May 2022

The Nation Reviewed

ANAM Set and music in lockdown

By Zoë Morrison
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The project that commissioned 67 Australian composers to write for each of Australian National Academy of Music’s musicians in lockdown

During the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown in 2020, when the young virtuosos of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) could not perform or play together, even practising their instrument presented difficulties. Many had come from interstate to study, and lived in small rental accommodation; to practise they relied on the academy’s studios, which had to close. ANAM, the government-supported national performance training institute for musicians, sent pianos to the pianists and distributed its percussion collection between lounge rooms. A couple of brass players resorted to practising in a local park. All this, while their industry was decimated. “Even in the best of times,” ANAM’s general manager Nick Bailey explains, “it takes every ounce of your being to make it as a musician.”

That year, many doubted whether it was all worth it; some dropped out. Bailey came up with an idea. ANAM would commission 67 Australian composers to write a 6- to 8-minute piece for each of ANAM’s 67 musicians to be performed the following year, funded by the federal government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund. Due to its condensed time frame and sheer size, some said the project was crazy. (“Does Australia even have that many composers?” one non-musician queried.) Hundreds of composers applied. Every commission was delivered on time. More than 40 of the works have already been recorded, and while many of the scheduled performances in 2021 had to be cancelled, the ANAM Set will be performed in its entirety – twice – at the Abbotsford Convent, in a mini-festival from May 13 to 15.

“I think this is one of the most significant projects for Australian music in recent times,” says Cat Hope, a professor at Monash University’s school of music, member of Music Victoria’s COVID-19 recovery committee and one of the composers involved. “It engages some of the most promising and talented music artists, and connects them with living Australian composers to create works that will be with us forever.”

The composers were selected not only on the quality of their music but also for their willingness to collaborate (much of which ended up happening online). The result is an extremely broad range of works by diverse people at different stages of their careers.

There are new works by luminaries William Barton, Deborah Cheetham, Ross Edwards, Paul Grabowsky, Elena Kats-Chernin, Andrea Keller, Liza Lim and Richard Mills. Natalie Williams’ Skrípka, written for violinist Emily Su, is achingly tender; Noemi Liba Friedman’s The Eleventh Partial for hornist Nicola Robinson, after announcing itself rudely, steps across the stave like a bird picking up its feet in water to a place of deep reflection. And in Kats-Chernin’s Grand Rag for clarinettist Oliver Crofts and piano (played by Leigh Harrold, creative coordinator of the ANAM Set), the duo’s work is so beautifully synchronised, so joyful and precise, it’s like a cheek-to-cheek dance done in quick time. Perhaps there could be no greater rebuttal, by a composer and two musicians, to the separation and deprivations brought on by COVID.

The ANAM Set is said by some to be an unparalleled musical documentation of the Australian pandemic experience – many of the works deal with themes of isolation, mental health and even, in one case, the lockdown obsession with baked goods. But rather than just capturing a tumultuous time, some do more: envisioning what comes next, exploring new worlds and dimensions.

Kitty Xiao’s work, In Flesh, for cellist Hamish Jamieson and electronics, creates a new sound universe. Xiao, who graduated from Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and is about to start a doctorate of musical arts (in composition) at Columbia University, instructed Jamieson to record snippets, which she spliced and distorted beyond recognition, and then put back together – an approach she describes as “Frankenstein-esque”. Some of it is played by Jamieson with his bow very close to the cello’s bridge, pressing down quite hard. Scraping, shivers, echoes, repeated notes, shrieks, more scraping… it feels like music for a dystopia, with insects crawling across the land. But there’s something rising up out of this extraordinary intensity, a sound that’s always been there, like air, but is only now becoming apparent. In this deeply compelling, unsettling music, the breakthrough beauty of a single vibrato note, slide or descending interval cradles the listener in this soundscape, suggesting that while you may be ever reminded of its strangeness, you are not alone there.

The score for In Flesh is animated and Jamieson performs it with the assistance of a stopwatch, all of which can make him feel a bit anxious. But Xiao has reassured him this is deliberate; even the audience is meant to feel unsettled. Her work can be viewed in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, intersectional feminism, and lived experiences of cultural alienation, loneliness and repression. Her themes of connection and the search for authenticity – that persistent scraping for what lies beneath – are universal.

Cat Hope’s The Long Now, for bass trombonist James Littlewood with electronic tone accompaniment, changes the listener’s perception of time. The piece is inspired by the Long Now Foundation, an American think tank that fosters very long-term thinking, beyond our usual imagining (they have created a 10,000-year clock in a mountain). Hope uses pitch – specifically, low frequencies – as well as tempo to explore this concept and its applications, for example, to climate change. Some notes in this piece are so low we don’t have the capacity to hear them, but their vibrations shake the whole room. Littlewood slowly probes different timbres on his instrument using pops, puckers, tongue slaps and multiphonics (singing one note and blowing another at the same time). The listener, focused on a minutiae of fascinating sounds, which get gradually lower in pitch, is stilled; one’s breathing slows, perceptions shift. The score is presented via video and there’s no regular pulse to latch on to. In his very physical performance, Littlewood says he must be “super in the moment, all the time”. The piece climaxes in a frantic hiccuping, tongue slapping and spitting, a desperate, “primal” experience Littlewood describes as “gasping for breath”. After this, the sound of the wind, as if to blow the franticness away, a deep breath.

Zoë Morrison

Zoë Morrison is the author of the novel Music and Freedom.

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