The best festivals are those that present the new and unfamiliar on equal footing with the tried and true. In the experience of this seasoned festival-goer, the Canberra International Music Festival –  this is my seventh CIMF – stands with the best of the best in this country. This year, alongside lashings of music of, from and about Vienna, there is a healthy dose of new music, as well as music totally new to me.

This program introduced two instruments absolutely new to me and to the audience. There was another notable ‘first’ too, with the premiere of a new piece commissioned from composer Brian Howard, this year’s composer-in-residence.

Baran Yildiz performing at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photograph © Peter Hislop

Baran Yildiz is a young Turkish-Australian percussionist-composer who presented a bracket of music based on Sufi traditions of his homeland. He played on a trio of metal handpans which resemble a cross between a steel drum and a flying saucer. Nestling each between his knees, he tapped their metal surfaces to produce a fair range of pitches and dynamics. There were occasional moments of hand-clapping and non-pitched sounds as well, but the music was most effective when played with a softness and deftness of touch. There was one Grainger-esque moment of tremolando rustling, which suggested these instruments were capable of delivering more than the melodies of the six pieces he called ‘songs’. Towards the end of his 30-minute bracket, my ears began to tire of this ingratiating euphony and I longed for some other dimension, a voice or traditional wind instrument, perhaps. As it was, though, Yildiz delighted the audience with the easy charm of both his music and performances.

Nothing could have prepared us for the shock of Brian Howard’s new work. In Sentinel, the featured instrument is the contraforte, which is a kind of extended form of the contrabassoon. According to its extraordinary executant, Noriko Shimada, the contrabassoon player in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, there are presently only two in Australia. Over time, with its extended range (think of the sonority and sheer power of a 32-foot organ pedal pipe!) and a more even dynamic presence, it could well replace the contrabassoon in the symphony orchestra.

In 2016 Howard encountered the Australian bassoonist Lorelei Dowling in Cologne and the pair discussed crafting a new work for this still quite unfamiliar piece of plumbing. Travel restrictions relating to the pandemic intervened and Dowling was unable to present the premiere performance on this occasion.

Sentinel was composed during the benighted lockdown year of 2020. To varying degrees, each of us experienced and will remember this year as a time of constraint, dislocation, disappointment, frustration and contraction. In his program note,  Howard maintains that walking around cities is “fundamental to my experience of city life”. He confesses to being “a flaneur, someone who walks for pleasure, to discover and to get lost in one’s own thoughts”. One can appreciate the affect 2020 had on such experiences and how a composer’s peripatetic creative mind may have responded to the constraints of the year.

The performance of Brian Howard’s Sentinel. Photograph © Peter Hislop

In effect, Sentinel is a 25-minute concerto for solo contraforte and chamber ensemble of 10 musicians, not the sextet outlined in the often deficient printed program. Its opening moments contain the germ of the work, an aggressive flourish, which yields to flurries of trills, swirls, swoops and waves that are characteristics of Howard’s instrumental music over the past decades. Soon there are hints of darkness, anger, even violence but we are given few verbal clues to ponder. The listener is left to imagine the composer’s psychological response to that terrible year. Did we hear disembodied snatches of city musics, their crushed textures and collapsed rhythms? At one point a repeated pattern of downward steps descended into a cauldron of cacophony. Quite late in the piece, those steps re-appeared, but in reverse, suggesting perhaps a more optimistic view of the future.

It would be impossible to imagine an ensemble better able to play and relate to this music than Ensemble Offspring, that crack band of young Sydney musicians led by the extraordinary percussionist Claire Edwardes. Their performance never faltered, it was startling, energised and energising, delivered with extraordinary panache and almost clinical precision. At the helm was conductor Roland Peelman, the Artistic Director of the CIMF, relishing the moment with complete authority and delight.

Long ago, Howard eschewed the easy options of post-modern euphony in an uncompromising assertion of a tough, gritty and flamboyant personal language. Sometimes the result is confusing and disorienting. More often it is exhilarating and revitalising as it challenges the conventional orthodoxy of what new music can and might be. These days, our ears, conditioned by endless patterns and pretty scales, have become ‘soft’. It is good to encounter the alternatives, what the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, referred to as ‘ear-cleaning’.

It has been quite a while since these ears have been cleaned by the experience of the music of Brian Howard, a composer whose work I admire and value considerably. Throughout the remaining days of this CIMF season, Canberra audiences will have several more opportunities to experience the music of a composer who is too rarely heard in this country.

The Canberra International Music Festival runs until 9 May

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter