Videos in pandemic-times

One emergent positive amongst the many negative impacts on the arts in these pandemic times has been the opening up of access to concerts and festival events from all over the world (as long as one has a good internet connection). In the past weeks, I’ve been able to catch fresh premieres from the 2021 Tectonics Festival Glasgow including The Rupture Exists by Cat Hope (played by musicians of the BBC SSO) and Natura Naturans by Scott McLaughlin (BBC SSO conducted by Ilan Volkov with Heather Roche as soloist); I also loved the solo violin pieces by Sky Macklay and Yu Kuwabara played with stunning gravitas and tonal beauty by Ilya Gringolts, filmed in a greenhouse; and a live-streamed premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s latest horizon-searching orchestral work Vista played by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki.

Of course the online space is bursting at the seams with ‘content’. Performing arts organisations frantically opened up their archives when things first shut down over a year ago but then it was amazing to see how quickly musicians and artists all over the globe were able to pivot to online performances. Close to home, perhaps one of the most remarkable of these, was the epic 2-day pivot to film back in March 2020 by Sydney Chamber Opera as all of Sydney shut down around them. The work of tech week, sitz probe, blocking, dress rehearsals, opening and closing night, recording and filming were squeezed into a weekend though you would never know there was a crisis from watching the stunning performances of the four chamber operas by Georgia Scott, Peggy Polias, Josephine Macken and Bree van Reyk directed by Clemence Williams and Danielle Maas in the Breaking Glass project. We’re now familiar with live-online streams on Facebook, Youtube and twitter; with various ‘digital concert halls’, and the many beautiful videos created with deeply considered aesthetics that have filled the breach but we shouldn’t take them for granted! I’ve been privileged to have had a number of works filmed and given sumptuous treatment!

1. symbiotic creatures

My long-time musical family and collaborators, the ELISION Ensemble have been putting out both archival footage and making stunningly dynamic films of solo and chamber music in their Performance Series. They are developing a very particular visual aesthetic for the film medium that zooms right in close to the musicians in order to visually resonate with the highly physical, polyphonic approach to musical performance that their repertoire favours. The performances by Peter Neville, Tristram Williams, Daryl Buckley, Paula Rae, Benjamin Marks and others to come, directed by Daryl Buckley, recorded by Alistair McLean and filmed by Agatha Yim (Polyphonic Pictures) create particularly tactile and ecologically ‘creaturely’ experiences of the musicians and instruments.

This approach to filming to create a sense of the instrument as a prosthetic extension of the body – is the performer playing (or eating) the instrument or is the instrument performing them? the answer is ‘both’ – is particularly highlighted in the latest ELISION video of Ben Marks playing my work The Green Lion eats the Sun (2014) in a version for double-bell trombone. The work was originally commissioned by Ensemble Musikfabrik’s Melvyn Poore to explore the double-bell euphonium and parts of this solo also appear in the opera Tree of Codes (2016). The music writhes between different registers of tone and voice across a somewhat Francis Bacon-like smear of three heads: 2 of metal, 1 human.

Also check out Paula Rae’s performance of Bioluminescence (2019) for solo flute – all undulating light and play of sensation. This work is dedicated to Paula and was premiered by her on ELISION’s tour of Taiwan in 2019.

Then there’s Tristram Williams and Peter Neville’s trumpet–percussion brilliance where they excavate all kinds of resonances with and against the grain of their instruments in Ehwaz (journeying) (2010). This work was commissioned for, dedicated to and premiered by Tristram and Peter at the 2010 International Trumpet Guild Conference in Sydney. It’s great to have this record of their latest deep dive into the piece after a ten-year engagement with it – the fluidity of how they deal with the material instability of the music is quite astonishing.

2. fossilised time

Earlier this year, Sigma Project Quartet (Andrés Gomis, Ángel Soria, Alberto Chaves, Josetxo Silguero) produced a very special film of Ash – music for the Eremozoic (2020) performed in the rustic-organic spaces of the Museum Chillida Leku in Basque Country, Spain. The unrelenting commitment they bring to playing the second movement of the work (‘Residua’) in particular, with its stark pulses of ‘fossilised time’, is awe-inspiring. The saxophone quartet’s dedication to communicating music of our time is shown not only in the performance and the film direction by Iker Casares, but in the thoughtfully curated interview/discussions and even performance tips on techniques for performers that accompany the work. The work was commissioned through the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung.

3. ritual threads

A film of an older work of mine called Ochred String (2008) with Peter Veale (oboe), Axel Porath (viola), Dirk Wietheger (‘cello) and Florentin Ginot (double bass) has just been released by dear friends, Ensemble Musikfabrik. Originally commissioned, premiered and recorded by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, it’s interesting to see this latest version with players ‘in the round’ offering an intimate chamber music view and a feeling of ritual as the camera circles around the group.

4. poetry of covid-time

A narrative thread binds together Ensemble Offspring‘s Lone Hemispheres Series (2020) directed by Michelle St Anne responding to themes of Covid-time’s mundanity and potential for unexpected poetry. My work bioluminescence is included, this time played by the flautist Lamorna Nightingale, in a series of twelve solos by Chris Fox, Andrew Ford, Tristan Murail, Kate Neal, Kaija Saariaho, Giacinto Scelsi, Christopher Tonkin, Kate Moore, Alex Pozniak and Cathy Milliken. A flavour of the design of the whole project, filmed in dreamy black and white, can be seen in the trailer.