Each year, the Metropolis New Music Festival promises a variety of daring and unique performances that are sure to challenge, move, and inspire. Rubiks Collective, a young chamber ensemble whose members are fast becoming local champions of insightful and creative programming, proved they are a force to be reckoned with by hosting the Australian-premiere of Gemma Peacocke’s 50-minute song cycle, “Waves + Lines”, at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon.
“Waves + Lines” is an enormously sensitive and topical work inspired by Eliza Griswold’s book, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan. Each of the eight songs within the work is based on a “Landay” an oral tradition of poetry unique to the women of Afghanistan, comprising of a single rhyming couplet. These poems elicit the full spectrum of emotion, from the intensity of war, to the sadness of unrequited love. The word “Landay” is Pashto for “short, poisonous snake”, and like a short, biting Landay, each song in the piece is a pithy representation of a couplet from Griswold’s book.
Before the work commenced, Tamara Kohler, the co-producer and flautist in Rubiks, warmly welcomed the audience and explained the close friendship between the ensemble and the New Zealand-born, United States-based Gemma Peacocke, who had flown into Australia to watch the second premiere of her work. The moderately filled audience immediately got the impression that both the performers and the composer considered this an immensely important performance.
The first song, titled Bees, opened with the percussionist, Kaylie Melville, creating a buzzing sound by spinning a piece of wood on a string above her head near the middle of the stage. Her indomitable and capturing presence was followed by the introduction of a breathy and raw voice, almost wailing, sometimes the words difficult to discern. Restless and tribal drums then sat behind the voice, with the rest of the sound filled in with chords on the piano, a grounding double bass, and electronic sounds, which were often hissing or percussive.
A screen displaying projections by Felicia King was positioned above and behind the four performers, and in the first movement; they depicted an abstract moving white shape on a black backdrop. Her projections throughout the work always complemented the musical activity, but were never distracting. When the song finished was when the true emotional weight of the music was realised; the text (the Landay) was revealed to the audience on the screen in white typeset on a black background. For this first movement, it read:
Your eyes aren’t eyes; they’re bees,
I can find no cure for their sting.
Each of the eight movements followed this structure: the song was performed, and as the sound dissipated, the potent and often emotional couplets were shown to the audience. Peacocke successfully extracted the power of these couplets through her writing, especially in fifth song War, where the voice moaned and growled in competition with rigorous drumming and a manic piano. In comparison, the second song Love was soft and delicate, carried by a lyrical vocal line and coloured by the soothing timbre of the vibraphone and water sounds in the electronics.
A personal highlight of the work was one of the middle movements, Ice cream, which featured the most comical of the couplets:
‘I could have tasted death for a taste of your tongue,
Watching you eat ice cream when we were young”
In this movement, the classical chamber ensemble turned into a pseudo-jazz trio: the drums held a light groove, the piano line “comped” a chord progression, and the vocal melody lazily sprawled across the jazz feel. The stark change the mood was fitting for this couplet; humorous, but also unsettling.
Melville was agile and intense on percussion, navigating the sprawl of drums, mallet instruments, and small auxiliary instruments with confidence and precision, providing timbral colour and interest in some moments, while holding the pulse in others. Jacob Abela on piano and Hamish Gullick on double bass grounded the ensemble with self-assured and sensitive playing, both masterful proponents of their instruments. However, it was Georgie Darvidis’ captivating vocal performance which proved to be the highlight. The work would not exist without the words, and Darvidis’ vocal prowess and genius understanding of her limits meant she was able to express the full range of emotions required to validate the music, powerfully traversing the soft and inchoate, to the bold and primal.
The last song, London, finished with the ensemble members bathed in a blue light, all performers appearing exhausted after performing a work of such high emotional magnitude. A black and white flashing subway map was presented on the screen. The final couplet was then presented:
‘Without the Taliban,
Afghanistan would be London,’
And while the work may have been challenging and overwhelming for some in its subject matter, it was unlikely that anybody left the Salon without being moved.
Madi Chwasta reviewed Rubiks Collective’s performance at the Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, on March 17, 2018.