OF SPACE AND TIME

Some un­likely mu­si­cal iden­ti­ties are team­ing up to chart mu­sic’s time­line, from the big bang to K-pop, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - MUSIC -

THE his­tory of the world in sound can­not be eas­ily told as bang to whim­per. For starters, there was no big bang, in the sense of a cos­mic thun­der­clap or pow­der keg go­ing off. In the be­gin­ning, the uni­verse was with­out form and void. There was noth­ing for sound waves to ex­pand into, and sci­en­tists be­lieve the birth of the uni­verse was silent.

Mike Gold­smith, in his amaz­ing book Dis­cord: The Story of Noise, writes that the uni­verse wasn’t silent for long. Af­ter 380,000 years, it emit­ted a “pitch” of sorts, of about one-tril­lionth of a hertz. “There was an ever-fall­ing low­est pos­si­ble pitch to the uni­verse, and con­se­quently a grad­u­ally de­scend­ing tone marked its growth,” he writes.

Of course, sci­en­tific the­ory hasn’t stopped us imag­in­ing what a big bang would sound like. Kim Moyes, from elec­tron­ica duo the Pre­sets, has found a way to bring the birth of the cos­mos into the con­cert hall. He has ob­tained data from the Planck space ob­ser­va­tory, via Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, that had been con­verted into sound.

“It’s a sonic ver­sion of what the cos­mic microwave back­ground had been do­ing since the big bang,” Moyes says. “I hyped it up, edited it, did some work on it, added a bunch of white noise. It’s an im­pres­sion of what the big bang would have sounded like, even though there was not much sound, if any­thing at all.”

He makes a noise down the tele­phone, a slowly de­scend­ing glis­sando “Oooh”: a very lo-fi im­pres­sion of the cos­mic microwave.

Moyes’s big bang is the open­ing num­ber in an un­usual con­cert called Time­line, pre­sented by the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra on a na­tional tour. The ACO is one of the most ver­sa­tile string en­sem­bles in the world, not restrict­ing it­self to small rooms or strictly clas­si­cal mu­sic. Un­der Richard Tognetti, di­rec­tor since 1989, it has ex­panded to per­form the full­size sym­phonies of Beethoven, made film sound­tracks and dig­i­tally cloned it­self, with life­size avatars play­ing Bach and As­tor Pi­az­zolla.

But Time­line is a quan­tum leap for the ACO: a 40,000-year sound-jour­ney through hu­man civil­i­sa­tion.

The con­cert tour fea­tures the ACO strings and a vo­cal sex­tet, un­der the di­rec­tion of Gra­ham Ross. Mas­ter of cer­e­monies Ig­natius Jones has been brought in to help stage the per­for­mance, which will in­clude video projections that place the mu­si­cal ex­cerpts in his­tor­i­cal con­text. The Pre­sets have con­trib­uted their elec­tronic wizardry and done a mashup of 21st-century pop that will con­clude the con­cert.

A glance at the playlist of more than 200 mu­si­cal items sug­gests that Time­line will be a mind­bend­ing, ear-stretch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. To take some items at ran­dom: the Hur­rian Hymn to Nikkai from the an­cient city of Ugarit in mod­ern-day Syria, be­lieved to be the old­est ex­ist­ing no­tated mu­sic; the song writ­ten by Henry VIII, Pas­time with Good Com­pany; the rad­i­cal ex­per­i­ments of John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karl­heinz Stock­hausen in the mid 20th-century; and groups such as the Bea­tles and Kraftwerk, who took some of those tech­niques into the pop world. The se­quence of hu­man, as op­posed to cos­mic, mu­sic-mak­ing be­gins with a field record­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal song, rep­re­sent­ing the old­est liv­ing mu­si­cal cul­ture.

“We didn’t want it to be overly di­dac­tic, like a lec­ture; it’s got to be an en­ter­tain­ment,” Tognetti says of the Time­line project, which he hopes will ap­peal to long-time ACO sub­scribers as well as new­com­ers.

“For people who are re­ally hooked on the most re­cent pop song, hope­fully this will open their ears and eyes to the his­tory of mu­sic. Con­versely, people who just like their Beethoven and Brahms are amazed at the spec­trum of sounds that came out of the 20th century, into the 21st century. When you con­tex­tu­alise mu­sic like this, in a post­mod­ern way, you can have a cel­e­bra­tion of dif­fer­ent styles.”

Jones has en­hanced the sonic ex­pe­ri­ence with projections to pro­vide a kind of “vis­ual lan­guage”. For ex­am­ple, Time­line will show how Beethoven, the tow­er­ing fig­ure of ro­man­ti­cism in the 19th century, was part of the in­tel­lec­tual cur­rents of the En­light­en­ment: such rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals as uni­ver­sal free­dom and abo­li­tion of slav­ery. Beethoven’s Cho­ral sym­phony, with its fa­mous hymn to hu­man­ity, the Ode to Joy, is roughly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with the abo­li­tion­ist move­ments in Bri­tain and the US. In the con­cert, the Ode to Joy will be har­monised with a field record­ing of African-Amer­i­can slave song. Projections will show lines from the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man.

“The Cho­ral sym­phony is roughly the same time as the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise and Wil­liam Wil­ber­force,” Jones says. Of the con­cert’s vis­ual com­po­nent he says: “We never want to pull fo­cus from the mu­sic, we want to com­ple­ment it. The last thing we want to do is a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion, but we do want to help the au­di­ence make the con­nec­tions.”

If the big bang cre­ated mil­lions of gal­ax­ies, the ACO has trained its te­le­scope on a fairly nar­row con­stel­la­tion of mu­sic.

World mu­sic, or non-Western clas­si­cal tra­di­tions, are all but ab­sent from Time­line. It in­cludes tra­di­tional Chi­nese and African drum­ming, an Ot­toman march and Ja­vanese game­lan, but the se­lec­tions are over­whelm­ingly Western in ori­gin. In a playlist of 213 pieces, there is no Ja­panese court mu­sic or Hin­dus­tani clas­si­cal mu­sic, to name just two of the world’s great tra­di­tions. With a few ex­cep­tions, it ig­nores the mu­sic of the opera house, bal­let, theatre and film.

In its for­mat, too, Time­line pre­sents mu­sic as a lin­ear de­vel­op­ment: an al­most Dar­winian evo­lu­tion from “prim­i­tive” sound-mak­ing to ever more so­phis­ti­cated meth­ods and re­fined tastes. It’s an un­stop­pable march of progress, from Gre­go­rian chant to K-pop.

The nar­row fo­cus is due in part to prac­ti­cal­i­ties: a truly global sur­vey of mu­sic through the mil­len­nia could not be con­tained in an eveninglength con­cert. Tognetti says he also wanted to con­cen­trate on the Western reper­toire and its de­vel­op­ment, while show­ing how it has ab­sorbed in­flu­ences from other parts of the world. Euro­pean clas­si­cal mu­sic can be pre­sented as an evo­lu­tion through the cen­turies — it is the sub­ject of so many mu­sic text­books — but other mu­si­cal cul­tures do not eas­ily lend them­selves to such a chrono­log­i­cal sur­vey.

“There is some­thing about world mu­sic that is not just con­cerned with progress the whole time,” Tognetti says. “We are very much con­cerned with what mu­sic has be­come, and it’s Western mu­sic that is on this tra­jec­tory. We were very dis­ci­plined about that, very re­spect­ful of other cul­tures, and what has been an in­spi­ra­tion to Western mu­sic.”

You can imag­ine the fun and in­evitable ta­ble-thump­ing that would ac­com­pany the putting to­gether of such a list.

“There were gap­ing holes in the se­lec­tion,” says Moyes. “No ref­er­ence to African drum­ming (at first), which we thought was a start­ing­point for the mu­sic we are in­volved with to­day. For ev­ery gap there was a huge de­bate, and rea­son­ing for it.”

The Pre­sets are per­haps un­likely col­lab­o­ra­tors for the ACO, but not im­pos­si­ble ones. Moyes says he has “al­ways thought (Ian­nis) Xe­nakis was quite funky”, so mix­ing the avant­garde Greek com­poser with Bil­lie Jean, as he has done for Time­line, is not such a stretch.

Moyes and mu­si­cal part­ner Ju­lian Hamil­ton both per­form in Time­line, but not as the Pre­sets (al­though their hit My People gets a brief play­back). Hamil­ton will play one of Cage’s pre­pared piano pieces, and the pair will sing a He­brew song to­gether. Moyes’s main duty will be “work­ing the lap­top”.

Their greater con­tri­bu­tion is in the sec­ond half of the con­cert: the pe­riod from 1945 when am­pli­fied, recorded and elec­tron­i­cally ma­nip­u­lated mu­sic started to dom­i­nate the mu­si­cal cul­ture. At this point in the evo­lu­tion, Richard Strauss’s late piece for strings, Me­ta­mor­pho­sen, gives way to Cage, Char­lie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the proto rock ’n’ roll sin­gle, Rock the Joint.

The stream of mu­sic be­comes al­most con­tin­u­ous, Moyes says, so that the high Euro­pean mod­ernism of Gy­orgi Ligeti rubs shoul­ders with the Bea­tles’ Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, segues into The Revo­lu­tion Will Not be Tele­vised and un­furls with Jimi Hen­drix’s ver­sion of The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.

“It keeps mor­ph­ing and chang­ing, and you never quite get a grip on it for very long, be­fore it goes off some­where else,” Moyes says.

Things re­ally get go­ing in Time­line’s fi­nal act. The Pre­sets have done a deliri­ous mashup of the past 14 years of pop, check­ing in with Kylie, Bey­once, Brit­ney, Gaga and Lorde, just to name the girls.

Where to place the full-stop? Tognetti wanted to end with a 1975 piece by Arvo Part, thus re­solv­ing the hel­ter-skel­ter of 21st-century pop in a state of sim­plic­ity. An al­ter­na­tive was to end with the cur­rent week’s No 1 sin­gle, “with­out prej­u­dice”.

The idea that stuck was a new com­po­si­tion by Moyes, Hamil­ton and Tognetti: some­thing that would cap­ture the mood of the Part and be ut­terly con­tem­po­rary.

“We put a cou­ple of chords to­gether that didn’t re­ally re­solve, and threw that to Richard, and he driz­zled a bunch of strings and choir and elec­tron­ics on top,” says Moyes.

That piece, called Con­tin­uum, will bring mu­sic’s time­line to a pause, but cer­tainly not to the end.

The Pre­sets, be­low left, and the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra’s Richard Tognetti, be­low

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