Richard Tognetti’s ACO joins forces with the Presets to survey music from the dawn of time to Daft Punk. By Anna Goldsworthy.

ACO and the Presets offer a brief mash-up of time

Timeline, at the Sydney Opera House.
Credit: Prudence Upton / Sydney Opera House

We live in a great era of musical list-making, from ABC Classic FM’s “Classic 100” to 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. Timeline, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s collaboration with electronic music duo the Presets, is among other things a giant musical list. Artistic director Richard Tognetti describes it as “life flashing before your ears”. It offers a head start on your bucket list, covering 213 pieces of music from more than  40,000 years in just over two hours.

Timeline begins with the sound of the Big Bang, as realised by American physicist John G. Cramer, and then skips several billion years to the sound of the didgeridoo. Next comes percussion and the voice – two sound sources that will dominate the following 40,000 years – realised through ancient Chinese, Ghanaian, Nordic, Hurrian and Greek cultures. The focus narrows to Western music, via Byzantine, and we arrive at the more familiar sounds of Gregorian chant, and then onward, ravishingly, to Hildegard von Bingen. We linger awhile in the Renaissance, slowing further throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In an inspired correlation, an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is juxtaposed with an African-American slave call: the first hint of a musical impulse that will dominate the concert’s second part. The first half concludes with Schoenberg, a composer who cast a long shadow over the 20th century, glancing back over the 19th century in his enchanting “Verklärte Nacht” of 1899.

It is easy to lament the exclusions (Schubert?), but there is no ideal realisation of this project: therein lies its glorious folly. Its selections are idiosyncratic, governed by musical logic as much as musicological, and the program’s own requirements of rhythm, modulation and cadence. It emerges as its own gigantic polyphonic piece of music, stretching back to the beginning of time, with recurring leitmotifs.

Innovation is a leitmotif over the century that follows, beginning with “The Unanswered Question” by that great pioneer of the mash-up, the American composer Charles Ives. Jazz is another, morphing into R&B and then rock’n’roll, bringing sex out of the closet. Rhythm once more gains ascendancy, providing the incessant drumbeat of contemporary life. In this version of the 20th century, classical music fades into irrelevance, with Wolfgang Rihm offering a lone farewell in 2001. Timeline’s provocative position is that pop music is classical music’s rightful heir. The ACO charts its own redundancy, reduced to backing band, and we arrive at the Presets’ deft mash-up of music from 2000 onwards: “Gangnam Style” segues into “Somebody That I Used to Know” into Lorde and Daft Punk. Each song supersedes its predecessor, until they form a visceral, frantic hymn to disposability. The concert ends with a new composition by the Presets and Tognetti, the ambient “Continuum”, which does not attempt any sort of summation, but simply registers that moment which happens to be now.

Matched with visual projections by Digital Pulse, the effect is of a giant, endlessly interesting museum of sounds, but one in which there is little room to linger. Director Ignatius Jones specialises in major events, and the visual component speaks this language, at times mesmerically beautiful and at others blindingly obvious. Some of the juxtapositions grate: what can King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown tell us about the Cambodian killing fields, besides simultaneity?

ACO performs gamely and energetically, joined by stellar guest artists, not least the dynamic percussionist Timothy Constable. The six young guest singers, under the direction of Graham Ross, are versatile and compelling, and there are a couple of disarming cameos: principal violinist Satu Vänskä delivering Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song”, Julian Hamilton performing an evocative Jewish “Piyyut”.

The program’s great strength lies in its presentation of a history of human consciousness. Harmony, melody, texture, rhythm, timbre and structure all ebb and flow, alongside currents of human emotion. Certain feelings become unfashionable over time: heroism, honour, chastity, religious fervour. Others remain constant: grief, desire, the urge to dance, ecstasy. I registered the exact moment in which my own thinking world begins, with “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

But I found myself wondering who this concert was designed for: ACO’s ageing patrons, who dutifully absorbed the genre-blending like medicine? Or Generation Preset, whom we would all love to see more of in the concert hall? In his program note, Tognetti suggests that “some pop-music listeners cling to the vertical pole of history – the top-40 hit, the brand new – and in doing so, forget to reflect on our great horizontal line of history”. This is a bold attempt to reconcile the vertical and horizontal, but it is difficult to absorb both dimensions at once. The experience, inevitably, becomes one of skim-listening, akin to the skim-reading of device culture. 

In the program notes, Julian Hamilton claims that: “I personally count it as a win if I am able to hold a fan’s attention right through to the chorus of a new song before they click on another link to some place else.” Modern-day pop accommodates modern-day attention spans, with hooks built into the texture, but Beethoven’s structural complexities are less available to sampling. A canonical classical work offers a different ratio of repetition to development, and rewards sustained concentration.

Timeline’s format levels the playing field, by negating structure, so that the listener is forced to hear music as sound only. One of the surprises of this program is that this can yield new insights. Clara Schumann may not have deserved a berth at the expense of her husband, and yet the poetic performance of one of her Romances for violin and piano earned its place, offering a beautiful sound moment.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under Tognetti, remains admirably committed to reanimating the artform, to questioning what a classical music concert can and should be. This was a thought-provoking and hyper-stimulating evening. And yet afterwards I found myself craving the company of a single composer: the intimate address of the lone voice, and the more complete world view it offers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "A brief mash-up of time". Subscribe here.

Anna Goldsworthy
is a classical pianist, writer and festival director.