der 70er Jahre startete Michael Askill seine Karriere
als Erster Schlagzeuger des Sydney Symphony Orchestras
und Begründer der Perkussionsgruppe Synergy.
In seinen Kompositionen verschmelzen die Rhythmen
der verschiedenen Kulturen mit Avantgarde-Elementen.
Vieles ist für Tanzaufführungen geschrieben
und in Zusammenarbeit mit anderen Musikern entstanden
(Tekbilek, Hudson, Riley Lee u.a.)
Michael Askill, the composer, is also a percussionist.
In most of the world's great musical traditions, that
fact might not be worth noting. But Western music
has, in a sense, spent several centuries reinventing
the wheel: the Western classical tradition has often
treated percussion instruments as an afterthought.
From the Renaissance to the Romantic era, percussionists
were second-class musicians. Only in the 20th century
have composers begun to treat this ancient family
of instruments with the respect it gets in Arabic,
African, or Asian music. Askill, formerly Principal
Percussionist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra,
has spent the past twentyfive years quietly
but effectively carving a niche for music that is
percussion based, whether written by his contemporaries
or by Askill himself.
Askill's music draws as heavily on world music traditions
as it does on Western jazz, rock, and classical music.
And being a percussionist, he says, definitely colors
the types of music he creates. "I feel most comfortable
composing in the traditional sense, on manuscript
with percussion instruments." As this compilation
shows, though, there is little traditional in Askill's
compositions. "That's why I work with the people I
do," he explains. "They bring me the improvising traditions
that they are a part of Riley Lee's Japanese flute,
or Omar Faruk Tekbilek's
Turkish instruments and improvise within my context.
Whether that's 'composition' or not, I'm not sure."
To the listeners who have enjoyed Askill's work with
the group Synergy Percussion, or his evocative scores
for the Sydney Dance Company, such distinctions won't
matter much. It is enough to marvel at Askill's eclectic
blend of Asian and Western musics (a natural one for
an Australian composer), and of electric and acoustic
instruments (natural for a composer of the late 20th
Askill was born in Durban, South Africa, to a British
father and a South African mother of British descent.
Foreseeing some of the problems Apartheid would bring,
the family moved first to Birmingham, England, and
then, in 1957 when Askill was five, to Australia.
("The Australian Government were offering passages
from the UK to Australia for 10 pounds!" Askill remarks.)
He grew up in Adelaide, which may be one of the smaller
of Australia's major cities but which nevertheless
has a vibrant arts scene.
Like many of his contemporaries, Askill studied
in Europe, spending some of the early '70s in Strasbourg,
France at the invitation of Les Percussions de Strasbourg.
Returning to Australia in 1974, he began playing in
the fledgling new music scene in Sydney, meeting like-minded
percussionists and eventually forming the group which
became Synergy Percussion. Askill held the post of
Principal Percussionist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
for many years during the 1970s and '80s. But even
while working squarely in the Western Classical tradition,
with perhaps the premier orchestra in Australia and
the Pacific, Askill was stretching out, working with
Nigel Westlake's Magic Puddin' Band (a progressive
rock group) and Synergy Percussion, among others.
In 1982, he traveled to New York to study with Elden
'Buster' Bailey and Morris Lang, both then with the
New York Philharmonic, and wound up studying jazz
as well with David Samuels and David Friedman (both
of whom, coincidentally, would record In Lands
I Never Saw (13015-2)
for Celestial Harmonies in 1987).
Rhythm In The Abstract: Selected Pieces 1987-1997
Michael Askill's name on the cover, but his music
is essentially a collaborative art, and has been throughout
his career. While studying in Strasbourg in the early
'70s, Askill first met the Australian dancer and choreographer
Graeme Murphy, with whom he would later form a groundbreaking
interdisciplinary tandem. "He was in a French company
called Ballets Felix Blaska," Askill recalls, "and
we saw one another when they came to Strasbourg. They
were working then with two of the best French percussionists,
doing dance with live music." The idea of dance with
live music is not new, but in 1991 Graeme Murphy and
Michael Askill began developing an extraordinary way
of blending music with dance and musicians with dancers
that remains one of the most remarkable collaborations
in the world of dance theater.
"In 1991 Graeme came to see Matsuri (13081-2),
Synergy's show with Riley Lee, Satsuki Odamura and
a butoh dancer, Chin Kham Yoke", Askill says,
"and asked Synergy to work with him." The result was
Synergy With Synergy, a program as successful as it
was big. "Free_Radicals came about because Graeme
wanted to continue the dance/percussion idea on a
more portable scale," Askill explains. "The Synergy
show was just too big to be economical to tour." In
all of their collaborations, the musicians were not
only visible, but actively involved in the movements
on stage. In Free_Radicals (15027-2),
the percussion arsenal included the dancers' bodies.
In the same piece, Askill turned a rhythmic pattern
into a sequence of numbers, which in itself is not
unusual...but he then gave it to several members of
the dance troupe to recite, each in a different language.
In Salome (15031-2),
the integration of musicians and dancers was even
closer, with members of the dance troupe acting as
a chorus and adding to the percussion texture. In
their latest collaboration, Air And Other Invisible
Forces, the musicians float around the stage on platforms
that move between the dancers. Together, Graeme Murphy
and Michael Askill have created a composite art that
blurs the traditional distinction between dancers
and musicians...and ironically, their collision of
art forms, so exceptional in the West, strongly echoes
the close ties between music and dance found in Africa,
Indonesia, and other world traditions.
Like many Australian musicians of his generation,
Askill finds his position as a Westerntrained
musician in a Pacific Rim country to be a great source
of inspiration. With Synergy Percussion, another one
of his most important and longstanding collaborations,
world musicand especially Asian musichas
played a major role. "Synergy was interested in commissioning
new works from young and established Australian composers,
but also interested in working outside of the new
music scene, which was active but small," he recalls.
"As percussionists, we were passionate about the roots
of drumming and tried to find an approach to the interpretation
of contemporary percussion music that would reflect
our location within the AsiaPacific region."
The search for a meeting point was a splendid success.
As the group amassed a collection of instruments from
Japan and the Asian continent, Synergy Percussion
began to approach even the works of American composer
John Cage and other contemporary figures with a distinctly
Working with Synergy helped to crystallize Askill's
own approach to world music. "In Australia we have
a bird called the bower bird," he says. "It goes around
picking up blue objects to put in its nest. I gather
lots of bits together and arrange them in my own personal
style." As this compilation shows, there is no such
thing as a 'typical' Askill score. While percussion
remains at the heart of his music, Askill is also
fond of flutes, voices, electronic sounds and digital
samples. In his best works, Salome (15031-2),
for example, there is also a strong narrative sense,
and he has often done more structured scores for film,
dance, and even a children's circus. But he has also
embarked on some very unusual, "freerange" projects,
where the only given is the lineup of musicians
and instruments. These projects have produced some
unlikely but appealing results. As a percussionist,
Askill seems to find it easy to move between styles.
After all, percussion is common to all of them. Even
though Askill has long since relinquished his post
with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, classical works
with a heavy percussion part, like Carl Orff's Carmina
Burana, will occasionally lure him back to the
concert stage. Askill was familiar with the teachings
of Orff's longtime associate percussionist Karl Peinkofer
in Municha fact regretfully unknown to the record
company at the time of the Celestial Harmonies recording
of the Orff-Schulwerk series (13104-2,
13105-2 and 13106-2).
This set of recordings covers more than a decade
and includes musicians as diverse as composer/synthesist
Nigel Westlake, Japanese koto player Satsuki
Odamura, and the Australian Aboriginal musician David
Hudson. Listeners who know of Askill's many recordings
for Celestial Harmonies and Black Sun may recognize
some of these pieces, but this compilation also includes
some revised versions of previously released works,
and offers a first glimpse at Askill's new score for
Graeme Murphy's Sydney Dance Company, a work that
uses digital samples from Celestial Harmonies' impressive
roster of traditional world music recordings.
In fact, there is now a substantial body of music,
most (but not all) of it from Australia, in the Celestial
Harmonies catalogue because of Michael Askill. Enlisted
to produce Daniel Binelli's Tango (15020-2),
essentially because he knew where to find the Argentine
musician, Askill rapidly became the conduit by which
some of Australia's finest early music, world music,
and contemporary ensembles were heard for the first
time outside their own country. "He has been much
more than a musician recording for the label," says
Celestial Harmonies president Eckart Rahn. "He brought
in much inspiration, great musicians and engineers,
and opened up the Australian scene for us. That led
to us having recorded and released internationally
probably more Australian music than any other record
Michael Askill's own work and his tireless championing
of a large variety of other people's music from Down
Under has led to Celestial Harmonies' release of the
complete Hildegard von Bingen edition (13127-2
and 13128-2) by
Stevie Wishart's vocal ensemble
Sinfonye, as well as the brilliant recording of Der
Schwanengesang (The Swan-Song [13139-2])
by German baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, produced
by Askill in the great concert hall of the Sydney
Opera House and performed by Roland Peelman's Song
Company ("a massive project," Askill says in his usual
understated way). Among the numerous Australian artists
whom Askill brought to Celestial Harmonies and thereby
into the international limelight was Michael Atherton
who recorded first with Askill on Shoalhaven Rise
in 1995. Atherton in turn went on to record several
disks in his own name. And once the floodgates were
opened, a stream of Aussie talent, ranging from Prof.
Margaret Kartomi (who produces Celestial Harmonies'
Music of Indonesia series 14155-2,
13175-2 and 13182-2)
to James Ashley Franklin (who reunited with Satsuki
Odamura on Water Spirits [13160-2]),
enriched the Celestial Harmonies catalogue.
It is rare to find a musician who dedicates so much
of his time and energy to his fellow musicians, and
does so with such enthusiasm. Askill has in turn been
an artist recording his colleagues' music, a producer
sharing his experience and expertise in the recording
studio, and, in an informal but very effective way,
an ambassador-at-large for his country's culture.
Askill says his favorite compositions are the ones
that have a narrative quality. Rhythm In The Abstract:
Selected Pieces 1987-1997 (15030-2)
uses his music to tell the story of Askill's varied
career. It can be recounted simply enough in words:
the early studies in Europe, the first private recordings
in Strasbourg in 1973; stints in the Australian contemporary
music scene and with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
The formation of Synergy Percussion in 1974; work
with Nigel Westlake's Magic Puddin' Band and the world
music group Southern Crossings in the 1980s. And finally,
beginning in 1994, the first international releases
on the Celestial Harmonies and Black Sun labels, and
of course his meetings with Omar Faruk Tekbilek, David
Hudson and Riley Lee. But the story is told more appropriately,
and the narrative made more satisfying, by letting
the music speak for itself.
New Sounds, WNYC-FM, New York City
(based on conversations with Michael Askill)