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August 9, 2011

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Glassical ensemble made of glass

Ensemble Offspring, a dynamic arts company from Australia specializing in the presentation of innovative new music, held their first China concert at Shanghai Museum of Glass earlier this month. They use glass as their instruments to present pure but irregular sounds and the concert is an audio-visual feast for the audience, a brand new journey from eyes to ears and from ears to hearts.

"A lot of people understand glass because its optical qualities are very beautiful. But not many people know the sound of it," said Damien Ricketson, the group's artistic director and composer.

This innovative Australian arts company presents us a world of fantastic glass-derived sounds as well as a visual feast. The group, committed to asking "what if?" relish an open-minded approach to making music, resulting in shows that are striking sonic and visual experiences.

"It's a multimedia performance. There are glass instruments, normal instruments and electronic music," Ricketson said. "But it's also for video. The glass you use in the performance is like a projection surface. So you can have a video projected on it the same time it's being played."

Together with renowned percussionist Claire Edwardes, Ricketson gathered an impressive line-up of five versatile musicians to form Ensemble Offspring. "At first, a lot of us came from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where we met as students. Since then some people have come to us who want to do new and interesting things in music."

That's why all of the members are never together for one show. "Claire is actually an international soloist. James Cuddeford is the lead violinist of Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Jason Noble and I teach at Sydney Conservatorium," Ricketson said. "That's our group. It's not a full-time company."

It's like a kaleidoscope of infinite and gorgeous possibilities, true to its name. Ensemble Offspring implies new birth and new things.

On his quest to find forgotten musical instruments, Ricketson heard about the glass harmonica, which is quite fascinating in sound. For him, it's a sound from heaven. "Like angels," he described it. "But maybe it can be defined as a glamorous female, because there are more boys in this performance."

The museum in Shanghai was told to make glass panels, which are much like Chinese chime bells in shape. Ricketson pointed to a line of glass tubes, "There's a little xylophone hanging in that stuff. I made it just before coming here."

Edwardes added: "I made a glass clarinet."

It didn't take long for Ricketson to learn the glass harmonica but it is risky to play. "The glass harmonica is an unstable instrument," he said. "It doesn't always sing." Comparing playing glass harmonica to running a finger round the rim of a wine glass, Edwardes said: "If it suddenly got less humid or more humid or colder, then maybe it doesn't make a sound."

To avoid this, before playing, they have to wash their hands and dip them in water to make sure hands are clean and glasses are wet. But the whole show is still risky for them. "Pretty much everything is broken once." Edwardes laughed. "The glass clarinet broke once. The panel was broken when we first got it. Everything has broken." Even one of the bowls of the glass harmonica is broken right now.

But that hasn't stopped their quest to discover new materials. Ricketson always tries to experiment with unusual and unconventional instruments to extend the sound. "We were talking about the clam the other night, for example," he said. "When we go back to Australia, we will have beautiful wooden instruments made for us that are like a new kind of clarinet and a new kind of violin."

As a composer, Ricketson admitted it is hard to put everything together. But he has his own solution. "I grab a little bit of melodies and harmonies from music written for the glass harmonica. I rewrite it for normal instruments and I smash it into thousands of pieces tens of times and then reassemble them all like a mosaic."

The ensemble has been featured in international festivals including the Sydney Festival and the Warsaw Autumn and invited to perform in prestigious venues such as the Sydney Opera House. Now, their stage extends to the world.

"We've been planning a European tour in 2013," Edwardes said. "So every second year we would like to do one big tour."

It is the first time for the group to perform in Shanghai. "We love it!" Ricketson and Edwardes said in unison, while expressing the wish to write a song for Shanghai.

"I think we could have a few Western influences because it's very diverse culturally," Edwardes said.

Shanghai is not their only stop in China. Next they will go to Hong Kong and Macau and they hope they can come back in two years, but with another goal other than performing.

"During the summer holidays the Conservatorium is closed. So it would be nice for us to come and do some education things as well with students that this time we can't," Edwardes said.

Glass instruments

Glass panels: Glass panels of different sizes are suspended and struck with percussion mallets. The panels sound a bit like Chinese gongs and are a projection surface for live video.

Glass clarinet: A clarinet is made out of glass, which looks like a tube. It sounds like saxophone.

Glass xylophone: A small xylophone is made out of glass, just like scientific glass tubes cut to different lengths and tied together. It sounds bright and clear.

Glass harmonica: It's an instrument that Benjamin Franklin created it in 1761. Thirty-seven bowls are mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The whole spindle is turned by means of a foot pedal. The sound is produced by touching the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers.


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