SMP Ensemble – Sound Barrel a “lucky dip” for this listener!

SMP Ensemble presents:

Music by:
Graphic Scores by:

Special guest artist:
KANA KOTERA (euphonium)

SMP Ensemble:
Karlo Margetic, Richard Robeshawe, Reuben Jellyman
Cordelia Black, Tabea Squire, Sam Vennell
Chris Wratt, Anton Killin, Jason Post

Adam Concert Room,
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 26th September 2014

That enterprising and congenitally provocative performing group, the SMP Ensemble presented a characteristic program for our delight and fascination at the Adam Concert Room last Friday evening.

Every piece on the program brought its own specific amalgam of spontaneity and thoughtfulness to bear on both the recreative process and the audience’s receptivity – a kind of “expect the unexpected” ethos whose attendant challenges, bewilderments and satisfactions truly “spiced up” the evening’s music.

I must admit to a certain level of self-generated bravado in writing these words, gobsmacked as I was by the effect of some of the sounds that I heard, experienced and watched being made throughout the evening. Particularly thought-provoking were the items featuring graphic scores, each of which was displayed clearly and spaciously (excellent and audience-friendly visual displays were a feature of the concert), giving us some unique insights, both cerebral and instinctive, regarding that mysterious, often nebulously wrought “womb of interactivity” that exists between composer and performer – and, of course, by extrapolation, each listener.

It was very much a case for me of being faced with music for which I had relatively little previous reference in terms of being able to make judgements and draw conclusions based on what I saw and heard. I found myself going back to points of revisiting of my own “formative responses” to sounds, well before my current ostensible crop of expectations relating to conventional classical music. I was reminded, again and again, by what I heard the SMP players do, of my first encounters with things that were world-enlarging, both in terms of timbre and colour and texture, but also in terms of structure and organization and juxtapositioning.

In short, I was “undone” to a large extent by the concert, and this is a record of the ensuing impressions I received from the music while in that partly delightful, partly precarious state.

The concert began with a piece by UK composer Ben Gaunt, one whose basic idea interestingly “resonated” within me – that of “Sympathetic Strings”, ambiences created by material that resonates as a consequence of other materials being “played” – of course stringed instruments do have this very particular on-going quality, whether intentional or incidental. Gaunt carried this idea over to having sounds generated by performers whose creative imaginations “resonate” as a result of what they hear other performers do. The performance was directed by Jason Post, whose own music was to make an appearance in the concert’s second half.

The Ensemble’s formation at the beginning visually expressed a kind of Newtonian “action” and “reaction” process, with clarinet, double bass and violin to the right of the performing area, and an accordion, violin and percussion set antiphonally to the left. The music began with beautifully-floated, nocturnal-like lines from clarinet, double bass and violin, occasionally punctuated by irruptions from the left, as if worlds were colliding and rubbing along each other’s edges. Of a sudden all hell seemed to break loose, in particular from Karlo Margetic’s clarinet, which seemed to be expressing some kind of musical apoplexy, a process which led to the player actually collapsing and having to be revived by a violinist – was this a mere theatrical touch, or an organic consequence of the “sympathetic” pressures brought to bear on the performer by the music?

Christchurch composer Chris Cree Brown’s “Sound Barrel” gave its name to the concert, but amply characterized the music we heard, scored for euphonium and fixed media playback. We were first introduced to the guest soloist, Japanese-born Kana Kotera, obviously a virtuoso of her instrument, judging by the timbal and coloristic command she was able to exert upon the euphonium’s sounds, ranging from cavernous, tuba-like grunts and galumphings to honeyed-tone croonings. “Elephantine Dreams” could as well have been the piece’s title, as the fixed media playback gave a definite “narrative” context for the soloist to muse upon Quixotic-like adventures, alternating between the fantastical and the extremely visceral.

Poet and composer Cilla McQueen’s work “Rain” added a graphic visual element to the evening’s proceedings, the ensemble “playing” two of the composer’s semi-abstracted “graphic scores” – works of art in themselves, of course! It was a colourful assemblage of instruments indeed! – a ukulele played with a painted stick, a double-bass, bongo drums played with sticks that had soft felt heads, a violin and an accordion – and some kind of tube with a piece of chain attached. The composer/artist’s  second score had a more recognizable kind of contouring, in the shape of a fern frond about to unfold. More obviously rhythmic at the piece’s beginning than was  the first realization, this piece seemed to me more ritualistically or ceremonially conceived than the first one – perhaps a more public as opposed to a previous private acknowledgement of the psychology of weather. Instruments such as a gong advanced a feeling that the second graphic score invited a more structured and kinetic approach to the composer’s own inspiration

Wellington is currently playing host to composer Hiroyuki Yamamoto, from Japan, here on a three-month composer residency – his piece “Ginkgo biloba”, written for solo euphonium set the player a number of technical challenges and difficulties, designed to show off the particular qualities of the instrument, and the virtuosity of the player. Beginning with a kind of definitive euphonium statement of declaration, Kana Kotera seemed to “own the work” – she adroitly moved from her opening “calling card” mode to the piece’s “real” business, setting sostenuto lines against staccato impulses, the music’s momentum gradually building, the animation increasing and the ratio of introspection diminishing.

Some of the composer’s explanations I understood – microtones and multiphonics, for example – but “half-valve” defeated me! – I assumed it was some kind of “shortening” technique used to alter pitch and timbre, and would have been used by the soloist as part of the extraordinary array of speech-like intonations throughout the piece, in which mouthing and tonguing would have had a significant part to play. Her timbral and coloristic capabilities on the instrument were in fact astonishing, the potentialities she unlocked for expression fulfilling almost to excess the prescription expressed by the composer that the sounds needed the kind of inherent ambiguity which suggested and demonstrated their basic instability.

More graphics accompanied Lyell Cresswell’s “Body Music” – appropriately dedicated to Jack Body (who was present at the concert) at the time of his fiftieth birthday (how time flies!) – here were great flourishes of exuberance, the sounds fluid and dynamic, the liquidity of the textures advanced by the use of a celeste. I took from it a kind of celebration of human physicality and impulse, the music shaping form and characterizing movement in sound. The actual graphic score appropriately displayed a human shape packed tightly with notes, a depiction of a truly musical being!

Giacinto Scelsi’s 1976 work “Maknongan” brought back Kana Kotera, eager to explore with her euphonium the Italian composer’s refined, somewhat austere world of limited notes inflected with microtones. Called by one commentator “the most focused and abstract work Scelsi ever composed”, the piece was also one of  the composer’s very last works. The euphonium’s rich sound seemed to me to “humanize” the composer’s characteristic austerities (well, as with the ones I’d previously heard, anyway!), the soloist furthering the process by employing a stylish hat with a paper rose in the hat-band as a kind of “mute” for the instrument! As these things often do, the mere sight of the hat performing this function enhanced the aural effect!

The work, true to the composer’s style, revolved around a single note, the music’s explorations of associated notes (octave-plus-one leaps, various microtonal “shifts”  and numerous timbal contrasts) creating a kind of centre for the work upon which we listeners could focus. As with any sound, constant repetition alone gradually changes the ambient receptivity – this, together with the numerous variants, aural and visual, made for a kind of  micro-journeying of transformation within the piece’s surprisingly short span. The piece was written for “any bass instrument”, thereby inviting further conjecture regarding what kind of sound-world a string bass, for instance, would create – all very intriguing!

More work for Kana Kotera and her trusty euphonium, with Jason Post’s “yatsar”, a work for the instrument and electronics. The composer alerted us to the meaning of “yatsar”, a Hebrew word for fashioning or shaping, as would a potter fashion a vessel from clay, which is, of course, a well-known biblical metaphor for God’s creation of man. This idea was expressed by breath to begin with, the player blowing tonelessly through the interment, while the electronically-contrived ambience suggested pulsations of rhythmic movement amid a kind of “white noise”. The euphonium’s notes seemed to my ears to be recorded as well as played “live” – whether or not “looped” I wasn’t sure. I imagined that the interaction between “real” acoustical sounds and the electronic ambiences might have represented a kind of relationship between creator and the fashioned object.

What to make of Tom Jensen’s “What is it?” which followed, a piece for solo violin played by Tabea Squire? – perhaps the rhetoric of the title is its own best description, given the composer’s own quasi-nihilistic notes regarding (a) the initial creative urge, (b) the self-characterised “chaos” of mind from whence the impulse sprung, © the resulting graphic score, (d) the title-question which arose from the score, and (e) the doubt as to the actuality of that same question (and by extrapolation, every previous step in the process)! And was the work a suitably portentous, grandly-conceived, groaning-under-its-own-weight, aesthetically convoluted series of existential sound-structures, unerring in its progress towards self-annihilation? – after all, JS Bach’s Chaconne from his D MInor Partita, a work also for solo violin, was able to create a whole universe of structured sounds and potentialities.

Perhaps, in direct opposition to Bach’s “order in the midst of chaos” sublimities, Tom Jensen took us on a journey via Tabea Squire’s violin, into the dark heart of disorder – the “toneless tones” of the opening section was almost an “all is vanity” exposition of sounds left to cohere in the minds of the listener, with no direction from the composer as to how this “ought” to be. The sotto voce middle section brought to ear wraith-like voices, whose conflagrations of approximate pitch suggested an order and structure on the edge of day-to-day conventions, the occasional irruptions of tone like flint-sparks in the darkness. This all seemed to intensify in a concluding section whose “do I wake or sleep” disembodied ghostings had, I felt, taken me into the throes of my subconscious – an extraordinary evocation.

It needed John Adams to come to my rescue at the concert’s end, by way of a work called “American Standard” – a deconstructionist approach to popular American music forms. This was the first movement of that work, a March, called “John Philip Sousa” but with none of the celebrated March King’s wonderful tunes and swaggering rhythms – instead, the composer instructs that the musicians employ “a plodding pulse, with no melody or harmony”, in fact the inverse of what Sousa would have intended. The program note quoted Adams as saying that the piece sounded “like the retreat from battle of a badly-wounded army”. So it was a kind of subversion of original intent (like all good parodies, of course), this one being particularly disconcerting in effect, due to its dour, non-celebratory aspect, and its brief displays of angst (the occasional groan/shriek).

As TS Eliot observed, “not with a bang, but with a whimper” came the concert to its end – extraordinary stuff, and definitely not for the faint-hearted in places! I thought the playing used a kind of “unvarnished” quality to an engagingly spontaneous effect. Also effectively managed were the technical aspects of the presentation – I thought the screening of the graphic scores was a marvellous thing to do, indicative of the ensemble’s willingness to put itself out there and communicate its stuff – food for thought for all of us!






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