The Orchestra and The Big Bang: ACO’s Timeline

Over the past several years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has played an annual multimedia concert in collaboration with a number of renowned creatives, including photographers Bill Henson (Luminous) and Jon Frank (The Crowd and The Reef). This year, as part of Sydney’s annual Vivid winter festival of lights, music and ideas, the ACO performed Timeline in collaboration with The Presets and, as the concert’s tagline proclaims, life flashed before your very ears. A flick through the concert’s program proves just how mind-bendingly vast and crazy an undertaking it was.

Starting with the Big Band, about 13.8 million years ago, and hurtling right up to the present day, the concert traversed just about every possible style and period of music you could possibly imagine (and then some) across its three hours running time. And run it did. From Neolithic chants and improvisations, ancient drumming rhythms, religious hymns and chants, Renaissance music, Medieval, music from the Reformation, the Baroque, the Enlightenment, the Romantic period; into the twentieth century and the sound of Modernism, Neoclassicism, eras of decadence and the Great Depression, so-called ‘Art music’, jazz, blues, rock and roll, psychedelia, electronically produced music, the end of the avant-garde, disco, pop, and then the contemporary hits we have all grown up with, you really did get a broad cross-section of just about every major style, trend, fad and way of making music, not just playing.
As glib as it sounds, I don’t think words can adequately describe its enormity, audacity and ambition. There were moments of serendipitous beauty, such as when The Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9’ transformed into Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ (via The Mothers of Invention’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask’) while the screen blasted us into deep space; or when Daft Punk was played underneath Philip Glass… It sounds incongruous on paper, but aurally, it was nothing short of sublime.
If there was – is – one thing the concert did superbly, it was contextualise the music historically (especially for everything pre-1980). It’s the one thing about music that I’ve never truly been able to ever wrap my head around (and perhaps to a lesser degree with books) – how global events at the time shaped and influenced what the composers were, well, composing. In the Enlightenment period (late 1700s, early 1800s) you had people like Beethoven composing, Jane Austen writing, Turner was painting, voyages of discovery across oceans and continents were well underway, there was the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, Napoleon, the slave trade &c. The visual arts – like painting and sculpture – couldn't quite express the public conscience well enough, so music became the primary mode of expressing the mood and feelings, the humanity of the time. Imagine then, the low strings playing the final theme in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme. Then, imagine an African-American field call from the cotton fields in the deep south. In that single instance, music and history – everything – collided and it suddenly made sense. By the end of the finale, a ridiculous mash-up – no, megamix, the only term vaguely appropriate – of every hit from the past fourteen years, came ‘Continuum’, a new composition by Richard Tognetti and The Presets, mirroring the entire concert, ending it not with a bang or a whimper, but a slow fade to noise.
We sat there, my friend and I, stunned, almost numb, by the end, shaking our heads and laughing in disbelief at the entire thing. If we hadn’t just listened, sat through – witnessed – the entire thing, we might have laughed it off as impossible. Full credit to Vivid’s Creative Director, Ignatius Jones, for suggesting and producing such a concert; to the ACO, The Presets and the soloists for performing it with clarity, precision, good humour, and panache (and, on the rare occasion, dancing); to all the composers, past and present, for providing such a rich and tapestried field from which to draw.

And to ACO violinst Satu Vänskä for the most haunting rendition of Weill’s ‘Alabama Song.’

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