Monash Art Ensemble

Verbrugghen Hall, October 1

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Paul Grabowsky. Photo: Matthew Denton.

This sort of thing can change lives, turning wannabe musicians into the real thing. Robert Burke and Paul Grabowsky have been blessing the students at Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music by commissioning major works and facilitating collaborations between the Monash Art Ensemble (MAE) and high-calibre international jazz composers and players. With the music school celebrating its 40th birthday the MAE (comprising both students and staff) came north for a concert called Beyond Borders. The major work being premiered was Zephyrix by Barney McAll, the current the Peggy Glanville-Hicks composer-in-residence, and the international stars were bassist Mark Helias and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Zephyrix, a 44-minute work for 15-piece ensemble, is a dialectic between serenity and struggle. It began with an aural Arcadia of electronics, bird calls, flute, violin and bass. This was so beguiling I’d have been happy to linger there a little longer, but off we rushed into denser and darker places as McAll – who was at the piano, with Grabowsky conducting – provided a series of distinctive fields to host improvisation within the piece’s composed architecture.

The work seemed to gain in strength as it progressed. A monstrous solo from Waits (using mallets) dropped away to unaccompanied piano in which McAll gilded essentially brooding material with glistening highlights. This beckoned autumnal chords from the horns, and a gorgeous bass feature from Helias, before a vibrant, churning ensemble containing a dialogue between Waits and student drummer Kieran Rafferty, and finally an enchanting coda of muted horns and orchestra bells.

The problem afflicting both Zephyrix and the pieces constituting the concert’s first half was muddiness of sound. Other than the bass, guitar and violin the ensemble performed unamplified, and in reverberant Verbrugghen Hall the piano vanished amid massed horns and drums. One had to consciously adjust to the foggy sonic image, out of which individual instruments sometimes loomed or were lost. Attempting to perform acoustically was conceptually admirable, but in reality at least the piano should have been amplified, or the horns and drums held on a tighter leash.