STROMA – Percussion/Action in small but compelling doses

STROMA – Soundbytes III

Works by Beat Furrer, Manuela Meier, Andrew Ford and Toru Takemitsu

Lenny Sakofsky / Jeremy Fitzsimmons / Bruce McKinnon (percussion)

Adam Auditorium, City Gallery, Wellington

Saturday 2nd June 2012

Stroma’s 2012 concert formats are taking in both larger, standardized happenings called “Headliners”, which feature well-known performers and works by established composers, and briefer, concentrated concerts of less than an hour’s duration called “Soundbytes” – the group’s publicity referred to these events as “aural degustations”, a term which had me reaching for my dictionary, illiterate peasant that I am, to be summarily enlightened – and yes, these in this “Soundbyte” under consideration, were tasty sound-snacks indeed!

New to me, though open since 2009 (where has this reviewer been, of late?) was the venue, a space called the “Adam Auditorium” located on the ground floor of the Wellington City Gallery. I loved being in the space, and thought the acoustic and ambience served the music-making well, marrying sound and sight with pleasing directness. Because of the pronounced auditorium “rake” almost everybody in the audience could clearly see what the players were doing to conjure up their panoply of sounds, giving the concert something of a specific gestural, or even choreographic, element.

Being a determined advocate for the audio-only listening experience, I’m surprised to find myself stressing this aspect of the presentation, though the relative novelty (when compared to one’s normal concert-going experiences) of encountering percussion ensembles means that one is more than usually interested in what is actually happening on the concert platform. Our three percussionists on this occasion didn’t disappoint, with plenty of variety of sound and movement served up for our delight by way of whirling us through four very distinctive musical experiences in an all-too-brief concert.

Actually, I thought the brevity of this “Soundbyte” experience had the positive effect of leaving us with appetites sharpened for more, which the “degustation” definition certainly implies. I confess to not really coming to grips with the first of the items, however, finding Beat Furrer’s sound-world a mystery, one which gently repulsed any kind of construct or attitude I strove to place around the sounds I heard along the way (I was pleased to read in the program afterwards of the composer’s “predilection for refinement and restraint”, qualities I found in the music almost to a fault!).

Not that I was overly worried about indulging myself in enjoyment of the sounds, but afterwards wondered how I could convey something of the experience of Beat Furrer’s Music for Mallets in words – it felt as if a patient, gradually unfolding soundscape grew from the first few minutes of the work, with sudden impulses of tone precursors of more frequent irruptions of energy which enlivened the textures somewhat, even if the music’s pulsing spent a lot of the work “underground”. A freer, more volatile episode followed, rapid glissandi and other figurations, staking out the land, though the sense of something restrained, evanescent and mysterious remained, embedded in the music’s character, and making a lasting impression.

By contrast, Stroma administrator Manuela Meier’s 2012 work Cada bristled with movement and impulse, throughout, the antiphonal exchanges between the two percussionists a delight to the senses. Again, the seating configuration allowing us to really “get involved” with the players’ physical gesturing and form a relationship between different sounds’ cause and effect. The composer treated us to a plethora of timbres and colours and what seemed to our “insectified” ears like a stunning range of dynamics, from the whisperings of wood against a smooth metal edge to the harsh complaints of friction-making textured metal surfaces worked upon by the same hard sticks. It all had the feeling of some kind of inner reality, akin to the flowing of blood, impulsings of a nervous system or an intelligence network processing sensory responses. This was the piece’s first-ever performance in public.

Andrew Ford’s Composition in blue, grey and pink for solo percussionist gave Lenny Sakofsky a chance to demonstrate his considerable performance skills. Taken from a larger work for flute and percussion and arranged as a stand-alone movement, it places the performer at a kind of drum-kit arrangement as if in control of the flight-deck of an enormous flying machine. Content-wise, the piece is extremely theatrical in its soliloquy-like structure, completely in accordance with a certain improvisatory air (intended by the composer, who leaves certain decisions to the player, such as the choice of drumsticks, and the dynamics throughout).

The opening episode is almost like a jumble of thoughts, as if emotion is trying to sort out an order of saying or a coherent overall shape – so we get fast and chatty sequences, but within a fragmented discourse. Slow and sinister follows, a different view of the material, or else a change in its ambient surroundings, contrasting with a sequence of brittle scintillations, whose short, questioning coda concludes with a final flourish. Both sounds and the player’s choreography of performance were totally absorbing, with never a void moment.

One doesn’t have to be a camp follower of percussion concerts to encounter the music of Toru Takemitsu, as this same work, Rain Tree, was heard during a concert given by the NZSO Soloists in March of this year (the same concert which featured Shchedrin’s entertaining, reworked and re-orchestrated take on Bizet’s Carmen). On that occasion I remember the music being somewhat marred by excessively-projected lighting of each instrumentalist – the systematic spotlighting was meant to synchronize with the music, but for me it was all too visually “loud”, and thus proved a fatal distraction. Significantly, Takemitsu himself is on record as having supervised a performance of his work with similar lighting, but then commenting afterwards that he found the effect “too distracting”.

Here, most thankfully, there were no such lighting manipulations, the musical impulses allowed to speak for themselves throughout the piece. Again, the characteristics of the auditorium enabled us to connect directly with the three players and their instrumental gesturings – Takemitsu’s title for the piece, Rain Tree refers to a tree described in a novel by Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe The Ingenious Rain Tree, one which, because of the thickness of its foliage “stores” water from rain and continues to water the ground long after the rain itself has ceased. The work reflects this process, the raindrops depicted by use of the crotales (antique cymbals) build up towards a cascade, with the marimbas alternating the whole while, and the vibraphone providing a kind of underlying foundation. Some of these were gorgeous sounds, both when isolated (the crotales) and when interactive – the marimbas woody and solidly ambient, the vibraphone all air and water.

The evening’s music and its performance, along with the venue and its warmly attractive ambience, all came together beautifully to make this Stroma concert yet another one to remember with great pleasure.




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