Pia Palme – Austrian Connections from Caprice Arts

Pia Palme (contrabass recorder), Dylan Lardelli (guitar), Bridget Douglas (piccolo), Ben Hoadley (bassoon), Nicholas Hancox (viola), Donald Nicolson (piano), Philip Brownlee (synthesizer), Niky Clegg (vocalist).
SOREN EICHBERG: “4 Pieces for Bassoon and Piano”;
PIA PALME: “AXE.WHO.TREE”, “Noneuclidian Playgrounds”;
PHILIP BROWNLEE: “The Length of a Breath”, “As if to Catch the Fleeting Tail of Time”;
JACK BODY: “Aeolian Harp”;

Salvation Army Citadel, Friday 14 August 2009

This concert organized by the enterprising Caprice Arts Trust featured an adventurous array of contemporary music.

At the more conservative, conscientiously-constructed end of the spectrum, Denmark’s Soren Nils Eichberg’s “4 Pieces for Bassoon and Piano” effectively showcased the artistry of their commissioner, New Zealander Ben Hoadley. Much of the first piece involved the bassoon in a dialogue with itself across its different registers, from deep and mellow to high and plaintive. The second was a lively unison dance for both instruments. In the third, the piano set up a stalking funeral march beneath the bassoon’s lugubrious lament, while the fourth was rather like a busy “Bumblebee” for bassoon.

Towards the opposite extreme, Austrian Pia Palme’s “AXE.WHO.TREE” employed almost all the available resources to create a complex, changing sonic environment which included water-like electronic sounds, minimalistic piano chords, and the vocal agility of Niky Clegg. The result had something of the feel of free improvisation (a little too much so for my taste).

Palme is not only a composer: the Viennese virtuoso also plays the contrabass recorder. Her Swiss-made Kueng instrument, standing at over two metres tall, resembles nothing so much as an orphan organ pipe (and the organ is, after all, basically just a consort of recorders with delusions of grandeur). This modern adaptation of a medieval prototype is perhaps the most recent addition to the woodwind sub-bass range, joining some (less common) members of the saxophone family, the more established contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, and (from the 1980s) the contrabass flute. The soft sound of the instrument benefits from discreet amplification, which makes it ideal for use with electronics. Palme’s other composition (a premiere), “Noneuclidian Playgrounds”, included guitar and electronic transformation of the giant recorder, and progressed to hatch a surprising drum-beat rhythm at the end.

The contrabass recorder was heard to good effect in the solo “Fachwerk”, from the Mexican-Austrian Daniel De la Cuesta. A strict palindrome, it began (and, of course, ended) with the “pizzicato” effects of tonguing, developing into a high-register melody with a low pitched accompaniment, and on to a pivotal core of multiphonics and organ-like depth.

Wellingtonian Philip Brownlee’s 2009 “The Length of a Breath” showed another side of the contrabass recorder, challenging Palme to produce exquisitely soft, mellow notes over the wide range of the instrument. Along with his other premiere in this concert, “The Length of a Breath” marked a welcome return to composition for Brownlee. Also written this year was the even more impressive “As if to Catch the Fleeting Tail of Time” for an ensemble of piccolo, bassoon, viola, guitar and piano. Here Brownlee’s timeless world of carefully placed gestures, unsuspected colour blends, and delicate Webernian klangfarbenmelodie distributed among the players, was enough (just) to sustain one’s interest, despite any perceivable thrust of forward momentum. (One intriguing technique was a microtonal scale achieved by successively plucking a guitar string while simultaneously pitch-bending it.)

Another premiere from another Wellingtonian was Michael Norris’s 2008 “Amato”. As sensitively rendered by pianist Donald Nicolson, this proved one of Norris’s most immediately attractive works to date, as it evolved from its rarefied opening to gradually fill the keyboard space out to its extremities, on towards a fortissimo explosion, and then to a mysterious close.

Jack Body’s “Aeolian Harp” from 1979 is almost a classic, in its versions for violin or cello. Somewhat rarer was the recension for solo viola performed by Nicholas Hancox. A study in harmonics, this piece evoked a wind-harp playing the most primordial of all scales.

“Non-Lieu” by French composer Thierry Blondeau also began as an essay in harmonics, expertly elicited (in rapid-fire staccato) from the guitar, by Dylan Lardelli. Further techniques introduced within this ingenious (if overlong) composition included live detuning with the tuning pegs, closely-beating intervals, and, during Lardelli’s theatrical exit (reflecting the interest in the use of space found also in Blondeau’s piece for a “moving chamber orchestra”), swinging the guitar to produce Doppler-effected pitch changes.

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