Richard Tognetti: exciting time to be a creative musician. 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 that their latest collaboration sends sparks flying.
Electric Preludes blends the very old with the very new, as 18th-century violins come up against their dashing 21st-century progeny - a six-string flashy instrument probably made of wood or plastic, but boy, look what it can do.
While the ancestral elders produce their famously thin, sweet, melodious sounds - unplugged, of course - Tognetti will perform Dean's latest composition alongside 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 knob-twiddler 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 exactly is a violectra? ''It's not an amplified violin - I don't want that sound at all, I find it very nasally,'' Tognetti says.
''Most of the time [violectra] doesn't sound like a violin at all. There are all sorts of effects that have changed the pitch and velocity so it actually sounds totally different to what is coming out of the instrument.'' This is due, in no small part, to the presence of Scott, a sound engineer, 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 has been able to integrate all these different forces in a way that creates architecture that works.''
Brisbane-born Dean, who won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for music composition - often referred to as 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 Slovenia, in September. ''We were fiddling around working out what sound we wanted until the night before the performance,'' Dean says.
It gets its Australian debut in Canberra before arriving in Hamer Hall early in February, where it will be sandwiched in a program between the symphonic greats of Haydn and Mozart. Tognetti will switch from his 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin for his latest instrument, ''made from a painted hard age substance which could be wood or plastic … Suddenly those four strings are six and you are making electronically generated sounds which feel as if you are dealing with an alien substance.''
But will the audience love it? It is stating the obvious to point out that 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 that 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.''
Musical barriers are being dismantled these days; physically on stage (recent collaborations between various orchestras and pop stars are proof) and hopefully in people's minds, too.
''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.
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.