City Recital Hall, Sydney
August 25, 2018
While the theatre world was immersed in the double-bill opening of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Harp in the South, another marathon performance was taking place in Sydney. Billed as a ‘micro festival’, Extended Play at City Recital Hall saw the city’s new music community descend on Angel Place for 12 straight hours of music. While I described it in a preview piece as part “tasting-plate”, the reality was more like a sumptuous multi-course banquet of music at which one could gorge until sated – and then gorge some more.
Extended Play opened at midday with Elision Ensemble, whose set ranged from the swirling, sometimes brutal electronics of Aaron Cassidy’s The Wreck of Former Boundaries and colourful sonic textures of Richard Barrett’s world-line to Liza Lim’s complex, glittering solo The Su Song Star Map, performed by Graeme Jennings on violin. The next 12 hours revolved around the handful of main acts in the auditorium, with smaller-scale performances orbiting in spaces strewn across the venue, from the Level 1 Function Room to the bars and open spaces on Levels 2 and 3.
Elision Ensemble at Extended Play. Photo © Poppy Burnett
Brisbane-based ensemble Topology, with guitarist Karin Schaupp, brought their incredibly moving collaboration with film-maker Trent Dalton, Love Stories, to the festival’s main stage next. Topology’s music interwove with interviews of patrons and staff at Brisbane’s 139 Club (now called 3rd Space), a drop-in centre offering support for city’s homeless and at-risk, in a deeply felt exploration of pain and love. Sydney’s own Ensemble Offspring hit the auditorium later in the afternoon for a hypnotic all-Reich set – Radio Rewrite and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet bookended a glimmering solo performance by Claire Edwardes of Vermont Counterpoint on vibraphone and xylophone.
Alon Ilsar at Extended Play. Photo © Joan Shortt-Smith
A particular main stage highlight, and a welcome change in texture to much of the festival, was Alon Ilsar’s set, which saw the percussionist using the motion control AirSticks he co-designed to manipulate electronics in an incredibly slick and excitingly choreographed performance that saw him ringed in a spinning vortex of colour projected onto a scrim, his every movement mirrored instantly in spectacular sound and visuals (by artist Matt Hughes).
Festival headliners, New York group Bang on a Can All-Stars, was more than worthy of its place in the line-up, delivering a tight, high-energy set (and exemplary stage-craft), which included the dark, animated Anabiosis by Australian JG Thirlwell (who scores cartoon show Archer, amongst other claims to fame), Bang on a Can founder Julia Wolfe’s Believing (featuring barnstorming solos by cellist Ashley Bathgate), the gently undulating Closing from Philip Glass’s Glassworks and Steve Martland’s rhythmic Horses of Instruction. The group capped off the set with a gritty, rock ‘n’ roll encore in the fifth movement of Mark Mellits’ 5 Machines.
Bang on a Can All-Stars’ Ashley Bathgate at Extended Play. Photo © Poppy Burnett
Across the day, there were many fine performances in the smaller venues. Acacia Quartet delivered a set that saw them joined by guitarist Matt Withers (performing Richard Charlton’s Shorelines) and recorder player Alicia Crossley (in Anne Boyd’s Yuya and Lyle Chan’s Recorder & String Quartet, part 1 – Untitled). The conceptual and aesthetic distance between this and something like Alon Ilsar’s set was profound, yet over the course of the 12 hours it was refreshing and immensely satisfying to witness both – and that variety was one of the great strengths of this festival. Acacia’s set was, however, one of very few moments when the intrusion of music spilling in from other performances detracted from the experience.
Another highlight was a set performed by violist and composer Brett Dean (who had wandered up from the Sydney Opera House where Alban Gerhardt had given his new Cello Concerto its third performance) and pianist Zubin Kanga. The pair dispatched no fewer than three world premieres – by Elliot Gyger, Lisa Illean and Kanga himself – as well as the Australian premiere of Dean’s Rooms of Elsinore, an epic viola-and-piano spin-off from his opera Hamlet. Kanga’s work, Spider Web Castle was almost a companion piece to the Dean, inspired by the hail of arrows unleashed in Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood – which is based on Macbeth. A beautifully textured work, it was performed using fierce-looking knitting needles on the exposed strings of the piano, and cutting – as did Dean’s bow – through the air like flying arrows (sitting close to the performance and the needles’ pointed ends added an extra little burst of adrenaline).
Theremin lessons at Extended Play. Photo © Poppy Burnett
Wherever you went in City Recital Hall there was something happening, from the iterations of Satie’s Vexations on the ground floor (some of which were cranked on an exercise bike that tracked Vexations achieved instead of calories burnt) to projections and listening stations on Level 3. Emerging from ‘official’ concert spaces for refreshment also meant more music: my dinner was accompanied first by the electronic squealing of Theremin lessons and later the quirky lumbering of Mark Olivero’s new work inspired by Australia’s extinct megafauna – subject matter that suited the medium of saxophone quartet wonderfully. The music faded into the evening with the atmospheric, husky trumpet and dreamy piano of Ephemera Ensemble.
Extended Play invited the audience to engage with the nooks and crannies of City Recital Hall that are so often passed over on the way to the auditorium, and this was largely very effective, giving the event the feel of a huge, sprawling house party with little bubbles of activity – listening, talking, eating and drinking – coalescing and disintegrating across different rooms and spaces. While in some ways the event felt slightly insular, a celebration for those already in the know, it was very much an affirmation of the large and vibrant community of new music practitioners and aficionados in Sydney and beyond.
Alon Ilsar at Extended Play. Photo © Joan Shortt-Smith
Large audience numbers in the smaller spaces – which is not such a bad problem for concert organisers to have – did pose some challenges, however. Early on in the day I abandoned my plans to see pianist Lisa Moore’s set when it became clear no more people were going to squeeze into the Function Room – but that did in turn lead to the unplanned pleasure of hearing the Nexas Saxophone Quartet doing some Hindson at the bar upstairs. Similarly, having become a savvier audience member by the time evening rolled around, turning up early to get a spot on the floor for Dean and Kanga’s set meant catching pianist Gabriella Smart doing Cat Hope’s The Fourth Estate. And there were always decision to be made: lingering for Dean’s Elsinore meant foregoing the Bang on a Can All-Stars doing David Lang’s Cheating Lying Stealing.
What was perhaps most satisfying about Extended Play was that the scale of the event gave breathing space to music that can sometimes be challenging. A half-hour-plus work of new and unfamiliar sounds can seem intimidating in a standard-sized program, yet when it’s just a tiny fraction of a marathon event it becomes eminently digestible. In this context, it was easier to let the guards down and relinquish anxious attempts to decipher or fully understand the music (often impossible at a single listen anyway) and simply absorb the music. This, combined with the wide range of styles and artists that might not usually rub shoulders on a standard billing, made Extended Play a musical experience far greater than the sum of its parts.