Ensemble Selisih – making the difference


Elizabeth Farrell (flute), Mathias Trapp (piano), Daniela Wahler and Markus Rombach (saxophones)
DIETER MACK: “Selisih”, “Trio III”;
CHANG-SOON RYU: “Quartett”;
ROBIN TOAN: “Twitter”;

NZ School of Music Adam Concert Room, 12 August 2009

“Selisih”, an Indonesian word meaning “argumentative discussion”, was the name given by German composer Dieter Mack to his duo for alto and baritone saxophones. Mack, now on his third visit to New Zealand in a professional capacity, has lived in Indonesia studying gamelan performance practice, and (partly inspired by this) has made the interactions between players, one of the fundamental principles of his music. The name was subsequently adopted by this ensemble of four individualists – two saxophonists, a flautist and a pianist.

Mack’s 2003 composition “Selisih” itself formed part of the programme. The duo began with Wahler’s querulous alto sax answered by Rombach’s staid baritone, which in turn was to respond with increased nervous energy. The conversation turned to treat a serious topic with mysterious multiphonics, before they joined together in rapid unisono figures and a perfectly united vibrato.

The 2005 “Trio III” reflected Mack’s more recent concern with creating new timbres using multiphonics, incidental microtones and, especially, by blending together instrumental sounds (analogous to an organ’s mixture stop, and sharing some similar concerns with the French Spectralists). Flute (and sometimes piccolo) melded with alto sax to produce unison lines in novel, Messiaen-like colours, while the discreetly prepared piano added a quietly dark commentary.

Korean-born Chang-soon Ryu has studied with Dieter Mack in Lubeck. His 2007 “Quartett” for the Ensemble Selisih showed some of Mack’s interest in timbre-building, and also a feeling of stasis that those of us who have grown up with the thematic development, metrical pulse and harmonic motion of the western tradition, tend to associate with East Asian music.

Wellingtonian Dylan Lardelli’s 2009 “Two Bells” displayed a similar sense of static time, and for good reason: it was inspired in part by the stately unfolding of classical Japanese Noh drama. As with his 2008 “four scenes” for Stroma, and more successfully than in his earlier “Sent into Silence” at the 2007 Asia Pacific Festival, Lardelli here suspended any need for forward direction or climax. The poised, spare texture incorporated judicious special effects: muffled prepared-piano notes illumined by a halo of resonance; throbbing close-interval sustains; slap-tonguing and key clicks on the baritone sax.

“Two Bells” was commissioned by Selisih (with Creative NZ) to increase the repertoire for this unconventional ensemble. So too was Aucklander Robin Toan’s 2009 “Twitter”, a set of three short character-pieces “about” birds (not micro-blogging). The first – perky, cheeky, syncopated – was reminiscent of the “Aquarium” and “Puppets” movements from her 2005 “Barcelona Postcards”. The second was pensive, with a plangent melody on the soprano sax, some contrapuntal complexity and cadenza passages. The third was motoric (rather than syncopated like the first), featuring rapid ostinati on the baritone sax and chirping runs and trills on the piccolo, building up to an sudden end.

Michael Norris’ “BADB” was named after a shape-shifting Celtic goddess. It opened with Farrell singing into her flute, with crystalline high piano runs from Trapp. However, the goddess’s fearsome side was soon made evident with fortissimo crow-calls.

Gillian Whitehead’s “Taurangi” was premiered by Bridget Douglas and Rachel Thomson during the 2000 International Festival of the Arts. It made my list of highlights in the retrospective of that year that I wrote for the “NZ Listener”. This was a most elegant rendition from New Zealand-born flautist Elizabeth Farrell and pianist Mathias Trapp: the flute’s subtle pitch-bends and the closing, barely audible inside-piano glissandi still had the magic to send tingles up the spine.

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