A palindrome is a word, number, or phrase that reads the same backward as it does forward. Palindromes can be fun, or absurd, the product of children’s English lessons: Taco cat. Or they can be remarkably poetic: Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? Palindromes can also be didactic, and historically grounded: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama. James Joyce rendered a knock on the door as the palindromic tattarrattat.

Music can be palindromic, too. In a simple twelve-tone composition, a row of notes may be played from start to finish and then in retrograde, from finish to start – and then it may be inverted, and then played backwards and upside down. Twentieth century composers such as Alban Berg and Anton Webern were fond of this sort of thing. Bela Bartok used the ‘arch form’ to varying degrees in many of his works. This compositional trick is not a modern invention, however: Bach made extensive use of complicated palindromes in his fugal writing, for example.

Pekka Kuusisto. Photo © Felix Broede

For its 2019 regional Australian tour, the ACO Collective under the charismatic Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto explores the palindrome in all its forms and permutations. The programme itself was a palindrome. It began and ended with Pauline Olivero’s The Tuning Meditation, a haunting and beautiful free-form shifting mass of harmony, at the heart of which lies a simple instruction from the composer: “Inhale deeply; exhale on the note of your choice; listen to the sounds around you, and match your next note to one of them; on your next breath make a note no one else is making; repeat”.

After this moment of deep listening came one of the most well-known musical palindromes: Haydn’s Symphony No 47 in G Major, known as ‘The Palindrome’ because the second half of the third movement mirrors its first half. It was Haydn’s palindrome that inspired the ACO Collective’s entire concert. Classical symphonies work wonderfully in a chamber orchestra setting, and here Haydn’s score was fulfilled with the assistance of wind players from the Australian National Academy of Music. Mozart was a fan of Haydn’s playful symphony, and his work, likewise, suits smaller ensembles such as this—light on their feet, reflexive, and assertive, with a bit of onstage fun. The country audience at Hamilton’s Performing Arts Centre was treated to his six country dances, or Contredances.

Complementing these old favourites were Paul Hindemith’s Praeludium and Postludium from his Ludus Tonalis (the second a reversion of the first), along with the world premieres of Heather Shannon’s Ricochet and Ricochet from a Distance. Works were divided equally across the concert in a circular form, and thus the entire programme proceeded as follows: Oliveros, Haydn, Shannon, Mozart, Hindemith, interval, Hindemith, Mozart, Shannon, Haydn, Oliveros.

It is a fascinating way in which to present the material, breaking up the classical repertoire with interludes of modern composition – or breaking up the modern repertoire with classical composition. Connecting threads are drawn across the programme which, in its cyclical form, disrupts the traditional linear movement of a classical concert. Opportunities are created to present and re-present material, and rather than moving through each work in turn, compositions become more fully integrated into a broader listening experience. The music spirals towards, and then away, from its opposite: the interval.

Heather Shannon

The most revelatory feature of this programme was Heather Shannon’s new works. A classically trained pianist with a good deal of experience with synthesisers and electronic composition, she is best known as one quarter of the Australian indie rock band, The Jezabels. But as the works commissioned by the ACO Collective – Ricochet and Ricochet from a Distance – remind us, Shannon is emerging as a unique compositional voice in Australia in her own right.

Time away from the world of traditional composition provides opportunities to explore harmonic, melodic, and timbral qualities frequently absent from contemporary classical music. In her works for the ACO Collective, Shannon draws on her experience as a performing artist and explores what she described for Limelight as the “breakdown of tonality” that occurs when programming melodies into synthesisers. Ricochet is a wonderful, manic work for winds that would sit well alongside other modern composers in the genre such as Péter Eötvös or Alessio Elia, both of whom emphasise musical structure over emotional content and narrative – like a palindrome, music that is sustained by its own form.

Its complementary work, Ricochet from a Distance, represents the material from the first piece as an echo, “reversed and elongated”, incorporating slow harmonic movements in the strings that result in a lush, cinematic work reminiscent of electronic ambient composition. The absent presence at the heart of the concert programme is reflected here: What we have in Ricochet is an acoustic representation of a reality that is itself synthesised, and in Ricochet from a Distance a re-presentation of the representation. But the electronic synthesiser at the heart of it all is nowhere to be seen.

Palindromes fold in on themselves, so that the beginning and ending mirror each other. Thus to end the concert – or were we going back to the start? – Kuusisto and his players removed themselves from the stage and sat among the audience for a reprisal of the opening work, Olivero’s The Tuning Meditation: “Inhale deeply; exhale on the note of your choice; listen to the sounds around you, and match your next note to one of them; on your next breath make a note no one else is making; repeat. Call it listening out loud.”

ACO Collective’s Mozart, Haydn, and More tours to Melbourne on March 5, Bendigo on March 7 and Wangaratta on March 9