The Plight of the Dischords, aka, New Zealand Clarinet Quartet

Music by Natalie Hunt, Iain Matheson, Evan Ware, Philip Brownlee, Jenö von Takács

The New Zealand Clarinet Quartet (or The Plight of the Dischords) (Debbie Rawson, Tui Clark, Hayden Sinclair, Nick Walshe)
(New Zealand School of Music)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday 18 August, 7.30pm,

For the approximately 30 souls who braved yet another night of freezing temperatures, strong winds and driving rain, this was a rewarding occasion. The acoustics of the relatively intimate Council Chamber seemed just right for this combination of clarinets, played by such proficient performers. Despite the group’s subtitle, this was a demonstration of the euphonious and very flexible instruments that are clarinets.

Being a concert of contemporary music, with the oldest piece having been composed in 1975, a number of techniques were employed that were different from those one usually hears. The performances of works by New Zealand composers were premieres.

Interspersed through the programme in three groups were Natalie Hunt’s ten pieces named for birds – mainly New Zealand native birds. The composer, who was present, is herself a clarinettist, as well as an honours graduate in composition. The first, ‘Kawau’ [shag] was titled ‘Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’. The printed programme did not divulge whether these phrases in quotation marks were written by Natalie Hunt, or by some other person.

This first piece began with breathing – the four players breathing through their instruments in contrasting rhythms. This was followed by a bird sound made through a clarinet mouthpiece only, and then all the players joined in. ‘Raven’ featured harmony; four clarinets in harmony, one being a bass clarinet, made a gorgeous sound.

The ‘Kaka’ began with a passage that interspersed vocal sound, breathing, and instrumental sounds. This time, the soprano clarinet was one of the instruments, and some delightfully unusual tones were emitted.

Iain Matheson is a Scotsman who studied with New Zealander Lyell Cresswell, in Edinburgh. His piece ‘And Another Thing’ was quirky, with bird-like sounds. There was great use of the various timbres the clarinet is capable of, but to my mind a little too much repetition.

We returned to Hunt’s ‘real’ birds, firstly ‘Flamingo’. This employed four ‘normal’ clarinets, one player making unusual sounds through his instrument rather than playing it in the usual fashion. These sounds were mysterious, rather like a marimba being played in the distance. ‘Toroa’ [albatross] featured breathing through the instruments once again, this time while two of the instruments, including the bass clarinet, playing conventionally, before all joined in. There were similarities with the ‘Raven’ piece heard earlier. The last in this group was ‘Piwkawaka’ [fantail]. The piece was appropriately flitty, with a jazzy rhythm.

The final piece in the first half was ‘Returnings’ by Evan Ware, an American composer influenced by John Adams, we were told. Apparently this composition was first created for Facebook – the medium becomes the message. It was certainly a minimalist work, but the sounds produced were enjoyable, including oscillations and high-pitched notes. The bass clarinettist conducted at several points – presumably when it was time to move on to the next section of music after reiterations of phrases.

After the interval, the first piece was ‘The stars like years’ by Wellington composer Philip Brownlee, who was present. The programme mentioned ‘an elongated sense of time and space’; certainly much of the music was reminiscent of the music used in space movies. The oscillations reminded me of ‘the music of the spheres’ which has inspired numbers of composers, based on the theories of the Greek philosophers up to and including Plato. Once or twice the instruments appeared not to be quite in tune with each other on unison notes – or was this deliberate? Certainly there were some very astringent discords. It is quite amazing what you can get out of a clarinet – not all of it easy on the ear. There was plenty of minimalist fabric in the piece, some of which was improvised ‘using sets of notated gestural materials’.

The programme returned to the last four of Natalie Hunt’s birds. ‘Swallow’ began with a solo that was evocative and attractive. The bass clarinet also had interesting and pleasing passages. The next bird was mythical: ‘Phoenix’. The phrase read ‘The rain washed you clean’ – was this from the ashes out of which the bird arose? This featured a solo also, and more oscillations (of which I was tiring by this time). Here, the bass clarinettist played an even smaller clarinet than Tui Clark’s soprano: sopranino?

The ‘Kahu’ (hawk) spoke in close harmony – and disharmony, while the last bird, ‘Kereru’ (pigeon) had a very active piece, with an authentic bird call, and fluffing sounds like the bird’s wings. This was a charming composition.

An Pan (To Pan) by Takács was in two movements: Pastorale and Bagpipes (Dudelsack). In this piece the four regular clarinets were used. Again there was oscillation, but also pastoral melodies, and shrieking discord on intervals of a second. The second movement carried the traits of the instrument described, being loud, even raucous.

It was an innovative concert, with a variety of new or nearly-new music performed with great skill and élan. The pieces by Natalie Hunt were particularly skilled, varied, descriptive, and thoroughly musical.

One thought on “The Plight of the Dischords, aka, New Zealand Clarinet Quartet

  1. Phil Brownlee says:

    Hi Rosemary
    I’m sure most musicians and composers would be happy to talk to you, if you wanted to clear up your questions.

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