Stephen Whittington: Windmill
Cold Blue

Familiarity with Australian composer Stephen Whittington's background engenders certain expectations about what awaits on Windmill, his Cold Blue follow-up to 2013's Music for Airport Furniture and played, like its predecessor, by the Adelaide-based Zephyr Quartet. Also a pianist, Whittington performed works by figures such as Terry Riley, Alvin Curran, George Crumb, and Morton Feldman in the ‘70s, but it was a 1987 meeting with John Cage at CalArts that proved pivotal. Upon returning to Australia, Whittington began incorporating elements of minimalism, polystylism, and chance procedures into his composing style. Subsequent to that, works of varying kinds were created, among them 2003's multimedia show Mad Dogs and Surrealists and live music for classic silent films at the Sydney Opera House three years later. Cage's impact on him persisted beyond that initial meeting, as intimated by the directing role Whittington assumed for 2012's John Cage Day, which featured ten hours of performances honouring the provocateur, whereas the recent AV installation Hallett Cove—One Million Years (2015) involved custom-designed software operating on video footage and sound to explore the area's geological terrain.

All of which might lead one to expect experimentalism and chance operations to be part of the compositional design of Windmill and …from a thatched hut, the two works presented on the thirty-six-minute recording. Yet while it's certainly possible that such aspects have been incorporated into the material, the pieces are more conventionally tonal and melodic than anticipated. They're very different, however: the seven-movement …from a thatched hut draws heavily from Chinese musical traditions, even if the composer declares that its musical language is as much indebted to modern Western composers, specifically Satie, Webern, and Cage; Windmill, on the other hand, is a single-movement ten-minute setting that sonically evokes the hydraulic movements of the structure.

With respect to …from a thatched hut (whose title alludes to the idea of the Chinese scholar who withdraws from society for purposes of contemplation, study, or otherwise), Whittington identifies one brief quotation at the start of the fifth movement as an explicit reference to a Chinese musical source, but to these ears the tradition's influence extends further than that, even if subtly. So while there's no denying the erhu-like character of the strings in the fifth movement, a plaintive quality is evident elsewhere that's also reminiscent of Chinese folk music. One hears that clearly during the lovely second part, “Gazing at the moon while drunk,” for instance, where the vocal-like cry of glissandos lends the music a mournful character. By comparison, the expressive fourth movement, “Scratch head, appeal to Heaven,” adheres more closely to Western musical tradition, yet its staggered layering of vibrato-heavy string tones is as elegiac in effect. Conceived by its composer as a seven-part cycle that allows for stylistic contrasts and parallelisms between movements, …from a thatched hut is rendered by Zephyr Quartet with the sensitivity of a Chinese brush painting.

Written with the steel windmills of the Australian outback in mind, Whittington's delicate title composition evokes the rusting wheeze and creak of the apparatus as it dredges water from beneath the sometimes barren land surface. A breezy sing-song quality asserts itself as the patterns rhythmically see-saw in hypnotic motion, such lightheartedness rather ironic given that solar technology now threatens to render the time-honoured technology obsolete. In presenting two works, the release offers an admittedly small sampling of Whittington's oeuvre, yet it's a nevertheless satisfying one that whets the appetite for more.

September 2017