Fiddle sticks ... Richard Tognetti plugs into his violectra. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti is known for being an adventurous musician, and so is composer Brett Dean. So it's not surprising their latest collaboration sends the sparks flying.
Their work Electric Preludes blends the old with the new, as 18th-century violins come face-to-face with their dashing 21st-century progeny. While the ancestral elders produce their famously thin, sweet and melodious sounds - unplugged, of course - Tognetti will perform Dean's latest composition on his violectra, plunging deep into the bass clef as low as a cello before scaling the dizzying heights of the upper registers as he dances across the extra strings.
With the help of a few plugs, amps and sound engineer Bob Scott, he will create an entirely different soundscape - one that ranges from ''haunted beauty to fraught, driven and jarring tones. The character changes from one movement to another like dreams can on a stormy night in the Outer Hebrides or King Island, Tasmania.''
So, what is a violectra? ''It's not an amplified violin. I don't want that sound at all; I find it very nasal,'' Tognetti says. ''Most of the time the violectra doesn't sound like a violin at all. There are all sorts of effects that have changed the pitch and velocity, so it sounds totally different to what is coming out of the instrument.'' This is due in no small part to the presence of Scott, who is responsible for driving the violectra through a range of effects, from dry and scratchy to hallucinogenic, against the backdrop of the orchestra.
''The genius of Brett - and it's time to use that word - is that he's been able to integrate all these different forces in a way that creates architecture that works,'' Tognetti says.
Brisbane-born Dean, who won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for musical composition, often called the Nobel prize for music, is equally reverent in praise of his friend Tognetti. Speaking from his Berlin home, where he spends half the year, he says: ''I tried to write a piece that captures his personality and honours the fact he's a wonderful fiddle player.''
Electric Preludes, a suite of six pieces, had its premiere in Maribor, Slovenia, in September. ''We were fiddling around working out what sound we wanted right up until the night before the performance,'' Dean says. By the end of this year, the work will have been performed by Tognetti and his crew on four continents.
It's performed in Australia in a program with the symphonic greats of Haydn and Mozart. Tognetti will switch from his priceless 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin to his latest instrument, which is made from fibreglass. It's like going from speaking in one language to another, he says. ''Suddenly, those four strings are six and you're making electronically generated sounds that feel as if you're dealing with an alien substance.''
But will the audience love it? Most ACO enthusiasts are at the older end of the spectrum, but Tognetti bristles at the question. ''Just because they are grey-haired doesn't mean they don't have imaginations, that they don't want to be titillated or be part of the evolutionary process,'' he says.
''I think you could argue that people who go - with their grey hair, apparently - to a classical music concert are far more open than those who turn up to hear Katy Perry sing her hits.''
Maybe. Musical barriers are being dismantled all over the shop these days - on stage (recent collaborations between orchestras and pop stars are proof) and in people's minds. ''I used to be very pessimistic, but now I think it's a wonderful time to be alive, to be a creative musician,'' Tognetti says. ''There are a lot of people out there who love astral travelling in concerts.''
After all, if the dashing violectra can bridge the generation gap, then there is no reason the audience can't, too.
The ACO performs Electric Preludes as part of Tognetti's Mozart at Hamer Hall in Melbourne on February 3 and 4 (artscentremelbourne.com.au), the Sydney Opera House on February 10, and the City Recital Hall from February 12-16.