★★★★☆ Intoxicating textures and colours combine in a feast of strange and vivid imagery.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
March 5, 2017

Melody Eötvös’s Tardigradus – for flute/piccolo, percussion and electronics – takes its name from the tardigrade (sometimes known as a water bear or moss piglet) a resilient, microscopic creature that can survive in conditions that would be fatal to nearly all other known life forms, including the vacuum of space. The world premiere of this work forms the centrepiece of Ensemble Offspring’s Arc Electric programme, which kicks off their year celebrating female composers, appropriately, at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival.

The resilient, microscopic tardigrade inspired Melody Eötvös’ Tardigradus

A rattling sound cascades out of the speakers as EO’s Artistic Director and percussionist Claire Edwardes strikes chromatically tuned rice bowls arranged on a pink and blue ironing board – the hauntingly dulled chiming reminiscent of dampened Tibetan singing bowls. Lamorna Nightingale traces improvisatory lines on flute as a sepulchral throbbing emerges from the electronic track. Warbling trimbral trills from Nightingale are echoed in Edwardes’ rice bowl tremolos, the restive, uneasy soundtrack painting a surreal image of a creature that can survive without food or water for more than 30 years.

Arc Electric opens with Velvet, a shimmering work by Kate Moore for cello (Blair Harris) and piano (Zubin Kanga), inspired by depictions of cloth in Renaissance paintings. Kanga’s piano pulses with shifting chords, harmonies rippling like light and shadow on fabric while Harris winds anxious cello lines with finely spun vibrato, in an obsessive and relentless exploration of texture.

Ensemble Offspring’s Artistic Director and percussionist Claire Edwardes

Even more obsessive is Liza Lim’s The turning dance of the bee, receiving its Australian premiere. Inspired by the looping infinity symbol “waggle” dance that bees use to communicate navigational information to the hive (their movements angled against the direction of the sun to share the location of pollen-rich flowers), Lim’s work is incredibly detailed and colourful. In the first movement, Solar, Edwardes traces a softly grinding loop of stick on rim against the soft microtonal murmurings of Lachlan O’Donnell’s violin and Nightingale’s piccolo. Cello harmonics flare, Kanga’s prepared piano contributes brittle textures to the hum of colourful percussion, dance-like figures emerging and receding. The movement culminates in a dramatic bass clarinet and piano duet, fading out in the afterglow of a held piano chord. The second movement, Lunar, is gentle and ethereal, nocturnal cries from Nightingale’s alto flute piercing hazy strings. She circles Jason Noble’s bass clarinet, Harris’ cello droning, with delicate flecks of percussion adorning the soundscape. 

Estonian Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes and Finnish Kaija Saariaho are the only composers on the programme who aren’t Australian. Kozlova-Johannes’ Horizontals glitters with glockenspiel and piccolo in a high-register flurry joined by clarinet, violin and piano (prepared with chopsticks). The five musicians form an ensemble that alternates with Harris on cello, whose elastic solos slide across his instrument, pitches warping fluidly. The spotlight alternates between ensemble and soloist, until the ensemble becomes a whispering of wind through instruments, soft harmonics from the strings, and Edwardes’ lightly striking ceramic pots.

Saariaho’s Cendres for alto flute, cello and piano evolved out of material used for her 1990 concerto for alto flute, cello and orchestra, …à la fume, (and she later drew on material from Cendres to write her solo alto flute work Couleurs du vent). Exploring the cross-over of textures between the three instruments, Cendres sees low growling double-stops on the cello echoed in piano flourishes, while trills in its higher register are pulled apart by the alto flute, the players trading virtuosic waves of sound.

Cassie Toe’s bird-song inspired Avialae brings the concert to a close. First performed in 2015 in Ensemble Offspring’s Future Retro programme – when To was still a student at the Sydney Conservatorium – Aviale draws on the calls of five endangered Australian bird species: the painted snipe, swift parrot, Carnaby’s cockatoo, regent honey eater, and the ground parrot. The work opens with ascending cries in winds and strings. Bows bounce on strings, the birdcalls coalescing into snatches of melody, the avian cacophony rising above tranquil piano chords as Edwardes’ taps out rhythms with sticks on the frame of her marimba. The birdcalls become almost bluesy as the musicians build to a triumphant crescendo, the ascending bird-motifs returning stylised and melodic.

Ensemble Offspring’s tight-knit sextet delivers evolving colours and an intoxicating range of textures in Arc Electric, a feast of strange and vivid imagery.


Ensemble Offspring will perform Arc Electric again at Melbourne Recital Centre on March 8 for International Women’s Day

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