Making Signs

Syzygy. Laila Engle, flutes; Blair Harris, cello; Leigh Harrold, piano; Robin Henry, clarinets; Jenny Khafagi, violin; Guest: Daniel Richardson, percussion
Classical, New Music
Reviewed by , December 1st, 2015

In my early days of teaching, an inquisitive thirteen year old trying to swim in a sea of peers already world-weary, said to me, ‘Miss, did you know that syzygy is the only word in the English language which has three syllables and no vowels?’ I didn’t, but like all good learners, I haven’t forgotten. Syzygy, the ensemble, is equally rare. There are few groups who combine such disparate instruments – piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet (hence the name of the ensemble) and also few whose oeuvre consists almost entirely of new works, mostly new Australian works.



The uniqueness of the ensemble, of course, is a delicious invitation for composers to write specifically for them and Making Signs contains some of these works. In such high esteem is Syzygy held that on this, their debut album, represented composers are Gordon Kerry (with a work commissioned by Julian Burnside), Katy Abbott, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh and Brett Dean. Additionally Brenton Broadstock, an enduring champion of the ensemble, provides a composition exploring the individual characteristics of each group member (or perhaps their instruments) and how they come together – distinctive celestial bodies in alignment. And so we are blessed with an album where composer and performer – even before an air column or string vibrates – have a deep musical respect and affinity for each other. Is there any other substance in the universe, bar music, that could abstractly communicate such interplay?

Katy Abbott’s Sunburnt Aftertones was originally performed by Syzygy on Katy’s album of that name. It combines ravishingly beautiful melodic interplays, particularly on strings, with more abrasive sonorities on flute, including much flutter-tonguing and pitch-bending. The trills on clarinet provide a similar sense of unease. The piano holds these quite distinctive voices together with a repetitive fall from G to C and although in those moments where there is harshness the piano is in for a penny too, largely it plays the role of the centrifugal point of force in maintaining a balance between these disparate aspects of sun – life force/death star – and space; that beautiful rich, red, ancient Australian interior the orb controls. Vibraphone is the perfect instrument to expand on the resonance. It is such a well-crafted piece and as with all these compositions, there is a sense of complete unity in the playing despite the very different overlaying perspectives presented.

Kerry wrote Making Signs for a Syzygy concert exploring the concept of grammar. Who better? Kerry must have had such fun considering musical grammar and its distinctive and similar features to English grammar given his penchant for a great turn of phrase. Making Signs teases the listener in many regards. The marks are initially questioning, searching, exploring, experimenting, youthful, if you will, and as with Abbott, there are these gorgeous sustained passages on strings while the flute, clarinet and piano play boisterous games around them. The piece tentatively works to a point of unity – a chorale as Harrold describes it – long, sustained, rich and evocative harmonies, leading to a heavy burdensome passage on piano and cello followed by a more mature questioning which has a sense of enlightenment in its resolution. One has the feeling that Kerry is inspired in his mark-making by nature – looking out the window perhaps as he commits his ideas to a musical form, for there is throughout, the essence of big picture contemplation.

Syzygy: left to right - Leigh Harrold, Laila Engle, Blair Harris, Jenny Khafagi, Robin Henry

Syzygy: left to right – Leigh Harrold, Laila Engle, Blair Harris, Jenny Khafagi, Robin Henry

Brett Dean’s Kings in Exile has been written as an intimate observer’s view of the ageing process, and, in part, the observations of ‘the child in waiting’ for a similar destiny. I can, with experience, proclaim it the harrowing elongated event for all involved that Dean captures so evocatively in this incredibly detailed and technically challenging work. It is the most extraordinary piece, particularly texturally. Indeed textures and rhythmic interplays, dynamic and tempo fluctuations, are all incredibly important facets of this work.

The first movement is filled with grief, with frustration and that sense of no longer being in control: inner turmoil. In the second movement, it is hard not to be overawed by both the writing and interpretative skills. The intricacy of each part in what is a double trio – piano, violin and cello – clarinet, flute and vibraphone – provides a wonderful sense of searching for the old and familiar in an uncomfortable newness which has, by no means, been chosen. There is, towards the end of this movement a sense of acceptance, or, at the very least, a vision of a path of least resistance. Then there is more freneticism which is gradually overridden by a melodic passage on strings; a desperate grabbing onto one’s life narrative in defence of the infiltration of a cacophonic unknown.

The opening of the third movement is slow and somehow comforting in its miasmic reflectiveness. The beautiful birdcall at the end, counterpointed with a poignant cello, is left hanging. Mother nature on a grand scale is understandable, but up close and personal, it can be difficult to comprehend and accept. The once revered king is indeed in exile and no matter the grand scheme of things (if there is one) it’s a hard pill to swallow. As with all the pieces on this album, the unity of spirit and musical understanding between composer and performers is palpable.

Annie Hsieh’s piece, Quartet towards the Beginning works initially with quiet, lush harmonics and languorous notes which eventually explode on clarinet and piano leaving a post-apocalyptic feel sustained initially on violin and then joined on clarinet. Harmonics come again to rule, and yet where initially there was harmonic warmth, now there is harmonic desolation. Clever. But the end, which is the beginning has an essence of wide-eyed wonder and the closing sequence on piano is full of hope.

It is fitting that Broadstock’s ode to the group carries forward this sense of affirmation and optimism. Indeed where some have delved deeply into dark matter on this album, Syzygy is celebratory of life, of the ensemble and of music. The piece opens with an upwardly flourishing fanfare from the whole group and then each instrument has a solo, with just vague harmonic or textural support from one or two other instruments. Laila Engles is a vivacious flautist with quite astonishing technique and this is allowed to shine through in her solo. The other solos are more contemplative, the cello – you can hear Blair Harris breathing into each phrase and where many composers stretch to embrace the cello’s higher notes, Broadstock has here explored the sonorities of the lower register, milking the C string’s resonance and charting a romantic melody which is incredibly moving. This is the fate too, of the piano where lush, thick harmonies and syncopated rhythms are navigated across the full range of the instrument. I always think of the clarinet as an instrument of awakening and this is very much the feel of the solo here accompanied by this haunting breathiness on flute. The violin solo is also romantic, gorgeously evocative and gradually, with cello sympathetically emerging and other instruments joining in, a virtuosic frolic is sustained with all parts disparate and yet united. It leads to greater momentum – a sense of the journey of the ensemble. It is based on shorter and longer melodic motifs explored both in unison and separately and it all becomes quite jazzy and train-like. It is such a joyous ride

The journey continues. Having seen Syzygy in concert on a couple of occasions, their work ethic, their skill, their unity and their dedication to every piece they study and perform are really special. This is an important album.



Gordon Kerry

Katy Abbott

Brett Dean

Brenton Broadstock

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh

Mandy’s cello teacher is Blair Harris. She is trying (interpret as you will!).

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