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 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