Date: January 01 2013
IT ALL started with a line entry in a catalogue: Chronometer | for 2 asynchronous 4-track tapes. Year of composition: 1971-72. Composer: Harrison Birtwistle.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle is one of Europe's most eminent composers. He is renowned for tough, elemental and dizzyingly complex scores inspired by mythology, ritual and time. His music is like a force of nature.
Birtwistle has written in many genres but much of his work has been in music theatre, opera and symphonic music rather than electronic music. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra last month won a British Composer Award - his fourth.
Which is why the brief entry in the Universal Editions Catalogue caught the eye of the Sydney Festival's director, Lieven Bertels. He contacted the publishers to investigate the possibility of presenting the work at the Holland Festival, which he was then directing. The publishers were apologetic. They did not have the tape; the original was lost.
"Now, that's a challenge I like," Bertels says. "That's when I go, 'Right, what has happened?'"
Bertels put on his musicologist hat - he studied musicology and composition in Britain's Durham University and is, in his words, "a failed muso and a failed composer" - and got to work. The first call was to the composer. Birtwistle was happy to speak about the work but could not tell him where it was. He put Bertels onto the sound boffin Peter Zinovieff, who was instrumental in putting together the tape for Chronometer.
Zinovieff founded the pioneering studio EMS, where many of the weird and wonderful sounds on albums by Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and David Bowie were dreamt up. He invented one of the world's first synthesisers, the VCS3, and experimented with the spatialisation of sound, using multiple speakers to create the effect of sounds whirling around your head. Chronometer is one of the first quadraphonic recordings.
Zinovieff sold his studio in the late 1970s, sending the tapes and equipment to the National Theatre in London, where Birtwistle was music director. The tapes ended up in a basement in the Southbank Arts Centre, also in London, which subsequently flooded.
Enter Peter Kember, aka Sonic Boom, a rock musician and producer, who offered to take the tapes with a view to remastering some of the prog rock classics. Zinovieff gave his blessing, and the tapes went to Kember, along with the only surviving four-channel quadraphonic recording of Birtwistle's one electronic work. When Bertels tracked Kember down, the Chronometer tape was severely degraded and barely playable.
Bertels got the tape to one of the few studios that could fix it, Abbey Road Studios. After a nail-biting procedure involving baking the tape before a one-chance-only playback, he left with a digital recording that has now been released as a CD/DVD in a compilation of four generations of electronic music.
"It's amazing how badly kept the cultural heritage of the 20th century is," Bertels says. "That's the essence of this story. We care ridiculously well about an average lighthouse somewhere on the coast because it's from the 18th century, but then you've got this piece which could be a masterpiece, or maybe not. But give history a chance to decide by preserving it."
Chronometer revolves around a recurring theme in Birtwistle's work - time. The composer collected sound samples of clocks, clockwork and bells, which he laid out schematically, to be realised by Zinovieff with the help of his computer program Musys.
It is not easy listening: clangs, bangs and abstract noises. Bertels believes presentation is the key to unlocking the wonders of this work, which is why he is exploring a new site on the edge of the harbour.
"The one thing that electronic music got wrong in the '60s and '70s was the mode of presentation. There's nothing more dreary than sitting at a concert, dimming the lights and listening to a piece of electronic music."
That all changes, he says, when you choose the right space. "You go to Georges Heights, with a view of the harbour. Then you lie on your beanbag and you come to terms with Harry's piece, dealing with time whirling around you."
Chronometer is on from January 5 to 27, dawn to dusk, at GeorgesHead Lookout, free, for the Sydney Festival.
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]