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"Transfigured Light" -- spine-tingling

Avant garde ensemble Arkora's microtones haunt graveyard just in time for Halloween

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To a driving ensemble score comprising “violin, cello, electric guitar with pitch-shifter and ebow, snare with brushes, sticks, thundersticks and cloths, and… lumiphone,” Kardonne sets her own original choral libretto. It’s a heavily metered text, all trochees and dactyls, addressed as a direct riposte to a presumptive accuser.

Roark, too, builds around his own original lyric in A Thousand Faceless Moons, the first of two works he world-premieres this evening. It’s a “passacaglia of sorts,” he writes, with the tenor voices carrying a measured through-line, offset by more urgent highlight bursts from the guitar, violin, cello, piano and lumiphone.

Lumiphone deployed. Image: Redshift

Sopranos, altos and basses join in for choral “subheads” of the libretto. Even after the chorus runs out of text, the instrumentalists carry on for eight more measures of tentative, diminuendo “ellipsis.”

Roark’s poem is idiosyncratically ruminative, vaguely reminiscent of the proto-surrealist tropes of 19th century symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. To underscore the kinship, the first half of the recital ends with a pair of Rimbaud’s own texts, After the Flood and Départ, scored by UCLA jazz-master Noah Meites. The pieces combine intricate choral polyphony with relatively spare – but jaggedly, defiantly microtonal – instrumentation for percussion, vibes, lumiphone and strings.

Then comes the only modern (i.e. 1996) item on the programme that is neither explicitly micro-tonal nor expressly composed for “Transfigured Light” – Proverb, by minimalist music pioneer Steve Reich. Without overtly embracing the 31-tone octave, the piece consciously hearkens back to the medieval master Pérotin whose a capella organum opened tonight’s “Transfigured Light” recital.

Reich, too, adopts an organum format – a stately melodic line with a filigree of melismas – except here the tonal values are reversed from Pérotin, with sopranos (reinforced by keyboard organs) stating the bedrock chant and tenors supplying the ornamentation. Vibraphones chime in early on to further drive the pelting rhythm – 5/8 time, to begin with, shifting between two- and three-beat metrical feet.

 It’s a long piece – 651 measures, 14+ minutes – with a palindromic architecture. Its descending melodic line inverts about midway to then rise from B minor to E-flat minor before subsiding in a soprano canon back to B minor and, at last, a soprano solo coda. All this built around a much reiterated 10-word epigram (or “Proverb”), a kind of minimalist cri de coeur, by the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.”

Hard act to follow, but China-born New York-based composer/vocalist Fay Wang rises to the occasion with her original, genre-bending, microtonal composition Hypnotist. She unfolds her themes in four-part choral homophony with rich orchestration; trembly strings, driving percussion and jazzy guitar riffs by her husband, Brendon Randall-Myers. But it’s Wang’s own breathy, bluesy torch-singing vocalisation that propels the piece, despite the enigmatic opacity of her self-written text.

Still, it’s a relief to conclude the concert with the stolid faith of an anonymous 18th century hymn, Where Endless Ages Roll a clear-eyed intimation of mortality in forthright ¾ time and blunt, three-line rhyming stanzas of iambs and spondees. Stepping back from microtonality, Roark turns this text into a rollicking canon that goes on for 400 measures.

It’s like passing from Halloween into All Saints’ Day; a resoundingly affirmative riposte to Roark’s tentative ellipsis at the end of A Thousand Faceless Moons in the first half of the programme. Together, Roark promises, the two pieces will form part of a longer cycle – maybe something to look forward to in the next iteration of  “Transfigured Light?”

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