breadth of fresh perspectives.

Their afternoon concert at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, (*disclaimer* where all members including myself are affiliated), began with Lindsay Vickery’s small waves raised by the evening. It consisted of the instruments interpreting a field recording of bullfrogs and other nocturnal wildlife as a score. Feakes’ electric guitar and Vickery’s bass clarinet bobbed along to the bullfrog’s cadence with quite remarkable accuracy. Surprisingly, the piece felt blocky, sequentially working through a variety of textural interpretations of the recording. small waves was an excellent antidote to the pastoral and sentimental tendencies that permeate much new music working with field recordings.

Josten Myburgh’s Evelyn was the most stylistically surprising of the works performed. A solo electric guitar piece inspired by playful interactions with his toddler niece, it evokes with perfection the domesticity and comforting familiarity of such a scene. Like a combination of Morton Feldman and the softest of soft rock, it wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a veteran guitarist with no need to prove their chops, performing a live session for some daytime FM radio show. It’s nice. It’s not particularly challenging in the traditional musical sense, but sensitively calls into question the contexts of prevalent themes, and the tropes therein, within the concert hall space.

Vickery’s second piece in the program the semantics of redaction was a software mechanism that takes an audio recording relating to a recent news story, such as in an interview with a politician or a speech by an activist, analyses its spectral content and uses that data to generate a graphic score, performed at this concert by Ashley. Here, an audio recording of Rosalie Kunoth-Monk’s heartfelt defence of Aboriginal people’s irrefutable ties to country is emulated by the harp.

I’ve seen a few performances of this piece, and this was probably the least successful performance. Firstly, the harp was not particularly well matched to follow the contours of human voice, by virtue of the latter as an instrument that easily sustains notes. Secondly, and more importantly, interplaying the harp – a symbol of European transcendentalism and by extension Western colonialism – against Aboriginal heritage felt indelicate. Ashley should be commended, though, for her vigorous performance which saw her violently thrashing the instrument in ways I’d never seen before, which admonished any preconceived ideas that the harp is an ‘angelic’ or ‘sensitive’ instrument.

Cat Hope’s Marking Time might be mistaken at the outset as a meditation on some European philosophical tome, or the musings of a film auteur. However, Marking Time derives its name from a 2003 Australian TV series about the lives of recently-resettled Afghan refugees in a regional country town. ‘Small details become amplified’, Hope explains, through the severe limitation of each instrument to pitches of a distance barely more than a few hertz, and disturbingly slow glissandi between these poles. The harp manually detuned, the guitar was resonated patiently using an e-Bow, and the clarinet used a plunger somewhat awkwardly to bend the pitch. Notes began and ended with barely any ostentation—they merely happened, and it’s an effect that sucked the (com)passion out of the sound. As time was marked in this way, it was hard not to treat the work as programmatic, a political and psychological history of the violence Australia has perpetuated on asylum seekers and refugees. Silences felt like reprieves—inspiring thoughts that perhaps a change in leadership, a successful legal challenge, would yield a change in policy — yet before the silence barely registered, the glissandi began again, relentlessly, hopelessly, the shattering experiences of the hundreds of detained asylum seekers made audible.

Ashley performed a solo improvisation entitled Ukiyo on her prize instrument, the electric harp. It’s a commanding instrument, with a vaguely visual aesthetic like some concept Ibanez guitar. Armed with a KAOSS Pad, Whammy pedal, loop pedal and a cello bow, she created a slowly unfurling soundscape with an increasingly devastating trajectory. Her improvisation reminded me of Daniel Menche’s Marriage of Metals, an apocalyptic study of the processed gamelan, a remarkable and even emotional sound world where the rich heritage and harmonic content of the gamelan is treated with a piety that drives the visceral noise that Menche is well regarded for.

The processing in Ukiyo was a little raw, and I’d love to see her collaborate with someone with substantial experience with signal processing, be they a guitar pedal head or laptop artist. That said, Ashley showed the electric harp is indeed an instrument that transcends novelty, and it has an interesting future in her hands.

Snowden: Eyes in the Sky by Sam Gillies (*disclaimer* also a sometimes-CutCommon contributor) concluded the concert. It put the performers under surveillance, where their every gestures were tracked and spat out in a delirious spray of sound bites. The structure of the piece is derived from data generated through online activity like web browsing, but this seemed like a minor detail, because it certainly wasn’t obvious. That inability of the audience to conceive that structure, and just how much of our data pours out of us and into the servers of government or corporate entities, was what Gillies succeeds in pointing out. Snowden: Eyes in the Sky put the audience and performers in the passive state of being awestruck by its complexity, yet listening closely, you could hear the vague echoes of each instrument, jumbled but still resembling their source, still traceable.

In a sense, it’s a good thing that none of the pieces seemed specific to the distinct set of instruments that is the GreyWing Ensemble. The pieces here are mostly cut-throat commentaries on contemporary politics, and in communicating that intent, the instrumentation of GreyWing Ensemble matters less. What matters most is that three great musicians and thinkers, with an inclination to exceed not just their instruments but the traditional remit of new music as a political engagement, are doing a great job of pushing that agenda forward.


Image supplied.

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