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Bluetongue: Australian Guitar Quartets
Nigel WESTLAKE (b.1958)
Six Fish (2003) [15:25]
Richard CHARLTON (b.1955)
Five Tails in Cold Blood (2017) [Guitar Quartet No.8] [15:02]
Philip HOUGHTON (1954-2017)
Nocturne (1976). (version for guitar quartet, 2002) [3:19
Opals (1993, rev.1994)  [9: 42]
News from Nowhere (1992) [16:39]
Wave Radiance (2002) (version for guitar quartet. 2004) [6:24]
Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b.1957)
Bleached Memories (2001) [10:05]
Guitar Trek
rec. 2019, Electric Avenue Studios, Sydney
First recordings: Kats-Chernin & Charlton
NAXOS 8.579060 [77:07]

As their titles suggest, most of the pieces on this disc have extra-musical inspirations; some represent, or re-present, Australian creatures or landscapes. They are played by Guitar Trek, an Australian guitar quartet which was formed in 1987. On this recording, its members, Timothy Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Bradley Kunda and Matt Withers play, in various combinations, standard guitars, treble guitar, baritone guitar, bass guitar and dobro.

I came to this disc having no familiarity with any of this music and little enough with most of the composers and while I cannot say that its contents came as any kind of ‘revelation’, I did find them interesting.

For me – and I suspect for many others – the most familiar name here was that of Elina Kats-Chernin. Born in Tashkent (then within the Soviet Union), Kats-Chernin emigrated to Australia in 1975. After studying at the Sidney Conservatorium, an award from the DAAD (Deutscher Akademische Austauschdienst / German Academic Exchange Service) enabled her to study with Helmut Lachmann. She lived and worked in Europe between 1980 and 1994 before returning to Australia. I expect that some readers will be familiar with her composition Clocks (a work in four movements for twenty musicians and tape). This was written in 1993, shortly before her return to Australia. Since then her work – in a variety of genres, including a number of operas – has established her as an important figure in Australian music, so much so that in January 2019 she was created an Officer of the Order of Australia. Also a pianist, Kats-Chernin has always had an interest in ragtime – and the influence of ragtime can be heard in Bleached Memories. The piece starts slowly with some well-spaced chords, but soon fresh material builds around and beyond these chords, as the piece gathers momentum. The wit and vivacity of the piece make it a stimulating and enjoyable listen.

When I showed this CD to an Australian friend, confessing that though the name of Philip Houghton sounded familiar, I couldn’t remember where or when I had heard any of his music, she told me I should be ashamed of myself. Suitably admonished, I undertook an online search for examples of his work, from which I came away impressed by his obvious understanding of the guitar. Investigating his biography, I found that Houghton was originally trained as a painter and only undertook formal music studies at the age of 20. This encouraged a ‘return’ to the guitar. I say return because of a statement of Houghton’s from his website: “When I was 9, I got a guitar for Christmas. I didn’t like it so I used it as a cricket bat until it got smashed by a fast ball”. Houghton’s earliest musical influences came from Rock and Jazz. After studying at the Melba Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne, he taught guitar and gave recitals until 1981, when he decided to concentrate on composition. He wrote primarily for guitar, either solo or joined with other instruments. Fellow Australian John Williams was a supporter of his work. He gave, for example, the first performance of Houghton’s Stele in 1990 and recorded this lovely and evocative 4-part suite on his CD The Guitarist (Sony Classical). Given his initial training as a painter it is not perhaps surprising that a lot of Houghton’s music is ‘pictorial’ in nature, seeking to evoke colours or referencing specific paintings. One of the works I discovered in my online search was The Goldfish Suite – made up of four pieces: I. ‘Green Goldfish’, II. ‘Red Goldfish’, III. ‘Purple Goldfish’ and IV. ‘Yellow Goldfish’. Of the four works by Houghton on this new CD, three (Opals, Nocturne and Wave Radiance) can, I think, be ‘heard’ in visual terms (though the music of all of them is well-crafted and needn’t be heard only in this way). Opals is a three-part suite: I. ‘Black Opal’, II. ‘Water Opal’ and III. ‘White Opal’. The Australian Government has named the opal “the national gemstone”, saying that the stone “is a powerful symbol of Australia’s arid interior”. Houghton himself (in the CD booklet) relates this suite, not only to actual opals, but also to two paintings: Lyndall Gerlach’s Opal Spirit and John William Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa. In don’t know the painting by the Australian Gerlach, but the Victorian depiction of Circe Invidiosa can readily be found online and is well worth looking at in relation to ‘Water Opal’. I don’t think it is just the composer’s mention of the painting which makes me ‘hear’ Waterhouse’s powerful image of Circe and her magic in the second of Houghton’s opals. Certainly, the third, ‘White Opal’, with its shimmering textures, evokes the shifting colours ‘hidden’ in a white opal which are revealed when the stone is moved. I now think that I must have known Houghton’s name from hearing John Williams play some of his work. It is not a name I shall now forget. He writes superbly for the guitar, whether alone or in multiples.

It has been the music of Elina Kats-Chernin and Philip Houghton which has most impressed me on this disc. The other pieces make pleasant listening, but I am not sure how often I shall want to go back to them.  Nigel Westlake’s aural images of six Australian fish make initially striking use of the 12-string guitar and the dobro resonator, but some of the effects become somewhat less interesting on repeated hearings. For me, at least, Richard Charlton’s ‘pictures’ of five Australian coldblooded creatures (Shingleback, Lace Monitor, Manta Ray, Water Dragon and Bluetongue) became less, rather than more, rewarding as I relistened to them. Given that one of these creatures gives its name to the album, it seems only right to explain (how useful to have a son-in-law who trained as a zoologist) that the Australian bluetongue is a lizard, of which there are six distinct species.

So, I can’t claim that this is a disc which grips me throughout. The works of Philip Houghton and Elina Kats-Chernin seem, on this evidence, to have a distinctiveness which those of Nigel Westlake and Richard Carlton rather lack. Perhaps Six Fish and Six Tails in Cold Blood would mean more to me if I knew more about the wildlife of Australia? My less than wholehearted reaction to these two works may say as much (or more) about my limitations as about the works themselves.

Glyn Pursglove

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