John Clare on Wangaratta – Phil Slater: Sun Music Song Book

Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe was well established internationally by 1965 when the first of his Sun Music series was commissioned by Bernard Heinze, to be performed in London by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Here the Australian orientation of earlier works such as Irklander was amplified, and its impact had something in common with that of the painter Sidney Nolan’s first Ned Kelly series decades earlier. Sun music 1 was full of blast furnace dissonances, but later Sun Music pieces had more in common with the larger body of Sculthorpe’s substantial output. Here the climate is often genial, sensual, exotic and tender, sometimes paradisial yet also invaded by longing. Trumpeter Phil Slater was a student of Sculthorpe’s. Here is his summary of the aims of The Sun Song Book which was presented in its fully developed form at Wangaratta. Nothing to do with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash et al, for the benefit of those misled by the title: The Sun Songbook explores several of Sculthorpe’s musical themes and points of influence, including the music of Japan, Indonesia and early Western liturgical music, and Australian Aboriginal music.

Phil Slater (Brett Hirst and Simon Barker in background) | photo by Marc Bongers
Phil Slater (Brett Hirst and Simon Barker in background) | photo by Marc Bongers

The music was performed by this stellar line up: Slater, trumpet and laptop; Matt McMahon, piano; guitarist Carl Dewhurst (whose electric sounds were a crucial element); violist Ekki Veltheim (the only Fin I have knowingly met), drummer Simon Barker, and strong, flexible Blue Mountains double bassist Brett Hirst. The music began with a velvety, hypnotic and self-sufficient ostinato that was shot through with electric glints and snips and pings of pizzicato. From this emerged a slow walk with soft brushes, soft husky trumpet, sudden stops, brief glares of dissonance, small sounds in the grass, the regular hard off-beat slap of brush on snare, and a trumpet melody rising and falling over further suggestions of brittle glare. All of this moving with restraint and intrigue, slowly and almost imperceptibly rising in intensity through several pieces (the form was that of a logically progressing suite), reaching – well into the work – Sculthorpe’s 16th String Quartet (or an arrangement of same for very different instruments, not counting the viola).

The soft yearning of this music was practically paralysing. Certainly it stilled the air. It stilled this listener. It was actually sublime.

The volume rose again with the penultimate piece, on which Slater played with such expanding power (the paramaters stretching at the top and bottom of his range) , such passion and unique phrasing that one stopped listening to the surrounding music while feeling its importance. I would like to have heard it played again immediately. What trumpet playing! In style not much like Louis Armstrong, but in feeling very much so. You must remember that sense, on Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ or ‘Back O’ Town Blues’, that the trumpet must surely begin to melt. The final movement featured a sensational rocky yet abstract guitar solo by Dewhurst that should have been applauded, and a wonderful drum solo by Barker that was.

Joe Tawadros | photo by Marc Bongers

The whole work was beautifully measured, finally showering us with brilliant sound and sensation. This was a triumph to be stored in memory beside Stuart Hunter’s Wangaratta performance of The Gathering and Sandy Evans’s performance in Sydney of When The Sky Cried Rainbows.Slater also sat in by invitation with the ensemble of oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros. Here he played an elegaic ballad by the leader. Three members of Tawadros’s ensemble had recently had deaths in the family. There is no call for me to try describing the feeling of this piece. Slater’s solo – sometimes falling to bare audibility yet still retaining a faint brass ring like an electrical element on the point of expiring in the dark – was perfect. Perfect. Slater also played (along with trumpeter Scott Tinkler and Simon Barker) with the American Trio M.

Phil Slater on the web: