A response to Tilman Robinson’s Network of Lines ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’

Tilman Robinson’s Network of Lines |  If on a winter’s night a traveller
7.30pm, Tuesday 4th December, School House Studios, Nicholson St, Abbotsford (Melbourne)

Response by Don Jordan

In a white-painted, high-ceilinged, nearly square, resonant room on the first floor of an ex-school building about 25 people gathered to hear an unusual program of music imbued with a very European sensibility.

Ida Duelund Hansen opened the program with a set of her own pieces for her voice and her double bass, based on Schubertian themes. Her sweet voice and sensitively wrought bass accompaniment couldn’t disguise the underlying melancholy of this music – in fact, the juxtaposition of these elements made her set a quietly emotional and very suitable introduction to the main work to follow.

Tilman Robinson played trombone and directed his nonet Network of Lines in his own composition – a suite of pieces composed in response to his reading of Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. The novel was written in 1979 and is set in a fictional European country between the two World Wars. At that time, the European unconscious mind was in turmoil and the period was one of outbursts of violence and hatred alternating with extreme self-delusions of happiness and stability. The composers’ capture of this duality is masterful as the work moves through its ten parts.

He was served so well by all the players. Melanie Robinson (‘cello) and Xani Colac (violin) played with precision and warmth, their beautiful tone conveying all the sweetness that strings make possible in an ensemble of this nature.

Brett Thompson played guitar, mandolin and banjo, sitting in the middle of the ensemble sound and contributing a wide range of sound colours.

Hugh Harvey on drum kit and Sam Zerna on double bass provided a perfect foundation for the group in those sections where dance and march rhythms came to the fore, and contributed on other occasions to the neuroticism into which the score descends.

Unfortunately, from where I was sitting, I couldn’t hear much of what Berish Bilander was playing on the keyboard, although I’m sure his contribution was as strong as the others.

The trumpet and flugel horn playing of Callum G’Froerer and Peter Knight, both together and with Robinson’s trombone, provided highlights of gorgeous brass tone and harmony. Robinson’s solo passages were models of fluent beauty. Tellingly, the brass sounded neither harsh nor martial at any time – a very subtle aspect of this many-layered writing.

Tilman Robinson | Photo supplied

In fact, it was Knight’s use of his trumpet, when not blowing into it, and his associated electronic manipulations, that contributed to the most unsettling aspect of the music, and perfectly evoked the violent and bloody excesses roiling below the surface (and occasionally erupting) during the time in which the novel is set. He cradled his trumpet on his arm with the mouthpiece resting against his neck while holding a CD over the bell, from which reflected two red lights like eyes; his legs jumped around like those of a huge spider with clown feet as he pounded the pedals of his electronic control switches; he flapped his elbows and seemed to scrabble around in his lap as he manipulated a small electronic control pad while all the rest was going on. Was this Shelob in her lair, becoming angrier and angrier before darting out to stab with venomous fangs the first hapless passer-by?

A most interesting aspect of these passages was that it was only possible to become fully aware of the sounds that Knight was contributing to the ensemble by mentally subtracting the notes being played by the other instruments. The work required to concentrate on all that was going on made it impossible for the audience to be anything but fully engaged. His contribution to the drama of the work was immense.

And the drama? No wonder Europe exploded as it did. Robinson has so well expressed the agony of a people manipulated by a sadistic church – on the one hand supposedly given absolution from its sins through confession and on the other immediately thrown back on its own inadequate resources, unable to stop repeating the violence, and even enjoying the sense of power it gave them, piling guilt upon guilt until the continent and the world was engulfed in cruelty beyond the imagination of all but the most evil of people.

By the end of the work, we were marching forward, onward, ever onward, over a thin veneer of normality through the cracks in which we could see the black, crooked hands reaching upwards out of the hellish fires beneath. Keep going, don’t look down, keep going, don’t look back, keep going – until it is too late and we are swallowed up in the inferno. That this occurred as the music drew to a quiet close was a dramatic master stroke – no need for cacophony, bravura, braying brass and screaming strings to know what we had come to.

Thank you, Tilman Robinson and Network of Lines, for a most moving and extraordinary experience.


Read an interview with Tilman Robinson prior to his Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival premier of the suite >

Find Tilman Robinson on the web >

See Don Jordan‘s website >