Sydney Festival review: Heart of glass

22 January 2010

It's strange how we sometimes set out to buy blue socks but end up choosing red ones, or go to meet a girl and fall for her friend instead. With Ensemble Offspring, who brought their new production Fractured Again to the Great Hall, we turn up expecting to be entranced by the sound of a glass harmonica, but go away intrigued by the musical and visual possibilities in a single pane of glass.

Pre-concert attention had focused on the show's use of the glass harmonica, an instrument made up of 37 revolving glass bowls that is played with the fingers and produces a range of ethereal musical tones. Invented in the late 18th century, it fell out of favour partly because people were worried that its eerie sounds would cause musicians and listeners to go mad.

Damien Ricketson, a lecturer in music at the Conservatorium and the composer of Fractured Again, puts the glass harmonica - the only one in Australia - at centre stage and creates a sense of anticipation by leaving it unplayed until near the end of the hour-long performance. But when it comes, the sound is something of an anti-climax, not particularly spellbinding and not, immediately at least, madness-inducing.

But that apart, this is an intriguing production with the three musicians - Claire Edwardes, James Cuddeford and Jason Noble - commanding attention from start to finish. They display an impressive range of virtuosity, extracting sounds from wine glasses, chimes and suspended sheets of glass as well as the more conventional violin, clarinet and (glass) xylophone.

The production gives a nod to all sorts of cultural precursors. There are echoes of Mozart and Donizetti in Ricketson's composition, some Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the multi-media combination of music and film (even down to the dark glasses worn by the musicians), some conceptual Tubular Bells-era cosmic mediation, and thoroughly modern drones and loops of electronic music by composer Pimmon, aka Paul Gough.

The most intriguing part of the show is the employment of a large single pane of glass, part of an installation by mixed-media artist Elaine Miles. The glass serves at various times as a percussive instrument, a film screen and the backdrop for a shadowplay of James Cuddeford on violin.

Ensemble Offspring have been going for 15 years since they were set up by Ricketson and fellow Conservatorium student Matthew Shlomowitz. Part of their remit is to challenge the way musicians and audiences think about music, and Fractured Again succeeds comfortably in that aim.

(Fractured Again is being performed in the Great Hall until 23 January).

For more on the University's involvement and information about the 10 per cent discount offer for staff, students and alumni

visit the University's Sydney Festival website here.

Media inquiries: Sarah Stock 9114 0748,