175 East – Latitudes of recreation

Works by Michael Norris, Richard Barrett. Rachael Morgan,
Christian Wolff and James Gardner

175 East : Richard Haynes (clarinet), Andrew Uren (bass clarinet)
Ingrid Culliford (flute), Tim Sutton (bass trombone), Carl Wells (horn)
Katherine Hebley (‘cello), Lachlan Radford (bass), James Gardner (laptop)
Conducted by Hamish McKeich

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington, Saturday 15th August

175 East, a contemporary music ensemble based in Auckland, prides itself on presenting new, cutting-edge music from both New Zealand and overseas via high-quality professional performances. The group’s recent Wellington concert at St.Andrew’s on the Terrace, which was a repeat of a presentation in Auckland a few days previously, bore ample witness to this stated philosophy – three of the six works played were by New Zealand composers, with the remainder coming from Welsh composer Richard Barrett and the French-born German-American Christian Wolff. The whole was delivered with the skill, panache and commitment to the cause that we’ve come to expect from these uniquely assorted musicians with their idiosyncratic instrumental combinations that composers seem to hugely enjoy writing for.

Two of the works played in the concert were “old friends” in that I’d seen and heard both performed before by the group – given that many pieces of contemporary music receive their premiere performances and nothing more, it was gratifying to have a second chance to hear both pieces, Michael Norris’s Vitus and James Gardner’s A study for voicing doubts. I’d previously encountered both of these works in a 2001 concert – again in Wellington –  which happened to be the first time I’d heard the ensemble play.

Michael Norris’s Vitus made as thoughtful and involved an impact upon me this time round as it did all those years ago. Its subject, the Christian saint Vitus who underwent torture and death for his religious beliefs at the hands of the Romans, is tied up with both the saint’s patronage of dance and dancers and his association with a medical condition known as Choreia, more commonly called St.Vitus’s Dance, one involving involuntary jerking bodily movements resulting from a temporary disorder of the brain. I remembered the music’s broad brush-strokes –  the pungent opening notes of the piece created a kind of “melting-time” impression, into which violent dissonances rushed now and then, gradually screwing up tensions and goading the music into a mock-heroic grand unison, whose riotous dissolution depicted a St.Vitus’ Dance episode. I also recalled the clarinets at the end quietly delineating what sounded like a mind’s inner workings, the instruments tremulously and haltingly answering one another across lonely, and somewhat fraught psychological soundscapes.

The other piece I’d heard previously was Jim Gardner’s A study for voicing doubts, a chamber concerto for clarinet whose title seems to encourage explorations of discords and disagreements between soloist and ensemble, exemplified by scalp-prickling counter-sonorities such as clarinet playing in its high register against bass trombone, and intriguing antiphonal rearrangements of soloist and ensemble mid-stream – political statements in music performance! I liked, then as now, the effects of the change on the music, the “distanced” soloist (or, alternatively “distanced” ensemble) embodying a number of relationship context possibilities, from impasse through compromise to acquiescence. Intriguing.

In Gardner’s work, as in Richard Barrett’s confrontational piece for solo clarinet knospend-gespaltene which featured earlier in the programme, the player was Richard Haynes, demonstrating what seemed like superhuman abilities (including the art of  seeming not to need to take breath for minutes on end) in realizing the composer’s idea of the instrument’s possibilities being able to realize a fixed “theatre” instead of a linear structure. This process of layered enactment took the listeners into a soundworld which seemed to transcend conventional considerations of pitch, timbre and rhythm, and , in the composer’s words, “lay bare” the piece’s and the instrument’s inner structure. Haynes’ virtuoso playing seemed to encapsulate these different states of being simultaneously, giving the effect of something with surprisingly layered and paralleled existences.

Barrett’s other work on the programme, Codex I, was for an ensemble of “improvising musicians”, a kind of re-enactment of the creative process by which the players take their cues from fragments of notation or musical memory which serves as a foundation for an entirely new work being created in performance. Sustained pitches run haphazardly through the piece, but their lines are punctuated by ”improvised divergences”, and numbers of instruments, but not precisely which ones, are specified by the piece, enabling the musicians to “re-enact” a tradition of musical inspiration, including, at the piece’s end, timbral gesturings of a kind which centred on no actual pitching of notes, merely breath- and movement-sounds, bringing to mind Keats’ words “Heard melodies are sweet, but unheard sweeter”…..

Rachael Morgan currently holds the Edwin Carr Foundation Scholarship, and received funding from Creative New Zealand for her most recent work from a fixed point (2009), which received what I assumed was its second performance after the Auckland concert.
The “fixed points” referred to by the composer are manifestations of the nature of sound, so that from within a single-pitch note can emerge all kinds of timbral and rhythmic variations, different instruments exploring the ramifications of the “fixed point”. The music was a journey undertaken into and through such possibilities, the ensemble gathering timbral weight, fortifying and energizing soundscapes, then underbellying the sounds, stretching away from and returning to the pitch-points like elastic, and adopting ethereal, disembodied tones, ‘cello and double bass having the last, skeletal-like say.

What was described as “added Wolff” to the concert in some of the publicity was Christian Wolff’s Two Players, a work that has surprisingly received only three performances in thirteen years – surprising because of the music’s accessibility, brought about by an attractive, almost ritualistic interplay between the two soloists playing horn and ‘cello, in this case Carl Wells and Katherine Hebley, respectively. The composer himself wrote about the importance for the work of the interplay and interdependence between the performers as an essential ingredient, and the two performers vividly realized the “character” of each of the three movements. The first was a night-piece, with long-held notes evoking a dark processional, the second a “dance macabre”, with ‘cello pizzicati leading the horn as a more circumspect partner, while the third used cryptic, almost elliptical gesturings in an almost speechless manner, a “Why don’t you listen to what I mean instead of what I say?” piece, one whose sense of underlying fun lightened the otherwise serious aspect of a marvellous concert.

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