Live review: Soundstream Collective

New music live in Adelaide



Either Or
Soundstream Collective

Works by Cat Hope, Leah Blankendaal, Erkki Veltheim, Gerald Barry
Elder Hall, 9 August


What’d you miss?

  • Living composers playing their own works
  • A tech mix-up on stage that sounded great
  • Silent Bach translated into electronics


On the morning of August 9, Soundstream posted on Facebook:

Soundstream regrets to announce that Allison Bell has had to withdraw from tonight’s performance in Elder Hall at 7pm as she has contracted a bad cold with bronchitis…With her blessing the concert will still proceed…

Despite having to make this difficult decision at the last minute, by the evening Soundstream still managed to present a refined and balanced concert of exciting new music in Elder Hall. As Soundstream artistic director and pianist Gabriella Smart stated in her program notes, we certainly did experience a program that had us on the edge of our seats.

Before the music began, Smart gave an introduction: she confirmed the changes to the program, and expressed Allison Bell’s disappointment in having to make the decision to withdraw from this much-anticipated performance. The severity of Bell’s illness was that she had been advised by doctors not to sing or talk at all for the next two weeks!

The concert opened with Cat Hope’s Stella Degradation, a former Soundstream commission newly reworked as a viola and cello duet. As cellist Ewan Bramble and violist Erkki Veltheim made their entrance, the stage lights faded to a soft blue. The blue lights from the ceiling, combined with the gentle glow from the light of the iPad on their music stand, provided an appropriately eerie atmosphere. Stella Degradation was inspired by a sketch made by Iannis Xenakis for his 1956-66 piece Terrerektorh, which was displayed in the program. This made it possible to directly observe the relationship between the music and sketch in front of me: the sharp contrasts in the music of busy, bustling textures with sparse and soft string harmonic effects (expertly played by Bramble and Veltheim), compared with the contrasting motifs in Xenakis’ sketch. It would be intriguing to directly compare Cat Hope’s graphic notation with the original sketch.

Composer Cat Hope

Adelaide-based composer Leah Blankendaal’s new Soundstream Emerging Composers Forum Commission was up next: we were met by ordinary devotion featured clarinettist Mitch Berick’s wonderfully expressive playing, with Blankendaal operating live electronics. My first thought about the electronics was that they provided a very gentle accompaniment of soft, background static. It turned out, however, that the laptop was not actually plugged in properly! Smart had to sensitively  come on stage to stop Berick’s playing after a few minutes – much to the audience’s disappointment, as it was indeed flowing beautifully – and called the sound technician up to fix the problem. This was right decision to make, and was handled very calmly and professionally. Berick began again with the haunting opening phrase, and the presence of Blankendaal’s electronics suddenly made much more sense. It was a beautiful, symbiotic duet between the electronic and the acoustic, and made for a very powerful performance.

Composer Leah Blankendaal captured by Claire Blankendaal

Closing the unaltered first half of the concert was the Australian premiere of Erkki Veltheim’s The Continuity Hypothesis. Veltheim introduced the work to us as a piece of absurdist theatre; an experience in listening, rather than piece of music. The three acoustic instruments – bass flute, bass clarinet, and cello – were acting in the roles of babies trying to learn a language. This acoustic texture was combined with an electronic “machine” sonic background, as well as an electronic keyboard on which Bach was played, but not heard. These silently played excerpts of The Well-Tempered Clavier were then translated to live electronic sounds by a patch of Veltheim’s own creation. The stamina and skill of all players involved in this extended, static work was to be admired.

After the interval, I was very much interested to observe how the newly programmed second half would fill the void of the missing one-woman opera. The next piece, Turing Test, was also composed and performed by Veltheim. He describes the piece as “an interdependent dialogue between an abstract structure (an automated electronic part) and spontaneous live performance (live improvised viola)”. It began very theatrically, with much emotional and rushed bow movement, but contrastingly, not much sound at this point. Once the electronics kicked in, the textures grew thicker, and the sound itself more dramatic.

Veltheim is clearly an extremely passionate and skilled performer. However, I couldn’t quite get past my observation that the electronic texture was reminiscent of the sounds of the old dial-up internet connecting. I have a personal taste for music with more obvious structure.

Curating the program with a simple and sensitive solo piano waltz following Veltheim’s more harsh and experimental improvisation worked nicely. Elena Kats Chernin’s Silent Piano was commissioned recently by Smart as a part of her PhD research project investigating the legacy of pianos in colonial Australia. This particular work was inspired by the story of a piano carried on the back of a camel, all the way from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. Smart followed on with a final solo piano work: For Cornelius by Alvin Curran. This was an incredibly powerfully performed expression of grief; the piece was written following the death of Curran’s good friend and colleague, Cornelius Cardew.

Gabriella Smart and the Soundstream Collective are to be applauded for their support of living composers. The appreciation of this important work shone through with spontaneous applause for Smart as she came off stage into the auditorium. This concert showcased a great variety of work, and the organisers and performers handled the last-minute changes to the program with utmost professionalism. High quality new music collectives like Soundstream allow us to open up to new ways of listening, and to new definitions of music.

Find out more about this event on the Soundstream website.


Images supplied. Featured image: Leah Blankendaal credit Darren Smith.

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