Metapraxis: Cerebral and challenging

Melbourne string quartet Atticus, dedicated to the performance of the world’s finest new music, joined with other Melbourne new-music practitioners and composers to present an evening of works written for strings. Ranging in scope from a duo to a work for 12, they explored the notion of Metapraxis, the term coined to describe a form in which familiar instruments create sound worlds that are utterly new.

Members of Atticus. Photo by Siobahn Fearon
Members of Atticus. Photo by Siobahn Fearon

To best encounter Metapraxis, it is important to grasp that description – this is a “sound world”, where conventional notions of music and tonality make way for the exploration of the potential presented by instruments and new technology in a performance setting. As with highly conceptual visual art it is a mostly cerebral affair and challenging, sometimes to the point of alienation, for the uninitiated.

Guest artists James Rushford and Joe Talia opened the night with a duo of viola and reel to reel tape machine – both instruments manipulated manually and electronically in unconventional ways to create a piece mostly of scrapes, taps and clicks, the monotony only relieved when they chanced upon sounds very much like a lawnmower followed by a screeching bird. “The Long and the Short of It”, by Jon Rose, had an orchestra of eight accompanying a poorly produced video of Rose and another musician bowing segments of the 5400 km long “Dog Fence”. Conducted by Rose, using hand signals and caption cards, the array of repetitive sounds from the orchestra soon wore on the listener – perhaps appropriate considering the stark landscape through which the fence passes. Mid-piece a welcome lyricism from the violin segued in to colourful still images of fence posts painted by an (uncredited) aboriginal community, and then we were back to the grind.

Concluding the night was “Praxis for 12”, composed by Jani Christou in 1966 but never before performed in Australia. The piece contains multiplications of patterns, movement form the players, shouting and whispering, and also explores the technical possibilities in terms of stamina and virtuosity for a string ensemble. Harmonically it moves beyond 12 tone, and the intellectual form of the music is saved from being unpleasant by the fairly rapid changes between patterns and the relative shortness of the piece. One thing to look at was the eyes of the orchestra as, mid frenetic bowing, they swivelled to catch their cues either from the first violin or the pianist. Toward the end 6 players jumped from their chairs and went to stand around the piano, creating a shimmering lake of sound.

But of the five works on the program, “Cruel and Unusual” by WA composer Cat Hope was the most successful.  Inspired by an article in Al Jazzera News that described the use of extended solitary confinements of adults and minors in US prisons (a practice also known as ‘no touch torture’) the piece has a string quartet each facing straight forward, in a representation of isolation, across the front of a stage. Behind them a computer is operated, sampling and distorting the glissandi of the strings through four bass amps into a growing bass drone. As the background noise and the glissandi drop in pitch so do the lights, achieving an emotionally engaging theatrical and musical synthesis. “Cruel and Unusual” shows that “new music” can be both accessible and relevant.

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