Notes from a Journey
Atoll Records ACD 118 Vol.1 (2010)
Music by JOHN PSATHAS, ROSS HARRIS, JACK BODY, MICHAEL NORRIS and GARTH FARR
Atoll Records ACD 289 Vol.2 (2023)
Music by GILLIAN WHITEHEAD, GARETH FARR, TABEA SQUIRE, ROSS HARRIS, LOUISE WEBSTER and SALINA FISHER
The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl, leader / Douglas Beilman (2010), Monique Lapins (2023) violins / Gillian Ansell, viola / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)
Atoll Records Producer – Wayne Laird / Recording Engineer – Graham Kennedy
Notes from a Journey
is the title of a story in music that reaches a new chapter with the release of a new (November 2023) CD from Atoll Records, one which furthers the New Zealand String Quartet’s already-impressive commitment to home-grown musical sounds. This present recording echoes a previous, similarly-titled presentation from 2010, and forges links of all kinds in doing so, both through direct connection and ongoing influences upon the works of a younger generation.
The title of these CDs is taken from a 1974 poem by Sam Hunt, one dedicated to fellow-poet Hone Tuwhare, appropriate in that, like a fellow-versifier, these are properly home-spun voices, as are the sounds brought to performance-life by these gifted musicians who feel the “flesh and blood” of the composers’ soundscapes and present it all with such heartfelt intensities…..
The earlier of these two notes from a journey recordings, incidentally, won a Vodafone Award in 2011 as the Best Classical Album of that year, and with a different second violinist in the ensemble, Douglas Beilman, who altogether completed 26 years with the Quartet before moving on in 2015. By this time the group had firmly established its credentials as an advocate of New Zealand music, with previous noteworthy recordings of string quartets by Anthony Watson, Gareth Farr and Helen Fisher, and premiere performances of the String Quartets of Ross Harris. There were also landmark collaborations that featured works by Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body and John Psathas. So, when this first notes from a journey collection appeared, it effectively showcased the expressive and varied flowering of some of the era’s most striking homegrown creative outpourings, as well as confirming the ensemble’s identification with and commitment to these and associated works.
John Psathas’s 1996 work Abhisheka began the first of the two recordings. Psathas’s work takes its title from the Sanskrit word for “anointment”, creating a sinuous and sensual feeling of something ritualistic, singular interactions of sounds with silences which represented a major departure for the composer at that time from what he himself had somewhat ruefully described as “an over-caffeinated style”, here instead opting for contemplative, slowly-paced soundings of tones alternating with wondrously-wrought spaces. There’s interplay between a quartet of voices creating resonating chordal sounds and solo lines, sometimes employing quarter-tones whose unchartered territories set tensions against profundities to wondrous effect. The Quartet gave this work’s premiere in Nelson in 1998, and previously recorded it on a Rattle disc called “Rhythm Spike” – even then something of a “moment of calm” in turbulent seas!
The proverbial modernity of JS Bach’s musical inclinations is given sufficient emphasis in the original Variation 25 from his set of “Goldberg Variations”, a string quartet transcription of which I heard the NZSQ play in its entirety in Lower Hutt an unbelievable decade of years ago, now! Even to this day the memory of that occasion haunts any subsequent rehearing, be it of the original keyboard version, a transcription or (as here) an evolutionary step-child! Composer Ross Harris in his Variation 25 takes the original’s “immensity of human sorrow” and adroitly finds more refracted expressions of emotion through harmonic tensions and explorations which briefly pit their own momentums against one another in piquant displays of independence which stay in the memory long after order of sorts is restored!
What a pleasure to re-encounter Jack Body’s “Three Transcriptions”! – each has a haunting “presence” by way of capturing the candour of the sound’s “openness”, the first being a Chinese version of the “Jews’ Harp” sound in Long GI YI, the harmonics so very plaintive and captivating, and with vocalisings bolstering the persistent rhythms. Ramandriana is a dance from Madagascar, mostly pizzicato, with occasionally piquant “held” bowings to colour the rhythms., all wonderfully complex and often asymmentrical, and marching off so engagingly! If the latter dance was essentially a “plucked-note” one, the last, Ratschenitsa, from Bulgaria, as much emphasised the “bowed” as the “plucked”, with foot-stamping and yelped vocalisings adding to the excitement, as did the 7/8 driving rhythms which constantly bent one’s ears and kept one’s inner trajectories on the boil!
One encounters a number of evocations of a projected “afterlife” in music of all kinds, with Michael Norris’s Exitus here adding a stimulating quartet of contrivances pertaining to different cultures’ view of an afterworld. A composer might conceivably select at random from the manifold cultural examples worldwide of corresponding scenarios, but the four Michael Norris have chosen contrast so markedly both with one another and with archetypal Western concepts of afterlife, the results in themselves are morbidly fascinating, underpinned by the composer’s own sonic imaginings for each.
We began with Quidlivun – The Land of the Moon where, in Inuit mythology, the virtuous are taken to their eternal rest, the soundscape appropriately remote, spare and dry, alternating engagingly animated impulse (new arrivals, perhaps?) with spacious, long-breathed lines which suggest endless, infinitely varied connections. A sudden irruption brought instant relocation to Xibalbá – The Place of Fear, the underworld of Mayan civilisation with the latter’s dominant societal figures of kings who were the intermediateries between humans and gods and wielded absolute power over ordinary people. This meant subjugation to a belief system that, amongst other things , threatened departing souls to Xibalbá with numerous trials and tribulations both on their journey to and throughout the Underworld. Involving delights such as “darkness, cold, fire, razor blades, hungry jaguars and shrieking bats” – long-held string lines punctuated by vicious sforzandi buffetings, eerie sul ponticello-like whip-lashings and poisonously-curdling cries and mutterings.
While the all-out assault was then somewhat relieved by the following Niflheim – the House of Mists, the oppressiveness of a different kind was just as unrelenting – this was the cold, dark world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. I was reminded in places of Sibelius’s similarly bleak and implaccable ambiences in one of his Four Legends, Lemminkainen in Tuonela, except that Michael Norris’s evocation is an even more unequivocally bloodless and lifeless realm “from which no traveller returns” – no Orpheus would seek an Eurydice, nor a mother recover the body parts of her son for reassemblage in such totally unremitting territories!
After so nihilistic an evocation it was something of a relief to encounter the more positive, dance-like aspect of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River), over which the soul passes to reach the “good hunting grounds” of the native American Choctaw Tribe. Despite readily employing similarly sharp-edged, biting string timbres and tones to the previous evocations, the ritualistic rite of passage depicted had an almost joyous and certainly anticipatory aspect for most of the journey, with even the “log crossing” trial presenting concentrated, almost positively ritualistic efforts and gesturings rather than the more fearful and despairing earlier depictions!
The disc’s final work, Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki (A Farewell) commemorated a premiere for similar forces undertaken at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli in 2008. Upon first hearing, I thought Richard Nunns’ playing of the putatara (conch) and putorino (flute) together with the composer’s sounding of the pahu pounamu (Greenstone gong) conjured up a vividly raw presence which the string lines sought to “ritualise” in suitably elegiac style. I liked the Vaughan Williams-ish modal sequences which then “framed” the famous “Now is the Hour” melody – but I thought the latter might have been given more “suggestive” treatment rather than played in full and harmonised.I confess to finding the effect here a shade syrupy, but perhaps only because I was expecting more abstracted melodic treatment somewhat along the lines of the disc’s other pieces. A second hearing worried me less, being more along the lines of my thinking ”it is what it is” and accepting it as such.
So – with the sounds of this first recording still ringing in my head I was drawn to make the connection with Notes from a Journey II, recorded thirteen years later by the same Quartet but with a different second violinist, Monique Lapins having taken over from Douglas Beilman in 2016.
The new disc underlines the journey’s continuation, sharing with the first recording both a title and the work of artist Simon Kaan, with cover art detail from images named as a related series. It began powerfully with a work by Gillian Whitehead, Poroporoaki, dedicated to Richard Nunns, one of the pioneers of the use of Maori instruments (taonga puoro) in composition – this was a stirring imitation of the pūtōrino (trumpet), and went on to imitate other instruments outlined in the text. The transcription powerfully blended ritual with individually characterful voices expressing melodic, rhythmic and specifically timbral sounds in aid of giving breath to the process of farewell.
Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga is next, an evocation of the title, which means “Planting Season”, and the activities associated with such a time, activities which naturally involve the ritual of work and song for purposes of evocation as much as productivity. The work is as atmospheric and melodic as structural, incorporating the intrinsic value of the presence of birdlife in Wellington’s natural environment – there is a tui’s song enshrined in the detailing as well as contributions from other birds such as the weka. As the piece draws to a close the ambiences bid us a farewell…
Tabea Squire’s piece I Danced, Unseen captivated me on its first hearing – it seemed as though the composer was at first awakening her store of inner voices more than any latent physical urgings, but with the music suddenly enlivened our focus was energised and sharpened, bringing our sensibilities to their feet! These impulses continue to gravitate from melody to rhythm as the piece progressed until the sounds achieved full bloom as a unified conception, the players’ breathing strongly in evidence in places giving extra palpable energy to the proceedings.
In a different way Ross Harris’s String Quartet No. 9 straightaway compelled one’s attention with the players vocalising as part of the “chorale” motif which itself underwent as profound a journey as did the “episodes” which each chorale rendition introduced. Beginning as inwardly glowing blocks of sound, the chorale vocalisations stimulated increasingly colourful, discursive and exploratory variants of the same, alternating between gestures whose thrusting and angular aspects coruscated with what sounded like irruptions of both col legno and sul ponticello timbres, the players swapping pizzicato and arco techniques at will (as if opening and closing a kind of a Pandora’s Box of bombardment!). These energies eventually dissipated into independent phrases and single notes, with the chorale “released “ to the strings alone, the players and their instruments “reaching out” towards the end, seeking a kind of transfigured resolution.
Louise Webster’s work This memory of earth presented perhaps for me the most epic of the disc’s scenarios, beginning with an ambience shaken and stirred through bird-calls repeated by different instruments to form a kind of consort communing with a sonic environment. These solo instrument calls variously brought into focus a remarkably concerted tactile picture of a world in accord with a growing individual sensibility, with the composer gradually morphing the sounds into a new, somewhat more desperate and in places lamenting scenario, as if the world of childhood order was threatened – the cello intoned a moving lament-like chorale which drew the other instruments into its mode. The utterance became in places almost mystic as the long-remembered bird cries searched for their once-prized ambient responses from their surroundings – a sobering, exhortatory soundscape of recollection and remonstration, conscious of and fearful for the fragility of the natural world that was once ours – all extraordinarily moving.
Lastly, Salina Fisher, the youngest of the composers represented by their works on this CD, expressed with her work Tōrino the resounding effect of taonga puoro artist Rob Thorne’s music upon her listening experiences. The work was premiered by the New Zaland String Quartet in 2016 and went on to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award the same year. Tōrino means “spiral”, with the music suggesting parallel kinds of recurring patterns as the strings seek to explore expressive similarities with the pūtōrino (known as both a trumpet and a flute due to its capabilities for reproducing both kinds of timbres and tones).
Fisher’s piece begins with vigorously ear-catching “trumpet” tones (kokiri o te tane, or male voice), which give the impression of summonsing calls and gesturings by the strings, both cello and viola readily sounding and overlapping one another, then joined by the two violins echoing the same figures and their variants. The pūtōrino can also sing in different registers such as its “flute” personality when played at its other end, or when the player activates a different voice again by blowing over a “middle hole” in the instrument. Fisher achieves a “spiralling” effect with each of these expressive modes echoing and developing their material, while in addition her inventiveness creates as much a sonic environment as a panoply of characterful voices.
Growing out of this synthesis come the more elusive, almost self-communing “middle hole” utterances, the piece’s “echoing” inclinations giving each impulse a resonating connection with what follows, be it a variant or a silence. They are the harbingers of the pūtōrino’s waiata o te hine (female voice), outpourings whose insistences slowly but assuredly reawaken the trumpet-toned voices, their reaffirmations proving to be the final, enduring sounds as the piece closes.
The performance of Fisher’s piece here epitomises the New Zealand String Quartet’s generous and single-minded commitment to the whole enterprise, with at every moment of engagement the players’ attack, phrasings and tones seemed to take us “inside” the notes and phrases, ambiences and silences. The two discs, of course, are separate entities, but their “bringing together” here reaffirms the extraordinary commitment of the players to these home-grown manifestations of what Douglas Lilburn in his celebrated 1969 essay “A search for a Language” called on behalf of local composers at the time “a sense of belonging somewhere”. And the works on these two discs are here reproduced with a fidelity of letter, spirit and atmosphere enabled in splendid partnership with Atoll Records producer Wayne Laird and recording engineer Graham Kennedy, people whose skills enable the sounds to retain what feels to me on each hearing as “an urgency of recreation” – a listening experience I would strongly recommend to all to try. The earlier disc has actually been sold out for some time, so perhaps a new and augmented groundswell of interest in this more recent notes from a Journey Vol.II production might well awaken and even rejuvenate its older, and no less worthy “sleeping partner”.
Whatever the fates decree, let plaudits be given to all for such a stellar achievement!