Te Koki – New Zealand School of Music presents:
BODY BEAUTIFUL – a tribute to Jack Body in his 70th year
Saetas (string quartet and accordion)
A House in Bali (narrator, accordion, string quartet and gamelan gong keybar)
Yunnan Sketches (string quartet, guitar, tape)
Songs My Grandmother Sang (voices, piano, string quartet)
New Zealand String Quartet
Ross Harris (accordion) / Richard Greager (baritone) / Margaret Medlyn (soprano)
Christopher Hill (guitar) / Jack Body (narrator)
Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington
Monday 14th April, 2014
Jack Body celebrates his 70th birthday this year – and he’s determined to make the most of this particular anniversary, helped by warmth, acclaim and gratitude from the many people he’s come into contact with over the years as a teacher, composer, author, publisher and general advocate for the music of this country in both a Pacific and world-wide context.
This particular concert, appropriately titled “Body Beautiful” took place in Victoria University of Wellington’s Adam Concert Room under the auspices of the New Zealand School of Music. The music for three-quarters of the concert presented aspects of the composer’s fruitful relationship with the New Zealand String Quartet, before finishing, just as heartwarmingly, but in a completely different sound-world, with Body’s Songs My Grandmother Sang.
Preferring to talk with his audience rather than supply written program notes for each of the items, Body was in his usual excellent form as a communicator, giving us a real sense of process and context as well as a description of each of the “end product” in relation to the music we heard.
First up in the program was Saetas, which was a NZSQ commission dating from 2002. Body explained that he had at the time been exploring a genre of music associated with religious feasts held during Holy Week in Spain, semi-improvised, highly ornamented songs derived from the flamenco tradition. These songs, sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes using a strong drum-beat as a kind of pulse, were often associated with a quejío, or lament, a kind of cry sung as a phrase during the course of a single breath.
Body accentuated the “lament” aspect of these songs in his transcriptions in different ways. In both the first and last pieces a kind of “quejío” was exclaimed by the musicians at the beginning. But also, in the opening song Body took aspects of pieces by both Tchaikovsky and Hugo Wolf cast in a similar expressive vein and worked certain of these figurations and gestures into the music’s fabric. Fragments of both the “Pathetique” Symphony’s finale and a song from Hugo Wolf’s “Spanish Songbook” gave a strangely familiar, dreamlike flavour to the scope of the sounds, throwing their familiar contexts open to the wider world of human angst and suffering.
To my ears the music in the first piece in general seemed to take on a kind of Russian sound in places, moments featuring sweet, open-air harmonies, a sound I associate particularly with Borodin in some of his chamber music. But this could be mere fancy on my part as could also be a reminiscence I heard earlier in the piece of one of Wagner’s rising phrases associated with the flooding of the Rhine waters from “Gotterdammerung”.
The other three pieces saw ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relinquish his normal instrument for the accordion, a change which accentuated the biting rhythmic accents of the next of the Saetas, a piece with string see-sawings and squeeze-box crunchings, the viola playing a Moorish tune in the middle of it all. The following piece had stuttering and stammering strings set against long-breathed cluster chords from the accordion. The viola played a chant suggesting something ancient, the violins echoing the notes and gradually tapering off as the viola continued, the accordion keeping in ambient touch with things.
Again the instrumentalists gave voice to the music’s feelings at the beginning of the final piece, reinforcing the anguish with foot-stampings, though varying the dynamics so as to make things antiphonal-sounding. As the strings clustered their tones around a driving, beating rhythm, the accordion played a kind of melodic counterpoint, adding to the ever-increasing texturings of the sounds – biting accents, fierce glisssandi and running scales all drove the music onwards as the players’ stamping feet beat out the pulsations to incredibly exciting effect!
Next on the program, A House in Bali combined several strands of diverse activity. First there was Jack Body himself reading exerpts from writings by Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer turned ethnomusicologist, based on his experiences in Bali during the 1930s, and describing vignettes of Balinesque village life. Incidentally, the actual house McPhee lived in was subsequently inhabited, for a short time, by the pianist Lili Kraus, before she was incarcerated for a time during the war by the Japanese.
But the piece’s chief musical feature was its “jointly-composed” aspect, Body responsible for writing the quartet and accordion contributions and the Gamelan composer and orchestra leader Wayan Gde Yudane writing the pre-recorded Balinese gamelan orchestra music. Strings and accordion (the latter played here by Body’s fellow-composer, Ross Harris) took their cues from the gamelan sounds, allowing the speaker intervals of sufficient ambient space for his words to be heard by the audience.
Body had said in an earlier interview that the rehearsals of this piece for this performance had been hair-raising, because the gamelan group in Bali seemed to him to have set much faster tempi than when it was played here previously by the New Zealand ensemble. Parts of the opening did sound rather like a kind of Balinese hoe-down, though the music’s breathless pace let up sufficiently for the mood to allow some lovely exchanges between the two quite different worlds of sounds, strings and accordion on one hand and the gamelan group on the other.
I thought the gamelan sounds extraordinary – a magic and resonant world! The scenes described by McPhee’s words were distinctive – firstly a cricket duel, with the creatures suitably prepared for the fray, like a kind of ritual battle with music. Another evocation was Nyepi, the yearly day of silence (I enjoyed the words “demons pass by, thinking the village deserted”), the seeming emptiness underpinned by lonely, isolated strands of “snake-charmer” melody from the instruments. More animated was a vignette described by McPhee of pigeons with bells tied to their legs flying around in tintinabulating flocks – the gradual diminuendo of sounds as the birds disappeared was extremely effective.
China was the focus for the next work on the program, a piece which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2007, called Yunnan Sketches. The first was Bouyi, a duet setting, using a tape Body had made of two women singing, one which the composer described as “initially discordant” but whose harmonic rigours were softened by the instrumental accompaniments. I found the results hauntingly beautiful. The other two reworkings, “Bai” and “Lahu”, were each very different – the first rhythmic and syncopated, a solo viola mixing pizzicato with arco, creating a sequence that Stravinsky would have appreciated for its angularity. Finally, “Lahu” featured Christopher Hill’s guitar, interestingly, but not altogether successfully, I thought, as the instrument almost completely lacked the plangency one associates normally with oriental stringed instruments – this sounded too much to my ears like a tourist in a foreign land who’d wandered off the beaten track….
As if further evidence of Body’s versatility as a composer was needed, the concert concluded with a sometimes piquant, sometimes droll-humoured item, made up of three of the set of Songs My Grandmother Sang, performed here by Richard Greager, Margaret Medlyn and pianist Jian Liu (with audience participation in the final song “All Through the Night” encouraged by the composer!).
The composer took the songs from an album which he recalled was a favorite songbook of his grandmother’s at the family home in Te Aroha. He spoke briefly about his youthful distaste for sentimentality and his efforts to avoid it at all costs in his own music – though he then admitted, rather like Noel Coward once remarking on “the potency of cheap music”, that he’d since discovered “something about it”. He added, a little ruefully, that, though his father didn’t really care for his arrangements of the songs, he had an uncle who did like them very much.
Tenor Richard Greager led off with “Two Little Girls in Blue”, a song whose words brought forth wry grins at the convolutions of the age-old “eternal triangle” situation – one here with a bit of a difference – “and one little girl in blue, lad / who won your father’s heart / became your mother, I married the other / but now we have drifted apart….”. Rather like Benjamin Britten’s piano accompaniments for his folk-song settings, these began by supporting the tune, but then seemed to do their best to try and destabilize it – at a previous concert at which I heard these songs performed, the pianist on that occasion, Bruce Greenfield, affectionately described the accompaniments as “quite mad”!
Having enjoyed Richard Greager we were now treated to the rich, balladic tones of Margaret Medlyn, singing Body’s setting of “Genevieve” – a wonderful “open” accompaniment took flight along with the singer’s excitingly vertiginous vocal line and the help of the string quartet, which joined in with the music throughout the last verse, the tones at the end oscillating upwards and disappearing.
With the third song came the audience’s chance to make its presence really felt – a grand, chordal accompaniment supported both singers and the quartet players, while, after each introductory couplet massed voices were raised on high with the words “All through the night”. The instrumental building blocks of sound supported the melodic line beautifully, and it was left to pianist Jian Liu to play a brief, rapt chordal postlude, which he did, before reverting to a clipped “that’s it, folks!” manner for the final chord.
Very great acclamation for the composer at the concert’s end, from fellow-performers and audience alike. There’s evidently an Auckland concert coming up (30th April) at the University, featuring different repertoire to what we heard tonight. One can only wish Jack Body all the best for this concert and for further fulfilments of exploration, engagement and completion by the year’s end. To you, Jack, every possible satisfaction and a richly-wrought sense of fulfillment on the occasion of your 70th birthday and the completion of a remarkable year.