Radically retro

The Firm, the city’s maverick new music presenter, embraces all things conservative and seems to delight in continually reaching back into the past.

The Firm, the city’s maverick new music presenter, embraces all things conservative and seems to delight in continually reaching back into the past. Cut off from the nation’s east coast loop, Adelaide’s arts scene sometimes looks like a case of backward evolution. Sometimes it results in throwbacks, cultural artifacts that may look bizarrely original but are actually rooted in the past. That thought crosses one’s mind with The Firm. Looking at their next concert program, one sees, of all things, Johann Strauss waltzes, albeit in arrangements by Schoenberg and Berg. And last year Schubert was named The Firm’s posthumous composer- in-residence. Next year it will be Brahms. What have these figures got to do with new music, and what does it say about new music in Adelaide? There’s of course a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humour in the way The Firm’s affable co-directors, Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin (aka Quincy) Grant, like to turn new music on its head by adopting what appear to be completely antiquated models. Whereas Gabriella Smart’s Soundstream pursues a more orthodox agenda schooled in late 20th-century modernism, and the recently formed Earin (David Harris and David Kotlowy) focusses on new music’s pointier experimental edge, The Firm holds to a quaintly au contraire position that is best summed up by the adage ‘everything old is new again’. And they’ve been successful. To date, The Firm has staged 105 concerts in 18 years of continuous operation, and they’ve premiered some 300 new works penned by around 40 living composers. For a small new music outfit, that’s quite remarkable. Still more remarkable is the radical retro aesthetic of their music. It’s novel to say the least. One hears in the works of Chapman Smith, for example, a kind of ersatz Brahms with nostalgic romantic harmonies and roaming melodies, except that his thinned down, distilled textures owe to minimalists like La Monte Young and Steve Reich. The music of Grant is more instinctive, wistful and free ranging, and it has a wide stylistic palette that even includes tango and gypsy music. But just like Chapman Smith’s music, it is expressive and tuneful. Same goes for The Firm’s collaborators. Luke Altmann, many of whose works it has lately been airing, is right in with their distinctly un-modernist stance. His Echoes Prayers, performed in October with sopranos Alexandra Bollard and Emma Horwood with pianist Jamie Cock, was sparsest of all in texture but caressing melodic, laced with whole tone scales. “We come from an expressive or poetic side rather than a polemical point of view,” says Grant. “Our aesthetic is rooted in small scale romanticism, in forms, expression and literature.” Many lesser-known Central European composers of the early to mid- 20th century particularly appeal to him and Chapman Smith – figures such as Alfred Schnittke, Hanns Eisler, Viktor Ullmann and Matthias Hauer. “They’re a big interest for us,” Grant explains. “Many of them were banned twice, first by the Third Reich and then by the modernists. Theirs is a unique world, tiny but fascinating, like Escher drawings. Partly we spin off this repertoire – we react to it, and we like to put our pieces in their company.” The Firm’s oblique but inclusive way of looking at things has allowed them to explore byways of the repertoire like this that are largely off the map for other presenters. Says Chapman Smith: “It is new music because it’s often music audiences have not heard in concert before. New music is not just freshly written. What we’ve done is gradually include more [standard] repertoire in and around what we ourselves have created. In the last decade we’ve done all the major song cycles, which you no longer see performed very often by mainstream presenters. We even invented one, The Wanderer by Schubert.” Sung last year by Robert and Kate Macfarlane with pianist Leigh Harrold, it apparently tricked some listeners. Is it an Adelaide thing that a seemingly heretical, rear-guard group like The Firm can sprout up here and not in other cities? Chapman Smith thinks so: “Back in the days of the Composers Collective, new music was about making evangelical moral, political statements. This still happens in other parts of the world, where modernism is built around territorial ideas. Defensiveness was always a part of 20th-century modernism. But in Adelaide the good faith stays. Remember, it was the non-convict settlement. In its origins it was not a city built on brutality.” Grant points to the higher degree of cooperation that happens in Adelaide. Stylistic divides that separate other communities seem not to apply here. “It’s a small city with small communities,” he says. “Small-scale collectives like us can function better than our interstate counterparts. Most of us operate from a village of 20,000 clustered around the CBD – it’s more scattered in the other cities. People find it easier to work together. Even Brisbane hasn’t got the collective casualness that Adelaide has. There’s a spirit here of cooperation, an enlightenment, a civility; and logistics are easier.” The Firm has been central to cementing this spirit of cooperation by establishing, over the years, the Langbein String Quartet, Settembrini Trio, Robert Walser Ensemble and other in-house combinations of leading local musicians to perform its music. “There isn’t the jealousy, the partisanship here,” says Chapman Smith. “We can have singers from ACS or other groups, no issue.” It could be Adelaide going its own eccentric way, or we have here a crucible for the future. The Firm are intriguing either way. The Firm’s concert on Monday, November 3 features the Langbein String Quartet and works by Luke Altmann, Quentin Grant, raymond Chapman Smith and Johann Strauss II firmmusic.com.au

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