Colours rich and strange, from the SMP Ensemble

SMP Ensemble presents: XPΩMATA – Colours

Music by Tristan Carter, Jack Hooker, Carol Shortis, Anton Killin, Iannis Xenakis (Greece), Pauline Oliveros (USA), Michael Norris, Ewan Clark, Robbie Ellis, Andrzej Nowicki

The SMP Ensemble

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 9th April 2011

Continuing its work on behalf of classical music’s contemporary voices, the SMP Ensemble produced yet another absorbing and thought-provoking line-up of works from home and abroad with its program XPΩMATA – Colours. Without resorting to mega-anarchic practices, the group seems always to manage (via its own version of an incredible lightness of being) to blow invigorating gusts of fresh air through normal concert procedures and presentations, making each event a unique delight.

Darkness giving some of its space to candlelight set an expectant scene for the opening item, Tohoraha, by Tristan Carter. Away from the program note one might guess the players who had assembled and were delicately activating different acoustical properties of their instruments were concerned with representing either a subaqueous or a stratospheric state of being – these were sounds I reckoned to be outside of my direct biospherical experience! The coalescence of these sounds generated a micro-excitement which prepared the scene for something of a give-away conch-shell set of signals – very spectacular, if irrevocably conjuring up an oceanscape. A cursory knowledge of Te Reo Maori would have by this time alerted most people to an association of the piece with whales, and the connections readily translated into the idea of some kind of “dialogue among higher beings”, here, for all kinds of reasons, acoustical, environmental and emotional, a “transporting of the mind” experience, rich and strange, in any case for this listener.

Jack Hooker’s Field Murmur, ambiently titled, used electroacoustical means to evoke its world, arresting and splendid at the very beginning, as well as disconcerting, with something like a door or cupboard opening and shutting. I imagined animal or bird or even insect activity, though my carefully-constructed soundscape was peremptorily shut off by a revereberation-less halt to the sounds, which was presumably intended, as the effect was repeated with different kinds of evocations – it generated a kind of schizoid response to the medium as opposed to the message, the uncertainty of imminent closure creating its own set of tensions.

Carol Shortis’s The Riddle of Her Flight was a setting for soprano, piano and vibraphone of part of a poem by Mike Johnson. The music readily courted both pictorial and emotional responses, grumbling bass notes on Jonathan Berkahn’s piano at the beginning stimulating shafts of light from deft touches upon the vibraphone criss-crossing the soundscape. The sound of the soprano Olga Gryniewicz’s voice was perhaps siren-like, or maybe that of a wood-nymph’s, haunting and pleading. The singer emphasized the idea of “sanctuary”, aided and abetted by the instrumentalists, Takumi Motokawa’s vibraphone occasionally bowed as well as struck, producing lovely tintinabulations, and stimulating bell-like diction from the singer at the words “You must find the island”. At the end of a richly-extended lyrical episode, the final cadence following a culminating high note felt like a real homecoming. The music couldn’t help but repeatedly take my sensibilities to what seemed like “other realms” associated with Shakespearean fantasy, such as Prospero’s Island, or the Magic Wood of Oberon outside Athens.

Andrzej Nowicki was the clarinettist in tandem with his own pre-recorded playing of fragments from the same work, for composer Anton Killin’s absorbing Absence; Primes. The soloist listened at first to the recorded performance, then began a dialogue with the original, fascinatingly exploring the idea of feedback, discussion and even “second thoughts” regarding one’s own creative impulses. At first ruminative, Nowicki’s “live” clarinet-playing animated the textures, the discussion a “brightly-lit” affair until a brusque declamatory statement brought the dialogue to a sudden end.

The programme’s first “offshore” work was Yannis Xenakis’s Echange, in effect a bass clarinet concerto, bringing the first half of the concert to an end with plenty to engage the thoughts. The composer called the work “terrifying and mysterious”, and indeed, the single-note clarinet opening brings forth a disquieting subterraneous soundworld from trombone (Xenakis wanted a tuba, but…) and bassoon into which the cello oscillates and over the top of which the soloist exuberantly barks – perhaps a European manifestation of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s “gods of the middle world” flexing their might and muscle into a colour-change chord irreverently “curdled” by the soloist’s contribution. The clarinet ruminates deeply as its ambient surroundings ring changes of tempo, texture and articulation, creating memorable vignettes of incident – a wonderfully seismic “wobble-chord”  from the ensemble, and a “blues in the night” response from the soloist, very jazzy and lively playing, which, however develops into a kind of ritual of attempted domination on both sides, the impasse declared by implacable brass against whose black tones the soloist slashes and stabs. We fear for the safety of the music itself, at the point of dissolution the sound-world’s resonating voices asking questions we can only numbly acknowledge. A good place for the interval!

We were prepared even less for what was to follow – audience participation! – fortunately, humming was all that was required, the SMP ensemble members walking around the auditorium antiphonally encouraging us to add our unique vocal vibrations to Anton Killin’s realization of Lullaby for Daisy Pauline by the American composer Pauline Oliveros, one of the composer’s “Sonic Meditations” aimed at engendering a focus among listeners on “the intimate reality of sound”. Philosophically, Michael Norris’s work which followed, Blindsight, explored the antithesis of Oliveros’s shared ambient construct, describing his work in a context of fragile individual sensory reality. Norris’s work translated this “process of sensory faith” into a musical work involving strings and winds, with the piano as a kind of intermediary. The winds played chords using halftones, to which the piano and strings responded in a kind of instinctive manner, “feeling” their way towards a kind of kinship with the original sounds. The piano seemed then to take the lead, the winds responding to the instrument’s chords and patterning with characteristic sonorities (a kind of “opening up’ of an essential sound-nature for both groups, the winds sostenuto, the strings oscillating and flurrying melismatically. Whether growing in confidence or in desperation, the responses by both groups to the piano reached a fever-pitch of animation before sinking, exhausted. The piano maintained a dispassionate “devil’s advocate” kind of stance, allowing the winds to blow themselves out, leaving the strings fulminating amongst themselves, then relinquishing their voices with a last sotto-voce gesture – I was given the feeling of micro-processes continuing, after the overt activities had ceased…..

Reversing the program order, Robbie Ellis’s Maeve set recorded voice against solo piano, to the former’s disadvantage, unfortunately, the piano’s declamatory style in places obscuring the speaker’s tones (the loudspeaker would have been better-placed in front of the piano, eliminating the “competitive” aspect which seemed to be set up regarding the soundspace – a pity we were thus distracted, because the piano-part was gorgeous-sounding in places, Debussy-like in its focus and delicacy, while Leila Austin’s story, read by the author, would have filled out its place in the sound-tapestry in a much more balanced and contextual way – a further performance needed, I feel. Following this, Ewan Clark’s Reverie set parts of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Elegy for soprano, clarinet and piano, Olga Gryniewicz’s clear and pure voice making the most of the vocal line’s beauties at “Sweetness to the root – may the tree climb high against the sun”, while Andrzej Nowicki’s clarinet-playing conjured up whole eternities of bird-song underpinned by Jonathan Berkahn’s rich and  resonant piano realization. A lovely performance of a beautiful work, capturing the lonely beauty and desolation of the poet’s evocations.

Concluding the generous program was a work by the group’s director, Andrzej Nowicki, appropriately entitled Unknown Realms, the ensemble (strings, organ, piano and winds) conducted by Karlo Margetic. We expected a kind of “road” piece, with much and greatly varied terrain covered, and weren’t disappointed. A nascent, almost tentative piano presence at first addresses only dark organ tones and subterranean bass clarinet sounds – forces of darkness holding sway, almost daring other, brighter impulses to ignite and energize the textures towards the light. The clarinets stimulate the strings’ awakening, the latter holding steadfastly to their notes as the drama unfolds, the clarinets having a “field day” both instigating and repelling various agitations, the organ joining in with weighty presence, provoking the conductor’s patience to breaking-point in the face of such concerted anarchies – a marvellously petulant “Will you stop it!” ejaculation from the podium restores order amid chaos. Great fun, nicely “placed” amid the trials and tribulations.

The group’s director, Andrzej Nowicki was warmly and ceremoniously farewelled by all at the concert’s conclusion, on the eve of overseas explorations – the best of all possible send-offs, one would think, via this musical feast from the SMP Ensemble.

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