If The Aulos Sounds Odd, Wait Until You Hear A Tusut

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday May 16, 2008

Louise Schwartzkoff

IN The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews cheerfully informs the young von Trapps that "when you read you begin with A-B-C, when you sing you begin with do-re-mi."

She was not the first to make the comparison. In 1827, a Frenchman named Jean Francois Sudre invented Solresol, a musical Esperanto where the seven musical syllables, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti, combine to form words and sentences.

For example: sol-re-sol is Solresol for "language" and ti-mi is "good morning".

Despite Sudre's efforts, the language never took off, but it will be resurrected in Sydney tomorrow night when the contemporary music group Ensemble Offspring performs Damien Ricketson's new composition, In God's Esperanto.

Ricketson, the ensemble's artistic director, stumbled across Solresol in a Google search. His composition uses quotes from composers, Esperanto advocates, the Bible and The Sound of Music, all translated into Solresol. The musicians play the notes and speak the syllables.

Sudre's only dictionary gives French definitions, so Ricketson spent hours translating English quotes first into French and then Solresol.

"I can't really speak French, and there's not much information about the grammar of Solresol, so the translations are probably terrible," he says. "I do feel like all this effort is slightly crazy, because the end product is completely nonsensical."

The linguistic properties of music are a favourite topic of musicologists, philosophers and linguists.

Says Ricketson: "People talk about music as the language of emotions, but when it comes to ordering a cappuccino, it's not very useful. Unless you use this insane French guy's language."

In God's Esperanto is a prelude to Ricketson's longer composition, A Line Has Two, a piece that explores the relationship between words and music. Where the prelude uses a lost language, A Line Has Two features an array of forgotten instruments, such as the ancient Arabic glass tusut and the Greek aulos.

The instruments are referenced in ancient musical scores, but no one knows what they look like or how they work. This was no deterrent to Ricketson, who simply invented instruments to suit the music.

His aulos is a "raucous, folksy-sounding" reed instrument, made by the Australian instrument maker Linsey Pollak. The glass tusut consists of 12 crystal glasses filled with varying amounts of water and played with violin bows.

At one point in the music, three musicians surround the tusut, each with two bows. "When we first started rehearsing, they were constantly crashing their hands into each other," says Ricketson. "I was sure I had worked it out so they would just miss each other if they played the right glass at the right time, but then we realised one of them was left-handed."

The crystal gives a "beautiful, other-worldly sound, not dissimilar to running your finger around a water glass".

"I've always been attracted to the kind of sounds that create a situation of strangeness.

"Where you feel a sense of connection with something that isn't comfortable, as might be the case when encountering another culture," Ricketson says.

He is frustrated with dominance of the old masters in the repertoire of Australia's orchestras. "They present contemporary music so apologetically, as if they're giving a kid medicine. You're not going to like it, but maybe it's good for you," he says.

But he admits Ensemble Offspring's music is not to everyone's taste. "It might give one person a musical epiphany and make someone else irate," he says. "But if you have a hostile reaction, at least you won't walk out indifferent."

Ensemble Offspring perform at the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Walsh Bay, tomorrow.

© 2008 Sydney Morning Herald

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