Lyle Chan String Quartet. An AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music

Acacia Quartet
Classical, New Music
2 CDs, Vexations 840 1401
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2015

Lyle Chan was an activist at height of the AIDS catastrophe and his musical responses to events at that time are the basis of this work. Whilst not being program music in the usual sense, the background described in the accompanying booklet provides insights and a deeper understanding. His story is dramatic, of brave men who were not afraid to rock the boat and break rules when the situation demanded it; he was one of them. An emotional and powerful composition is the result. It evolved during several years when Chan gave up composition, other than making sketches in music diaries; only fairly recently have those sketches made their way into the wider world.

Lyle Chan

Lyle Chan

The two CDs present almost ninety minutes of music, divided into seventeen short segments, mostly less than ten minutes long. It is tonal and not of the ‘squeaky door’ variety that some listeners find alienating. The work is both coherent and cohesive. Reflecting, as it frequently does, on the deaths of friends and colleagues, the music is elegiac, sad, beautiful, nostalgic, occasionally energetic and sometimes distressing.

After an atmospheric opening, Chan quotes Auld Lang Syne several times in a gentle interweaving of the strings, but while we might feel quite at home with this familiar song, the reverie is punctured by high cries on the violin, explosions and sirens. The next section opens with a contrasting moto perpetuo named for ACT UP, an AIDS activist group: a middle section is passionate but calm, becoming more virtuosic, frenetic and jabbed with startling police whistles.

Chan’s associates now appear in the titles of the movements: ‘Dextran Man’ was involved in making illegal anti-AIDS drugs and the music features virtuosic and percussive chordal writing, followed by a poignant melody. ‘Mark And Adrian Are Her Sons’ (twins, both gay, sons of a politician) is in three parts, beginning with high, delicate, ethereal sounds which segue into a lively tango-like movement and concluding with a sweet song. ‘Et tu Bruce’ is an eloquent expression for gifted organist and harpsichordist Bruce Brown who gave the last four years of his life to AIDS activism and ‘Night Vigil’ expresses the agony of being with him while he died. Inspired by one of Bach’s last works, the influence is clear in the contrapuntal writing and the spirit of Bach imbues the whole – but not for long as the mood is shattered by more police whistles. ‘Toni-Oni Macaroni’ is a tribute to another activist – a lighter touch here soon gives way to a sad chorale after Tony’s death. ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ reflects on David, who was trialling new drugs for an underground illegal ‘guerrilla medical team’ called AIDSX; this music is deeply sad.

The final two movements are more pensive: ‘Towards Elysium’ honours the heroes of the battle, including those who chose suicide over facing death by AIDS, then the bitter-sweet ‘Fairy Tale Ending’ where, Chan writes: “…a fairytale ending is the act of growing old. During the plague years, this was out of reach… Once upon a time, this was only a dream. The music sounds to me like old World War II holiday songs, where a soldier promises his sweetheart, he’d be home for Christmas. And some of them made it.”

The Acacia Quartet is superb. These fine musicians – Lisa Stewart, Myee Clohessy, Stefan Duwe and Anna Martin-Scrase – have only been playing together since 2010. Their achievements in those few years are impressive indeed. Apart from concerts, they have performed at festivals, made recordings, broadcast regularly, have collaborated with many other Australian musicians and have been nominated for awards. They actively champion contemporary composers, as evidenced by their dedicated interpretation of the music of Lyle Chan.

Recording engineer, the redoubtable Bob Scott, and team have done a fine job and the album layout by Philippa Horn is excellent.

The producer is the composer himself. This is a man who can do anything. Not only did he gain academic qualifications in physics, molecular biology, neurolinguistics and hypnosis, he has completed post-graduate music studies and spent more than ten years working as Artists Repertoire and Marketing Manager for ABC Classics. Most impressively, he can also write well for string quartet. The concept and execution of this CD is an achievement for which all can be justly proud.

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