Tall Poppies


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 TP (1-901)



An improvisatory work by Cathy Milliken and friends

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell

Recorded in Berlin, Brisbane and Tev Aviv, this is a truly international recording. Cathy Milliken is an Australian oboist and composer currently working from Berlin. She has involved herself in many collaborative projects with some of the best modern performers available. Almost half of her collaborative partners in TWO STEP are Australian. She recorded improvised duets with each musician and then took these recordings into a studio where she created a long musical narrative from the duet resources. The text throughout, which comes from a series of short poems from Gertrude Steinís 1914 Tender Buttons, flows through the recording. Cathy says ďGertrude Stein was inspired by the cubist painters, layering repeating images, to create a sort of three-dimensional imagery. It has a type of mesmerising effect that goes beyond the words. I was interested in seeing whether the texts stand out or merge with the music; I feel they do both.Ē The whole piece feels like an unfolding journey featuring a series of commentators.

This project has been financially assisted by the Australia Council for the Arts, from which Cathy Milliken has also been awarded a 2020 Music Fellowship.

TWO STEP  The work is 45 minutes long and
is tracked so that radio broadcasters
can find convenient excerpts to play if
their formats canít manage the whole piece.


Collapsing Brittenís triangle

Accepting the inaugural Aspen Award for Services to the Humanities in 1964, the composer Benjamin Britten spoke of ďthis holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.Ē Itís a good line, and one Iíve trotted out myself from time to time, especially in order to make the point that music doesnít really exist unless itís being heard.

A composer may work for weeks, months or sometimes years to polish up a score, but the music remains silent on the page until brought to life by a performer or performers. This bringing to life is itself interesting, because it is essentially the same for a thirteenth-century motet as for a brand new composition: in performance, all music is made new.

Something similar might be said of the listenerís role. If thereís no one to receive the music, the musical experience is incomplete. Itís not quite the tree falling in the forest, because the performer is also a listener, but a non-performing listener brings something else to the music, and itís another form of participation, as Britten stressed in that Aspen speech.
Good listening, he said, ďdemands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the program perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts.Ē Itís all true.

And yet Brittenís triangular formula only holds for notated music, where the composer and the performer are different people. It doesnít cover improvisation, the spontaneous composition of music in which intense listening by the performers will dictate the next note.

Two Step by the Australian oboist and composer, Cathy Milliken, certainly throws a spanner in the works of Brittenís theory. Long resident in Germany, Milliken collaborated with friends and colleagues from Brisbane, Berlin and Tel Aviv ó players and singers, most of them also composers ó to create a continuous span of seemingly evolving music. When the recording appeared at the start of the year, the producers of The Music Show on Radio National attempted to find a four- or five-minute section to play on the radio, but thereís really nothing that makes much sense as a standalone item: to do it justice, you must hear the whole, or at least a very long stretch. This is remarkable, given the circumstances under which the music was made.

The work comprises a series of duets between Millikenís oboe and Sören Birkeís duduk, Millikenís oboe and Vanessa Tomlinsonís percussion, Millikenís oboe and Brett Deanís viola, Millikenís cor anglais and Carol Robinsonís clarinet; but also between Tomlinsonís percussion and Julian Dayís organs, Tomlinsonís vibraphone and Dietmar Wiesnerís bass flute, Wiesnerís flute and Deanís viola: itís like a chain. The duos, a mix of notated sketches and improvisation, were all recorded separately, then edited, juxtaposed and overlapped. The end result is music that flows from moment to moment. Except when it doesnít.

Listening to this piece can seem like eavesdropping on a series of intimate conversations ó not quite what Britten had in mind ó though there are also moments when we are called to attention, when the music doesnít flow so much as stop us in our tracks.

The first of these is the entry of William Bartonís didgeridoo, its glorious sonority overwhelming the nearby viola and cor anglais. Something similar occurs when Wu Weiís sheng plays. When we hear the flute or the vibraphone for the first time in Two Step, we register that a new instrument has appeared in the piece, that a new sound has been added to the mix. Bartonís didgeridoo and Wuís sheng come freighted with cultural significance we can hardly ignore and they grab our attention. Perhaps thatís why Milliken used them sparingly in her final assembly of the component parts.

Then there are the voices, singing and speaking. The spoken words are from poems in Gertrude Steinís Tender Buttons (1914), read by Day, Tomlinson, Dean and Milliken herself. The composer explained to Shirley Apthorp in the sleeve note accompanying the Tall Poppies album that she incorporated the poems in her musical landscape because she ďwas interested in seeing whether the texts stand out or merge with the music.Ē She concludes that they do both.

At first, I wasnít so sure. When you hear words, particularly Steinís rather inscrutable texts, you try to comprehend them. And the speaking voices are generally in the foreground, adding to this inevitability. But one day I found myself, by chance, listening to the album with the volume very low. I could still hear the voices, but only as murmurs. The words were indiscernible, the voices now fully part of the music.

Where does all this leave Brittenís triangle? In Two Step, the roles of composer and performer are blurred, but the listener ó and this includes Milliken and her colleagues, as well as you and me ó is more important than ever. Any piece of notated music is made first by its composer, then by its performers, then once more in the listenerís head. Even a piece such as Brittenís War Requiem, which we might know well, is remade each time we hear it, affected by what weíve listened to and possibly read in the time since our last encounter with it, what we heard just yesterday, and how weíre feeling today. Sometimes one is simply not in the mood.

But Millikenís Two Step, which its composer assembled from fragments of musical ideas ó many of them the performersí ideas ó and which retains a somewhat provisional air, requires more of us. We must bring our imaginations to the project, as well as our experience of Western and non-Western instruments and our ability to parse Steinís writing. Itís hard, indeed, not to feel we are, to some extent, composing the music ourselves. And with that, Brittenís triangle collapses. ē

© Andrew Ford August 2020

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