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Inspired by the iconic 1979 work “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino, the debut album from Tilman Robinson has been described as a ‘most moving and extraordinary experience’. Composed in 2012 for the APRA Melbourne Jazz Fringe commission, the work sonically responds to the themes and spirit of this postmodern classic, giving musical life to Calvino’s masterpiece. Avoiding the literal and tokenistic, Robinson subtly transforms Calvino’s work, creating something truly unique.
Calvino’s words pass through Robinson’s musical prism creating an aural narrative that, while in debt to its muse, carves out its own identity.
Recorded with a cast of some of Australia’s most outstanding musicians the album will digitally release on December 31, 2013, with it’s official launch at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 11, 2014.
Ever since the beginning, a constant tension develops the sound of Network of Lines, staying true to its name as it gradually points towards an uneven, relational growth of musical ideas that play off on each other without ever fully drawing apart. The tension is generated by a sort of underlying playful violence that the sounds enact on each other, never really gelling together, never at ease into the forward-thinking of a melody or the sheer enjoyment of the present that its jazzy elements might connote; no, these sounds are at war, which is to say they shift genres as a gesture of conflict, opening up a whole environment of connections out of which a unity could only be conceived of from afar, from outside. Sure enough, we can call this an album in the traditional sense, but once the music starts it seems to be something else, something that doesn’t quite relax into a fully-fledged form, something that is always already both falling apart and keeping together, an illusory yet true communication that conveys no more and no less than the sum of its parts.
This work by Australian composer Tilman Robinson is based upon a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a book that unfortunately I have not read, which will leave this review lacking in that department. However, guided by other Calvino texts, it might be safe to take the idea that Network of Lines is (possibly) more about the experience of listening than anything straightforwardly musical and run with it. If so, it provides an ample setting under which to hear the entire thing as an exercise in ‘how music is made’ by means of pitching ideas and sounds into a constellation of conflict, one in which a strings-driven post-rock section seemingly out of a Bell Orchestre record fundamentally wants something different than what an atonal short horn part wants to achieve, both emotionally and intellectually, and yet they both evolve from mutual interaction. Robinson’s mastery consists here of making this sound like a coherent progression, skilfully avoiding the dangers of musical mash-ups that often plague those who attempt such an approach. The key, it would appear, is this conflict, articulating all those elements at odds through what they fail to be, creating a set of relations in which a Balkan dance becomes an entryway into melancholy, in which an ambient section stops dreaming and grows ever more focused, in which minimalism is but a mask for an underlying mess of noisy improv.
Going further into this idea, the album cover seems to depict a unified whole, a totality in harmony. Nevertheless, if looked at from a close distance, the complexity of the network is revealed in all its disparate glory, with differing, often asymmetrical lines connecting dots of varying sizes and degrees of closeness. It’s an incredibly chaotic image, and yet, it works to give the viewer the certainty of the whole, a whole that is not at all similar or compatible with the conventional understanding of a totality as totalitarian. This is Network of Lines‘ anarchic flow, a mass of sounds that play at war, that never fully let go, never fully disappear under a ‘general direction’ and are therefore constantly drawn into a game of strange, non-organic musical growths that encompass everything between post-rock and modern composition.
Played by a small strings orchestra, there’s a very strong sense here that the musicians are having fun with the material, perhaps confirming the point that this is music about playing music, about listening (all those memories that these pieces evoke, all those feelings, all those thoughts that are reflected by the essential disharmony of neuronal functions), about the way sounds gleefully pretend to hit each other, in the process making something that is joyfully creative, a network that, in its immense variety and vibrancy, feels utterly and magnificently full of life.- David Murrieta
The 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller by post-modern writer Italo Calvino has been described as a ‘playful, post-modern puzzle’. It is a many-storeyed funhouse of thematic mirror-mazes, prismatic lenses, dead-ends, genre-mashups and multi-person narrative.
In short, it is surprising that it has taken this long for it to be used as inspiration for a musical suite.
Melbourne based composer, trombonist and arranger Tilman Robinson – his bio suggests ‘sound artist’ which is, yes, closer to the truth – has taken the Calvino novel and presents it through his own prismatic lens, creating the suite ‘Network of Lines’.
Given that the original is kaleidoscopic, Tilman’s confident repurposing of Calvino’s narrative material could have been a dog’s breakfast (a slightly tripped-out, pretentious dog at that).
It says much for the composer’s taste, style and wit that it isn’t. In fact Network of Lines is a work of ethereal and pure loveliness – albeit one with a red-blooded heart. No wonder ABC Jazz’s Jessica Nicholas listed its 2012 live premier as one of her top five musical highlights of that year.
Originally composed for the 2012 APRA Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, ‘Network of Lines’ has now been released through Perth’s ever-(pleasantly)-surprising Listen/Hear Collective. It is Tilman’s debut recording and is perfromed here by a nine-piece electro-acoustic ensemble.
Opener ‘Winter’s Night’ sets up an accent of cool drama with an almost ‘Maiden Voyage’ ensemble passage rising out of a low, low laptop drone, and scratched at by ambient noises as it develops.
What is also set up is a chill European atmosphere that pervades the entire work. Whether the becalmed, funereal ‘In Search of An Anchor’ (with a lovely translucent piano solo from Berish Bilander), or the drunken 7/8 Balkan wedding reel of ‘Malbork, Cimmeria’ (named for the novel’s fictional setting), this music breathes the woody smoke of the Old World. And the smoke is pungent and heady. Breathe deep.
Robinson’s sharp writing – and the simpatico skill of this bright, young ensemble in speaking it – is most evident on the quite amazing ‘The Void and The Iron Bridge / Shadows Gather’. The opening trombone theme (whispered to us, it seems, from Bartok’s Hungarian lakes) is taken up by the ensemble but staggered and slightly wonky. Soon the ensemble is marching around the lip of the void, fearlessly drunk, laughing into its maw. Drummer Hugh Harvey balances and holds this danse macabre beautifully, playing perfectly (imperfectly?) in and out of time with a bright empathy (and a slight grin).
Robinson’s writing throughout is exceptional – just as he avoided the obvious tone-poem trip in his reading of ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’, he equally puts aside cliché or overt stylistic bindings in his compositions and sound-organisation. What we end up with is a truly beautiful balance of evocation and surprise, all spoken with a very human voice. You can’t help but feel each of these pieces deep within; sometimes with a small cut of pang, sometimes with the sweet kiss of caress.
His writing can be muscular too as on the twin piece ‘Lines: Enlacing’ and ‘Lines: Intersecting’. But it is the deeper, more mist-obscured pieces here that took me away to Cimmeria. The hymn-like quality of the suite’s closer ‘What Story Down There Awaits Its End?’ almost suggests a spirituality glowing through its milky haze.
Spirituality? In a work inspired by post-modern writing? Maybe not, nihilism is the religion there. But ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ is Calvino’s work, not Robinson’s – ‘Network of Lines’ is all Tilman Robinson’s work and it is quite something.- John Hardaker
Tilman composes and produces in various settings. Recently he was commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne to compose a piece for their 5x5x5 Commission project. This project commissioned 5 composers to each develop a site specific piece for a different area of the Arts Centre. Tilman's piece Shrouded in Crowds was developed for the Terrace Garden above Hamer Hall, overlooking the Yarra, Federation Square and Flinders Street Station.
In late 2013 Tilman spent two months in residence at the Banff Centre in Canada composing, developing and recording a new series of solo works for trombone, piano, sound design and field recordings. The project, entitled Deer Hart, will be released in late 2014. Parts of the work were presented at the MONA FOMA festival where Tilman presented two one-hour solo shows for trombone, piano, no-input mixer and laptop as part of the Morning Meditation series.
"Robinson mesmerised an audience of all ages with music that was at once soothing and avant garde, but never anything other than warmly human" - Alex Needham - The Guardian