Marketed under the tagline: “42,000 years of music – 213 works – 1 performance”, Timeline is a hyper-ambitious production. The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s latest venture into the audio-visual arena was presented in partnership with Sydney’s Vivid festival, best known for its light shows projected onto landmark buildings. Live musicians and recorded sound were used in this whistle-stop tour of musical cultures which unfolded against an ever-changing backdrop of images and patterns. At times history lesson, at times creative mash-up, it was both a highly stimulating and a frustrating experience, with outstanding performances from the instrumentalists and singers.

Richard Tognetti © Paul Henderson
Richard Tognetti
© Paul Henderson

The show (calling it a concert would be a misnomer) fell into two halves, the first taking us from the big bang to 1899, the second through to today. Physicist John Gleason Cramer’s sonicisation of the Big Bang as a kind of electronic haze gave way to aboriginal music, notionally linked to the music of Australia’s indigenous peoples from 40,000BC. In quick succession, ancient civilisations were traversed (Chinese, Ghanaian, Nordic, Greek, Persian, Byzantine, Jewish), realised through the sounds of the didgeridoo, drumming, a shofar-like horn and so forth. At one point, the string instruments were propped on the players’ knees and plucked in an obvious imitation of the lyre. A short snatch of echo-amplified Gregorian chant marked the starting point of the notated art-music tradition. The ever-popular round Sumer is icumen in (c.1260) was about the first fully satisfactory musical number thanks to its greater duration. Other memorable musical moments were the vocal sextet’s imitation of the reedy regal in Henry VIII’s Pastime with Good Company, and the very edgy (electronically manipulated?) orchestral sound in a traditional Ottoman piece from c.1650.

Throughout the first half, the imagery included art from the relevant time period (Josquin’s renaissance-era Ave Maria was accompanied by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, a detail of Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Primavera), or more abstract patterns (medieval rose windows twisted as through a kaleidoscope, floating patterns of crucifixes). At times the musico-visual combinations were puzzling (why the random floating dagger during the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde?), at others inspired (counterpointing images of American slaves with the beginning of the instrumental version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, which eventually died away into the recorded sound of an African-American field call from c.1800). The imagery pointed up some remarkable historical juxtapositions (Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and the French Revolution) and hinted at interesting backstories (the trippy, flickering pictures during Gesualdo’s Moro, lasso were surely as much a reference to the composer’s murderous past as to the disturbing qualities of the music itself).

Perhaps the most thought-provoking pairing was hearing an extended section of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s late String Quartet Op.130 while declarations of the rights of man were shown, which pointed to the political aspects of a movement not often understood in such terms. The first half finished with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, with the shards of broken glass a reference to the composer’s role in breaking with tonality (although this was not accomplished in this particular work).

The second half was notionally divided into three sections, although only the final part was notably demarcated by the change of personnel. Where the excerpts in the first half often ended abruptly (and at times unsatisfactorily) before the next started, in the second half cross-fading and indeed combination became increasingly frequent. For instance, Miles Davis’s Blue in Green was overlaid with Varèse’s Poème électronique, and Stockhausen’s Stimmung was mated with Bowie’s Space Oddity. Anglo-American popular music became ever more dominant, to the point that there was no contemporary 'classical' music featured in the survey of the new millennium. This was the work of The Presets (Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes), whose electronic mash-up of popular music aptly illustrated what Hamilton called “the noisy disordered chaos of today”. The final item, the newly composed Continuum by Hamilton, Moyes and Richard Tognetti, involved the on-stage musicians once again. It provided a degree of resolution that was necessary for the occasion, but which belied the earlier picture of an entropic descent into chaos.

As a survey of musical styles, Timeline had obvious problems. It announced itself as covering all music, but this quickly narrowed down to Western art music, only to switch to (mostly) Western popular music for the last section. Omissions were inevitable (no Handel, Schubert, Verdi, nor Mahler, for instance) but pointed to the hubris of the enterprise. Even more troublesome was the atomisation of the music: the qualities that make Haydn great are not to be discerned from a snippet from an early quartet. In the second half, the desire for coverage led to it becoming more of a name-checking exercise than affording a meaningful engagement with the music. Nonetheless, this was a fascinating demonstration of the variety of ways in which man has attempted to express or address something in sound, and will have introduced virtually every listener to something new.