Premiere: Sitsky’s Piano Trio No.10 ‘Sandakan’

A major highlight of ceremonies in Canberra commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Sandakan death marches will be the world premiere of Larry Sitsky’s Piano Trio No. 10 ‘Sandakan’ on Friday, 29 May, 2015 performed by the Melbourne contemporary music ensemble, ‘Press, Play’, who are rapidly establishing themselves as leading interpreters of new music in Australia.

The Canberra Sandakan Commemoration Organising Committee 2015, assisted by the National Malaya and Borneo Veterans Association, has planned a number of significant events on 28 and 29 May to commemorate a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan (formerly British North Borneo, and now Sabah, East Malaysia) to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,345 Allied prisoners of war, including over 2,000 Australians. The POWs were used as slave labour to build a military airfield in a very strategic location. The living conditions were so bad and atrocities so terrible, that towards the end of the war, the Japanese organised death marches to destroy the evidence. By the end of the war, only six Australians survived, all of whom had escaped. It is widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War.

The Chair of the Canberra organising committee, Eric McDonald, said two years ago he approached Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky at the Australian National University (ANU) School of Music to compose a work for piano trio that reflected the Sandakan tragedy. “Larry Sitsky is one of the foremost composers for piano in Australia”. He is, as Heide Smith has said of him, a national and international figure who has been a powerful force in Australia’s contemporary cultural life. Sitsky has composed for a wide range of musical forms.

Late last year, at the reception following a premiere of Sitsky’s latest trio for piano, violin and clarinet, Press, Play’s pianist Sonya Lifschitz approached Larry about the possibility of commissioning a new composition for ‘Press, Play’. The conversation soon unfolded to reveal that both musicians shared much in common  – both come from a Russian-Jewish background, both speak fluent Russian, both have grappled with integrating a European sensibility with Australian culture. Sitsky got excited about Press, Play’s unusual piano/flute/percussion combination and the ensemble’s commitment to developing new repertoire for this unique grouping of instruments, and thought that this was a perfect opportunity to combine his Sandakan commission with his desire to write a trio for ‘Press, Play’. Additionally, Lina Andonovska is a graduate of the ANU School of Music and was supervised by Sitsky in her Honours year. “So this project was born,” said McDonald.

Creative collaboration as contemporary performance practice

As a classical musician brought up in the elite performance tradition of Western art music, I cannot help but reflect deeply on the issues of art music’s sustainability and its relevance to contemporary culture. The precarious position in which art music finds itself today seems to stem from the inherently separatist model in which much of this art form is practiced. The segregation between the roles of the composer and the performer, as well as the performer and the audience, has effectively created a schism between the processes of creation, transmission and reception of music.

In my own artistic practice, the growing restlessness and disillusionment with what seemed like a tightly regulated, conservative and preservation-oriented tradition of music-making gave impetus to a PhD project in which to explore ways of blurring the lines of demarcation between the processes of construction and reproduction of musical works. My intention was to facilitate a number of new compositions for piano in a collaborative environment where the evolving musical material would be realised through an ongoing creative dialogue, a bi-directional feedback loop established between the composers and myself. With this in mind, I approached four Australian composers – Anthony Lyons, Steve Adam, Kate Neal and Damian Barbeler – who have generously and fearlessly embarked on this voyage with me over the past few years.

‘Piano Between Fingers and Electronic Transformation’, presented by the Astra Music Society in collaboration with Eleventh Hour Theatre (Melbourne), brings to fruition two new works by Anthony Lyons and Steve Adam. Part of Astra’s ‘Spring Piano Plus’ series, this concert reflects my growing interest and commitment to expanding and diversifying the existing parameters of performance practice and concert culture within the Western art music context.

Anthony’s Trace Elements is a collection of a half dozen pieces that run together continuously in the manner of a suite. The pieces are individually distinct from one another, with some elements of improvisation; whilst some are strictly notated, some ask for playing inside the piano, and others are more acoustic and on the keys. Sampled elements and real-time manipulation of the piano are woven through the suite. The resulting works all share a reflective atmosphere, a colliding sense of past and present, of recurring sonic fragments and trace elements stitched together.
Using both the acoustic instrument and the computer software, Steve’s Ion, Chance, Star and Avion also forms an electroacoustic suite of four pieces. Drawing on contemporary sound aesthetics, the intention behind the four pieces was to create a modern-day response to the three selected piano works by Johannes Brahms. The soundscape of the suite is derived from the organising principles which revolve around the processes of sampling, fragmentation and reordering of elements extrapolated from the Brahms pieces. In many ways these processes mirror the changes in society, culture, and, most importantly, music practices since the age in which the Brahms works were composed.

I feel deeply grateful for the privileged task of realising this music in sound where the composer/ performer dyad is an inseparable expressive entity that communicates the music to the audience.