Jon Rose: The People’s Music

The People’s Music springs from an outrageous flight of fancy. English-born, Australia-based violinist Rose kept coming across cheap, Chinese-made violins in Sydney junk shops, and imagined the factories full of workers where they must have been produced. Rose was attracted to these models by their unusually shrill timbre. Similar to that of the traditional Chinese two-string violin, the erhu, it was far removed from the deeper, more resonant sound of violins in the west.

Rose uses the image of the violin factory workers as the basis for this delirious fantasia for string orchestra. It’s unclear from the sleevenotes, however, whether any of his cheap Chinese violins were actually used in the recording of the piece, or in its live premiere. This sounds to have been an awesome event; staged in a remote outback town in Western Australia, it featured Rose performing live sampling of the orchestra alongside back-projected images of modern China and the factory workers.

In thirteen mostly short, hyperactive blasts of kinetic energy, Rose and his People’s String Orchestra (conducted by Lindsay Vickery) set off on a whirlwind tour of the violn factory. Each track contains the word ‘people’ in its title. Together they form a day in the life of the factory and its workers, from “Start the People” and “Wake Up People” through to “Busy People” and “The People’s End.” The relative calm and quiet of the opening piece are rudely shattered by a stentorian female voice, accompanied by Rose on twisting solo violin. “Working People” settles down into a simple, quotidian melody, but this is soon interrupted by the convulsive pummelling of a three-piece percussion ensemble. These vocal and percussive interjections recur at several points during the album. Their effect is to problematise the music: to disrupt the well-turned progress of the string orchestra, and to highlight the material conditions that led to its production.

This may make the album sound like some kind of dreary communist tract; nothing could be further from the truth, since Rose takes evident delight in the sonorities of the classical orchestra. Whether these take the form of the gorgeous swoon of “Big People” or the dissonant chromaticism of “Odd People,” the strings are vibrant and exciting throughout. Despite the piece’s history as part of a multimedia work, the listener never feels short-changed; the music is strong enough to exist as a composition in its own right.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 13, 2005)

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