An essay by Joe Browning written in May 2017
People and chatter filled the colourful, high-ceilinged room perched on an upper floor in the Melbourne Recital Centre – a bright, airy setting for a new music concert, promising something fresh and a little out of the ordinary. We had come for the launch of The Prospect and Bower of Bliss, an album of compositions by Johanna Selleck recently released on the Tall Poppies label. Chatter gave way to speeches, then about half an hour of music, followed by coffee, snacks and more conversation. Afterwards, when one of the performers, Anne Norman, who I’ve come to know a little while living in Melbourne, suggested I might write something about the event, I was hesitant – not because of any doubts about the music or performances, which I found expressive and skilful, but because of concerns about what it means to write a review. I’m wary of suggesting, as some reviewers do, that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to hear a piece or of trying to encapsulate a composer’s style in a few sentences. So this is very much a personal perspective and it branches into an issue that I find especially important, namely how music like this grows out of particular artistic lives and collaborations. As a shakuhachi player and researcher, I’ve long been fascinated by new music for this instrument, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute. And coming to Australia from the UK has sharpened my sense of the different ways this instrument finds its way into local new music scenes. Here, people are more likely to know the name of the instrument and its entry into contemporary music comes via a wider tradition of Australian composers looking to Asia for musical inspiration, as well as via the growth of a local, Australian shakuhachi scene made up of several professional performers and many more amateur players. That said, although the instrument is slightly more prominent here, it’s still rare to hear new music for the shakuhachi performed live, so I was glad of the chance to listen to Selleck’s latest piece incorporating the instrument.
The event began with speeches introducing Selleck and her compositions, first from composer Andrián Pertout, then Melbourne-based poet Graeme Ellis. For the launch the musicians played several movements from Selleck’s Seven Tanka, for two sopranos, shakuhachi and percussion, a setting of poems by Ellis. (The album takes its name, The Prospect and Bower of Bliss, from the other piece on the CD, a song cycle for soprano and piano setting poems by Aphra Behn.) As the speeches ended, the occasional rumbles from the trams on the street below gave way to the metallic swells that open the first movement – bowed and rolled cymbals – soon joined by breath sounds and trills on the shakuhachi. Anne Norman’s shakuhachi melody became increasingly lively and then insistently rhythmic as Arwen Johnston joined in on vibraphone, weaving a flowing harmonic texture to wrap around the soprano lines of Merlyn Quaife and Judith Dodsworth. Despite the slightly unusual shape of the long, tall room, the music rang out resonant and clear.
I’d heard only the first minute or so of music, but already a lot had struck me. It’s hard to put into words but, listening as a shakuhachi player, Selleck’s writing for the instrument sounds like it must feel good under the fingers and fit nicely within the ebb and flow of the breath. The pacing of the line, the choice of notes and the frequent idiomatic details – slides, trills, shifts in vibrato and dynamics, breath sounds and more – all add up to a variegated and characterful part, no doubt challenging but never unsuited to the instrument. I have little sense of how to write for voice or percussion, but would guess the same could be said of the other parts, which pass through different moods and textures while always sounding idiomatic. For me, the shifting relationship between the two soprano parts was another ongoing source of interest throughout the piece. Overlapping, mirroring and anticipating, sometimes falling into step, the two voices weave around each other, and the shakuhachi, in countless combinations. One of the charms of this music comes from Selleck’s skill in making and subtly breaking musical patterns.
Around halfway through the first movement the sopranos sing – simultaneously and repeatedly – the line “broad shakuhachi sighing”. The sighing vocal writing accompanying that lyric is typical of Selleck’s approach to word painting – pervasive yet subtle and affecting. But most striking to me (and, as will be obvious already, I’m unusually interested in one particular instrument) was the reference to the shakuhachi in the lyrics, at the same time as the shakuhachi itself was playing. This line appears because Ellis wrote Seven Tanka after hearing a performance of Selleck’s earlier piece Songs of the Earth and Sky, for shakuhachi and two percussionists. By deciding to set Ellis’ poem, Selleck wove a reference to the shakuhachi into her new piece and extended the chain of artistic responses. The choice also makes sense in the context of Selleck’s long-term engagement with Japanese poetry. Her first piece for an ensemble including shakuhachi, titled Becoming, was based on the Japanese linked poetic form of renga. Her pieces have been written in close collaboration with Melbourne-based shakuhachi players, first Andrew MacGregor and later Anne Norman. By working closely with these musicians, testing ideas and sounds, and sometimes leaving space for improvisation, Selleck has developed an approach that makes sensitive and effective use of the instrument’s capabilities and feels informed by, though not derivative of, the shakuhachi’s traditional repertoire, honkyoku (“original pieces”). That moment when the sopranos sing “shakuhachi” points to a long process by which a fascination with Japanese traditional music and poetry can pass back and forth between art forms and people, becoming one strand woven into the texture of the local arts scene.
Compositions like this often raise questions about the rights and wrongs of borrowing music, instruments or ideas from other cultures. Clearly Selleck’s response has been to ground her approach on personal and artistic relationships, by working with Australian musicians who have themselves studied extensively in Japan. Music like this can also provoke comments about the “seamless blending” of Eastern and Western elements – but this seems too one-dimensional for Selleck’s compositions. One thing I like about her music is that, within her own distinctive style, there is room for diverse relationships between instruments and sounds. One moment the parts flow along together, another moment the shakuhachi speaks out and sounds like nothing else in the world. This variety – sometimes highlighting differences, sometimes connections – is thanks to the long-standing collaboration between Selleck, Norman and the other performers involved, who have learnt together how to make music in which diverse voices both fit together and stand on their own. If the first minutes of the music raised these responses for me, the rest brought many more, including the challenge of summarising Selleck’s direct yet far from simplistic compositional style; the concern for nature and imagery that runs throughout her work; reflections on whether the all-women group of performers was representative of the wider new music scene or an important but rare anomaly; the convergent histories that bring the “extended techniques” common to much new music alongside the vocabulary of traditional shakuhachi music, which has its own pitch-bends, rhythmic fluidity and wide spectrum of tone colours. All this still only scratches the surface of Selleck’s piece and the performers’ contributions (for more, see the review at www.oconnellthemusic.com). But that is surely a good sign – the music on The Prospect and Bower of Bliss is substantial and rich, growing out of personal lives and sustained creative collaborations, and deserving of many more diverse and similarly creative listenings.