City Recital Hall’s new music feast, the micro-festival Extended Play, has quickly become an eagerly awaited annual event, with the second iteration of the 12-hour extravaganza co-curated by City Recital Hall and Lyle Chan taking over every corner of the venue on Saturday. It was a hard ask to out-do last year’s Extended Play – which brought together ensembles from around the country, with US group Bang on a Can All-Stars headlining – but Chan and the team at City Recital Hall pulled it off, creating an immersive experience that matched the previous year’s excitement, but with a different flavour resulting from a whole new line-up of artists and music, headlined by the Queen of the Toy Piano, Margaret Leng Tan.
Margaret Leng Tan at Extended Play. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
For new music fans in Sydney the event is an opportunity to hear some of the groups from around Australia that might not tour here often, if at all. Brisbane-based Nonsemble, which kicked off the festival in the auditorium, for instance, made its Sydney debut with two signature audio-visual works by Chris Perren: Samurai Loops, which dissected footage from Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 film Samurai Rebellion and combined it with rippling post-minimalist textures, and Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke, which brought a rock sensibility to three dimensional imagery inspired by the board game Go.
At the other end of the program, Cat Hope’s Western Australian based Decibel ensemble premiered two new works for the ‘Talking Board’ score format, using the Decibel ScorePlayer graphic score notation app. Leah Barclay’s crackling Fire Atlas saw the ensemble perform from a score projected above the stage in which coloured circles moved across images – smouldering fire-scapes and maps – sourced from the Global Fire Atlas, while Loren Holmes and Rosie Halsmith’s Transect had the musicians respond with pointillistic textures to circles moving through abstract black and white tracings of paths and textures inspired by mapping and the Western Australian Swan Coastal Plain.
Nonsemble at Extended Play. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
In the early evening, Perth ensemble Intercurrent treated the level one function room to a set that spanned Hannah Lash’s motoring C to music by John Supko, David Lang and Olivia Davies’ hauntingly delicate Initmate Distance – shot through with moans of bass clarinet – before finishing with Lachlan Skipworth’s taut reverse canon Intercurrent, from which the group takes its name.
Between, and alongside, those acts were myriad other performances sprawled around the venue, audience members choosing their own adventures, from the ground floor – where, like last year’s marathon performance of Satie’s Vexations, musicians and audience members could participate in Terry Riley’s minimalist landmark In C – right up to the third floor lobby, where I caught Halcyon’s Jenny Duck-Chong singing vintage songs by Kerry Andrew (the quirky Fruit Songs) and Matthew Hindson (the delightful Ants in the Shower Recess and Cicadas at night) with guitarist Vladimir Gorbach.
Christine Johnston at Extended Play. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
The simultaneous performances of Extended Play means it is impossible to hear it all, and everyone will experience it differently – there will always be regrets about performances missed. One of the particular highlights for this reviewer was a brilliant performance by Sonya Lifschitz of George Crumb’s 1972 piano cycle Makrokosmos, Volume 1, in tandem with wildly funny classroom lessons from Christine Johnston – complete with wheeled out overhead projector splaying slides wonkily across a screen – covering everything from Latin to bird calls and a wordless (but remarkably effective) masterclass in the interpretation of graphic scores, including a wonderful vocalisation of a fish drawing. While Lifschitz coaxed rumbling, primeval sounds from under the piano’s lid in Crumb’s Zodiac-themed pieces, it was Johnston who tackled The Magic Circle of Infinity movement, linking the two facets of the performance in a storm of vocal effects that brought together everything that came before.
Later in the auditorium, Synergy Percussion gave a tight, high energy performance of David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, the complex, repetitious patterns – in which changes in texture or instrumentation come as a jolt to the lulled listener – contrasted with atmospheric free-form responses from electro-acoustic art music ensemble Polymorphic Orkestra.
The Geist String Quartet and Jenny Duck-Chong at Extended Play. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
Upstairs, the second level bar area found Oliver Shermacher – who performed Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Ensemble Apex the night before – giving the world premiere of Alice Chance’s Star Gazer, a beatific expression on his face as he gazed skywards at the wavering spots of small handheld lights, floating his sound across an otherworldly chorus of clarinets from the gathered audience’s smartphones.
Other highlights across the day included the bristling strings of the Geist String Quartet in the fourth movement of Cameron Lam’s String Quartet No 2 (part of Kammerklang’s album launch for Lam’s The Art of Disappearing, mezzo Duck-Chong giving a poignant account of his song-cycle setting of poetry by Sarah Holland-Batt), and Brisbane vocal ensemble Australian Voices’ set. Conducted by Gordon Hamilton, the ensemble performed – in addition to music by Paul Stanhope, Cathy Milliken, and Margaret Tesch-Muller’s luminous Et Lacrimatus Est – an anxious, hallucinatory teaser, Poisoned Today!, from a new oratorio by Lyle Chan based on the diary (and death in the desert) of gold prospector Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter. The set finished with music by Hamilton himself, the room rumbling with the sounds of breaking ice and marine wildlife in vivid field recordings the composer took on a recent expedition to Antarctica.
Margaret Leng Tan at Extended Play. Photo © Katelyn-Jane Dunn
Margaret Leng Tan’s evening recital was the high point of the festival, however. She warmed up the crowd with an eclectic first half, from the thundering clusters of Henry Cowell’s The Tides of Manaunaun and the bright cacophony of his Times Square-inspired Advertisement to Toby Twining’s blues tango An American in Buenos Aires, which Tan performed with a rose (later, a cigarette) between her teeth as her right hand produced tinkling melodies from a toy piano and her left accompanied on the “adult” instrument. With dead-pan mischievousness and mystical mien, Tan moved to the floor of the stage for Phyllis Chen’s Carousel and Cobwebbed Carousel for toy piano and antique hand-cranked music box, James Joslin’s Für Enola for toy piano and jack-in-the-box (“It’s all about suspense,” Tan explained wryly) and Australian composer Erik Griswold’s Chooks! and Bicycle Lee Hooker, a virtuosic juggling of toy piano, bicycle bell, train whistle and bicycle horn. Wearing a foam headpiece à la the Statue of Liberty, she capped off the first half with “my present for President Trump,” Star Spangled Etude #3 (“Furling Banner”) by Raphael Mostel, a halting account of the anthem on toy piano, with toy siren, bugle call and a toy gun brandished at the finale.
The second half was given over to the Australian premiere of George Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, ten short pieces for piano (and toy piano, and various small percussion instruments) after famous paintings. From the roaring strummed strings of the dark and monumental opening movement, inspired by Paul Klee’s Black Prince, this was a deep and captivating performance. The skittish The Goldfish (more Paul Klee) and Wheatfield with Crows (after the late Van Gogh painting), continued threads introduced earlier in the day by Lifschitz and Johnston, Tan’s plaintive crow calls recalling Johnston’s birdsong, here desolate more than comic.
Marc Chagall’s Clowns at Night saw Tan place woodblocks inside the piano, creating a tenebrous world with toy piano, wind chimes and brushed strings, while the penultimate movement, on Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory was desolate and metallic, with a ghostly quotation of Amazing Grace. In the final movement, Crumb – and Tan – captured the rumbling momentum and thick brushstrokes of Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider, before the audience emerged to find City Recital Hall throbbing with the sustained drones of Julian Day’s Living Room.
This year’s event seemed to iron out some of the kinks from the inaugural Extended Play, with traffic flow, particularly, smoother in my experience – though plenty of the smaller spaces were still standing room only for some events – but by nightfall the food situation had apparently become dire for those who didn’t eat early. There was more than enough food for the soul, however, Lyle Chan and City Recital Hall curating a wide-ranging program both entertaining and intelligent. I look forward to what a third iteration might hold.