Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

2. From the East to the West: Astra in Camino al Tagliamento

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

Friday 7 November

The excitement of Venice wears off very quickly one you have to set about business there. Our schedule for rehearsals was comprehensive and exhausting. There is no quick way to get around Venice, just lots of walking along the same crooked route to get from the AirB&B apartment I was sharing with three others across to the Conservatorio.  The only sightseeing I managed was when I got lost, which was often, until I found my one true route and stuck to it.

Conservatorio, Palazzo Pisani

Apart from running Fluxus events at the Conservatorio, Professore Vaglini was preparing a performance of a major work of his called Inventario. As a composer from childhood, Vaglini had kept all his notebooks containing his musical sketches and ideas. Inventario is a happening (the 60s again) centred around an actor reading from a script and presenting all these notebooks as if he were auctioning them by lot. The actor is interrupted by very brief music interludes based on notes in the notebooks and these were mostly delivered by the Astra Improvising Choir.  All throughout the 45 minute performance the main Astra Choir chanted a list of all the entry dates in the notebooks—September the first, 2012; August the thirty first, 2012—and so on, coming and going as other musical interludes had their moments.

The Improvising Choir was at the Conservatorio every morning to work on our Inventario contributions and our own improvising pieces. The main choir joined us after lunch and spent the afternoon sitting around, chanting and waiting while a thousand small details were argued over and sorted out and timings set. To say the main choir was bored is an understatement, but at least they had their mornings free.

Those old-timers among us from the La Trobe Uni music days were familiar enough with all of this. In 1975 the foundation professor of the of music, Keith Humble, brought back to Melbourne exciting ideas about contemporary performance and composition, one of which was his own event concept, the Nunique.

A Nunique was a large-scale happening where I remember different performance activities were given in the one large space, overlapping, with no priority given to any single performer or group.

The performances may have been improvised voices, electronic music, a baroque recorder trio—anything went. Performers might have been in more than one event, which I think determined when things were done more than anything else, i.e. when a particular group was able to convene in the moment. The audience wandered throughout, composing for themselves a soundscape from all the events happening. The importance of the audience as a contributor to the performance experience is central to McCaughey’s programming for the Astra Choir and could be seen as a legacy of the La Trobe school.

And there were visual displays as well, including a memorable frame of dozens of croissants threaded on wires like a giant abacus. I was 20 and it made an indelible/inedible impression on me. The croissants had been glazed in a varnish and they were rather lovely. Strung together they created a physical rhythm, each a variation on the next—one of my earliest personal encounters with minimalism in the plastic arts. Ahh, the heady days of the mid-70s.

Learning to ‘read’ a physical work like that did teach me that music is not always what you hear performed by, or at you. Music is ‘hearable’ as an internal, reflective process. While reading online yesterday I came across this passage from a review by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, about the pianist Leon Fleischer.

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Camino al Tagliamento

‘The central work is Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor for violin, arranged as a left-hand piano exercise by Brahms. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms told of his love for the Chaconne—“a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings”—and said that he enjoyed struggling in solitude to execute it with one hand, because “one does not always want to hear music actually played”.’

Dear, stuffy old Papa Brahms: one does not always want to hear music actually played, but one wants to know it is there and to either ‘hear’ it in the mind’s ear or to simply allow it space and time to exist. Humble and the La Trobe school maintained that Brahms (and the late Liszt) were moving into musical territory that prefigured modernism. My memory of our historical studies was that we started with the contemporary and moved back, not always in teleological sense to determine who came first and who influenced whom. Sometimes it was powerful enough to learn that some composers/artists, if they live long enough, break from their own moulds and leave options to the future that are startling in their originality.

The point of all this is that Vaglini’s Inventario, on the one level a colossal vanity project was, one another provided a rich scope for musics heard and unheard, to manifest themselves. The crowning moment was when we all decamped to Camino al Tagliamento in the Friuli region to be part of the official Strade dell’Est festival at Camino, directed by Vaglini and Francesco Zorzini, a composer and teacher based in Camino.

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