Ashley William Smith expected half a dozen students at his first new music ensemble class. Instead the room overflowed with almost thirty students. It is uncertain if the attraction was the edgy repertoire on offer or the charismatic young professor. One thing is clear: new music performance is back on the map at the University of Western Australia for the first time since the heyday of composer Roger Smalley in the nineties.


For the debut of the newly formed Hackett Ensemble, Smith (winner of the 2012 MCA Freedman Fellowship and newly appointed Head of Winds and Contemporary Performance) chose repertoire exploring the loose boundary between noise and music. Two flexibly scored works by Frederik Rzewksi were well-suited to the mixed ensemble. Gareth Hearne’s theatrical narration of Coming Together was gripping despite being regularly drowned out by the large ensemble. Smith conducted with poised focus and the students seemed confident working with semi-improvised music. With each repetition of the text the intensity increased until a shrieking death metal climax, with bass and electric guitars riding the wave of sound.  


John Cage’s solo piano piece In a Landscape (performed with tranquillity by Barrett Oliver) provided a seamless link to Rzewski’s Attica. The much gentler mood of Attica was established by recorder, acoustic guitars, warm string chords and vocal ‘ah’s’ laid over a deep pedal note in marimba and vibraphone. Smith conducted with poised


A recorder solo (Anna Maydwell performing Big Baboon by Paul Leenhouts) and a saxophone solo (Scott Collinson performing Paradigm I by Ronald Caravan) demonstrated contemporary techniques and sounds that challenge the boundaries between noise and music.


Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody – a quirky work requiring a narrator of immense dramatic poise – was the least successful part of the night. Allocating each sound bite to a different member of the ensemble was messy and distracting. At the same time the egalitarian solidarity shared by the performers and conductor was one of the strengths of this concert. It is heartening to see new music embraced without fear; music lives only because of performers like these.


This review copyright The West Australian 2014.