Evolution of sound
Kim Moyes, Richard Tognetti and Julian Hamilton. Picture: Jack Saltmiras

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Richard "the Time Lord" Tognetti has visions of bending the sonic space-time continuum by cramming 40,000 years of human music-making into a 2½-hour concert.

The radical musical mash-up involving Tognetti's Australian Chamber Orchestra and the electro-pop duo the Presets promises to be, as the principal violinist and ACO artistic director says, a case of "life flashing before your ears".

Called Timeline, this musical evolution takes in the 40,000-year-old sticks and vocals of Aboriginal Australia and the ancient drumming of Ghana and China through to the Sumerian drones of 4000 BC. It then swings through the Gregorian chants of medieval Europe, the polyphonic sprees of the late Renaissance and accelerates into the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods before exploding into the modern day.

Dufay, Gesualdo and Monteverdi will rub shoulders with Snoop Dogg, Gotye and Miles Davis. Vivaldi, Mozart and Stravinsky will dance Gangnam Style with Kylie, Madonna and Amy Winehouse - all set to visual effects marshalled by director Ignatius Jones.

"It's musical time travelling," Tognetti says. "It will be shocking but also highly revealing."

In fact, this ambitious history of the music of the spheres aims to reach back well past the dawn of mankind to represent the first sounds emitted by the creation of the universe.

So what does the Big Bang sound like? Tognetti and the Presets, the classically trained keyboardists Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes, can only guess, of course, about the good vibrations emitted by that massive sound check 13.8 billion years ago.

"There is a sonic simulation of the Big Bang, which Kim Moyes found from a professor somewhere, and there is white noise as well, which is what people associate with the leftover radiation," Tognetti says. The concert, involving the ACO, the Presets, six vocalists and dozens upon dozens of recorded snippets, then rolls through time until Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht from 1899 closes out the first half.

After interval the pace starts to quicken as Turtle Twist by Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed father of jazz, and US composer Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question herald the beginnings of "the American century". Then "we have the last gasps of oxygen coming out of the rotting carcass of Europe" heading into World War II, Tognetti says. Then another line is drawn in the sand in 1945 as Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen gives way to an excerpt from John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes.

The post-war period takes on a mega-mix effect as styles - jazz, soul, classical minimalism, rock and techno - jam up against one another at ever-increasing rates.

The result is a blurred, uncertain perspective that reflects the mad scramble of musical influences and myriad points of access in the digital age through pirated downloads, podcasts, internet radio, YouTube, normal radio, and so on. "Before you know it you don't know where you are," Tognetti says. "You are just floating around in space."

This diversity and present-day proximity also posed the problem of how to conclude the concert. It is always harder to be definitive about the "now" than the "then". Who is to say who the new Cage, Lennon or Coltrane might be?

Tognetti and the Presets decided to compose a new piece, called Continuum, with the aim of imparting an expansive, relaxed feeling of time never ending. They had initially flirted with the idea of ending with whatever song happened to be top of the charts on any given week of a performance.

"We thought 'Oh no, what if it is Justin Bieber?' We wanted something a little more profound," Tognetti says. "That was our biggest discussion and we actually finish with white noise so we end by returning all the way to the beginning."

In his 25 years as ACO director, Tognetti has looked to stretch the orchestra's audience appeal and artistic boundaries through such projects as The Reef, Musica Surfica and The Red Tree and unorthodox collaborations with the likes of Neil Finn, Peter Garrett, Tim Freedman, Paul Capsis and Michael Leunig. Earlier this year the ensemble won three Grammy Awards for a recording with Dawn Upshaw.

Timeline, however, is without any question the most ambitious project the ACO has undertaken and Tognetti says audiences will need to suspend any scepticism to undertake the journey with the performers.

"Hopefully they will be pleasantly surprised. This is an exploration of what we do and who we are as musicians. We are posing all sorts of massive questions," Tognetti says.

"I hope that we are not shoving things down people's throats but on the other hand I do hope that it is entertaining in the greater sense of the word. And I do hope we have a clear line. We ask a lot of the audience but it is titillating. It is not a lecture."

Just a handful of the more than 200 musical excerpts come from the Middle East, Africa, China and South-East Asia because Timeline is grounded firmly in the Western tradition, the well from which the ACO draws its repertoire.

"It is music which has had the greatest impact on the trajectory of the music that we play," Tognetti says. Naturally, the selections were a source of great debate.

"No doubt we have made errors and without any question there are many omissions and people will go 'Why didn't you put this in?' Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, didn't change the trajectory of music, the course of history."

The West Australian

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