Contemporary music’s equivalent of a Heston Blumenthal tasting plate.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House

July 8, 204

Variety is the spice of life, in art as in food, and if you were looking for the musical equivalent of dining out a la Heston Blumenthal, the dynamic Sydney-based Ensemble Offspring provided just such an experience last Tuesday night. Not that it was easy listening – this was edgy music that repaid putting in the hard listening yards – but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to liken Claire Edwardes playing a selection of builders tiles to a plate of Heston’s snail porridge, so I’m going with the metaphor for now.

The theme behind the program was composers who deconstruct and reconstruct the sounds we’ve come to expect from different instruments and their combinations. “Unashamedly adventurous”, was what we were offered, and unashamedly adventurous that was what we got, all served up in around an hour.

Xenakis opened and closed the evening. First, his Charisma from 1971 – a tough listen comprising a great deal of sawing on cello (Judith Hamann, outstanding throughout) and some overblowing and other effects on clarinet (the versatile Jason Noble). An elusive piece, it was for me the night’s least effective item and was far less engaging than Anthony Pateras’s trio Broken then Fixed then Broken which followed. This brief work for prepared piano (Zubin Kanga), bass clarinet and cello was ear-ticklingly plinky-plonky, its mix of plucked and struck strings making for an (almost funky) pointillist romp.

The highly original Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Oi Kuu (for a moon) came next, introducing (me at least) to the sound of the bass flute. This gorgeous toned instrument, beautifully played by the ridiculously appositely named Lamorna Nightingale, was heard in a meandering dance with cello, the two occasionally coming close, conjoining, then separating to wander their separate paths once more.

Ensemble Offspring’s cleverly named Noisy Egg Creation Fund was responsible for the next, and most entertaining, item on the agenda – a world premiere commission from Berlin-based Mexican composer Juan Felipe Waller. Having toured around Europe with a piece by Waller for 24 builder’s tiles, percussionist Claire Edwardes decided to get a slightly smaller work out of Waller on this occasion. A mere eight tiles were employed here, plus stainless steel rods (not available from Bunnings in case you were thinking of trying this at home), rubber superballs on sticks, and things Edwardes referred to as nanorods. Waller’s objective was to create electronic sounds using acoustic instruments and the resultant sextet Detone Rutune for tiles, flute, clarinet, violin (a virtuosic Veronique Serret), cello and prepared piano is a jangly, surprisingly boppy affair – a bit like a mentally unstable breeze having a bit of a turn in a wind chime shop. You’d never believe tiles could make such marvellously varied sounds!

Swiss-born, Viennese composer Beat Furrer’s Lied was an Australian premiere. A gentle reflection on a Schubert song (Auf den flusse from Winterreise, but rather undetectable to my ears) for piano and violin, Lied felt less interesting than it might have been. Not so the next piece, though. Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 trio for flute, bass clarinet and piano, The Riot was just that – an exhilarating series of themes thrown around with gay abandon from one instrument to the next. Up-tempo and toe-tapping (there was even an unashamed waltz section), especially when pitting the bottom register of the bass clarinet against the top of the doubled piccolo, like so much of Harvey’s oeuvre this was an imaginative, engaging and original work.

The program wrapped up with more Xenakis – this time his Plektó from 1993 – a word that means braids and reflects the plaiting of the instrumental textures by the composer in his signature complex mathematical sequences. This fascinating listen roamed widely, even including a military march, in a musical finale that combined considerable swing and dash.

Returning to the culinary metaphor then, I’ll conclude by saying that, like the best nouvelle cuisine, nothing on this menu outstayed its welcome. But, like a good spicy feast, items such as the Waller and the Harvey mentally repeated on me for quite a while afterwards.

Plektó is at DeClassified Music (The Long Weekender), FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane on July 11.