With its trio of August releases, Cold Blue Music reaches the milestone of 50. The label is known as the home of John Luther Adams, but there’s a lot more talent on its roster. Australian composer Stephen Whittington is a prime example, his last appearance being the Satie and Eno referencing Music for Airport Furniture. The follow-up seems more contemporary, despite the fact that its two compositions predate Music and were written two decades apart. Even more surprising is the fact that the title track (written in 1990), seems more modern than “…from a thatched hut” (2010). For this we can credit the essential timelessness of sonic experimentalism, the rawness of the earlier piece offsetting the sweetness of the newer.
Whittington’s extensive resume can seem daunting. Born before “Rock Around the Clock”, the artist has lived through the entire rock era yet has continued to be a champion of the avant garde, somehow managing to resist the long, slow decline of many artists whose sound is stuck in a particular decade. His interest in multi-media works, including a recent sound and video installation, demonstrate his fascination with the now. While his historical and cultural insights mark him as experienced, in sound, he still seems young.
The ten-minute “Windmill” may be a third the length of the other piece, but it receives top billing: the title, the cover photo, and the closing spot. At first, the sounds seem like creaky, un-oiled metal, until one realizes, that’s the point. Australia’s steel windmills are now mostly abandoned, yet continue to turn in the wind. Once upon a time, they marked the boundary between life and death for settlers who themselves endangered the indigenous populace. The turning of the windmill is echoed in the circular, even-tempered pace of the strings. Once in a while, the music stops, as if the breeze has died, picking up again for a moment before stalling again. One begins to think of the windmill as a metaphor for society, for progress and decline, for new starts and deserted technologies. A certain nobility is present in these tattered, rusted beasts, just as it was in the people who erected them. The irony is that the windmills alone, without strings as their voice, continue to exist as multi-media installations, their original purpose discarded.
“…from a thatched hut” unfolds in seven movements, and reflects Whittington’s fascination with Chinese poetry, in particular the withdrawal to the thatched hut for solitude and inspiration. This composition allows the Zephyr Quartet to showcase their talents, in particular their self-control and ability to inject a large amount of feeling into a small space. One hears romance in these movements, and philosophy, and tension ~ a tension that is eventually resolved. Whittington is quick to point out that only a tiny fragment of the piece is distinctly Chinese; the rest is impression and homage. He and the quartet are enormously successful in adopting the timbre of another culture’s music. During the opening moments of “Gazing at the moon while drunk”, one feels the need to look again at the liner notes and to confirm that the composer is in fact Australian.
Poetry and instrumental expression turn out to be a perfect match, in that each seeks to express something beyond words. Poetry needs precision in order to be effective, a precision imitated here through the careful placement of notes. The ink is in the well; the poems are in the ink. As each movement unfolds, one imagines the poet drawing closer to the divine. “Scratch head, appeal to Heaven” is filled with a desperate longing. The solitude of the thatched hut implies the others from which one has withdrawn; the loneliness of the music implies an Other toward whom the longing is directed. The hut lies between two types of engagement; it’s not as lonely as it seems. As the artist revisits his early themes in the later movements, he injects them with new energy. The cycle is complete, ready to start anew. (Richard Allen)