Mary’s Underground, February 28
In another bid to reach beyond the musical horizon, Matt Keegan composed Vienna Dreaming as a tribute to his great grandfather, Heini Portnoj, an Austrian Jew forced to abandon his musical career in Vienna to escape the rising tide of Nazism. Three years after releasing a recording of the suite, Keegan finally presented this ambitious music in concert.
Its strength lies not only in the imagination brought to bear, but in Keegan’s empathy for his subject, his intent being slide inside the mind of his grandfather, both as events unfolded in 1930s and in the aftermath of them, with Portnoj looking back once he had resettled in Australia.
The concert’s instrumentation and personnel differed from the album, with only Keegan (clarinet, saxophone) and drummer Miles Thomas being shared. The album’s cello now became Veronique Serret’s violin and the double bass became Brendan Clark’s electric bass, with Ben Hauptmann (electric guitar) and Frejya Garbett (keyboards) completing the cast. These changes were much more than cosmetic, with the improvisational aspect of the work expanded, allowing for some startling individual contributions, most notably from Serret.
As consistently strong as the suite was, the opening Vienna Overture was especially compelling, with the main waltz-time theme materialising from skimming fragments of sound, dissolving back into those fragments and reassembling itself yet again – an evocation of an elderly Portnoj musing on an impossibly different time and place, long, long ago.
As with the album, the sound was carefully calibrated to shift between the familiar – the bruising intensity of Keegan’s baritone saxophone, for instance – and an extreme use of electronic treatments, including occasionally radical reverb and delay on the drums, amplifying the work’s prevailing oneiric quality and intentionally blurring clarity of outline. Ghosts of Johann Strauss, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis all seemed to materialise and dematerialise at various points, but without any sense of appropriation.
Providing an instantly engaging opening set was Yulugi, with Gumaroy Newman’s arresting voice and yidaki leading us deep into his ancestral culture, in dialogue with Keyna Wilkins’ piano and luminous flutes.