29 September 2015

Seraphim Trio: Wind Farm Music Dedicated to Tony Abbott – a quodlibet for piano trio by Lyle Chan

Seraphim Trio
19 August 2015
45 Downstairs

Politically motivated music has been around forever - almost. Haydn’s Symphony # 45 (The Farewell, subtitled, ‘last one please blow out the candle’) is an early example; Patrick Ascione’s Guernica (1978) is much later. Some of it is seriously political, some of it is acerbic, some is comical and witty such as Haydn’s Symphony # 47 (The Palindrome). It’s just that the black-tie, po-faced milieu that is the norm for classical music today has, with one or two exceptions, killed the possibility of hearing ‘classical’ music with non-serious intent. Sometimes, though, a piece comes along that defies the respectful-attention expectation. Wind Farm Music Dedicated to Tony Abbott is a very contemporary example.

It was commissioned by Julian Burnside from Lyle Chan only a few months ago. Lyle’s piece is both political and witty. Its subtitle ‘a quodlibet for piano trio’ – from the Latin, ‘what pleases’ – describes the piece as a pastiche of quotes stitched together and sometimes in counterpoint (which makes those bits simultaneous quodlibets). It’s the quotes that give WFMDtTA its edge.

The piece is analogous to a political cartoon: brief, pithy, witty and multilayered. And like the best political cartoons it’s funny – laugh-out-loud funny.(Lyle told me it was ok to laugh.) As well, it has something serious to say. Picture a wheat famer ploughing. Snatches of ABCFM escape the cab of his tractor and head at the speed of sound (340.29m/s) into the atmosphere. Bits of music hit the blades of a wind turbine. They’re reflected in all directions from the blades. (It’s quite safe. It’s well above the frequency of infrasound.) It is these reflected quotes – there are 17 – that form Lyle’s quodlibet.

Seraphim found all of that: the quotes, the wit, the edge. We’ve come to expect all of that from a sharpish lot who are not afraid of something that’s new or breaks tradition.

Like artworks built from found objects, most musical pastiches don’t work. You can see the lines of Tarzan’s Grip, yellowing with age. This piece is a major exception. It’s seamless.

Something fishy about this quote

I have a theory – triggered by a Burnside comment about Beethoven IX at the first performance – that Lyle’s piece is subtly about freedom. The text in the choral movement is freude – joy. It can, Burnside suggested, be reasonably be rendered freiheit – freedom. Likewise, some of the other quotes from William Tell, The Marriage of Figaro, The Trout … And like all good conspiracy theories this one depends on selected evidence and is completely untestable.

Seraphim Trio seems to be doing more than any other Melbourne chamber group to get ‘classical’ (whatever that may be) music to a broad audience. That day (19 August 2015) the Trio staged three pop-up concerts/performances/recitals/events/launches (delete several at will) in a little theatre, a Melbourne library and a city museum then took off for Adelaide to stage a Beethoven Festival in the SA State Library.

This launch was at 45 (halfway) Downstairs. The little gallery – the performance space – had pieces of framed art on the wall. All were handwritten musings about climate change. Wind farms; climate change; now ex-PM Abbott; political music; perhaps there is hope for humans yet.

Later in the day Seraphim played Lyle's quodlibet at the State Library of Victoria but this time with a real - as opposed to a plastic - piano.

and here's Lyle's program note about the piece:


The ABC might record it - as a piece of Australian political history ... perhaps ... one day.

Fairfax certainly has it on record:


And it worked.
Lyle 'received numerous gleeful messages' to that effect on execution day. It was, it is, a piece for it's time.

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