Stroma – the Elemental and the Fabulous

Stroma New Music Ensemble presents:


Nicholas Isherwood (bass baritone)
Thomas Guldborg (percussion)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Stroma New Music Ensemble

Hunter Council Chamber,
Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday 1st September 2013

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned (those of us who read the program note before the concert, that is….)….short of resorting to an official rubber-stamped, or publicly-broadcast Government Health Warning, the accompanying note did made it quite clear regarding the salient characteristics of the two items written by Greek-born, French-naturalised composer Iannis Xenakis which framed this extraordinary Stroma concert: “….these works are unprecedented in their raw power and violence”.

Both pieces were late additions by the composer to an opera inspired by the classical Greek story known as The Oresteia (a work by Aeschylus, about Orestes, the son of Clytemnestera and Agamemnon, and the series of tragic events involving these characters). The first of these additional pieces was called Kassandra, and featured a series of dialogues between the Prophetess of the same name who had forseen these tragedies, and a chorus. The second, titled La Déesse Athena (The Goddess Athena) took the form of an accompanied monologue of declamation, the text a series of directives by the Goddess to the people of Athens to establish courts of law.

Despite each piece having a “stand-and-deliver” appearance on the part of the musicians that one might associate more with the concert platform than the stage, both made the kind of visceral impact one would expect from raw, graphic theatrical depictions of brutal violence and conflict. The theatricality of each piece was underscored by the remarkable vocal virtuosity of American bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood, required to sing throughout both works alternating (sometimes rapidly) between baritonal and falsetto pitches. It was, one might say, a vocal tour de force.

In the first piece, the two differently-pitched voices represented both Kassandra, the Prophetess, and her exchanges with the chorus of elders. The singer’s voice was amplified (in both pieces), which for me contributed to the immediate “all-pervasiveness” of the sounds –  in Kassandra,  biting, dramatic exchanges between the prophetess and the chorus. Solo percussionist (Thomas Guldborg) activated both drums and wood-blocks, advancing both the declamatory style of the exchanges and remorselessly driving the trajectories of the narrative forward as the prophetess graphically described how Agamemnon would be murdered by his wife and her lover. As well, the singer occasionally activated a kind of psaltery, the sounds imitating an ancient Greek lyre (actually, the instrument was described as an Indian siter).

Just as engaging/harrowing was the second of Xenaxis’s pieces, La Déesse Athena, which concluded the concert – if anything, it was even more blistering an experience than was Kassandra, with the resources of a chamber ensemble put to immediate and confrontational effect. Everything was shrill and hard-edged, with the singer frequently changing from falsetto to baritonal pitch and back again, underlining Athena’s dualistic, male/female nature, and emphasising the implacable, all-encompassing nature of the directives.

From the stark, harrowing pterodactyl-imagined cries of the opening winds, through to the piece’s end, the intensities never really let up, the exchanges between the singer’s dual-voiced utterances and the raw insistence of the ensemble groups expressing sounds of the most elemental and uncompromising kind. Not for nothing was Xenakis quoted by the programme notes as saying that he felt he was born too late, and had nothing to do in the twentieth century – these sounds seemed at once ancient and anarchic, a kind of screaming and moaning from the underbelly of human existence. The archaic Greek texts of both pieces “placed” to an extent the composer’s creative focus, but the classical or pre-classical “statues” referred to in the excellent notes, and here given voice seemed to me, to “speak, sing and scream” to all ages.

The only thing that perhaps could have further advanced these sensational, no-holds-barred performances was to have performed them in a properly theatrical setting. As it was, the presentations were as confrontational and uncompromising as I think they could have been in normal concert surroundings – and, in a sense, the “neutrality” of the concert situation enabled we listeners to focus purely and directly upon the music, to memorable effect.

Thankfully, both Gao Ping’s and Dorothy Ker’s pieces inhabited somewhat different, less harrowing realms, although each had its own distinctive way with sonority and with its organisation of material. I thought Gao Ping’s work was the more overtly discursive and exploratory, as befitted the composer’s title for the piece – Shuo Shu Ren – The Storyteller. Naturally enough, as well as the stories themselves, the storyteller’s own personality and distinctive way of putting across his material were here presented, for our great delight.

One could extrapolate the scenario’s different elements from the sounds – the first section of the music strongly redolent of a “Once upon a time….”, with jaunty, angular winds setting the trajectories at the beginning, but giving way to a whole inventory of textural and rhythmic variations, the lines and timbres engaging us with the idea of a kind of “exposition” of characters, situations and contexts at the conclusion of the work’s first section.

Something of the composer’s idea of myth blending with reality seemed to haunt the wistful, remote opening of the second section, like impulses of a cold memory being stroked and brought back to a state of warmth. Lovely cello-playing by Rowan Prior helped give the sequence a Holst-like austerity, augmented in places with oriental-flavoured intervals and harmonies. The music then re-established its narrative flow, with many imaginative and interactive touches, incorporating both the storyteller’s entrancement and the listener’s rapture.  These interactions brought about a two-note figure of resolution, almost a shout of triumph and fulfilment, brought back by the solo ‘cello to the meditative realms .

A third section gave the wind players plenty of scope to galvanise the narrative and “flesh out” the protagonists – from birdsong beginnings, the figurations grew in animation and girth, underpinned by strings and harp.The kaleidoscopic texture-changes kept the pace keen and listener-sensibilities guessing, culminating in alarm-sounding squeals(winds), acamperings (strings) and flourishes (harp) – very exciting!

The epilogue began with dreamy responses to a perky oboe, strings and winds drifting their lines into harmonies which dovetailed into a cadential trill, then delicately sounded again, to gorgeous, somewhat disembodied effect, with notes sounding across silences and dissolving into them. We readily experienced the composer’s idea of the storyteller dispersing fragments “ephemeral as light”.

An even more interesting-looking assemblage of players trooped out for Dorothy Ker’s work (…and…11), continuing a kind of mushrooming of numbers effect with each succeeding item. Where Gao Ping’s descriptions of his music drew largely upon his childhood memories, Ker’s less overtly personalised language in her programme-note focused intently upon metaphor and imagery describing what she called in her music a “wave-like morphology”, and the resulting “cycles of accumulation and decay” stemming from her use of the word “and” in the piece’s title.

More concentrated, terser and in a sense “tougher” a work than Gao Ping’s, (…and…11)  held our interest in a more immediate, less hypnotic sense, rather as I remembered old radio serials of decective stories used to do, with music soundtracks generating as much imagined expectation and incident as did the voices. I liked Dorothy Ker’s use of a repeated kind of what I immediately thought of as a “radio chord” whose focal-points repeatedly interacted with instrumental incident – percussion rumbles, scintillations, breath-sounds and mutterings, rock-bottom brass sonorities – sequences to create, in the composer’s words, “anticipation, followed by a release energy”.

As with Gao Ping’s work, the sonorities led the ear ever onwards through these sequences – disparate sounds included slashing pizzicati, with strings stinging the fingerboards, chords eerily made by breath-sounds in tandem with deep brass,and recitative-like solos from flute, clarinet and trombone. And the concluding episode was entrancingly done, the dance all-too-briefly suggested before leaving the outcomes to the realms of our imagination.

One was left, at the concert’s end, marvelling at the range and scope of the Stroma musicians’ skills under Hamish McKeich’s clear-sighted direction, bringing into being such a far-flung range of musical realisations with terrific aplomb and conviction.












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