The Resonant Bodies Festival is a fascinating approach to new music. Part of an ongoing project first launched in New York in 2013, these events are only loosely curated – each program takes its form and content from the composers and composer performers themselves. The performance on May 5th 2017 was our first Resonant Bodies Festival in Melbourne. The uniting feature of the works presented is that the expression of the human voice is explored in various ways, on a human scale – mostly natural, and with only occasional adornment by technology. Instrumental sounds too were largely acoustic, and at chamber levels of intimacy both in dynamics and textural ranges – just perfect for the intimate acoustic of the Salon.
The works performed included a world premiere of a new work by Elliott Gyger on a text by Peter Carey: A Church Made of Glass. The performers for this work were soprano Jane Sheldon, soprano Jessica Aszodi, mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae, pianist Jack Symonds, Clarinetist Aviva Endean, and percussionist Peter Neville. A highly depictive piece, nevertheless it was the depth of this piece’s formal structure that made the work the most satisfying of the evening for me personally.
Jason Eckhardt’s Dithyramb (from ‘Tongues’, 1971) was a solo work performed with assured intensity by Jane Sheldon. The work was said to be inspired by ecstatic outbursts of vocal sounds that have no actual meaning, A highly challenging piece for the performer’s technique, it seemed to deconstruct language – vowels from fricatives and aspirants, much actual expression throughout, but yielding a fascinating disorientation for our expectations of meaning.
Natasha Anderson’s More (Mehr) of 2015 was also a world premiere. A solo piece performed by Jessica Aszodi and based on a range of texts relating to female being, this was described as “an etude on the excesses of body, text, flesh and feeling under whose tangled net we labor to make meaning out of the meaningless”.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s well-known “Eight Songs for a Mad King” (1969) was performed with full dramatic as well as musical content by bass-baritone Matthew Thomas. This set was truly scarifying, as the performance was as strong a depiction of the action as might ever be expected in a straight drama, rather than provide the distancing effect that song can usually achieve. This was a bravura performance that was frighteningly believable. This was accompanied by a chamber orchestra (Symonds, Endean, Neville as above with the addition of Eric Lamb, Charlotte Jack and Elizabeth Welsh) dressed in costumes as part of George III’s nightmare hallucinations
After Interval, another world premiere, a solo work by Carolyn Connors Suite for voice and keyboard performed by the composer herself. Though only a single line of description was given in the program, this extensive piece for voice (with some manipulation) a drum and a tortured accordion was on rather a large scale of exposition. The audience was prepared for the journey, however, and it was followed by very lengthy applause.
A Solo Voice: New Found Land by Odeya Nini and performed by the composer played with the space and light and darkness in the room, Nini’s voice exploring an extraordinary range of techniques out of such a subtle beginning, against a scape of recorded sounds as she moved through the room. This piece gave a very satisfying sense of transition and journey.
The Festival ended with an audience involvement item designed by Pauline Oliveros based on the ‘sound bath’ exercises aural studies lecturers and choir leaders use to develop their ensembles’ skills. This was a most satisfactory way to bring this extraordinary evening to a conclusion, so that we were ready to re-join the world.
The program notes provided by the composers give the listener some starting points, but until each new piece has had a chance to reveal it’s ideas, and how these are organised – the order and relationships within are only understood through a kind of active listening. Perhaps this is the reason for the heightened sensitivity that we notice seems to come from attending new music concerts. It’s in the following of a plot by ear when we’ve no prior idea of how it will develop.
On a recent episode of Q&A, artists half jokingly suggested that those in our community who lack human empathy might perhaps be healed by attending artistic events. I suppose that if not listening is the chief characteristic of the bigoted, then perhaps engaging with new works might well teach us to listen, and develop a more open mind. During Resonant Bodies Lucy Dhegrae made a point of suggesting that we somehow become better people by ‘being there’ when new art is revealed. I’d like to suggest that it’s the active engagement rather than mere attendance that might show any such a potential.
Dhegrae has a point – there were such alive eyes and ears throughout the room. It was wonderful to be part of such a listening audience – there really was rapt attentive silence throughout so that every nuance of new sound might be savoured. That the room was full, with a wide range of age groups was also heartening.
In any case, I walked out feeling refreshed, and sensitised to the sounds and lights of Melbourne. I didn’t listen to the radio on the way home – I wanted to continue to turn some of those new musical ideas over in my head.