Soft Soft Loud
The music of Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James Ledger and Andy Akiho
4 stars
Fremantle Arts Centre

Bryce Dessner will be known to many as a guitarist with Brooklyn-based indie rock band The National. And while there were shades of the rock guitarist in Dessner's inspired performance of his solo electric guitar work Feedback Counterpoint, this sell-out courtyard concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre was more about Dessner the Yale-educated classical composer.

Dessner's improvisatory Feedback Counterpoint (the title references Steve Reich's famous Electric Counterpoint) didn't disappoint: this was the guitarist as colourist, most of the sounds produced without Dessner even touching the strings (though he did wield a bow at one point). By turns lyrical and abrasive, the work was on this occasion prefaced by a "Perth Prelude", inspired by Dessner's having visited Rottnest the day before and swimming with seals.

Feedback Counterpoint - the only one in which Dessner appeared as performer - opened the second half of a program devised by Soft Soft Loud artistic director and cellist Matthew Hoy. Before it came Dessner's Tenebre, Nico Muhly's It Goes Without Saying and James Ledger's When Chaplin met Einstein; Andy Akiho's to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem and Dessner's Aheym followed.

Taking the bookends as a set, Tenebre and Aheym, both of which have recently been recorded by the Kronos Quartet and friends, are very different beasts. Tenebrae, for a string quartet which expands to three (multi-tracking/prerecording is used) and vocals (ditto), references the Christian service of the same name which takes place during Holy Week. Aheym (Yiddish for, according to Dessner's program note, "homeward"), for chamber orchestra, is, as Dessner writes, "a musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage."

If the subtle and ingenious use of string harmonics is what stands out in Tenebre, it's the bracing combination of driving, muscular rhythms, variegated timbres and textures and extremes of volume, register and articulation that make Aheym such a compelling work. It and Tenebre were given equally compelling performances by an ensemble which included Hoy and violinist Margaret Blades.

Elsewhere, clarinettist Ashley Smith fizzed and bopped to a rhythm track and diverse sampled sounds in Muhly's It Goes Without Saying while a slamming car door (really - a section of a car formed part of the stage's backdrop) and strings and winds imitating sirens, screeching of car tires and even medical equipment featured in Akiho's evocation of his mugging and subsequent hospitalisation, wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.

A different kind of inspiration was behind Perth composer James Ledger's When Chaplin met Einstein, specially commissioned by the Fremantle Arts Centre for Soft Soft Loud: the meeting between those two geniuses and the collision of worlds old and new. Here, organist Alessandro Pittorino seemed right at home on the Hammond organ, engaging in a lively, supple rhythmic conversation with an ensemble comprising strings, winds and percussion.

In a wonderful concert which apart from the aforementioned featured the likes of clarinettist Phil Everall, percussionists Louise Devenish and Daniel Susanjar and flautist Emily Clements, it was also heartening to note just how vital tonally-based, minimalist-inflected composition still is and what a broad, cross-generational appeal it still has. My only concern was the explanatory interventions throughout the course of the evening. They detracted from the momentum and the mystery - which is what music is all about. If we wanted to know more, we could have read our program notes.

The West Australian

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