Ensemble Offspring is Australia’s foremost new music ensemble, dedicated to the performance of innovative new music. The Sydney-based group is committed to a living classical music tradition combining classics of the 20th century with the music of tomorrow from Australia and abroad. Originally called the Spring Ensemble as resident ensemble in Roger Woodward’s Sydney Spring Festival, the group has clocked up over 15 years experience.
With a reputation for original and unique programming and high quality performances, Ensemble Offspring pursues an agenda of directly shaping the music of our future. Embracing an eclectic and progressive repertoire, the ensemble can be found presenting spectral, minimalist and complexist classics one week to free improvisation, multimedia and cross-genre events the next.
“Ensemble Offspring's razor-sharp precision, textural clarity, incisive attack and thrilling virtuosity created one of the most stimulating and challenging concerts I've heard in recent years.“ (Murray Black The Australian, June 2011)
Ensemble Offspring’s dedication to the presentation of new work is summed up in this latest release. The all-premiere collection of works were commissioned by or written for Ensemble Offspring. Springtime, the groups second CD, sparkles with the energy and vitality that characterise its live performances. The instruments combined on this disc are flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and guitar, featuring artists such as Geoffrey Gartner, Claire Edwardes, James Cuddeford and Bernadette Harvey.
The CD’s namesake, Springtime, was written by renowned English composer Michael Finnissy as a wedding gift for Ensemble Offspring’s co-founder Matthew Shlomowitz whose work Slow Flipping Harmony is also featured on the disc. Finnissy and Shlomowitz’s work, together with Same Steps by Artistic Director Damien Ricketson, reappraise the tradition of indeterminacy in music whilst new commissions from esteemed Australian composers Bozidar Kos and Michael Smetanin explore facets of spectral harmony. Together the works represent a rich and intricate world of microtonal textures and spacious forms.
Introduction to Springtime by Richard Toop
A little labyrinth of interconnections underlies the works and performances on this disc, and most of the links involve the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The starting point for Ensemble Offspring was a Sydney Spring Festival created by pianist Roger Woodward (himself a former Conservatorium student). There was no existing ensemble able (or perhaps willing) to engage with the radical repertoire Woodward wanted to advocate – composers like Dillon, Radulescu and Xenakis – so he formed his own. To a large extent, he used recent and current Conservatorium students, and in doing this he drew greatly on the knowledge and enthusiasm of two young undergraduate composers at the Conservatorium: Damien Ricketson and Matthew Shlomowitz. After a few years the Spring Festival folded, but Ricketson and Shlomowitz were determined to maintain the momentum, and in 1995 formed their own Ensemble Offspring (the origins of the name are obvious enough), using many of the same core players. Naturally, they sometimes used this ensemble as a springboard for their own works, but more often they have used it to advocate other composers they admire.
On this CD, perhaps untypically, those other composers are primarily their former mentors. Bozidar Kos was Head of Composition at the Conservatorium from 1990-2002, and was then succeeded by Michael Smetanin, who had already been teaching there for many years. Matthew Shlomowitz went on to study in England with Michael Finnissy, whose ‘title piece’ for this album also pays tribute to the ensemble in its own title. Shlomowitz also studied in San Diego (with Brian Ferneyhough), as did Perth-based Christopher Tonkin.
So what do all these compositions have in common? Stylistically, none of them is conservative, but one could trace all sorts of positions between ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’. And of the Australian composers (which in effect is all but one of them), one would have to say that, in contrast to many of their contemporaries, ‘national identity’ is scarcely an issue here. More importantly, it seems to me that for all these composers, there are no pre-established routines, no made-to-measure composing strategies. Each new work is a basis for re-assessment; for testing the current state of one’s work, reflecting on where it might best go next, and acting accordingly.
But let’s be a little more specific: what particular contemporary issues do these works address? The most unexpected, maybe, is the re-appraisal (by Finnissy, Ricketson and Shlomowitz) of indeterminacy, half a century after its first spectacular eruption amongst the post-war avant-garde. Now, it seems, the emphasis is different: not on Cageian ‘egolessness’, nor on structural permutations, but on the ways that apparent freedom (in terms of the notation) encourage the performer to be drawn into personal responsibility for everything that happens (it’s significant that only one of these pieces requires a conductor, and even there, for only some of the time). Then there’s the whole issue of microtones – whether ‘spectral’ or as inflections – that will surely be central to the music of coming decades. And while most of these pieces are relatively short, almost all of them seek a certain spaciousness, though without falling back on a simplistic resort to stasis: in every piece, there is always a lot going on!
In musical terms, it’s hard to utter the word ‘Spring’ without thinking of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. But these well-known works are just the first four parts of a bigger collection entitled ‘The Contest between Harmony and Invention’; and if one can reinterpret that, at the start of the 21st Century, as a mutually supportive contest between texture (harmony) and figuration (invention), then it could well serve as a motto for the works gathered on this disc which, in terms of both composition and performance, seems to represent a very welcome new Australian Spring.
About Ensemble Offspring
Artistic Directors: Damien Ricketson & Claire Edwardes
Ensemble Offspring is dedicated to the performance of innovative new music. The Sydney-based ensemble is committed to a living classical music tradition combining the music of today with iconic works of the 20th and 21st centuries. The ensemble embraces a wide variety of progressive repertoire from wild improvisation to meticulous complexity and has a particular focus on experimental and interdisciplinary presentations. The groups eclectic players would typically be performing spectral, minimal or complexist classics one week, and the next, improvised cross genre shows on bespoke instruments.
Ensemble Offspring is the voice of new music in Sydney and over its 14 year history has emerged as one of the most successful contemporary music groups in Australia. The ensemble has developed a reputation for its original programming, quality of performance and successful audience engagement. In 2010 the group presents its Sydney Festival debut and is ensemble in residence at ISCM/Aurora Festival (Sydney).
All notes by the composers
Michael Finnissy Springtime 2003
Michael Finnissy’s work has always sought to reconcile widely different approaches to composition, jazzing together modal folk-musics with atonality, editing bits and pieces together in an almost filmic montage.
Springtime is one of several of Finnissy’s works that provide individual parts from which the performers play, but for which no score exists: there is thus no written summary placing all the parts together so that their relationships can be clearly seen. This encourages the performers to progress through the first part of the piece with a measure of independence from each other: emphasising their individual lines, giving them a certain amount of freedom, and (usually) creating complex rhythmic interactions.
In the work’s second section, all of the players’ music shows their own part, as before, as well as that of the clarinet. This allows the musical parts to be coordinated in relation to the clarinet, instead of to underlying rhythmic (metrical) structures through which they count. The rhythm of this section can therefore become very free, as the clarinettist has the option of taking rhythmic liberties, and all the other parts may coordinate with that instrument in the moment of performance.
Springtime was composed as a wedding gift for Matthew Shlomowitz and Kirsten Le Strange.
Damien Ricketson Same Steps 2008
Damien Ricketson is one of Australian’s most prominent young compositional voices and is respected for his intelligent and inventive music making as a composer and artistic director of Ensemble Offspring.
“I am attracted to heterophony. The same story recounted by many voices, the same scene observed through many eyes. I like plurality in music: the clash of different musical logics as well as the work itself an object open to a multiplicity of different perspectives. There are two facets of ‘openness’ that pervade Same Steps. In Part 1, rather than provide the musicians with a score that represents specific technical instructions, the score includes a selection of unconventional interpretive markings designed to elicit a more open and evaluative response from the performer. I have adopted a system of “physical” indicators modeled on Rudolph Laban’s Theory of effort-actions. In Laban’s theory there are eight physical movement types, each based on combinatorial descriptions of space, weight, and time. Although usually found in choreographic practice, the musicians interpret the markings to describe the transference of physical energy from the performer to his or her instrument.
Christopher Tonkin Widdop, Phaetons…Relic (2001/2009)
Christopher Tonkin has written works for acoustic ensembles, as well as for performers and live, interactive electronics. Several of his pieces have been premiered and performed at arts festivals and concerts by ensembles and soloists in Australia, Europe, North America and Asia. After 10 years abroad in the United States and France, he returned to Perth in 2008, where he now teaches composition at the University of Western Australia.
The title Widdop, Phaetons…Relic refers to three poems by Ted Hughes from which various features of each of the movements, such as gesture, timbre and formal organization, were derived. Widdop describes a grove of trees with interlocking limbs, illustrated musically by occasional coincidental attacks and blending timbres of violin and piano with bowed vibraphone and crotales. The second movement, Phaetons, is volatile in character. Sudden angular shifts in dynamics, contour and texture reflect the erratic, impulsive personality of Phaeton upon whom the poem is based. Relic consists of traces of what has been heard before. The focus here is on what I conceive of as relic-like material, where wispy violin figures are accompanied by piano resonance and distant bell timbres. This trio for violin, piano and percussion was originally composed in 2001. I subsequently revised it in 2009 for Ensemble Offspring.
Michael Smetanin Swell 2008
Michael Smetanin is known as one of the most distinctive figures among Australian composers. He studied with leading Dutch composer Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatorium in the Hague during the early 1980’s and has composed a large number of chamber works including the recent work Micrographia commissioned by the Schoenberg Ensemble, and a number of orchestral and operatic works .
During the last decade he has composed with spectral and just intonation enrichment of his harmonic and melodic language and what has always been clear to him is that the rich, organic and shimmering qualities spectral harmonies exude are more easily rendered when composing for larger ensembles. This fact became the central compositional problem to solve when composing Swell which is written for a small ensemble of two clarinets, two percussion and two violins.
Spectral pitch materials require the production of micro-tonality, which strictly speaking, percussion instruments are incapable of producing, so what was a small ensemble in the spectral sense was even further reduced. The solution was partially in the ability of the clarinets and violins to produce microtonal pitches. These instruments play in what is essentially at one point of the piece a C half flat tonality and at another an A half sharp tonality allowing the fixed pitch percussion instruments to produce a limited number of spectral pitches from those fundamentals/tonalities, especially the natural minor seventh or seventh harmonic.
Matthew Shlomowitz Slow Flipping Harmony 2006
Shlomowitz, co founder of Ensemble Offspring, is now based in London where he lectures at the Royal College of Music. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium with Bozidar Kos, privately with Michael Finnissy, and at Stanford University where Brian Ferneyhough supervised his doctorate. He has composed works for Champ d'Action, ELISION, Ensemble Offspring, Ives Ensemble, Ricciotti Ensemble and Quatuor Diotima. He is co-director of the Anglo/Belgian Plus Minus ensemble, and is a member of the performance groups interinterinter and the Letter Piece Company.
The basis of Slow Flipping Harmony is a chord that becomes muddied and then disintegrates. Each performer has a series of related melodies; each melody elaborates a note from the chord. The players proceed through their parts independently of one another, repeating each melody a number of times before moving on to the next one. The result is an overlapping tapestry of asynchronous loops and the muddying of a simple harmony. The process towards disintegration is initiated by the auxiliary player who makes live recordings on two “poor quality recording devices” (e.g. dictaphones), which are played back over the unfolding performance. This is consequently mirrored by the instrumentalists who are instructed, in a manner of their choosing, to play their melodies with a 'damaged' and 'dirty' timbre.
Bozidar Kos Fatamorgana 2004
Bozidar Kos is a widely esteemed composer and educationalist. He was born in Novo mesto, Slovenia, in 1934 and moved to Australia in 1965. Kos began studying music at an early age and later became actively involved in jazz, playing throughout Europe. In Australia he taught at the Adelaide University and was head of composition at the Sydney Conservatorium. Since 2008 he has once again been resident in Slovenia.
Fatamorgana was commissioned by Ensemble Offspring in 2004 on the occasion of Kos’ 70th birthday. The title Fatamorgana, means mirage or optical illusion also taking on tragic associations when viewed in the context of the death of his wife, Milana, prior to the commencement of the work. Kos writes: “During a relatively short period of her illness she was undergoing a series of tests, each associated with some hope that the disease could perhaps be beaten, only to be followed by a series of disappointments and eventually by a cruel realisation of the inevitable.” The metaphor of the mirage, and the deceptive hope that it brings, is reflected in the spatial arrangement of the ensemble with the vibraphone distant but painfully present against the slippery textures and fragmentary melodic utterances from the remaining instruments. The extra-musical reference also separates Fatamorgana from much of Kos’ oeuvre which is otherwise purely formal in design and, as a composer best known for his orchestral output, is one of a only a small but refined number of chamber works.