Pulitzer Prize winner and other hot properties prove their worth in Melbourne.

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
November 25, 2014

The New York-based American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) is dedicated to performing significant works from the 20th and 21st centuries, with an emphasis on American composers. There are over ten core members in the ensemble, four of whom were present for this Australian tour, in string quartet formation. ACME played works by four composers written between 2009 and 2013. All performances were Australian premieres and explored the sonic and artistic possibilities of the string quartet in exciting and beautiful ways.

Bryce Dessner (1976-) is best known as a guitarist with rock group The National, but he’s also an acclaimed composer whose St. Carolyn by the Sea was released earlier this year by Deutsche Grammophon. Little Blue Something was written in 2012 for the Kronos Quartet, and was inspired by two Czech musicians that the composer heard playing in a Copenhagen street. ACME delivered a haunting performance of this darkly intense, lilting and cyclic work, which included some beautiful dissonances and cello harmonics.

Harmonics are integral to The Wind in High Places (2011) by Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams (1953-), winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. This work is a triptych inspired by the Aeolian harp, an instrument in which the strings are played directly by the wind. West Australian composer Alan Lamb has spent much of his long compositional career outdoors, exploring and recording these ‘singing wires,’ which can produce extraordinary and quite unearthly sounds with their breathy upper register. John Luther Adams noted that “The Wind in High Places treats the string quartet as a large, 16-stringed harp, and all the sounds…are produced as natural harmonics or on open strings.” Playing this work requires the barest touching of strings, and not touching the fingerboards of the instruments at all in order to produce ethereal harmonics. This was captivating to observe in performance, producing a stunningly beautiful, hypnotic musical experience that evoked, over three movements, an expansive and shimmering natural landscape.

Jahrzeit (2009) was written as a short work for string quartet by Caleb Burhans (1980-), violist in ACME and on hand to perform it this evening. Its title refers to a time of remembrance on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, and involves recitations of the Kaddish and the lighting a 24-hour candle. Contemplative, with a deep melancholy, Jahrheit swelled with rising intensity to a lyrical, symphonic climax. Pulsing cello and viola danced around each other to a gently fading conclusion, like a candle slowly dying out.

The final two works on the program were by Caroline Shaw (1982-), another ACME member, but not present in tonight’s quartet. At thirty years of age, Shaw was the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music, which she received in 2013. in manus tuas (2009), for solo cello, takes sections of a Tallis motet as its beginning point and weaves a meditative minimalist narrative that evokes the Compline services Shaw sang in for many years. It was performed by ACME’s Artistic Director, cellist Clarice Jensen. 

Ritornello (2013), performed tonight as a string quartet, revolves around two chords, and is conceived as ‘a general project that could expand and contract like an accordion.’ Recalling some of the other works on tonight’s program, it is cyclic and repetitive, exploring return and memory by restating deceptively simple motifs and surging into warm Schubert-like swells of emotional intensity. Beautiful dissonant slides ushered in a furiously accelerating climax that resolved in a delicate plucked thematic reiteration. It’s Happening, written and sung by ACME violinist Ben Russell, was performed as a short encore to a small but engaged and wildly enthusiastic audience who were treated to its second ever performance.