Verklärung: ecstatic exercises for cello

Anna Martin-Scrase, cello. Composition by Moya Henderson.
Classical, Music, New Music
Self-release, HEN002
Reviewed by , March 1st, 2015

Moya Henderson is an enigmatic figure in Australian music. Perhaps best known in the public imagination for her powerfully terrifying opera about the tragedy of Lindy Chamberlain, she is also the composer of a good deal of chamber music and other theatre pieces. There’s something hard to box and label about her work, which somehow encompasses some fairly unhinged dramatic works (I’m thinking of the alarming Rinse Cycle (2010), a savage satire of the old-style Catholic church in Australia, held together by a musical tight-rope), and also intimately reflective solo works. In terms of musical style, similarly, there is a chameleon-like mixing of conservative and radical elements. Perhaps, however, I should say ‘seemingly conservative’ and ‘seemingly radical’, because the more one explores Henderson’s music the more the sense develops that these are paradigms the composer plays with, playing with us and our expectations or prejudices. In this and other respects, we may discern the influence of her teachers, Stockhausen and Kagel.

Moya Henderson, composer

Moya Henderson, composer

In Verklärung: ecstatic exercises for cello (1998), we might expect to find Henderson in her more intimate mode. But again, I suspect there is another game being played here. From the title, ‘exercises’, we might imagine some little studies—student pieces even—when in fact these are three large scale, complex, inter-linked works (the total almost half an hour in duration). With the German word ‘verklärung’ (transfiguration), Henderson invokes not only a whole mountain of religious baggage but also the Freudian ghost of Schoenberg’s early masterpiece for strings, Verklärte Nacht (1899). Are we concerned here with spiritual, psychological or musical transfigurations? Listening, there is no doubt that we are at least dealing with the latter—the pieces are built from various combinations of figures and motives, interlocking in labyrinthine structures of transformation, combination, and dislocation.

And yet, with the word ‘ecstatic’ Henderson seems again to be suggesting we look for something more. . . which raises the question: how does one write 30 minutes-worth of ecstatic music? The answer is that one doesn’t. These pieces, rather, are a wonderful object lesson in how to create ecstatic moments. There are many luminous, unexpected moments here of ‘transfiguration’, where the listener experiences a sudden lifting of perspective, a clearing of the clouds. At the same time, Henderson reminds us of the value of the clouds themselves, without which the theatrical flourish of clear sky cannot occur. These three pieces, then, seem to be concerned with continuity and discontinuity (in a quite elegant, almost Stravinsky-like manner), with cross-hatchings of mechanistic figuration and organic lyricism, and with the play of light and shade.

A few curious moments of awkwardness, especially in the second piece, ‘with some excitement’ (careful, not too much!), seem to me to be a characteristic aspect of Henderson’s work that is peculiarly Australian. There is something genuinely heartfelt and expressive in this leaden bagatelle, like a hot-air balloon that can’t quite get itself airborne (or a nation that has never quite found a way to live up to its ideals). Here, I sense a connection to the political and human tragedies that are frequent themes in Henderson’s theatre works.

Anna Martin-Scrase

Anna Martin-Scrase

I remember as a student years ago hearing the composer Keith Humble deliver a furious tirade that began: ‘The problem with young Australian composers is that no-one knows how to write a proper ending!’. I still think of this often, as a composer myself, and thought of it also while listening to these cello pieces, each of which has a very beautiful and finely crafted ending. Humble was speaking of a fundamental problem in music—endings are indeed difficult to get exactly right. Henderson, however, certainly knows how to do it.

These pieces for solo cello do not make much use of extended techniques or experimental sonic flourishes. Rather, Henderson has chosen to work with a decidedly classic palette of sounds, and indeed a classic palette of pitch materials. This is not to say, however, that the pieces are lacking in colour—on the contrary, an expansive range of the possibilities of the cello are addressed and the pieces are undoubtedly challenging to perform. US-born cellist Anna Martin-Scrase is a terrific player, and she brings a great warmth of tone to the performance of these works, along with a virtuosic commitment to the acrobatic beauty of Henderson’s music. She is well-supported by the quality of recorded sound, which is very good indeed. This CD represents a valuable opportunity to hear some of Henderson’s best instrumental music in a very fine performance.

VIEW. Some studio footage of excerpts:

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