Ellen Kirkwood’s Mieville Project

Foundry 616, November 10

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Sandy Evans, Ellen Kirkwood and Caroline Leview. Photo: Karen Steains.

Ellen Kirkwood’s first foray into fusing music and spoken word was Theseus and the Minotaur. For her follow-up she bolted to the polar-opposite end of literature, and conjured up the weird, fantastic worlds of China Mieville, for whose work the term “fantasy” is risibly inadequate – rather like the word “jazz” for this music.

On Motion Demons Kirkwood’s quintet decorated and contextualised an excerpt from Iron Council in which Mieville describes demons playing “like porpoises” with the wheels of a moving train. The texts were read with commendable clarity by Caroline Leview, and here the composition was underpinned by a rhythmic train motif, while the leader’s trumpet, Sandy Evans’ soprano saxophone and Emma Stephenson’s piano represented the cavorting, culminating in a solo by Evans at her most playful.

That impish quality continued for Wormword, the text coming from the short story Entry Taken From A Medical Encyclopaedia, with Kirkwood creating more of a dialogue between words and music in what emerged as a wittily imaginative work.

Somewhat less successful was Slake Moth (from Perdido Street Station), in which, rather than building on the ominous mood initially provided by Hannah James’ bowed bass, Kirkwood ambitiously attempted to render the hypnotic effect of the variegated patterns of the creature’s wings, but missed the element of terror.

In the purely instrumental Construct (also drawing on Perdido Street Station) Kirkwood brilliantly devised programmatic material depicting a domestic robot appliance being reprogrammed to think. This relied heavily on drummer Alon Ilsar’s ingenious use of electronics, and culminated in a jaunty trumpet solo from the composer.

Ilsar’s cunning electronics had previously featured in duets with Evans that opened this Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival concert, the sheer unpredictability and unaccountability of the sounds making an ideal curtain-raiser for a trip into Mieville’s mind. Evans blistered the music’s eerie surface with some stunning improvising on both soprano and tenor, hitting a peak when Ilsar concentrated on the drums, and let the electronics float off into the ether.