Ensemble Offspring’s birdsong program in the old Quarantine Station at North Head took on a particular poignancy in the context of recent fires.
Shrouding the bushland of Sydney Harbour National Park glimpsed through French doors and veranda installation by Michelle St Anne, was the now-ubiquitous bushfire haze, a premonitory reminder of the destruction that climate change threatens to all that this concert celebrated.
Yet the charm of the song of birds, nature’s first musicians as Olivier Messiaen called them, mingled with music in seven recent Australian pieces, did not fail. Most magical was Hollis Taylor and Jon Rose’s Bitter Springs Creek 2014, featuring Taylor’s recordings of pied butcherbirds in the MacDonnell Ranges.
The year is an important part of the title since Taylor has established that not only is it possible to identify individual birds by their calls but that those calls evolve over time. After a beautifully intimate ‘duet’ of two recorded birds, flautist Lamorna Nightingale, bass clarinettist Jason Noble and percussionist Claire Edwardes joined the contrapuntal web, matching the avian virtuosity with their own, such that the birds sometimes appeared to ‘recapitulate’ and comment on the music of the instruments.
Kate Moore’s Blackbird Song for bass flute, bass clarinet and vibraphone began the concert quietly with textures drawn from softly descending notes which were sustained into the next to create glistening dissonance. People of this Place for bass clarinet by Felicity Wilcox created a sepulchral low resonance, like a sound from the earth, over which shrieking chords and agile passages were built like anthropological layers.
Fiona Loader’s Lorikeet Corroboree was the most playful work, intermingling rapid woodwind arpeggios with bird cadenzas and quotations from Mozart and Vaughan Williams. Daybreak for flute and life electronics by Tristan Coelho awakened from haunting calls in half silence to gloriously active textures.
Edwardes’ solo percussion work Screechers & Sorrows featured chirps and echoes from the waterphone, an instrument of metal spikes protruding from a water-filled disk which creates eerie resonance of surprising depth. Ensemble Offspring played Gerard Brophy’s rhythmically demanding Beautiful Birds with precision and élan. A well-crafted work in three movements, it introduced Turkish exoticism into carefully cross-layered textures of high polish and sonic interest.