The 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (non-title case intended) by post-modern writer Italo Calvino has been described as a ‘playful, post-modern puzzle’. It is a many-storeyed funhouse of thematic mirror-mazes, prismatic lenses, dead-ends, genre-mashups and multi-person narrative

In short, it is surprising that it has taken this long for it to be used as inspiration for a musical suite.

Melbourne based composer, trombonist and arranger – his bio suggests ‘sound artist’, which is, yes, closer to the truth – Tilman Robinson, has taken the Calvino novel and put it through his own prismatic lens, creating the suite Network of Lines.

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Given that the original is kaleidoscopic, Robinson’s confident repurposing of Calvino’s narrative material could have been a dog’s breakfast (a slightly tripped-out, pretentious dog at that).

It says much for the composer’s taste, style and wit that it isn’t. In fact Network of Lines is a work of ethereal and pure loveliness – albeit one with a red-blooded heart. No wonder ABC Jazz’s Jessica Nicholas listed its 2012 live premier as one of her top five musical highlights of that year.

Originally composed for the 2012 APRA Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, Network of Lines has now been released through Perth’s ever-(pleasantly)-surprising Listen/Hear Collective. It is Robinson’s debut recording and is performed here by a nine-piece electro-acoustic ensemble.

Opener ‘Winter’s Night’ sets up an accent of cool drama with an almost ‘Maiden Voyage’ ensemble passage rising out of a low, low laptop drone, and scratched at by ambient noises as it develops.

What is also set up is a chill European atmosphere that pervades the entire work. Whether the becalmed, funereal ‘In Search of An Anchor’ (with a lovely translucent piano solo from Berish Bilander), or the drunken 7/8 Balkan wedding reel of ‘Malbork, Cimmeria’ (named for the novel’s fictional setting), this music breathes the woody smoke of the Old World. And the smoke is pungent and heady. Breathe deep. tilman robinson1

Robinson’s sharp writing – and the sympatico skill of this bright, young ensemble in speaking it – is most evident on the quite amazing ‘The Void and The Iron Bridge/Shadow’s Gather’. The opening trombone theme (whispered to us, it seems, from Bartok’s Hungarian lakes) is taken up by the ensemble but staggered and slightly wonky. Soon the ensemble is marching around the lip of the void, fearlessly drunk, laughing into it’s maw. Drummer Hugh Harvey balances and holds this danse macabre beautifully, playing perfectly (imperfectly?) in and out of time with a bright empathy (and a slight grin).

Robinson’s writing throughout is exceptional – just as he avoids the obvious tone-poem trip in his reading of If on a winter’s night a traveller, he equally puts aside cliche or overt stylistic bindings in his compositions and sound-organisation. What we end up with is a truly beautiful balance of evocation and surprise, all spoken with a very human voice. You can’t help but feel each of these pieces deep within; sometimes with a small cut of pang, sometimes with the sweet kiss of caress.

His writing can be muscular too as on the twin piece ‘Lines: Enlacing’ and ‘Lines: Intersecting’. But it is the deeper, more mist-obscured pieces here that took me away to Cimmeria. The hymn-like quality of the suite’s closer ‘What Story Down There Awaits Its End?’ almost suggests a spirituality glowing through its milky haze.

Spirituality? In a work inspired by post-modern writing? Maybe not, nihilism is the religion there. But If on a winter’s night a traveller is Calvino’s work, not Robinson’s – Network of Lines is all Tilman Robinson’s work and it is quite something.

Published February 2104 on 


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