★★★★☆ A programme of new music with emotional punch to defy the expectations of contemporary haters.

Kew Court House, Melbourne
June 12, 2016

Poor, neglected Contemporary music. Unlike its far more popular and widely programmed brothers – Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire – it can all too often be absent from our concert halls. There is, of course, a glaring irony here: if audiences of the past had shown the same hostility towards the new that many of today’s music lovers exhibit, we would be without the tried and true masterpieces of the canon that now almost exclusively top the billing of our symphony orchestras and opera companies. Despite the logic of this argument, haters gonna hate (as the saying goes), and sadly, this means the classics of tomorrow rarely get the credit they deserve today. More often than not, this music is typecast as unapproachable, emotionally aloof and difficult to understand, and consequently relegated to less high-profile platforms.

In fact, the entrenched aversion to the apparently unappealing qualities of bleeding-edge modernism – dissonant harmonies; complex textures; gritty, unfamiliar orchestrations, etc. – has spurred on the success of a different breed of composer, writing for the masses rather than for the ages. Again, irony abounds: by catering to the lowest common denominator, pieces by these composers are easily written off by concertgoers with a more refined musical palate as insubstantial, chintzy bonbons, lacking the artistic fibre of more challenging exponents. Thus it seems that new music can be difficult, cerebral and intellectually taut, or trite, pretty and inoffensive, and never the twain shall meet. 

Thankfully there is a middle ground, and thanks to talented and doggedly determined ensembles like Melbourne’s Rubiks Collective, Australian audiences have a very welcome opportunity to hear engaging, visceral, powerfully emotive music written within the past few decades. Crucially, these outfits prove that contemporary music has all the storytelling ability and artistic accessibility of more buttoned-up, conservative programmes.

Rubiks Collective’s most recent outing was an ideal case in point. Presented as part of Kew Court House’s Future Classic series, The Cold Earth Slept Below was a superbly executed exploration of recent masterworks from America and Europe, and if this programme occasionally felt a bit padded, it nonetheless offered something incredibly personal, strangely spiritual and ultimately deeply touching.

Italian composer Franco Donatoni’s ethereal trio, Ave, acted as a kind of introit, setting a solemn, almost liturgical tone to this selection of secular music. Its spectral cascades and spooling, flowing lines, traced out across the piccolo, glockenspiel and celeste, were punctuated with sudden shards of harmony, piercing the horizontal momentum of the music with vertical incisions. Performed with impressive accuracy by Jacob Abela (keyboard), Tamara Kohler (piccolo) and Kaylie Melville (percussion), the tinny, flat tone of the synthesised celeste only rubbed off a little of the shine from the burnished patina of Donatoni’s score.

After this opening, we travelled from Italy to the United States, where the core of this concert was sourced. Founded in the late 80s by Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, Bang on a Can is a truly remarkable model for a new music organisation. Based in New York, the group has pioneered an informal, “jeans-and-tee-shirt” easiness in its approach to new music, without compromising the integrity or artistic heft of its commissions. Over the past 30-years, Bang on a Can has championed the emergence of many of the world’s greatest living composers, with a particular affinity for minimalistic aesthetics. For performers interested in specialising in modern music, it also hosts a hugely prestigious summer school, which has a fiercely competitive application process attracting hundreds of musicians from around the world each year. Four of the Rubiks Collective have been fortunate enough to have attended this summer school; as iron-clad an endorsement of their technical chops as you’re likely to find.

As an homage to their Bang on a Can experience, music by both Julia Wolfe and David Lang provided the meatiest moments of this concert. First, Wolfe’s Singing in the dead of night offered dense, tumultuous blocks of sound, asymmetrical grooves and ferocious virtuosity. This was a confident and sure-footed account, although a short flute solo, John Fonville’s Music for Sarah VI, tacked onto the end of the piece, felt like an unnecessary and unsympathetic coda.

By far the most accomplished and affecting performance of the evening came from Lang’s beautifully desolate Death Speaks. Inspired by Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which personifies death, making it a character in a drama, Lang too gives death a voice. He makes no attempt to sugar coat his sentiments, nor does he hold back in his exploration of pain, but perhaps the most extraordinary revelation of this piece is that these desperately sad responses come from Death itself. Duty bound to steal life and love from the world, Lang’s Death is entirely aware of the heartbreaking devastation left behind and understands that, while our deaths are inevitable and shouldn’t be feared, loss wounds the living in a way that can only be undone by Death itself.

Guest vocalist Georgie Darvidis has an ideal voice for Lang’s gentle poignancy. Infused with a soulfulness, uncomplicated by classical technique, Darvidis communicates Death’s complexities through blissful simplicity, connecting the audience with the purity and depth of Lang’s haunting music; a performance that I’m certain could convince even the most staunchly resistant new music hater.