From the ineffable to the inexorable. Almost 14 billion years of music in one evening. It’s typical of the boundless ambition of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s peripatetic artistic director, Richard Tognetti, to attempt the impossible. With few exceptions it’s confined to the western hemisphere, but one can hardly entirely discount the effect of one half on the other. So, we get the odd glimpse of how the other half lived and made music, too.
Only baby boomers will remember The Big Bang. But not even in their most acid-influenced wildest dreams will they have thought it possible that seminal event could or would be transposed, to make a true music of the spheres. And what better place to begin than in the beginning. No, the ACO doesn’t attempt to emulate the intergalactic aural experience.
To the right of the orchestra was The Presets (Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes both classically-trained, contemporary electronic musicians), Tognetti’s key collaborators. This is more than a mere concert: it’s a theatrical, cinematic, multimedia event, directed by Ignatius Jones. Hovering above the musicians hangs a massive screen onto which animated graphics are projected for the two hour duration.
It’s no small step, but a giant leap from the opening night of the universe to the dawn of man, so we hurtle light-years hence to circa 40,000 years ago, signified by an improvisation on didgeridoo by Mark Atkins and music from the Nyangumarta, who can be found around Broome and the east Pilbara. Thirty-five thousand odd years hence, we run into ancient Chinese drumming, and by the time we get to Ghana in 500AD it’s getting really sophisticated.
Of course, to make the music work together, some temporal liberties have been taken, but they’re relatively minimal.
The first ‘act’ takes us all the way to the threshold of the 20th century, by which time we’ve sampled everything from traditional Hebrew piyyut to Gregorian chant; Sephardic to Ottoman and an African-American field call; baroque to classical; Dufay to Dowland; von Bingen to Vivaldi, Bach & Beethoven; Satie to Schoenberg, via Wagner.
The sonic is matched by the splendidly visual due to kaleidoscopic, almost hallucinogenic motional images produced by Digital Pulse, and Sian James-Holland’s lighting design and operation by Jaye Ottens, and Robert Scott’s audio engineering were practically flawless.
The pace certainly doesn’t slow with the second, dizzying act: we’re spun exponentially faster through time, increasingly dense with musical activity, though it begins calmly enough with Charles Ives’ cosmic adagio The Unanswered Question,from 1908; at once pacifying (the string arrangement) and disturbing (the dissonant solo trumpet brass and woodwinds).
It’s a jump to the left with Jelly Roll Morton’s clarinet-led swing classic Turtle Twist written just six years earlier. This was after all the American century and the era of jazz. But the US didn’t have the musical domain all to itself: the orchestra leads us through the jagged terrain of Webern, the pastoral sweep of Ralph Vaughan Williams, stopping to pay due homage to Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Janacek. Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue sends shivers, there’s Weill, Ellington, Berg, Barber and Bartok. And Robert Johnson, confounded and conflicted at the crossroads.
What becomes obvious, on reflection, is what’s missing. References to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, The King and even Michael Jackson were fleeting and Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones didn’t even rate. There was certainly no parochialism: aside from the abovementioned and a hint of Sculthorpe, no JO’K, Chisel or Richard Clapton. This is the inherent danger in such a project.
The production was so theatrical and tightly-executed and the playing so inspired with some very invigorated leads by Tognetti, Moore and the bass strings as well as guests the percussionist Tim Constable from Synergy; trumpeter Paul Cutlan and charismatic vocals by Satu Vanska, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm for this, probably the most exciting ACO tour of them all. So far.