Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith

The Firm Archive: Featuring the Firm

Listen to a podcast about the Firm, with works by composers Raymond Chapman Smith, Quentin Grant and Anne Cawrse, performed by soprano Greta Bradman and pianist Leigh Harrold.

- The Music Show, ABC Radio, July 2009, via CanadaPodcasts

Feature Article 2014

Radically retro

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review, November 3, 2014

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 artefacts 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.

Concert 4 2013, Preconcert Story

The Firm knocks up a century of combining old and new music

- Patrick McDonald, The Advertiser, October 07, 2013

Composer-driven Adelaide chamber music company The Firm will "score'' a landmark century tonight when it presents its 100th concert.

Since its inception in 1996, The Firm has staged the world premieres of some 300 works.

Each year, composer-directors Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith compile a concert series with a figurative "composer in residence'' to provide a focus for the creation of new works.

This year's focus is on the Romantic great Franz Schubert, in particular his late piano sonatas and lieder.

"Our aim has always been to create concert programs, with world class performers, that inspired us as composers to write music that communicated with both a new and established fine music audience - and at affordable ticket prices,'' Grant says.

Tonight's concert, its fourth for 2013, will feature Clemens Leske performing Schubert's Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959, as well as Metamorphosis One and Three by Philip Glass, Winterklavier by Chapman Smith, Schubert Variations by Grant and the premiere of Time's Long Ruin by Anne Cawrse.

Part of The Firm's success lies in its ability to seamlessly combine the old and new.

"Each program series is a conversation of music and ideas between composers and performers of the past and the present,'' Chapman Smith says.

"It also enables performers to breathe life into entirely new works which have never been heard before.''

The Monk by the Sea, Caspar Friedrich

Preseason Article 2012

Paying homage to imprisoned composers

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, May 11, 2012

COMPOSERS who pursued their art in the Nazi-run Theresienstadt concentration camp will be remembered through their music in Adelaide.

Fine music presenter The Firm will pay homage to the composers in its 2012 concert series starting on Monday.

The focus composer will be Czech Viktor Ullmann, who was transported from Theresienstadt to the Auschwitz death camp in 1944 and killed in the gas chambers. Despite the tragic outcome, Firm member Quentin Grant says the music that emerged from the horror of Theresienstadt was anything but.

"It's not all dark and grim and tragic," he says.

"A lot of it is ironic and very funny.

"It's wonderful music, colourful and quite romantic."

Monday's concert featuring tenor Robert Macfarlane and pianist Stephen Whittington will introduce Ullmann with his Holderlin Songs. It will also include work by composers labelled "Entartete" - or decadent - by the Third Reich, as well as items by Adelaide composers, including a new piece by Anne Cawrse.

The major attraction of the 2012 series is a July concert featuring sections from Ullmann's anti-fascist chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis, performed by Macfarlane, Sally-Anne Russell, Emma Horwood, Kate Macfarlane, Ali Stubberfield and Leigh Harrold on piano.

To mark the occasion The Firm will, for the first time, move from its regular venue, Pilgrim Church in the city, to Elder Hall.

Grant says he can't recall a performance of The Emperor of Atlantis in Adelaide but believes that the concentration camp composers of Theresienstadt are definitely experiencing a resurgence in interest. Productions of Ullmann's opera have turned up recently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the English National Opera.

"These composers were banned twice in a sense," Grant says.

"First by the Nazis and then, after the war, by the modernists who thought what they were doing was quite romantic and tonal, and that style was out of favour."

Grant says the style has filtered through European film composers to the work of people like Danny Elfman, who writes for Hollywood director Tim Burton.

Other concerts in the series include Leigh Harrold playing Ullmann's Piano Sonata No. 7, Duo Trystero performing Argento's Letters from Composers, and Langbein String Quartet performing a string quartet by Czech composer Pavel Haas, another Theresienstadt prisoner killed in Auschwitz.

Feature Article 2009

The Firm: It's not Brain Surgery

- Emily Heylen, Resonate, Australian Music Centre magazine, 11 February 2009

'Being an old-fashioned anarchist, I think art should be free to anybody, and in any sane civilised state that would be the case. That would be my ideal, you'd just open the doors...', Raymond Chapman Smith, co-leader of The Firm, says.

The Firm may not quite have realised this democratic dream, but it's a quirky and wilful contemporary music organisation. It is driven mainly by the desire to present new works to its Adelaide audiences but inspired equally by the poetic shape of the perfect program, by the need to provide opportunity to young musicians, and by the inclusive spirit of chamber music: breaking down barriers between audiences and performers.

The Firm, now in its 13th year, is past the teething stage and has settled as a solid member of Adelaide's classical music scene. Formed originally by a quartet of composers – Raymond Chapman Smith, Quentin SD Grant, John Polglase and David Kotlowy – The Firm is now managed by Chapman Smith and Grant, who present their own new works alongside those of a revolving set of composers, including Grahame Dudley, James Cuddeford, Luke Altmann and Anne Cawrse.

Thoughtful programming is important to The Firm. Chapman Smith argues that although any kind of series has regularities and commonalities, it's important that 'the actual experience is varied and has a certain degree of surprise. We play with that a bit, because as composers we do what we want to hear, and we don't try to second-guess the audience.'

This care has also manifested itself in the unusual pattern of having a 'composer in residence' – in absentia. Chapman Smith explains that it started as a way to 'focus concerts around existing repertoire, so that the new music acted as, not exactly satellites, but as referenced material'. The first year, a very small piece of Bach ended every program, but this has developed into an effort to include European repertoire that's relatively unknown here. In 2007, for example, The Firm's referenced composer was Kurtág, who, while big in Europe, is rarely played in Australia.

'It's not something we're rigid about,' continues Chapman Smith, 'but considering our own music is so ostensibly reactionary, or at least not modern in an overt way, we find it interesting to program these leading figures who're roughly contemporary but locally unheard. So we're pretty Eurocentric in that way.'

Programs are short, because 'with unfamiliar music, no matter how gorgeous it might be, you don't want to exhaust an audience completely. The chamber environment also has to have a slightly domestic quality', where people feel welcomed to engage with the music.

The Firm are indeed a hospitable and social bunch. After each concert, almost the entire audience will hang around and interact with the players. 'I always think people will get sick of us after a while,' jokes Chapman Smith, 'but they don't! Partly it's the free tipple and cakes of course, but also it breaks down that weird barrier between audiences and performers, and, even more profoundly, between audiences and composers.'

Working in Adelaide, the barriers between various groups are already more flexible than in larger cities, Chapman Smith feels. ' Adelaide's a paradise for people who do what we do. There are lots of different groups like Syntony, the Zephyr Quartet, the Adelaide Chamber Singers, the Kegelstatt Ensemble, all doing different things, but we are all in the same mental space, we are all interconnected. As far as I'm aware, we're not really competing with each other in a cat and dog fashion, but rather intersecting in positive ways'.

The Firm plays, if not a mentoring, certainly a nurturing role in the development of young performers. Professional young performers play a central role in The Firm's concerts – frequent performers include the Zephyr Quartet, Leigh Harrold, Greta Bradman and Kristian Chong, along with various ASO musicians, and many others – but Chapman Smith argues that in nurturing young, very gifted performers 'the traditional repertoire engagement has a double value. It's useful for us as composers, but it allows performers to play a whole program of works, including some major repertoire, which there isn't often such a wide opportunity for.'

In 2009 this means working with young tenor Robert MacFarlane, to do the first of the big Schubert song cycles. 'Robert is a superb young lieder singer,' Chapman Smith enthuses, 'really wonderful, world-class, and although it doesn't really fit with what we're doing, this is one of those times when we've got a young performer who desperately wants to do this, and he's not going to get the opportunity unless a couple of mad old buggers say "we want you to sing Schubert, away you go!"'

'It's one of those things that we can make happen, that's got nothing to do with new music, but we don't care. It's more important than that. Of course it's nice having your own music performed, but more and more it matters to me to be able to make these opportunities. When I see young people of such ability and profound motivation, I feel a sense of responsibility to provide a space for their dreams, because it's something the music world more generally just doesn't allow for. You think that giving a young performer a couple of concerts, a couple of grand, is nothing, but actually to them it's crucial.'

Leigh Harrold, a pianist who has worked with The Firm over a number of years, says that even as an established performer, The Firm's concerts offer opportunities rarely found elsewhere. 'In every concert you get to do a series of premieres, and not only do you have the chance to interpret the music for the first time, you've got a primary source, the composer, on hand at all times.'

'The other amazing thing about playing for The Firm,' Harrold says, 'is that the best new pieces have a life of their own beyond Firm concerts. I've actually been able to increase my own repertoire of Australian music, and have performed local pieces outside of Adelaide, and even outside of Australia. That's really exciting because it means that international audiences are being exposed to the best of Australian music.'

In addition to developing new works, The Firm has created its own ensembles to perform in its concerts: the Langbein String Quartet, the Settembrini Piano Trio and vocal quartet Ensemble Iona all perform regularly for The Firm. Indeed, the string quartet and the solo piano form the backbone of Firm concerts.

Chapman Smith finds string quartet writing the most satisfying thing one can do as a composer 'because it's the hardest thing, and the most fraught, compositionally. In the last seven or eight years of writing tonal music, I've realised that you have to write with an absolute precision that matches that which you expect from the performer, otherwise it won't work.'

In 2009, The Firm will focus on reinvigorating its ensembles, particularly the string quartet, perhaps programming some of Peter Sculthorpe's more recent quartets to acknowledge his 80th birthday.

Conversely, the satisfaction that comes from writing piano music is not just about the content of the music itself, but the intellectual relationship between composer and performer: 'it's just one brain to another', as Chapman Smith says of working with pianist Kristian Chong.

This idea really sums up The Firm: it's an organisation which takes it upon itself to try to engage with composers, performers and audiences alike, and to encourage the flow of ideas between them.

'I remember Leigh [Harrold] showed me a wonderful article last year from The Lancet , which said that the solo concert pianist focuses more intensely than a brain surgeon. That's because a brain surgeon can stop, but if you're playing Bach, you can't stop, you can't make a mistake. And we sort of take this incredible precision for granted. Although there's no life or death riding on playing a piece well, in a way our whole culture's riding on it, in an ongoing way, because if we accepted a low level of performance, gradually it would just cave in.'

Preseason Article 2008

Schumann in good company

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, June 30, 2008

Nineteenth century German composer Robert Schumann is the man of the moment in a new concert series organised by local musicians who go under the name of The Firm.

Schumann’s music will feature in five of the six concerts programmed as part of the series starting in the city tonight. The concerts will also showcase works by local composers.

Tonight’s concert, by the Settembrini Piano Trio, starts with Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces Op. 88 and Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szenen. Adelaide composer Raymond Chapman Smith’s Nach der Natur will also be played, and there will be new works by locals Luke Altmann and Quentin Grant. Violinist Michael Milton, cellist Cameron Waters, tenor Robert Macfarlane, soprano Greta Bradman and pianists Leigh Harrold, Stefan Ammer and Kristian Chong are among the musicians lending their talents to future concerts.

Three will combine works by Schumann and local composers. Schumann will stand alone in a Lieder Recital on November 10, and on December 1 works by Australians Roger Smalley, Chapman Smith, Gareth Chin and Quentin Grant will be presented alongside Klavierstucke, by the great 20th century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

Season 2005 Article

Firm favourites and much more

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, May 2005

THE Firm has returned to Pilgrim Church for its 2005 chamber concert series with some new faces in the mix. Adelaide soprano Emma Horwood is the Firm's first performer-in-residence, and the music-making entity is about to enter into its first collaboration.

In August, the Firm will join Brink Productions to present This Uncharted Hour. The show will feature the Brink theatre ensemble, Horwood and the Narrenturm Ensemble. This Uncharted Hour is one of two special events on the Firm calendar this year.

The other is an October concert devoted to Schubert songs and piano works featuring Horwood and Adelaide pianist Jamie Cock.

Horwood made her debut as Firm performer-in-residence in an early April concert with Cock. She returns with the Eve vocal trio for a concert in July before joining the Langbein String Quartet for a performance in October. The Firm has a six concert program lined up.

Each concert will feature work by Austrian composer Alban Maria Berg, the Firm's "posthumous composer-in-residence". Other artists involved in the series include pianist Leigh Harrold, the Settembrini Piano Trio and the Langbein String Quartet. Local composers contributing to the program include Quentin Grant, Raymond Chapman Smith, James Cuddeford, David Kotlowy, Anne Cawrse and Graham Dudley.

Florence, Felix Mendelssohn

Feature Article 2004

Going Viennese, with firm resolve

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review, Dec 23rd 2004

The Firm are a bunch of ex-avant-gardists who have turned to the Classical tradition.

THEY DIDNT SET out to become Australia's foremost new-music heretics, but that is what The Firm now are. Other composers have abandoned electronics, improvisation and experimental techniques in the gradual realisation that audiences are generally unenthusiastic about the results, but none have chosen as radical path as this group of Adelaide composers.

The Firm dislike being labelled "radical conservatives", but how else do you describe a bunch of ex-avant-gardists who now preach the virtues of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert? Led by Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant, The Firm devote their energies to composing string quartets, piano trios, piano sonatas and other forms of chamber music in vogue two centuries ago in Vienna. Their view is that the Classical tradition represents a time when a uniquely successful common ground existed between composers and audiences, and that it serves as a model for reinstating an understanding between the two that has been missing in new music for decades.

But they insist they are not on any ideological mission: composers today, they say, should freely be able to draw on a multitude of sources, from serialism and minimalism to Central European post-romanticism or even Celtic folk music, if they wish.

The other thing The Firm insist on is that new music requires the highest quality performances if is to have any place at all. As much of a failure in the past four decades has been the extremely variable quality of new music concerts. Poor, unimaginative programming and student-level performances have driven away many audiences and given new music a bad name that has not always been deserved. Grant and Chapman Smith say they have sought to take the hit and miss out of new music by engaging consistently outstanding musicians, such as pianists Graham Strahle Anna Goldsworthy and Leigh Harrold, soprano Emma Horwood and the Langbein String Quartet, an occasional group drawn from members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

The Firm also say their aim is to make each concert a journey for audiences by presenting works by themselves alongside those of 'the greats' of chamber music. Each year a different featured composer has been selected: Janacek, Schubert, Beethoven and, for 2005, Alban Berg. Doing so, they maintain, allows audiences to see a continuum between the old and new and to see both a different light.

Having a featured composer ' in residence' is also a deliberate act by The Firm's members to extend their own creative horizons and more thoroughly steep themselves in a tradition to which they increasingly feel a part. The experience has seen each of them leave modernism further behind and reformulate what might be described as a 'chamber music ethos' in which form and expression are unified.

Chapman Smith is The Firm's stylistic adventurer and more prepared to go 'century hopping' than just about any other Australian composer of the present day. From his base as a composer of neo-Webernian epigrammatic miniatures he has branched out quite remarkably, establishing a new precedent in the 'retro' borrowing of earlier styles in his Sub Specie Aeternitatis for four singers, performed in 2002. This was founded on the vocal polyphony of Orlando di Lasso, yet compared with his earlier serial compositions it was surprisingly similar, showing the same distillation of ideas and technical resources; indeed this work also bore a family resemblance to Schoenberg's German folk song arrangements. Almost mischievously postmodernist, Chapman Smith has recently moved away from his former severity towards an openly expressive, Schubert-based lyricism. His furthest extreme in this direction was his highly attractive, Landler-infused Serenade for piano trio, being a study in 'first Viennese school' melodic and tonal techniques.

Guided more by intuition, Grant spurns the idea that ideological positions should determine a composer's creative outlook. He is an impulsive, 'pure' artist whose work pursues no single agenda but rather fans out on several stylistic fronts, latterly towards Janacek and Schubert. He has softened too, leaving behind the aggressive rock-based, grunge style of his piano trio Torn Flight and taking on reflective, imaginative and even mystical dimensions, exemplified in his memorable, semi-autobiographical piano work The Misty Hill. Just as outstanding were his Irish Songs last year, which showed his natural melodic gift, and the inspired, emotionally intense string quartet A greeting through the stars...with dances, based on poetry by Anna Akhmatova.

John Polglase has absorbed himself in Classical models the longest. For him tradition is not to be experimented with or borrowed on a whim but something to become wholly immersed with. Over the years he has produced an impressive body of chamber music including four string quartets and six trios, although curiously for a pianist few piano works.

Much of his recent attention has centred on Brahms and Beethoven, two composers he admires for their expressive range and formal discipline. Polglase finds answers in expansion and complexity rather than in reduction, yet his fine Trio No. 6 for violin, piano and horn also showed his ability to achieve an expressive simplicity and clarity while maintaining formal strength; plus it showed his extremely skilled handling of the chamber music medium.

David Kotlowy is the most uncompromising composer of the foursome. His interests began in American minimalism (Cage and Feldman) and Japanese music (the shakuhachi) but have swung heavily in the direction of Zen Buddhism, serving to both consolidate and redefine his art. Interested in how sound events can trigger states of awareness as distinct from the more Western aesthetic of generating specific narrative or emotive responses, his music moves in slow waves, working subtly and unexpectedly on the listener's mind. His composition Fourteen for string quartet, inspired by Beethoven's Op. 131, was remarkable in achieving a true fusion between an Eastern, non-linear aesthetic and Western harmonic processes.

The Firm's Viennese connections continue to grow. Plans are afoot to perform works by Austrian composer Kurt Schwertzig and to facilitate performances of young South Australian composers in the 2006 Mozarteum Festival in Salzburg. It is all starting to make Adelaide look like a Vienna of the south.

Preseason Article 2004

A Firm favourite

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, May 2004

BEETHOVEN is the star composer and main inspiration for the 2004 Firm concert series starting next week. Music from Beethoven's late period appears on five of the eight Firm programs for the year, and his work has been a focus for local composers involved in the series.

"We refer to him and his ideas in our new works - he's very interesting in terms of events such as war and terrorism," says Adelaide composer and Firm member Quentin S.D. Grant. "He was very engaged with the human condition, and how people can live in times of trouble, and find their way through it . "He also had a great belief in the Western tradition of art and the redemptive nature of art as a way forward."

At the other end of the spectrum, the Firm has programmed seven works by a little-known 20th century Viennese composer, Joseph Matthias Hauer. An enigmatic figure who lived a secluded life, Hauer was interested in Eastern mysticism and left a "very odd, very characteristic" body of work, Grant says. "We thought it would be interesting to put this against the Beethoven."

The series also features music by the four Firm members - Adelaide composers Grant, Raymond Chapman Smith, John Polglase and David Kotlowy - who started organising concerts of their own and other people's music nine years ago. The initiative has grown to include local music ensembles and guest artists. The 2004 season starts on Monday with work by Hauer and new and established pieces by the Firm members, performed by the Langbein String Quartet and guest soprano Emma Horwood. The second concert, on June 21, features young Adelaide ensemble the Zephyr String Quartet in a program of new music by young composers. Beethoven makes his first appearance on July 19 with piano works performed by Stefan Ammer. Other artists featured in future concerts are pianists David Lockett, Anna Goldsworthy and Leigh Harrold, and the Settembrini Piano Trio. The monthly concerts will be held at Pilgrim Church, Flinders St, city, at 8pm.

Diabelli Variations Masterwork Event

A Firm booking

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, Aug 19th 2002

MELBOURNE-BASED pianist Anna Goldsworthy is having a busy year. August alone has seen her present one concert after another, leading up to a performance for the Adelaide group The Firm.

Goldsworthy returns to her home town on Monday to play Beethoven's longest work for solo piano, the Diabelli Variations, a complex score containing almost an hour of music.

"The Firm has this series devoted primarily to new music but they also like to feature the - masterworks of the repertoire," she says.

Castle of Chillon, Felix Mendelssohn

Feature Article 2001

Analysing The Firm

- Russell Smith, RealTime, no 46 December 01 - January 02

A major shift in the phenomenology of modern listening is marked by the distinction between Swann's infatuation with the "little phrase" from the Vinteuil sonata in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and Hans Castorp's absorption in gramophone recordings in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. For Swann the evanescent "little phrase" remains always different from itself, not only because of variations in performance, but because the successive occasions on which he hears it are separated by the years of his own existence. For Castorp, on the other hand, the obsessive replaying of his favourite records marks an attempt to escape time, to attain within the temporal flow of music an arrested state in which every note is always played "just so." In both cases this musical infatuation gradually decays to an intellectual and emotional nullity, not because familiarity breeds contempt, but because the interiorisation of music absolves the listener from the difficult labour of listening.

We might characterise modernity as producing a simultaneous disappearance and proliferation of music in our lives, for if there has been a steady decline in participatory musicianship, at the same time we are more than ever surrounded by music in its recorded forms. The concert form, exemplified by the chamber recital, might be seen as an intermediate stage in this division of musical labour, between the involved listening of musical participation and the distracted listening of a saturated musical environment.

Since 1995 the 4 Adelaide-based composers Raymond Chapman-Smith, Quentin Grant, David Kotlowy and John Polglase, known collectively as The Firm, have been refining a kind of pure and uncompromising musical event. They see themselves as working in the chamber tradition, of a serious intellectual music granted leave from music’s traditional subordination to social functions, where the audience is brought together not to pray or celebrate or even necessarily be entertained, but simply to listen.

In a musical equivalent of the artist run gallery, The Firm organise their concerts themselves, from the programming of the music to the more mundane details like mailing lists and tickets. Always on a tight budget, they dedicate their resources to hiring the best performers available. They have built up a strong local audience and have featured regularly at the Adelaide Festival and Barossa Music Festival. Through recordings and broadcasts they have gained increasing recognition nationally and overseas, with Chapman-Smith, Grant and Polglase having recently been commissioned to write pieces for the Schoenberg sesquicentenary celebrations at the Vienna Festival.

Chapman-Smith's work is probably the most austerely intellectual of the four. Although minimalism influenced his earlier work, his primary musical filiation is with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Other inspirations also derive from the German romantic tradition, such as the quasi-mystical abstraction of Klee and Mondrian, or the metaphysical lyricism of Paul Celan's poetry. Chapman-Smith's approach is to rework the classical forms of an older tradition, such as Bach's tautly symmetrical Baroque dance-forms, within the rigorous language of a reinvented serialism. Far from a dry academic exercise, however, the highly restrictive parameters Chapman-Smith sets himself work to temper the extreme expressiveness of his 'raw material', giving his music a restrained but powerful eloquence.

Grant's work is the most diverse. He identifies 3 distinct styles in his music, which he tends to use in alternation rather than trying to draw them together into some reconciled mode of expression. The first is an aggressive expressionism, in which a percussive element derived from minimalism drives a kind of grunge exploration of the dark side of the human psyche. As a psychological antidote to this material, Grants second style is more serene, a mystical attempt to achieve what he calls "whiteness"—a spare, open, aesthetic deriving from Eastern Orthodox religious music. Grant's third style, which has emerged more fully in recent years, is a yearning or nostalgic Romanticism which owes much to central European composers such as Leos Janacek or Pavel Haas, in which the simplicity and openness of the melodic and harmonic elements lends the music simultaneously a great vulnerability and resilience.

Kotlowy's work is intensely focused on the act of listening. Inspired in part by Eastern meditative traditions, as well as Cage and Feldman, the basic structure of his music is extremely simple, single distinct notes sounded separately between periods of silence. There is no 'line', no stepping from one note to another, nor is there 'development', in the sense that the middle or the end of the piece is qualitatively different from the beginning. Instead, Kotlowy concentrates a microscopic focus on the character of each note in isolation, making audible its distant delicate harmonic resonances, but also drawing attention to the incidental variations in the act of playing. It resembles Chinese calligraphy, in that the artist's gestures leave large areas of the canvas untouched. A recent string quartet is a typical example, with each player given a series of sustained notes to be played pianissimo. The notes overlap to create delicate shifts of harmonic texture, but developmental flow is quietly resisted, creating a sense of being in time rather than moving through it.

Polglase describes his primary concerns as "tonal, thematic, developmental." Fundamentally expressionist, his is a densely textured music, driven by melodic invention and characterised by dramatic contrasts in mood. Although he has recently concentrated on commissions for orchestral works, he sees the chamber form as the quintessential site for exploration and experiment in music, offering more flexibility and potential for expression than larger ensembles.

Grant comments that over the years The Firm have tended to reduce the instrumental colour of the ensembles they work with, preferring the classic chamber groupings of string quartet, piano trio, or solo piano, rather than the larger mixed ensembles that include wind, brass and percussion. This reduction in colour, Grant comments, forces the composer to abandon "rhetorical" effects, relying on a more "conversational" relationship with the audience, in which structures, forms and ideas are at the heart of the musical experience.

Russell Smith is an Adelaide-based writer and teaches in literary and cultural studies at Adelaide University.

Feature Article 2001

Have money, will travel

- Tim Lloyd, The Advertiser, 14th May 2001

The Firm, made up of four Adelaide composers, has been rewarded with its first grant from ArtsSA’s Industry Development Program. The $16,000 grant will help the company to develop its annual concert series. The composers are Quentin Grant, Raymond Chapman Smith, John Polglase and David Kotlowy.

The company was jokingly titled “The Firm” by the ArtsSA staff who saw the law firm irony of dealing with a company known by just the composers’ surnames.

Composer Quentin Grant says The Firm has no stylistic ideology.

“We’re not about fashions or surface. We’re concerned with poetic spaces and the continued vitality of the traditional chamber music media,” he says.

“No one has ever suggested our concerts need colour and movement; there’s quite enough going on between the ears.”

Since it was founded in 1996, The Firm has developed a relationship with many Adelaide Symphony Orchestra members. In 2000, that gave rise to the Langbein String Quartet, named for important Gawler-born violinist Brenton Langbein, and also to honour the vital contribution of Brenton’s sister, and The Firm’s first patron, Jeanette Sandford-Morgan.

The quartet will be the focus of three of the six concerts in The Firm’s 2001 Series. The concerts mix traditional repertoire with new works. Later in the year, there will be Renaissance choral music and the premiere of Graeme Koehne’s recently revised Bourgeois Pieces for String Quartet. The Firm also works with the Seraphim Trio.

The Firm’s first international venture is in June when it will take part in the Festival of Vienna, an event to mark the 50th year since Arnold Schoenberg’s death. In Vienna, the Seraphim Trio will perform rarely heard pieces by members of Schoenberg’s circle along with works by Chapman Smith, Polglase and Grant.

Raymond Chapman Smith and Nicholas Milton
Helen Ayres at the Schoenberg Centre, 2001
Nicholas Milton, Cameron Waters and Peter Duggan in rehearsal

Feature Article 1996

Brave new works: Adelaide has adventurous new chamber music concerts

- Louise Nunn, The Advertiser, July 2nd 1996

THE fact there are few opportunities these days to attend concerts of new music would be considered by some to be one of life's small mercies. There is nothing quite like sitting through a performance of an agonisingly obscure piece that sounds more to the ears like cats fighting than a composer's creative flight. At the Australian Chamber Orchestra's contemporary music concert in Adelaide recently, the opening work was enough to send some members of the audience scampering in the direction of the exit.

As Adelaide composer and new music expert Tristram Cary suggested in his review of the generally fine evening in The Australian, it may make more sense to distribute new works throughout more conventional programs rather than unleashing them on the public in one hit.

The thing about new music, however, is that if one piece is not to your liking it is no guarantee the next won't be and, like reading a thriller, interest should be sustained by the idea you are never quite sure what will happen next.

Concerts of new music, nevertheless, usually are intimate affairs. It makes the recent appearance of a chamber music series featuring new works by four Adelaide composers all the more intriguing and seemingly adventurous.

“I think it is that sense of adventure that appeals to people," says composer Raymond Chapman Smith.

"At a new music concert you experience something different in sound and often in your emotional response. New music makes demands on audiences — there's no doubt about that — but no more sometimes than reading a new novel or seeing a new film."

The other composers involved with Chapman Smith in the enterprise are David Kotlowy, Quentin Grant and John Polglase. The first concert, in May, was more than a respectable success.

The second will be held this month and continues the original idea of the series - to present new works under the best possible conditions using top local musicians.

Singer Tessa Miller and pianists Anna Goldsworthy and Gabriella Smart have been engaged for this month's performance. Their job is especially difficult because, as Chapman Smith says, they are responsible on the night for presenting the works in the best light.

This is a feat in itself because it requires great concentration and skill — not to mention many hours of rehearsal — to interpret and play a piece never heard before. Some musicians shy away from the challenge while others find it invigorating.

Until recently, Chapman Smith, Kotlowy, Grant and Polglase were involved with a larger outfit of Adelaide musicians called ACME New Music Ensemble. As the older members of the group, they decided the time had come to focus again on their own work and experiment with new ways of presenting it. State Government funding has allowed them to mount the present series, which is yet to be named but includes plans for two more concerts later in the year.

Meanwhile, ABC FM is recording this month's concert with a view to possibly broadcasting some or all of the works.

Hartley Concert Room has been decided upon as the venue. Size and the ready availability of good pianos were the main attractions, says Chapman Smith, but it has proved ideal on another level.

The group has devised a seating plan that will allow the audience to sit in a horseshoe-style arrangement around the musicians for this month's concert, which will feature songs and instrumental works. For the thrill of new music performance, you can't get much closer than that.