AYO Chamber Players will see six ensembles tackle a far-reaching selection of chamber repertoire: a string quartet penned by Joseph Haydn in the early 1770s sits alongside a string quartet written by Australian composer Holly Harrison in 2017.

Over the course of the week-long program, each ensemble will work on at least one piece written during the 21st century, a reflection of the versatility demanded of classically trained musicians working in the current age.

AYO Chamber Players 2018 - A piano trio rehearses on stage in an auditorium.
Participants of AYO Chamber Players 2018, rehearsing in Elder Conservatorium of Music.

Excerpts from this extensive repertoire list will be performed at QSO Studio on Saturday 1 October. In addition to the towering giants of Classical and Romantic chamber music, AYO is proud to feature four works by dynamic women composers currently active in the musical industry: Holly Harrison, Natalie Williams, Catherine Likhuta and Caroline Shaw.

We have turned the spotlight onto these four pieces and the creative minds behind them. Whether you will be in the audience for AYO Chamber Players in Concert, or would just like to discover some fantastic pieces of repertoire, this guide is for you!

Holly Harrison Balderdash (2018)

Holly Harrison‘s Balderdash was commissioned by Musica Viva and Silo Collective, specifically for the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.

Harrison describes the story behind the piece in her program notes: “Balderdash begins and ends with amplifier feedback: a sound that quickly makes us bring our fingers to our ears! The piece imagines an alternate world in which music is heard between the feedback – a sort of sub/hyper-sonic sound world which takes place in mere seconds.

With this in mind, the string quartet explores musical ideas inspired by electric guitar, including distortion, white noise, whammy bars, power-chords, dive-bombs, wah-wah, phaser effects, slap bass, and of course, speaker feedback. Balderdash makes high use of punk rock rhythms, dissonance, and percussive-based jams, which morph in and out of bluegrass, grunge, prog-rock, metal, and… disco.

Given the piece was commissioned for a competition, I felt it might be fun to experiment with a battle-of-the-bands theme within the string quartet itself. Throughout Balderdash, players go rogue (especially the cello!), engage in one-upmanship, jam, duel, challenge, compete, interrupt, surrender, work together in teams, and cooperate as one. The piece is intended to be theatrical and encourages the quartet to perform with abandon.”

Natalie Williams Animalia (2017)

Credit: Wind Streams

Each movement within Natalie Williams’ Animalia was inspired by a work from the 2016-2017 Popular Pet Show exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. This exhibition was built around a series of animal portraits by Australian artists.

To put yourself in the mind of the composer, listen to Animalia while observing the works pictured below with excerpts from Williams’ program notes!

I – Aubade 

“Movement 1 is a short morning song. Usually a song of parting between two lovers, this Aubade between a pet and its owner is of a much more impatient nature.”

II – Dinner Dance

“Movement 2 is a wayward waltz, depicting the incessant dancing that most pets enact when dinner is imminent. Headlam’s etching portrays the circular motion of a dog around the feet of its owner in a one-sided dance of eagerness and anticipation.”

III – Five Sheepish Faces

“The third movement depicts sheep characters immortalized in portraits by Lucy Culliton. Facing the viewer, each animal appears as an androgenized character, presenting unique facial features and expressions. The movement is based around one chord which remains static under a series of five solo passages, taken by each instrument; one for each sheep. Comical, capricious and awry, the melodic lines unfold, twist and turn in the same manner as the crazy sheep in each portrait. This movement is also a play-on-words for the ‘five sheepish faces’ displayed by woodwind players as they grapple with the physical limits of their instruments.”

IIII – Molly and the Circus Dogs

The final movement is based on a set of glazed porcelain pieces by Anna Culliton. In each, Molly (a young girl in a blue polka-dot dress) is accompanied by Sophie the circus dog, draped over and around the edge of the pottery; laughing, jumping and playing together. “

Molly and the Circus Dogs by Anna Culliton (2011)
Molly and the Circus Dogs by Anna Culliton (2011)

Catherine Likhuta Apex Predators (2015)

Credit: Lyrebird Brass – Topic

Apex Predators was commissioned by the Atlantic String Quartet and has since been featured in the debut album of Melbourne-based brass quintet Lyrebird Brass. The liner notes for this recording, released in 2022, describe how Likhuta uses musical techniques to paint a picture of a deadly apex predator in action.

“Likhuta brings these creatures to life cleverly using murky colours, extreme dynamics, bitey articulations, compact harmonies and various extended techniques, to evoke stalking, lurking, snarling, snapping and pouncing. The final trumpet duet brings to mind a chaotic struggle between a predator and its prey, swirling around until the natural conclusion is reached and the prey is silenced.”

Catherine Likhuta in conversation with Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Listen to Lyrebird Brass’ debut album Apex Predators

Caroline Shaw Valencia (2012)

Credit: Attacca Quartet

Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the ones which give us the richest inspiration! In her program notes, New-York based composer Caroline Shaw writes that she didn’t have to look far to find creative stimulus…

“There is something exquisite about the construction of an ordinary orange. (Grocery stores around the country often offer the common “Valencia” as the standard option.) Hundreds of brilliantly coloured, impossibly delicate vesicles of juice, ready to explode. It is a thing of nature so simple, yet so complex and extraordinary.

In 2012, I performed at the MoMA with the musician and performance artist, Glasser – a song which she described as being about the simple beauty of fruit. Later that summer I wrote Valencia, for a concert I was playing with some good friends in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. I decided to channel Glasser’s brave and intuitive approach to melody and texture, such that Valencia became an untethered embrace of the architecture of the common Valencia orange, through billowing harmonics and somewhat viscous chords and melodies. It is also a kind of celebration of awareness of the natural, unadorned food that is still available to us.”

Follow Caroline Shaw’s work through her website