Artist/s: ACO Collective, led by Helena Rathbone
Category: Classical, New Music
Label: ABC 481 7374
Reviewed by Gwen Bennett
“Adolescents needing hospital treatment shared their stories, hopes, fears and anxieties with twelve composers, who subsequently wrote music in response. Here it is!”
Making music or listening to music is good for body and soul. The healing power of music is well acknowledged. Scientists might attribute to endorphins music’s ability to relieve pain and stress, trigger memory in patients with brain injury or dementia and other benefits, but whatever the physiological mechanism, the outcome is recognised as valuable.
Dr Catherine Crock AM, a visionary who clearly knows that music can and does heal, initiated the Hush Foundation some years ago to harness the special qualities of music to aid better health outcomes. This CD is the 18th production in an ongoing series, the first where composers were invited into adolescent units in hospitals across Australia to undertake residencies and workshops with patients, staff and families, exploring how music might help those recovering from illness. This would have been a unique experience for all, in many and varied ways.
Six established composers worked with six emerging composers to create this collection of twelve new pieces, written for performance by the ACO Collective – the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s touring and educational ensemble of 17 string players. Helena Rathbone led the orchestra in performances of the usual high ACO standard.
The orchestra provides sonic cohesion for a diverse group of compositions that are best listened to with the accompanying booklet in hand to explain the background to the pieces, as each one has been written with a purpose – that of healing young people who are ill enough to be in a hospital. These skilled composers have managed to fulfil their aims, writing vignettes that are mostly only four or five minutes long. The compositional abilities of the so-called ‘emerging’ composers are impressive; their music measures up very well alongside their more experienced colleagues, thus giving us a glimpse of some names to look out for in the future. There is no raucous or spiky music; the overall ambience is uplifting and optimistic.
Titles chosen by composers are entertaining – joyous, quirky, reflective, fantastical and so on. Maria Grenfell’s piece is called Knitting Unicorns – what a great name! She explains that it “brings together a teenager knitting rainbow-coloured unicorns in her hospital bed, and a little girl who loved to play with toy unicorns after her surgery.” The music is contemplative and calming, as is the occupation of knitting. The notion of magical unicorns was transferred by her composing colleague, Thomas Misson, into the natural environment – water that gleams with bewitching, bioluminescent plankton. In his piece Glow (Abridged) he creates an attractive image with an expansive, flowing theme in low strings accompanied by sparkling pizzicato in high strings, and occasional birds.
Paul Stanhope’s Dancing on Clouds takes the patient out of the hospital environment into a fantasy world that mixes high soft sounds, repetitive rhythms, smooth swirls, solos and pizzicato, all expressing energy, optimism and a feeling of joy. Stanhope was working alongside Natalie Nicolas who, he said, engaged young patients “through her great skills as a pianist and singer”. Her piece We Won’t Let You Down is buoyant, brimming with liveliness and syncopated movement.
Elena Kats-Chernin’s Moon Feather Magic is sweet, lyrical and upbeat, with echoes of her now-famous Wild Swans motif decorating the themes. She worked with Rachel Bruerville, whose Dancing on Tiptoes opens with a mellifluous theme that fluctuates up and down, always with a gentle, repetitive accompaniment which could be the ‘tiptoes’ of the title – a happy, sunny piece.
The oeuvre of Stuart Greenbaum frequently concerns the cosmos and in The Rotation of the Earth it is our world that he describes. Constant momentum in the music expresses the daily cycle by which we synchronise our lives. The composer writes that “each new day brings something new, and this piece is written in the spirit of finding anything good, beautiful, joyous and worthy along the way.” He deftly conveys that optimistic mood. Alongside Greenbaum was Caerwen Martin, whose piece Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky is mysterious and velvety quiet at times, like a dark night sky when stars are best viewed.
Matthew Hindson’s Nothing is Forever features a memorable cello melody that is repeated with embellishments during the piece; it reflects the composer’s hope for a “brighter future for everyone”. This main theme lends itself to vocalising and might inspire some patients to add words, turn it into a song. Like Snowdrops You Will Shine by Katia Beaugeais opens softly, with a theme that weaves through gently downward moving patterns that might have the effect of bringing a troubled person from heightened levels of stress to a place of peace; the birdsong coda might elicit images of escape to a world outside the hospital environment.
James Ledger’s Daydream is interesting with long notes and unusual sliding figurations; it leaves a smile on the face. Working alongside Ledger was Olivia Bettina Davies, whose piece Crystalline projects a tranquil calm, providing a serene finale to the whole program.
The accompanying booklet contains a succinct summary of the project from the inspirational Dr Catherine Crock and a précis by Natalie Nicolas of the hospital sessions. Comments from composers and performers describe their individual experiences – it is unusual for every member of an orchestra to be given an opportunity to write for a publication with limited space such as this. Illustrating the title Collective Wisdom are charming little paintings of owls (What a Hoot), drawn by members of the Art Club at Lane Cove West Public School in Sydney. Photographs add further interest.
Overall, a very rewarding production from the very many people who were involved.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Meet Catherine Crock, the musicians, the composers and the patients