Exploring patterns in minimalist music

Reviewed by Daniel Sanderson, Canberra Times
23rd February 2011

Street Theatre 2, 20th February 2011

Ensemble Offspring used a refreshing approach to a seldom-heard repertoire.

Patterns – rhythmic and melodic, regular and random – are the fundamental building blocks of music. Sydney-based new music outfit Ensemble Offspring’s latest program explored the ways in which composers influenced by American minimalism have approached patterns in their works over the past half century or so.

The group’s artistic directors, composer Damien Ricketson and percussionist Claire Edwardes, have assembled a diverse yet satisfyingly cohesive program, revealing emotion and wit in unexpected places.

The times were literally out of joint in the opening piece, Canberra School of Music alumnus Kate Moore’s Sensitive Spot, a work for solo
piano performed against a soundtrack made up of layered recordings of the same work. As played by pianist Zubin Kanga, the piece achieved a kind of monumental indeterminacy, the subtle variations between each performance creating a refractory halo of sound around the work’s surging harmonic contours.

The following work, Tom Johnson’s Bedtime Stories for solo clarinet and narrator, explored the story-telling potential of patterns in music, and coaxed considerably more giggles from the audience than is usual for a concert of contemporary music.

Desk Bells, a work by John Lely in which Edwardes rearranged a set of bells from an ascending to a descending major scale, used variations in the simplest of musical patterns to mesmerising effect.

Clarinettist Jason Noble’s assured handling of the repetitive thrums and spiky figures of Steve Reich’s classic work of chamber minimalism, New York Counterpoint, was evident not only in his live performance but also in the 10 pre-recorded parts with which he played.

With no parts at all to speak of, Larry Polansky’s Ensembles of Note relied instead on a looping rhythmic pattern and its performers’ improvisatory inventiveness for its effects.

After the lively variety of the program’s first half, the second half showcased the drowsier pleasures of veteran minimalist Morton Feldman. His Why Patterns?, from which the concert takes its name, is an exercise in what Ricketson describes as ‘‘beautiful purposelessness’’. Nightingale, Kanga and Edwardes gave a well sustained performance of this exercise in space and stillness.

The Street Two space did fine service as a sort of avant-garde concert hall, with a surprisingly generous acoustic. The intimacy of the space and the relaxed commentary provided by the various performers combined to alleviate the formality that can sometimes squeeze the air out of similarly cerebral musical undertakings. Ensemble Offspring’s refreshing approach to a repertoire that is seldom heard in Canberra has much to recommend it.