THE AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA IN A SPAIN OF THE IMAGINATION



Prior to the Australian Chamber Orchestra season, Sketches Of Spain, which concludes with a radio broadcast this weekend, the orchestra's artistic director, Richard Tognetti and pianist/composer Matt McMahon (who led the four-piece jazz group joining the regular ensemble) talked about the music and the philosophies bridging musical worlds, in a program inspired by the idea of a country.


---------------------------------------------------



RICHARD TOGNETTI KNOWS that for non-Spaniards, including him, Spain comes with built-in expectations, “probably all the clichés that we know” from food and temperament to movies and landscape. And music.


“It’s all about the rhythm, it’s all about the sultry sensitivities that are able to be slipped into music somehow to create a sense of geography,” the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra says.


He goes further, asking what is that geography though? Does it imprint itself on outsiders? Do you even need to go to Spain to feel it or can you get it just by – work with me here, he says – listening to the sounds of people talking?


“Often that’s where the colours of music come from, especially the French. I teach myself French and the more I am able to speak it and read it – badly, of course – the more I realise the nuances of the language are so important. I think that’s an integral part of it, the way people speak and what the language means with different nuances of the sounds.”


Given a program ahead rich with interpretations of Spain by composers and arrangers from France, Italy, the United States and Russia, some of whom knew the country intimately, some more as filtered through the works of others, how does this language theory translate musically?


“We can say in very specific ways Janecek took from the spoken or verbal utterances of human beings and turned it into music, but I suppose my hypothesis must be if you speak,” he pauses, searching for the right example. “This flight attendant once came to me and started talking about music, seeing that I was a musician, and said ‘I’m totally un-musical’, and something happened, a vocal exclamation, and I said there, you just sang, you just made an utterance.


“If you can speak, you’re musical, so therefore it’s just a matter of expanding that into a musical language. That’s one thing. Then there’s geography, and the way people travelled and what they brought back.”


(Richard Tognetti)


There are many cultural and geographical layers to this selection of music. For example, Italian-American composer and pianist Chick Corea, who drew inspiration for his masterpiece, Spain, from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concerto, first explored it through Gil Evans and Miles Davis’ interpretation of the second movement in the 1960 album Sketches Of Spain.


“At the time I was in love with Miles’ Sketches Of Spain … I still am,” Corea said towards the end of his life. “On that record, Gil has this fantastic arrangement. I fooled around with that theme, extended it and composed some melodies, which turned out to be the main themes of Spain.”


The cellist and composer, Luigi Boccherini, was born and educated in Italy and moved to Spain as an adult. Elsewhere, Georges Bizet trained and worked in France and Italy, while Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel lived and worked in Paris, and Rodion Shchedrin, whose lively, condensed reinterpretation of Bizet’s opera, Carmen, carries its own excitement – “he’s made a wicked little suite there,” Tognetti says approvingly – was Moscow-born and educated.


So, Spain, yes, via a group of non-Spaniards interpreting the work of non-Spaniards influenced by Spain.


“That’s particular true of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Though Ravel came from [the Basque region in southern France, bordering Spain, his mother being Basque] so he must, again, have imbibed that spirit. He was regarded as French, but the Basque separatists would say he was Basque,” chuckles Tognetti. “Once again, he picked up on the way people spoke and found the rhythms in the speech and the rhythms in the landscape before he moved to Paris and became a universalist so to speak.


“You can’t refute the background: how you speak and what you’ve grown up with influences your life, no matter how much you might try to deny it or sophisticate yourself.”


In key ways, Ravel – “a more universal composer if you like” – is a lynchpin, providing multiple connections for the program: linking Spain, traditional composition and jazz in the cross-currents of influence that sum up Tognetti’s concept.


“He was a Bower bird, like Stravinsky and the piece we are performing [the Violin Sonata #2: The Blues]] shows he was aware of jazz – appropriating! – and thank God he was.”


As with Spain – for centuries at the juncture of Western Europe and Africa, of Christian and Islamic thinking and architecture, of the Old World and the New – the intersection of composed music, classical traditions and jazz is the fulcrum of the program, whether it is the so-called Third Stream blend of those styles or one of the giants of jazz, Davis, whose own explorations across nearly 50 years took in almost every 20th century musical form.


Central to the journey from Ravel to Corea, as already mentioned, is Sketches Of Spain. Credited to Miles Davis, it is built on the arrangements of Gil Evans, who composed several of the tracks, and is almost defined by its use of space and an elegant melancholy. However, Evans’ piece, Solea, finds its rhythmic pulse as a relatively optimistic counterpoint to the melancholy.


“I call classical music, ‘shut up and listen music’, because it just doesn’t work when you’re not actually listening,” says Tognetti. “And it’s the same with Solea. There is that sense of space, and also that sense of strangeness that both Miles and Gil Evans were able to bring. And we have a personal connection with Gil Evans because [American composer whose work the ACO has premiered in Australia a number of times] Maria Schneider actually worked with Gil Evans, and she talked about him in such high terms, that he really understood what purpose that instruments play and how to get a different space out of them.”



As we speak Tognetti cues up the track, letting it play in the background briefly.


“Gil Evans … I remember when I first heard his music, I thought wow, is he writing in micro tones or is it just out of tune? Is it deliberate, is it interpretive? For us, in the modern world, with bloody Autotune, this is dangerous and raw and ready and searing hot,” he says. “And that’s the other thing I suppose you think of with Spain, if you are European, the heat. You can’t help but think of the heat.”


He pauses as we hear Miles again. “Yeah. Those fantastic stabbing chords. Gil Evans was the master of it. There was something about Gil Evans: he was able to pick up the sordidness and the sultriness that other people couldn’t. And certainly haven’t been able to since.”


In these cross-cultural exchanges to play the jazz-based compositions, the ACO will be augmented by a quartet led by pianist Matt McMahon, with trumpeter Phil Slater, bassist Brett Hirst and percussionist Jess Ciampa.


“We collated the program thinking who the hell are we going to get to play it. And remember when this program was collated, [during Covid lockdowns] we were thinking global and acting local,” Tognetti says of the guest musicians. “We asked them early on, would you feel challenged and comfortable by taking this, and their answer was yes.”


Not just yes, but something like “hell yeah” according to McMahon who has described listening to the ACO in the past and thinking how much he would love to participate in the “colours” he could hear in an orchestra as willing and as adept at challenging themselves as any jazz ensemble.


(Matt McMahon)


“It’s really exciting,” McMahon says. “Oddly enough, I’ve watched them a lot over the years and that’s one of the great things that they have this really solid, wonderful playing of traditional repertoire and then this vision of trying to include other things and take risks and go for something different. That’s a really exciting thing to be part of.”


The willingness to examine a piece from every angle, including the problematic, to be free with unexpected juxtapositions, where “it’s all in the mix”, is an attitude McMahon is familiar with, calling it “just a certain way of thinking”, or maybe of being.


“With jazz there may be a composition that has a certain chord structure and we improvise over that chord structure. There will definitely be some of that. And then in a wider sense, improvising can happen on a song, any kind of material, or improvise on nothing at all, which is something [we] have done a lot of,” says McMahon. “So there’s a kind of a spectrum, or ways of approaching it. There probably won’t be much totally free playing, but maybe one or two moments where that might happen.”


Having a long-playing relationship with Slater and Hirst and excited by connecting again with Ciampa – “this band needed somebody who can play classical percussion and play the drums, and he covers so many bases” – McMahon knows he is on familiar ground there. The opportunity to test whether that can be replicated within a larger orchestra, “a whole other world”, to see what is spoken and unspoken, is thrilling.


“I think it’s just going to be what doesn’t get thought of, or spoken about, what assumptions are made about what might happen in this section,” he says. “For instance, Phil Slater would often write a piece of music for me and he would write lots of chords, and the expectation is that I don’t play any of those chords. It’s sort of, this is the song, kind of, but don’t play it.


"It’s a kind of thing where improvisers are used to taking chances with each other, and I guess when there is an orchestra playing, it’s a different kind of opportunity, while in the background that kind of connection will run through the performance.”


(The Alhambra, Spain)


The difference here is that almost all of this music is notated, the “architecture” is known. But there is still freedom and expression, as Tognetti is keen to point out to the “ning nongs out there who say that orchestras are cover bands” and that explorations like those being contemplated are pointless.


“Is a theatre troupe a cover band?,” Tognetti asks. “You are a musical playwright and you leave a score, in something like [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew or particularly Solea, I would argue that music is there and you interpret it, so you need interpreters like classical music does.”


The violinist and artistic director remembers his student days in the era of the Paradise Jazz Club, hearing a young Dale Barlow, noting the obsession of that generation with the playing and composition of John Coltrane, and thinking “how do I bring this sense of freedom and danger into the classical music field?” It became a recurring question.


“I worked with Phil Treloar, the percussionist, and he was a colourist and I was very much inspired by that. And Gil Evans, whenever I’m arranging stuff I think of Gil – the colours.”


Interpretation and stimulation goes both ways, says McMahon.


“Just hearing the things that have been written can stimulate me into something because I know in four bars-time I’ve got this section coming so I’ve got to try and set that up. I’m guessing, for me, the experience of hearing the orchestra playing will push me and, in the moment, make me do things. And hopefully, if I come up with something that’s interesting, it will reverberate “he says. “I mean, people will still be reading the notes, but I can really recontextualise what the musicians are playing by what I’m playing against it.


“More and more I think improvising in various forms it’s more common. A lot of classical musicians have played in various improvising contexts of one form or another, and obviously in classical music there’s been improvising too since the 1950s and of course in the Classical and Romantic periods. The great composers are improvisers.”


This rollcall of great composers, for McMahon, includes Evans and Corea, and he still delights in finding the multiple musical tributaries flowing through something like Spain or the avenues of Sketches Of Spain.


(Chick Corea)


“Chick Corea it is someone who is associated with music from South and Central America, so we are getting a kind of Cuban influence, which is of course related to Spain, and in this arrangement there are little moments of various other rhythms, like samba rhythms or tango rhythms and things like that, that are part of Spanish music in a very broad sense,” McMahon says.


“I think Sketches of Spain album is a mix of different kinds of composition and Gil Evans based that very much on traditional Spanish music, with Solea having much deeper roots in the music of Spain. Miles is interesting because he clearly loved Spanish music, loved flamenco, but he is still playing himself, keeping his identity. That’s the beauty of it: you’re getting some of the flamenco and this other sound, from moment to moment.”


Both Tognetti and McMahon have spoken of the “colours” they hear in the other’s more common formats. What do these look like to the jazz man?


“I think sometimes I just hear the sound of the strings and the transparency in the fullness of that. I can hear space in there for something extra, and sometimes and listening to a piece and I go ‘that’s a great chord, what would I playing in there?’ So it’s a very intuitive feeling,” McMahon says. “I think with the ACO in particular, because of the way they play – it might be the violins playing really high and something beautiful going on in the cello – I can see a little space in there and think, that would be cool fitting in there.


“I really, really enjoyed that side of playing: making kind of broad decisions about here I might play something, and I might not play something there – that kind of orchestral decisions – and seeing what impact that that has.”


The colours, the cross-currents, the composers, indeed the essence of Spain as realised through these pieces, is at its heart a balance of freedom and control, says Tognetti, as it was for Corea and others in “the greatest age of jazz, arguably, when jazz became art music and there was a liberation”. But not everyone understood the message.


“The Third Stream was great because it really opened up many doors and at the same time created a certain discipline and restrictions, which you’d need, otherwise you’re just a hippie on the streets of Byron,” he says. “Nothing wrong with that, but you’re not going to be in the great jazz class of the world. You need restrictions, as in rules, like how harmony proceeds. And if you are going to break those harmonic rules you need good reason.”


Rather than a potential breaking point between theoretically free-from-rules jazz and supposedly tied-by-those-rules classical, it is the common ground he argues, the starting point.

“Coltrane and Davis, and Evans, being an arranger, knew those rules and restrictions and were able to break them. Chick Corea, like Keith Jarrett, came out of, and in awe of, the harmonic rules that had been passed down and codified and developed by Bach,” says Tognetti. “I can’t think of any jazz musician who’s worth anything who didn’t like Bach. And if they didn’t I would immediately dismiss them.


“That’s where Chick Corea comes from … and therefore it was possible for him to build a monumental orchestral landscape out of his talents and abilities.”


Sketches Of Spain will be broadcast on ABC Classic on April 23 at 1pm.



This essay was originally published in the program for the ACO’s Sketches Of Spain.