Crackling water bottles, whale music, vibraslaps – what’s going on in that orchestra pit during Infinity? Jane Albert finds out.
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They call it “the Brett Dean diet”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way musicians become so consumed by the complexities of Dean’s music they forget to eat. And if anyone is losing weight during the current Infinity season it’s the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s timpani and percussion sections, internationally experienced musicians who are grappling with a score they say is their most demanding yet. But coupled with the weight loss and sleepless nights is a palpable sense of excitement that comes from performing not one but two pieces of music in which percussion has a starring role.
Dean’s Fire Music was a co-commission which Graeme Murphy used to choreograph The Narrative of Nothing; Warumuk – In the Dark Night was inspired by Indigenous stories of the night sky. In both pieces, the percussion is called on to provide musical cues for the dancers while conjuring up myriad images for the audience. A quiet night in the pit it is not. “This is the drama area. We get to create colours and climaxes that violinists only dream of!” says percussionist Allan Watson.
Allan and principal percussionist Shaun Trubiano found themselves on a treasure hunt, sourcing exotic and quirky-sounding objects including a whirly tube, Tibetan singing bowls in E Flat (specifically) and bilma (traditional wooden clapping sticks). Some of the eerie and other-worldly sounds audiences are treated to include whale music (a super-ball mallet that is dragged across a plastic drum kit), vibraslap (a replica of a donkey’s jawbone where the “teeth” rattle when hit), thunder sheets, glass (wine) bottles and Nicolette’s Bottle, an old Mount Franklin water bottle which Musical Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon deemed the perfect pitch to replicate crackling fire.
Together Shaun, Allan and principal timpanist Dave Clarence have clocked up more than 70 years’ professional playing, yet all agree Fire Music in particular is the most challenging work they’ve ever been asked to play. And they’re revelling in it.
“Brett Dean is about the most exciting composer out there at any time in history,” Dave exclaims. “Even Stravinsky didn’t write stuff as difficult as Brett Dean. He has this knack of pushing it to the absolute limit of what’s possible without quite going over it.” Dean takes full advantage of the vast store of percussion instruments available to the orchestra and seems to have incorporated every one, meaning the musicians are required to choreograph their movement between instruments to ensure they’re not left behind. “There’s one passage that is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever played,” Shaun says. “Percussion is such a challenge. The idea of the pursuit of perfection really enchants me. That place doesn’t exist, but the journey can be quite a ride. That’s what gets me up most mornings, to chase the unattainable.” So difficult is the music that Allan and Shaun will play the entire season, with no rostered days off. “We have lost a fair bit of sleep; the first thing on your mind when you wake up is this piece,” says Allan. “You need pieces like this for the whole orchestra, that lift the game of the whole orchestra .. the audience possibly thinks we’re just down here making it up because it’s not tuneful but I can assure you every note is written down and it’s a great challenge to really make those pieces work.”
Just as important as mastering the speed and precision needed for Fire Music is respecting the cultural significance of the percussion in Warumuk. David Page’s evocative score sounds simple but the incredibly varied percussion colours and textures require real mastery to perform well. David generously donated his own wooden clapping sticks to Shaun and Allan, who have worked hard to master the requisite authentic sounds.
“You live to play this sort of stuff,” Dave says, “to be challenged to the point where you think, ‘I can’t do this’ but then you work your butt off and end up surprising yourself and realising most challenges are surmountable.”