Josh Pyke makes his orchestral debut: interview

Performing live with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a dream come true for Australian indie musician Josh Pyke.

Josh Pyke. Photo: supplied

Josh Pyke. Photo: supplied

“Hearing intimate music that’s been played out in your head in your bedroom, with a vast orchestral sound behind it is something that’s been a dream of mine for a long time – well before I had any reason to think that it might happen.

“I’m extremely excited and very nervous as well. I think it’s going to be a pretty wild experience for me,” says the ARIA Award-winning singer-songwriter.

Pyke selected the songs with input from his fans: “I posted something on Facebook and said, ‘what would you like to hear?’

“We did a poll and I was really pleased to see that some of the most popular ones were actually B-sides and album tracks, they weren’t necessarily the singles. That was kind of what I was hoping. I didn’t want to just do Make You Happy and Middle of the Hill. I love those songs but in an orchestral context I was wanting to push the limits of the audience as well as the songs,” says Pyke.

“There are some singles but there are also some glaring omissions. Make You Happy isn’t there or No One Wants a Lover: those songs, which were more like big pop songs. I’m sure there would have been a way to make them work but I wanted to hear songs like Fill You In, which is one of my favourite tracks, definitely one I feel emotionally connected to.”

The SSO commissioned 10 emerging composers from across Australia to orchestrate the music, with Pyke discussing each song with them but giving them a free rein to interpret the material pretty much as they wanted.

The Lighthouse Song, which is quite a laid-back folk song, has taken on a slightly more Sufjan Stevens, joyous feel, which is interesting. Memories & Dust, which is kind of upbeat on the record, has taken on a more melancholy vibe,” he says.

“I really subscribe to the idea that a recorded version of a song is just a specific moment in time. After years and years of playing the songs live, they take on a different life. And I don’t listen to my records. The version of my own songs that I have in my head is actually pretty different to the recorded version.

“When I play them live with the band they take on a life of their own and when I play them solo they change dramatically so I really wanted the arrangers and composers to take their own kind of attitude towards it. The songs are a framework; not necessarily something rigid.”

Perth-based composer Lachlan Skipworth was excited to be offered the opportunity to orchestrate Leeward Side for the concert.

“I love his music. For me, I wanted to be faithful to the original song,” says Skipworth.

“It’s got this relentless rhythm that keeps driving forward through the whole song. At the same time, it’s a quietly melancholy song. I took a model from Ravel’s Bolero, (which) is kind of the same thing.

“I have underpinned the song with two snare drums – except for one bit where Josh and I decided to make a change from the recorded version and slow it down.”

“It’s been a really interesting process,” says Pyke. “Some of the songs have remained fairly faithful to the original and some of them have diverged pretty dramatically. But I feel like every arrangement has served the song.”

Josh Pyke Live with the SSO, SOH, April 29 & 30. Bookings:www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19

 

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The Arrangement

Ken Unsworth’s Studio, Alexandria, July 16

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Right up front I need to say that Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer – who together with Susan Barling and Ross Philip make up Australian Dance Artists – are close personal friends.

As a result, I haven’t featured or reviewed any of the wondrous work that they have done in Sydney over the past two decades. Now that I have my own blog, the time has come to rectify that, while declaring my connection.

Last week, in collaboration with eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, composer Jonathan Cooper and The Song Company, Australian Dance Artists (ADA) gave seven performances of a production called The Arrangement, which a small invited audience (around 50 each show) was privileged to see.

The seeds for ADA were sown in 1993, when independent choreographer Norman Hall worked with four dancers from four different generations (Elizabeth Dalman, Harding-Irmer, Barling and Gideon Obarzanek) on a production called 4 Generations. (A history of the company can be found on their website www.australiandanceartists.com).

The four performers that make up ADA are senior artists (veterans, in dance terms) who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance. Among other credits, Philip danced with Sydney Dance Company from 1977 to 1992, while Barling was a member of SDC from 1978 to 1991. Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer performed for 15 and 17 years respectively with London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s and 80s.

Their experience brings an emotional depth to their dancing that speaks reams.

Since 2000, ADA has collaborated with Unsworth (now 84). Their productions – which are part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music – are something of a mindf**k. Stunning visual images from the wonderfully whacky world according to Unsworth, which often have you feeling like you have fallen down a rabbit’s hole, combine with profound connections between the four dancers whose choreography is a response to both Unsworth’s imagery and the music.

Together, Unsworth and ADA have presented work at a range of different venues including the Art Gallery of NSW, Cockatoo Island and Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria, where he has created a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews.

The Arrangement, which, like all their work was totally financed by Unsworth, features a newly commissioned score by Cooper for piano, cello, flute and clarinet. A song cycle with settings of texts by A.E. Housman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W. H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke for six singers, the score also includes musical interludes.

With Roland Peelman, director of The Song Company, as musical director, the music is beautiful and well suited to dance.

For The Arrangement, staged at Unsworth’s studio, Unsworth dug a pit beneath the stage especially and moved a pillar to extend the stage width-wise.

The production begins with projections (AV design by Tim Hope) of the dancers’ faces. Unsworth then glides across the stage behind a black shape suggesting the back of a piano. With his long, silvery white hair gleaming in the lights, he turns his head from side to side like one of those galleries of clowns at the fairground where you attempt to throw a ball into their open mouth. Then, sounding a large tuning fork like a magician conjuring the show with a wand, the music begins.

The non-narrative production is full of arresting images and vignettes around themes of ascension and descent, levitation, love, consolation, the passing of time and the inevitability of death – at least that’s what I took from it. Unsworth has never been one to spell anything out.

Early in the production, a singer (soprano, Susannah Lawergren) rises angel-like from the illuminated pit beneath the stage through a trap door, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling, chanting “again, and again, and again”. Later she descends in a space-age looking bubble (pictured) and at the end of the production descends back into the pit.

The vocalists all have a fair amount to do while singing. Alto Hannah Fraser flies through the air on a swing. (Mathew Lynn’s portrait of Unsworth in this year’s Archibald Prize features the sculptor on a swing, referencing Fragonard’s famous Rococo painting The Swing). The six-strong vocal ensemble climbs a frame along the back wall of the stage and pass wine from glass to glass. An archangel-type figure in long golden gown with stick arms and legs (baritone, Mark Donnelly) is suspended over the stage from an overhead track.

Visually, as in all the collaborations between Unsworth and ADA, the tumult of images never ceases to surprise and delight, enhanced by Pamela McGraw’s costumes and Eddi Goodfellow’s lighting. Barling reclines in a quivering bed of flowers, Philip interacts with a leg and arm from a mannequin, Harding-Irmer hangs listlessly in a hammock while Frankenhaeuser clambours over him in cajoling fashion. A large doll crosses the stage on a wooden rocking horse as a baby’s cries fill the space and, in a beautiful moment using video, Frankenhaeuser appears to levitate.

The choreography is by the four dancers, with Hall as choreographic collaborator. One of the most powerful moments is a duet between Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer. He stands on an illuminated ball, back to the audience. From behind him, Frankenhaeuser’s hands, arms and feet float and flutter in a dance of their own. Appearing at his side, her body seems charged with an agitated, buzzing energy, which she then plucks and flicks from her, channeling it into his body until his hands and arms start to shake as hers had done.

The duets between Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser seem to speak of nurturing and symbiosis. Those between Philip and Barling suggest something spikier, edgier, more tempestuous and perhaps combative.

Without the budget of a big commercial production where hydraulics and computerisation make for fluid scene changes, some of the scenic elements judder, clank and bang but that is part of the charm of a production, hand-made with so much love, unfolding there for us, so close to us.

The collaborations between Unsworth and ADA are unique, idiosyncratic and special. There is an element of the weird and wonderful as well as the impishly playful, yet the work is underpinned at every turn by a sense of humanity and layered emotion. It is a shame these productions aren’t being picked up and given another life. I’m surprised festivals aren’t tuning in. As it is, Unsworth and ADA have already started talking about the next one.

* The singers from The Song Company also included Clive Birch, Richard Black and Anna Fraser, while Ollie Miller played cello, Lamorna Nightingale played flute and Jason Noble played clarinet.

Les Illuminations

Rafael Bonachela, Katie Noonan and Sydney Symphony Orchestra violinist Emma Jezek discuss their new collaborative project Les Illuminations

 

Katie Noonan with SDC dancers Jessica Thompson and Thomas Bradley. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Katie Noonan with SDC dancers Jessica Thompson, Charmene Yap and Thomas Bradley. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

While performing with Sydney Dance Company on their 2011 production LANDforms, Katie Noonan asked artistic director Rafael Bonachela if he knew Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.

“She said she’d sung some of it and would love to sing all of it one day,” recalls Bonachela.

Bonachela – who had previously choreographed a work for London’s Ballet Rambert to another Britten song cycle, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – had a listen and loved it, but didn’t think too much more about it.

“Then, later, Katie reminded me, ‘do you realise that 2013 is the centenary of the birth of Britten so it would be a beautiful thing to do,’” he says. “And that’s how it happened. It was her suggestion.”

Bonachela talked to the Sydney Opera House and the project was earmarked for the Spring Dance Festival. The SOH subsequently canned Spring Dance but Les Illuminations survived.

And so, in what promises to be a sexy collaboration, eight dancers from Sydney Dance Company are joining forces with Noonan and 16 string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to perform a 45-minute work choreographed by Bonachela to two of Britten’s compositions: Les Illuminations and his Simple Symphony.

They will perform on a T-shaped stage in the intimate space of the Sydney Opera House Studio with Noonan and the musicians along the top and the dancers on a catwalk jutting into the audience.

“Be ready for some sweat!” laughs Bonachela as he and Noonan joke about needing plastic covers for the audience similar to those used for the water-spraying Bath Boy in La Soireé.

Les Illuminations was first performed in 1940 when Britten was 27. In it he sets nine poems to music, chosen from a suite of 42 by French poet Arthur Rimbaud written between 1872 and 1873 when he was aged 19 to 20.

Rimbaud was having a torrid affair with another poet Paul Verlaine at the time with whom he was leading a wild life fuelled by absinthe and hashish.

Britten’s cycle – which Bonachela describes as “dark and erotic” – was originally written for a soprano but is also performed by tenors – most famously by Britten’s own partner Peter Pears.

Simple Symphony is a simpler, more playful piece, composed when Britten was 20 using parts of a piano score he wrote as a teenager.

“It’s a really innocent, lovely little piece that is often played by school students,” says Emma Jezek, SSO’s Assistant Principal Second Violin. “Les Illuminations is completely the opposite. (The poems) are wild when you read the text and the music is absolutely beautiful.”

Though Les Illuminations is challenging musically for the performers, Jezek, Bonachela and Noonan agree that it’s not difficult for audiences.

“I think it’s one of his most accessible works. They both are,” says Noonan. “We wanted to make it very inclusive so that someone who likes my music but who has never seen an orchestra or Sydney Dance Company will feel welcome.”

Noonan has loved Britten for as long as she can remember. “Mum (singer Maggie Noonan) sang a lot of Britten,” she says.

“I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t in utero, I was a very young children when she did (Britten’s operas) Albert Herring and Peter Grimes. I sang in the chorus of the War Requiem when I was eight or nine, which is an incredible piece.

“I did some excerpts from Les Illuminations with the Australian Chamber Orchestra five years ago and I thought, ‘these are so beautiful,’” she says. “One of the poems has words along the lines of ‘I love you so much I have stretched garlands from window to window; golden chain from star to star, and I dance. I thought it’s made for it (a collaboration with SDC).”

“There are quite a lot of dance and movement references in the poems,” agrees Bonachela.

Bonachela – who celebrates five years as Artistic Director of SDC in November – is basing his choreography around duets, using two different sets of four dancers for the two compositions. He has enjoyed creating something intimate, after choreographing a series of large-scale works for the company.

“The limitation of the space have also been an exciting challenge,” he says. “I remember asking Anne Dunn, who was our Executive Director, ‘which is the front (of the stage)?’ and she said, ‘there’s no front.’ I said, ‘there must be a front’ and she said, ‘no, everywhere is the front,’” says Bonachela laughing. “It’s made me reconsider my future choreography, even when there is a front.”

Bonachela, Jezek and Noonan all agree that they find collaborations like this incredibly exciting.

“It’s fantastic doing crossover projects. It’s so exciting,” says Jezek. “They bring a different perspective to the work I suppose. I haven’t worked with Katie for a number of years but she has done projects with us before and it’s always fantastic. She’s so innovative and talented and incredibly fun to work with.”

“Collaboration is my main passion really,” says Noonan. “I’ve always loved working with people from different walks of life. I guess the way I approach my music is all about connectivity and connection. The genre doesn’t matter – classical, opera, jazz – as long as it comes from a good place and a place of integrity.

“But I love working with artists who are equally passionate in another vernacular. So I’ve worked with Bill Henson the photographer (and the contemporary circus group Circa) and with Raf in 2011 (on LANDforms), which was so beautiful. That is kind of my main passion now, moving forward: breaking down the boundaries between genres and different mediums.”

Bonachela is also thrilled at the chance to collaborate with Noonan and the SSO. “I could use some recorded music but the ultimate pleasure for me is to perform to live music, to give audiences that gift where there are 16 individual people making that sound, and Katie singing, and then these amazing bodies dancing. For me it cannot get any more ultimate.”

With a running time of just 45 minutes, there are two performances each night. Audiences who go to the earlier one can then hot foot it to the SOH’s Drama Theatre and catch a performance of ITMOI (in the mind of igor) – a celebration of Stravinsky by the wonderful British choreographer Akram Khan.

Les Illuminations plays at the Sydney Opera House Studio, this Wednesday to Saturday.

An edited version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 25