BY RACHEL BRUERVILLE
When thinking about chamber music, the combination of recorder and percussion may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But that hasn’t stopped recorder player Alicia Crossley and percussionist Joshua Hill from collaborating as new ensemble Duo Blockstix. They describe themselves as “a unique and vibrant Australian ensemble”, and this description is certainly embodied in their upcoming debut album.
The duo is fiercely committed to the performance and promotion of new Australian music; so much so that its new self-titled album contains 100 per cent new Australian work.
The composers of these new works are Daniel Rojas, Paul Cutlan, Julian Day, Mark Oliveiro, Tim Hansen, Damian Barbeler and Peter McNamara. To launch this recording, Duo Blockstix will perform the new works live in concert in Sydney and Canberra this month.
We’ve been in conversation with performers Alicia and Joshua, as well as composers Daniel, Mark, and Paul, to find out how this album came to be, and the creative process involved in putting it all together. Here is what they have to say about this exciting new project.
How did you become involved in the new Duo Blockstix project?
Alicia and Joshua: We first performed together in 2011 for a recording of Tristan Coelho’s As the Dust Settles, featured on Addicted to Bass [Alicia’s first album]. We greatly enjoyed working together and realised we both have a shared love of new music, and quickly saw the musical potential of a recorder and percussion duo.
Daniel: I’ve been a fan of Alicia’s work for some time now. We first exchanged glances and then laughs and finally some musical ideas. So when she asked if I’d be interested in composing a piece for her and Josh, I could not resist, despite being so busy!
Paul: I think it’s incredibly valuable in the music scene to have individuals like Alicia, who have the initiative, vision and courage to start a new project from scratch. In this case, it included curating new repertoire to be composed, organising the whole CD production process, as well as the concerts to launch the group. I had already written a piece for her to perform at the Aurora New Music Festival in 2014. Although originally scored for the unlikely instrumentation of bass recorder, cello and didgeridoo, Alicia approached me about adapting it in some way for recorder and percussion for this project. The richness in timbre of the marimba is an ideal match for the woodiness of the bass recorder. It has inspired a fairly comprehensive reimagining of the piece.
Mark: I was originally a colleague of Alicia’s from our time studying at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. However, I now have a long history of collaboration with Alicia which has blossomed into a genuine friendship. Alicia is great at throwing a bone to her mates!
Tell us about the commissioning, rehearsing, and recording process for these new works.
A&J: Our debut album has been two years in the making and the aim was to showcase the versatility and sonic potential of our ensemble. To achieve this, we engaged a range of composers who have differing composition styles to create an eclectic collection of works. With the exception of Daniel Rojas, we have worked with each of the composers as solo artists, but not as Duo Blockstix.
Collaborating with each composer is quite different; some have one initial workshop to get an idea of how the instruments sound, and then we wont see them again until they have a final draft of the score. Others have continuously changing compositional ideas which are explored through regular workshops. Once all the compositions are complete, we spend a few weeks rehearsing before a final workshop with each composer to fine-tune any issues.
Preparing for a recording session is slightly different than preparing for a performance, particularly regarding the performance energy. For a performance, you want to have a high energy level to make the best impression on your audience, but a recording session needs sustained energy over many hours. A single recording session can be as long as eight hours, which is both physically and mentally exhausting, so we take care when scheduling our recording time and try not to get caught up in finicky details which are virtually inaudible to a listener.
D: This is the first time I have composed for the recorder/percussion duo combination. I’ve written a marimba concerto as well as a Mirimba for Claire Edwardes’ CD Flash: Marimba Miniatures. However, despite having had a failed love affair with the recorder in my very early musical education, I’ve had very little interaction with this fascinating and mellifluous instrument.
This one’s for you, composers – tell us a bit about your creative process in relation to your new work.
P: I have a lovely tenor recorder on loan from the Sydney Theatre Company, which I had played in a production a few years ago. My composition for the bass instrument is largely a result of my improvising on this tenor, exploring its timbre and imagining that sounding down a fifth. I love the folky potential of the recorder and found myself mimicking sounds of Indian or Irish flutes. Some of the multiphonics on the low recorders are beautifully rich and quite consonant. Alicia’s virtuosity on the instrument also allowed me to write florid, improvisational passages.
When it came to adapting the original for recorder and marimba, the main challenge was to combine the rhythmic drone of the didgeridoo and the harmony and melody of the cello into one part. Suffice to say, Josh has his work cut out for him! I had fun finding different ways for the marimba to combine rhythmic groove, static drone and melodic counterpoint to the recorder. Thanks to Josh’s sensitive musicianship, these different facets are always in balance.
D: I approached this work motivically. The melodic and rhythmic, and perhaps even harmonic material, is born from the opening gesture. I just allowed it to grow organically from this point, without forcing it or inhibiting its development. Naturally, there are Latin American elements that found themselves at home in this piece.
M: I am obsessed with the influence of ritual embedded in our musical traditions. Auto Dafe is connected to two different rites, firstly the late-medieval European practice of ritual burning for the purification, from which the title is sourced; and the ceremonial Kompang drumming traditions that were adopted/appropriated by Islamic convertees in the Malayan peninsula, at the same period in history. The creative process of Auto Dafe is three-pronged: 1) the combination traditional Malaysian drumming rhythms, with modes and scales from a confluence of other Asiatic traditions, 2) an exploration of the wooden timbres that harken back to the non-musical ritual of ceremonial burning, and 3) an exercise in capturing the dance-like or war-like energy of non-Christian or Latin religious traditions.
As this album is a collection of all newly commissioned Australian works, would you say there is anything distinctly ‘Australian’ about your new work?
P: I’m not conscious of anything intentionally Australian about this work, but its original version employing didgeridoo perhaps gives it a certain flavour, even in its current incarnation. My feeling about music in Australia is that there is a sense of freedom or permission to explore different styles and cultural approaches to art. This comes in part from Australia’s multicultural fabric and also from our relative youth as a nation. Although we can be as connected as we wish to the rest of the world, I think we still give ourselves permission to be somehow ‘distant’ or ‘observers’. Perhaps there is less of the pressure of precedent in Australian music, compared to Europe, for example.
D: Paradoxically, as with my other works, despite possessing clear Latin American influences, I really don’t think I would have written this piece had I not grown up an Antipodean. There is something about the experience of migration, assimilation and synthesis associated with our wonderful country that has had a profound impact on my thinking and creative leanings.
M: The concatenation of European and South East Asian performing traditions is, in its own way, a path towards a distinct Australian identity. This method of assuming the rites of near geographical neighbours is common in the Australian canon of 20th/21st Century music, though in this instance more than just the sounding aesthetic is assumed. As a homage to my own cultural inheritance, a melding of Singaporean/Eurasian and Anglo-Saxon parentage, Auto Dafe combines the rhythms, modes and dynamic energy of two culturally unique performance rites, and re-examines such a diversity in musical materials by way of highlighting the salient similarities between the traditions, to form an eccentric cultural synthesis. Simply put, if ‘Australian’ sounds as a confusion of European traditions, possessing a formerly South Asian structure, then Auto Dafe is exactly that.
And performers, does the album have any particular theme, aside from new Australian music for recorder and percussion duo? What sort of guidelines did you give the composers before commencing work on these new pieces?
A&J: When we decided to embark on this recording project, we did not have a specific theme in mind, but we did want to explore the textural and timbrel qualities of our instrumental combination. While we didn’t have specific composing guidelines for the composers, we did want the works to be [able to be toured], so whatever instrumentation they chose to employ, the setup couldn’t be too complicated or involve technical electronic interfaces.
What do you enjoy most about playing new Australian music?
A&J: We are passionate supporters of Australian music and particularly enjoy the collaborative side of commissioning new works. It is wonderful to be part of the creative process, workshopping ideas, exploring new soundscapes, and there is a strong sense of camaraderie and support between everyone involved.
What is next for Duo Blockstix?
A&J: Duo Blockstix is looking forward to touring these new works over the next year and continuing to collaborate with Australian composers. We are also aiming to do a road trip through the Northern Territory, visiting remote schools for workshops and concerts.
Images supplied. Credit: Emily French.
*This story has been updated on 6/6/17