James Rushford: Vellus

In classical music terms, Vellus, a fifty-three-minute collection of six chamber pieces by the young Melbourne-based composer/performer James Rushford, has more in common with Luigi Nono and George Crumb than it does Michael Nyman and Philip Glass; furthermore, its fusion of classical and electronic sounds is nowhere near as serenading or accessible as the classical-electronic styles associated with artists such as Slow Six and Max Richter. None of which, however, should be interpreted to mean that Vellus should be avoided but merely to make clear its challenging character. And, anyway, calling it classical music verges on misrepresentation when it might be better described as electroacoustic experimental music that references classical music in its instrumental configurations.

Lucas Stumbles (2007) merges electronic rumble and voice fragments with a library of percussive sounds (hand drums, rustles, bells, etc.) in a three-part piece that whispers through the first two parts before wildly exploding in the third. In Respite in the Woodland (2007), Aviva Endean's clarinets dance over Rushford's occasionally wild chamber organ playing while Tractus (2006), scored for violin, autoharp, viola, cello, glockenspiel, double bass, and tam tam, alternates between violent passages where the string players attack their instruments and peaceful sections where the instruments whisper in unison. It's the kind of recording where singers and instrumentalists perform in every way imaginable except conventionally. During La Madre, a nightmarish ten-minute setting for two sopranos, cello, percussionists, and electronics, Deborah Kayser and Jessica Ashodi come across as anguished, tormented souls more than anything else, while Sam Dunscombe, his playing shadowed by Rushton's electronic treatments, seemingly explores the clarinet's fullest sonic potential throughout holdmegentlytightly.

Rushford wisely leaves space for the instruments to breathe, which makes listening to the material a less harrowing experience than it otherwise would be. Teeming with passages that move abruptly from spectral calm to violent agitation, Vellus isn't an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination but it is one that repays the effort, even if its unsettling character may prevent it from being one you'll return to often.

March 2009