Ligeti Morphed: a sometimes spellbinding performance of acoustic and electronic music combined

Ensemble Offspring with Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng, Ligeti Morphed, Sydney Festival / About An Hour (CarriageWorks, Eveleigh, 13 January 2013)

Acoustic and electronic music come together in this concert using works by composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923 – 2006) as inspiration and foundation. The venue is a former railway yard recently converted into a centre to develop and present works of contemporary music. Four members of the experimental classical music group Ensemble Offspring performed on violins and percussion on a cramped stage with Oren Ambarchi on guitar and Martin Ng on turntables. Surrounded by black curtains on three sides, the musicians were almost dwarfed by a shadowy atmosphere that was a little on the sinister side. Distant rumbles of trains outside – there are busy railway lines behind the venue – added a spooky effect. The hall was not air-conditioned and, with every seat taken, the air was palpably hot and sweaty and people were frantically fanning themselves with copies of the program.

The Ensemble Offspring musicians primed themselves and us with their rendition of Ambarchi and Ng’s “Simulacra 7 “, a pleasant droning piece. The original piece was playing in their headphones and the women responded to the music with their answers on violin, cymbal and one other percussion instrument (jeez, I already forget what that was). This was followed by a relatively conservative performance of Ligeti’s Piano Etude #2 ‘Cordes Vides’ 4′.

The best was yet to come and we got a taste of it with the two percussionists, Bree van Reyk and Claire Edwardes, hitting and drawing on the skins with their version of Ambarchi and Ng’s “Woods 15′ “, a surprisingly deep droning piece that could have been mistaken for two rumbling cargo jet aircraft coasting through the sky. Van Reyk and Edwardes later swapped whacking drums with pom-pommed sticks for whacking marimbas with pom-pommed sticks on Ligeti’s “Continuum (2-marimba version) 6′ ” and this, even more so than the drum duet, was an exercise in intense concentration, split-second anticipation and timing, and intuitive knowledge of one’s own and her partner’s sections of the music as the musicians set up on-going repetitive loops of minimalist thrumming of the bars that change continuously. The actual music itself was not so remarkable as the echoing bell-like metallic resonance that reverberated overhead and carried through the air.

Ambarchi and Ng joined the musicians on the last two pieces of the program, of which the rendition of Ligeti’s “After Atmospheres 16′ “, based on the piece that was used in the Stanley Kubrick flick “2001: A Space Odyssey”, was the major highlight of the entire set: powerful thunder and gentle rain-showers were simulated during the course of the music, the women blew peals of shrieks on toy woodwinds, Ng coaxed some surprisingly deep and heavy drones from his turntables and Ambarchi flipped vibrato flecks and other gentle effects from his guitar. Of all the performers, Ambarchi seemed the quietest but he was working hard on his sampler and guitar and I was sitting closer to Ng than to him so the relative distances between them and me would have made a difference to what I was hearing.

Unlike some recent live performances I’ve seen where chunks of minutes got chopped off from the set time – I’m still annoyed at the time I went to see Noam Chomsky talk at the Sydney Opera House and the time allocated to him was whittled down from 90 minutes to less than an hour – the musicians stretched 60 minutes to 90 minutes so they literally gave 50% more than they were obliged to. Unfortunately this meant that when they finished, the entire row of people sitting with me stampeded over me during the applause to catch the next item on the Sydney Festival program so, erm, Oren and Martin, if you’re reading this and you guys noticed that I was a bit slow to get up and clap, that was probably because I had been run over without even the privilege of being startled to see my whole life flash by in oncoming headlights.

One aim of the set was to produce sounds that, combined together in real time, evolve into new sound textures and moods of their own accord. In this, the musicians weren’t always consistently successful and it was actually easy to tell who was making what sound in later performances; but when they hit the mark together and held it, then the result was spellbinding.