“Cultural Property” – The New Zealand String Quartet at Te Papa

John Psathas – Abhisheka

Michael Norris – Exitus

Juliet Palmer – Egg and Tongue

Ross Harris – Variation 25

Jack Body – Three Transcriptions

New Zealand String Quartet

(Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, violins,

Gillian Ansell, viola, Rolf Gjelsten, ‘cello)

Te Marae, Level 4, Te Papa, Wellington

Sunday November 22nd 2009

This programme of string quartets by New Zealand composers is being recorded by Atoll Records, the enterprise serving as a well-deserved tribute to not only the composers but also the New Zealand String Quartet for their advocacy of home-grown music over the years. And although a number of these works have been recorded before by the same ensemble, it’s a splendid idea to bring together the group’s updated “take” on pieces that have either already are or else show signs of becoming classic genre works in the ever-burgeoning stockpile of New Zealand compositions. Pieces like John Psathas’s Abhisheka have already developed something of a “performance history” which suggests a welcome longevity, as does Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions (though might the latter work benefit from a rather more mood-inducing title, such as “Three Travelogues” or something?). No such equivocation hampers Juliet Palmer’s intriguingly-titled but lesser-known Egg and Tongue, which dates from 1994, a deliciously “layered” piece bringing impulses, gestures and styles from various sources. The other two works on the programme were both 2009 premieres from Nelson’s Adam Chamber Music Festival, each piece suggesting in its own way a fruitful gestation of advancement in terms of future audience appreciation.

John Psathas’s Abhisheka represented the composer’s first sustained attempt to come to terms with through-composed stasis and spaciousness, though works such as “Waiting for the Aeroplane” (1988) featured episodes of similarly-conceived stillness and inward reflection. Here, the players beautifully “grew” the sounds out of the silences, subtly and unhurriedly exploring the piece’s different colours and textures along the way, and blending exotic melodic lines with faraway ambiences whose hypnotic spell seemed to transcend time and space. Reflecting the composer’s interest in writings by a Buddhist mystic at the time, the music suggested a creative fusion of impulse with reflection, encompassing occasional melismatic movement alongside a deeper, and perhaps inexplicable peace – the abhisheka of the title refers to the process of sprinkling and pouring into a receptive vessel that ineffable state of calm acceptance so alien to normal human “modus operandus”.

Juliet Palmer’s viscerally engaging Egg and Tongue made a great foil for the inward intensities of John Psathas’s work – though it was interesting how again episodes within the music set motion against long-breathedness in a different kind of way. The work suggested something bubbling constantly just beneath a surface whose “skin” would occasionally rupture and fragment – but never catastrophically, the impetus of accented movement being gathered in as quickly as the patternings irrupt. I felt there was an almost “hoedown” element trying in places to get out, its efforts at liberation giving rise to wonderfully startling sonorities, the crunching of four-note patternings against “jamming” pizzicati; while at other times held violin notes exchange like resonating bells, then, in the midst of a “battle of pizzicati” the same instruments excitingly swoop and soar like air-raid sirens. I loved the kaleidoscopic aspect of the piece, its patternings, mirrorings and (in places) volatile dissolutions, not the least of which was its wraith-like conclusion, the violin tones seeming to dissolve in the very air.

Ross Harris was one of two composers present at the Te Papa Marae to hear their work being played (Michael Norris was the other). Ross spoke about the impression made upon him by hearing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played by a string quartet, so that his meditation, also for string quartet on the 25th Variation of Bach’s work seemed like a natural outcome of the experience. Variation 25 began by underlining the original work’s lyrical qualities, then introducing downwardly chromatic harmonies to “charge” the music with a kind of late romantic aura, filled with grave, scented beauty. Impassioned accents and phrase-beginnings vie with more circumspect passages, before a  closely-worked scherzando-like episode invigorates the music, then gradually pares away the excess, until the notes take on a more pointillistic aspect as the piece explores different harmonic directions. A lovely solo from the violin, underpinned by the viola’s voice, calmly finishes the work.

While New Zealand composers often draw direct inspiration for their work from their immediate physical surroundings, they’re as liable to respond to wider cultural stimuli representing universal themes and preoccupations – so it is with Michael Norris’s Exitus, an exploration of four different geographical and cultural conceptions of afterworlds. The different scenarios are in themselves intensely poetic and descriptively colourful and varied, and the composer’s response does each of them rich justice. For example, Quidlivun, the Inuit afterworld, is the “Land of the Moon”, whose realisation draws largely peaceful sounds from the instruments, with occasional quasi-vocal intonations suggesting some kind of resigned lament, against a backdrop of patterned repetition that puts one in mind of a mantra or chant. Conversely, the Mayan Xibalba sounds a more fearful place, suggested by pungent-harmonied chords with slashing szfordandi, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere; while the Norse Niflheim, the northern region of icy mists and fogs, features a spectral hymn-like melody played sotto voce by violins and viola, leaving the cello to explore some hauntingly stratospheric sonorities, with lovely, eerie harmonics. Finally, the North American Choctaw Indian afterworld of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River) describes a trial by water for souls wishing to enter the proverbial Happy Hunting Grounds, the higher violins driving the primitive rhythms on while viola and ‘cello intone with great expressive force the rites of passage, dramatically exchanging roles at one point before the quartet of voices plunges as one into a concerted drive towards the place of destiny, the textures gradually dissolving and disappearing with a brief and disarming flourish.

A “return to life” came with Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions, similarly exploratory, if more “here-and-now” manifestations of humankind’s endlessly varied music-making – something of the alchemic spirit of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of all kinds of music was evoked by these realisations for string quartet, all from different parts of the world. What struck me from the outset was how the composer contrived to explore timbres from the instruments quite foreign to normal expectations regarding a string quartet’s “sound”, the melody in the first piece Long Gi Yi having, for example, a haunting and exotic vocal quality, around which the other instruments wove a sinuous ambience. The second piece, from Madagascar was called Ramandriana, a dance originally played on an eighteen-stringed bamboo tube zither, the quartet tossing pizzicato and arco phrases back and forth with great brio, across simple and compound rhythms. Finally, the slashing Ratschenita from Bulgaria with its wild 7/8 rhythms underpinned by guitar-like strummings and foot-stampings inspired exhilarating energies and momentums that got everybody’s juices pulsing and tingling in properly life-enhancing ways. A great concert, then, in a most stimulating environment – full marks to all!

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