Composer Leah Blankendaal discusses the Adelaide-based new music ensemble’s upcoming concert featuring Allison Bell.

How do we communicate across generational gaps? How does a wife talk to the much younger lover of her husband? How does a parent talk to an unborn child? What sense can we make of infants first sounds, as they begin to acquire language and phonemes?

Language – its barriers, structures and development – is the subject of the day in Adelaide-based Soundstream Ensemble’s upcoming concert Either/Or. As one of the commissioned composers in this upcoming concert, it is both a continual thrill and a challenge for me to play with language and sound in this fashion. Working with dueling worlds of sound and finding common ground between these two methods of conversation is a consistent source of pleasure.

Allison BellSoprano Allison Bell. Photo © Felipe Pagani

The sound world of Irish composer Gerald Barry is the feature of this one-off performance. Barry’s music is at once both angular and absurd. Yet, for the most part, it is easily comprehendible. It remains within the boundaries of 12 tones and features traditional structures like the canon and the fugue. Similarly his subject matter sits comfortably within the literary worlds of the late 19th and early 20th century. His miniature opera La Plus Forte is based on the Strindberg play The Stranger, in which Madame X finds Mademoiselle Y sitting alone in a cafe on Christmas Eve. Their conversation is one sided and yet reveals intimate details about the lives of both women; their interconnectedness and the unexpected rivalry they share.

Soprano Allison Bell returns to Adelaide in a one of Australian premier of this work. Bell’s considerable ability with contemporary performance is well known – she premiered the staged version of this work in 2013 at the inaugural London Contemporary Music Festival. Soundstream presents the Australian premiere, and the world premiere of the version for soprano and piano, with blessings from the composer.

In contrast to Barry, the worlds of Cat Hope and Erkki Veltheim are far more abstract. Veltheim’s The Continuity Hypothesis, which was premiered earlier this year by Finland’s defunensemble, will also receive its Australian premier. The title refers to the “hypothesis that infants’ babbling (i.e. the nonsensical reduplication of basic phonemes) is a constitutive part in first language acquisition, leading to the construction of intelligible linguistic units through a combination of innate and social feedback mechanisms.” Veltheim’s work replicates these sounds through specific techniques such as slap tongue, pizzicato and sampled keyboard.

Cat Hope’s work explores the interpretation of graphic language. Inspired by a Xenakis’ sketch for his work Terretektorh (1955-66), Hope uses his “combination of clouds of gentle lines, as well as hard symmetrical

ones, grouped out on graph paper” as the basis to begin exploring glissandi, drone, noise. Hope’s musical language is both deliberately prescriptive and non-prescriptive. She states very clearly she is not interested in telling the performer what pitch to play or dolling out particular rhythms. Yet, through her rolling iPad scores, she is particularly prescriptive with duration, which acts as a unifying function for many of her works.

Unlike the other composers in this concert, my language world comes from a novel; in particular, the beautiful writing of American author Maggie Nelson. Taken from Nelson’s The Argonauts, We Were Met by Ordinary Devotion explores the conflicting conversations that exist around parenthood and the assumption that, for a period of time, pregnant bodies exist for public consumption. Using repetition and feedback loops, We Were Met by Ordinary Devotion  layers an internal monologue with external conversation.

This is a programme of language, parenthood, love, lust and conversations between generations. The balance of smaller, electroacoustic works against a more traditional sound pallet is one that will hopefully lead Adelaide audiences to the edge of contemporary opera and chamber music.

Soundstream’s Either/Or is at Elder Hall, University of Adelaide, August 9.