Review: Death Whistle – music for solo piccolo

A champion of new music in South Australia, flautist Melanie Walters presents a diverse concert of living composers, showcasing her adept command of the so-called ‘Death Whistle’. Describing the repertoire as “unpopular music on an unpopular instrument”, Walters’ performance contrasts with the concert’s macabre title, expertly demonstrating the versatility and vivacity of the piccolo.

Melanie Walters | image credit – Ivan Singer

Pimento, a 2016 work by UK composer Edmund Jolliffe opened the evening, alternating staccato and legato chromatic phrases in quasi-perpetual motion, aptly conveying the ‘hot and spicy’ palette the composer’s title suggests.

Two bird-inspired works follow. UK-based Carla Rees’ 2016 work Night Song conveys a series of short bird calls interspersed with longer lyrical phrases, inspired by the 2 am calling of a robin outside of her bedroom window. By contrast, Australian Rosalind Carlson’s Forest Bellbirds (2004), comprises a series of vignettes alternating between long lyrical phrases and shorter arpeggiated flourishes, each section responding to a bird from her local area.

Perhaps the most effective display of Walters’ virtuosity was in iconic Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Dolce Tormento (2004), a cornucopia of extended techniques including simultaneous singing/speaking and playing, microtonal pitch bends and breathy multiphonics which highlight the composer’s affinity for the flute family. Masterfully melding the recitation of the Petrarch sonnet that inspired the work with the instrument’s dulcet tones, Walters crafts a captivating soundscape far beyond the expected limits of the piccolo.

The middle of the recital focussed on two multi-movement works, the first being four selections from US composer Lowell Liebermann’s Eight Pieces (1998). Ophelia offers a series of mournful yet aspirational phrases, each ascending out of a minor triad. Forgotten Waltz presents a strange, meandering chromatic dance, while Hongroise, an obvious nod to the music of Bartok, effectively blends elements of polytonality and mixed-metre. The concluding March sounded as if a lonely piccolo player was the only one left reading their part of an American marching band score, with interjectory key clicks and tongue rams conveying the sound of distant footsteps, a distant memory.

Melanie Walters | image credit – Dennis Grauel

Comparatively, David Loeb’s Six Preludes each offer representative portraits of Asian woodwind instruments studied and played by Loeb on his travels to China, Japan, Korea, Bali and Tibet, so effectively rendered by Walters’ idiomatic ornamentation and control of extended techniques that the listener is almost convinced of hearing the authentic source instrument.

Inspired by the rustling of nature while on a Connecticut-based artist residency, Korean composer Sungji Hong’s 2016 piece Fruscio evokes the sounds of the New England forest. Aspirated tones evoke the susurrations of wind passing through trees and tremulous melodies reminiscent of bird calls reverberate throughout the woods.

Australian Damian Barbeler’s Confessions 2 (2006) presents a sound portrait of someone in confessional, juxtaposing plea-like descending piccolo phrases against an evolving electronic drone giant, astutely balanced by sound engineer Keira Simmons.

Death Whistle is tailended with the eponymous 2019 piece by US composer Nicole Chamberlain. Its first movement, Ear knife appropriately employs aural stabbing gestures, combining violent breathy staccato passages alongside shrill arpeggios. Ballistophobia (the fear of guns, an answer to the in-joke of how to get two piccolo players to play in tune) gives the sense of an old Western standoff, with expectant held tones answered with punctuated tongue pops. The final movement, #PiccolOhMyGod, culminates in a series of rapid high register flurries and auditory illusions (in the form of ‘false fundamentals’), Walters keenly careening the whistle toward its final death blow.

Death Whistle returns on Wed 23 February to the Jade, followed by Walter’s other Fringe offering, Bioluminescence, with performances on Sunday 24 and Thursday 27 February.

Rating: ★★★★★

Reviewed on 18 Feb 2022 at The Jade.

Did you like this content? The Serenade Files invites you to leave a comment below