NZTrio’s fascinating collaboration with three young composers in a range of their and other contemporary works

Chamber Music New Zealand in New Zealand Music Month
collaboration with SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music) and NZTrio

Conlon Nancarrow: Sonatina (piano)
Ravel: Pièce en forme de habanera (cello and piano)
Webern: Four Pieces, Op 7 (violin and piano)
Alex Taylor: burlesques mécaniques (piano trio)
Ligeti: Cello Sonata
Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello (movements 1 and 2)
Claire Cowan: ultra violet (piano trio)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Capriccio No 2 (violin)
Ligeti: Cordes à vide (piano)
Webern: Three Little Pieces, Op 11 (violin and piano)
Karlo Margetić: Lightbox (piano trio)

NZTrio (Sarah Watkins – piano, Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 9 May, 4 pm

As a contribution to New Zealand Music Month, Chamber Music New Zealand, together with SOUNZ, developed a concert programme for NZTrio that would give the job of selecting the works to three young composers. So each selected three or four pieces, including one of their own, and at the start of each bracket, one of the members of the NZTrio read a short apologia by the composer, sketching his or her philosophy of composition.

At the end of this review you will find an appendix containing the words from the three composers who have curated this concert.

Alex Taylor’s choice
Alex Taylor introduced his choice, referring to his belief that music should challenge, disturb and cause discomfort rather than simply enjoyment; certainly an objective that seems common enough among composers of the modern era. (are you too an old fogie puzzled by the use of the word ‘groove’ which Taylor used, that one has heard in a pop music context, unenlightened?) Nancarrow was famous as a composer who came to feel that it was an advantage to remove an ‘interpreter’ from process of bringing his music to listeners, composing on to piano rolls for the player piano, and it is those that I am familiar with. But I had not come across this Sonatina, an early work, said to be the last he wrote for performance on an ordinary piano, prepared later for the player piano. It exhibited the characteristic sounds of his later pure player piano compositions. His very recognisable style suggests to me a dehumanised, dissonant Scarlatti, Ives-indebted, jazz-inflected, sometimes amusing. However, none of its technical challenges bothered Sarah Watkins.

The only mainstream composer represented in the concert was Ravel – twice (pace Webern, only eight years younger, but separated spiritually from him by a half century). The decisions on the programme were of course a collaboration between the three composers, as is noted in the appendix. Ravel’s Pièce en forme de habanera, originally entitled Vocalise-étude en forme…, was here played by cello and piano (in April I heard a visiting flutist play it) where Ashley Brown took care with its lyrical characteristics as well its bravura flights. In the light of Taylor’s manifesto, was it a surprise to find this charming, perhaps ironic piece among his choices?

Webern’s two pieces together, were probably of shorter duration than most of the other single pieces. One can listen to (though not come to grips with) his entire oeuvrein a few hours, and these, for violin and piano, were typical of his highly economical, compressed utterances, violin and piano often inhabiting separate domains though in whole-hearted accord and commitment.

The contributor of the first bracket, Alex Taylor, offered his burlesques mécaniques, the longest of the four pieces, involving the whole Trio for the first time. It comprised ten pretty short pieces that the composer described in his notes as ‘ a rather extroverted collection of grotesque miniatures … dances … mechanised, electrified…’. They were identified by names that were sometimes pertinent, sometimes difficult to recognise, titles that were not all that common in ordinary musical literature, like ‘a spanner’, ‘tumbledry’, ‘anglegrinder’, ‘scaffold’, but the main title had warned us. The writing for the instruments was hectic, though there were ‘stuck’ moments, a series of spaced piano chords; the character of the three instruments became important elements in the portrayal of each piece.

Claire Cowan’s bracket
Ligeti’s Cello Sonata was Claire Cowan’s first piece, which I’d heard only once before, in Wellington: it’s a fairly accessible, tonal work, drawing fleetingly on folk music, written before his escape from Hungary in 1956 to find refuge(?) with the Darmstadt/Stockhausen school. For many, like me, music written by composers who had comparable experiences, sometimes induces the feeling that some of the constraints of Soviet hegemony were not all bad, obliging young composers to master their craft based on the old masters and on popular music, as all composers had in previous eras. In any case, this was a fine, energetic, indeed virtuosic performance by Brown and Watkins.

The second Ravel work was the first two movements of the less familiar Sonata for Violin and Cello, written in the early 1920s, coloured to some extent by the prevailing return to aspects of the classical style.  Ravel’s music is almost always welcoming, full of delights and intelligent pleasures.

Claire Cowan’s own piece, commissioned by CMNZ, ultra violet (our young composers seem to have an e e cummings proclivity; is it a sort of mock humble demeanour?), written for the full Trio, plays with the phenomenon of ultra-violet light, beyond the normal range of light frequencies visible to humans, but ‘seeable’ by various creatures including the ‘most lusciously hued crustacean in the world’, the mantis shrimp. She extends this to the realm of sound, ‘navigating a musical landscape … on a journey to create and discover colours beyond the edges of our visible spectrum’. And so, the music made use of harmonics, very high, very quiet, but comforting, with strains of beauty, hinting at the sounds of contemporary minimalists of the Baltic rather than American kind.

Karlo Margetić’s contribution
Sicily-born Salvatore Sciarrino’s Capriccio No 2 for solo violin, dedicated to Salvatore Accardo, was Karlo Margetić’s first choice. It began with harmonics, very high, very fast, very detailed, hinting at the natural world with magical bird-like sounds: a startling performance by Justine Cormack.

Margetić’s second offering was Ligeti’s Cordes à vide, the second study from his first book of piano Études dating from his post-communist period, bringing the concert full-circle, back to Nancarrow’s influence. Though for piano, the title means ‘Open strings’. Ostensibly inspired by Nancarrow’s polyrhythms and African music, those features were so integrated in the music that its impact was as a piece that pursued its own inevitable evolution in an interesting organic manner.

The second Webern of the afternoon was his Three Little Pieces for cello and piano, Op 11. Characteristically, a lot of silence between cautious, economical though evocative notes offered by the two instruments, cello muted. Though the second piece, ‘Sehrbewegt’, began at least, exhibiting a sort of normal, agitated energy for 20 seconds or so before retreating to the composer’s customary notational frugality. In spite of this admirably sympathetic performance.

My life with Webern began when I saw, 60 years ago on the back corridor notice-board of what is now called the Hunter building (housing both the entire arts and law faculties) of Victoria University College (let me be accurate), what I took to be a misspelling of Carl Maria von…’s name in a notice about a Thursday lunchtime concert in the Music Department. In the intervening decades, his constricted emotional palette and what I feel as pretentiously minute expressiveness has never much touched me.

Finally Margetić’s own music, Lightbox, a word of which I have had to ask the meaning. I liked it, from the violin and cello opening, soon joined by the piano: a busy, varied story with touches of familiar, idiomatic harmonies and evolutionary processes; they helped to keep grounded a listener who needs one foot on firm familiar ground allowing the other to shuffle confusedly through an unmapped landscape. The composer’s remarks about the ill-assorted nature of the instruments of a piano trio were illustrated in occasional surprising outbursts by the piano, separating it from the generally happy duetting of violin and cello. The result was indeed, in the composer’s own words, ‘an unexpected and strangely beautiful assemblage’.

Jack Body
Next day, Jack Body died; he was an unparalleled inspiration to composers, musicians, music lovers and the arts world in general throughout New Zealand and in many exotic places. No student composer not only in Wellington, but also throughout New Zealand can have been untouched by his manifold talents, his example, openness, humanity and generosity. Though I was never close to him, whenever we met, I felt that his very own sympathetic nature, his warmth, induced feelings in me of greater generosity and tolerance, certainly of affection towards him. I never detected the slightest antipathy that might have existed for one who had sometimes expressed misgivings about aspects of the direction and character of contemporary music.



An overview describing the concepts adopted by the three composers, from Alex, Karlo and Claire:
“While this programme may look eclectic and forbidding on paper, in practice it draws together a range of threads that connect the three New Zealand composers. We have built an overall framework rich with contemporary resonances, within which each New Zealand work has its own mini-programme and narrative arc. We have tried to pack the concert full of energy and stimulation for any audience.
“We have decided against choosing standard repertoire piano trio works, most of which have only a tangential relevance to New Zealand composition in the twenty-first century. Instead we have broken up the trio into solos and duos, building up the ensemble for each third of the programme.. This approach provides textural relief between the ensemble pieces and helps to build continuity through each section of the programme.  The shorter accompanying pieces create dialogue and draw focus towards the longer (New Zealand) works.
“All of the composers we have chosen are highly individual but linked by a strong concern with colour and texture. Within this there are two general stylistic themes: continuations of the modernist tradition (Webern, Nancarrow, Ligeti, Sciarrino, Taylor, Margetić); and concern with older forms, especially dance forms and folk music (Ravel, Nancarrow, Ligeti, Taylor, Cowan). Two pieces in particular accommodate both of these ideas – Nancarrow’s Sonatina, with its echoes of hyperkinetic Jazz idioms (Art Tatum?) and foreshadowing of Ligeti’s etudes, and Ligeti’s Cello Sonata, taking traditional folk melodies as a springboard for discursive play.”  


Here are the texts of the short introductions from each of the three composers read by members of the trio before they played the works each had chosen:

Alex Taylor says::
Artistic expression in today’s world is not simply about beauty and emotion. It is not an easy way to pass the time. It’s about the discursive and the disturbing, the ephemeral and the offensive. I go to a concert to be jolted out of my everyday perspective. That’s what we’ve attempted to do in creating this programme. To give you a jolt. But also to give you a platform for exploration. To find your own way through. To get you started, here are a few threads to pull on.
First, modern vs. postmodern: there’s an interesting dialogue here between the desire to create something new and the desire to repurpose something old. Composing is a dialogue with tradition, but also a dialogue that leads outside of that tradition. Engage with the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Second, groove vs. gesture: some of these pieces rely on a groove to drive them forward. Some deliberately resist grooving, treating music as a collection of finely sculpted objects rather than a continuous rolling landscape. Some take the idea of groove or gesture and altogether confound it.
Third, straight vs. camp: although there’s some profound, deep music here, it’s also an opportunity for play, superficiality, artifice and irony. Perhaps not everything is what it appears to be.
So rather than asking you to sit back and relax, I’d encourage you all to lean forward and draw your own connections through this very special programme.  

Claire Cowan says:
I chose Ravel and Ligeti to stand shoulder to shoulder with my new work to represent my continued inspiration and fascination with colour. Ravel, the masterful French colourist; and Ligeti, whose solo cello work showcases the cello’s versatility beautifully (and I suppose I am biased, being a cellist myself). It reminds me of the Bach solo cello suites in its clarity of gesture and emphasis on melodic lines. It just goes to show – composers can have fun adopting other composer’s sensibilities; challenging expectations while at the same time also being true to themselves. Ultimately I think we write what we need to write, for composition is both my craft, my survival and my therapy!

Karlo Margetić says::
In some ways, the works that precede my piece form an exposition of its basic building blocks. All are transparent in texture, and simultaneously manage to be elegant and completely unrelenting in their approach. I’m quite drawn to music that has this continuous, unrelenting quality, from the cycles of fifths that form the bulk of Ligeti’s Etude, to the minutely varied repetitions in Sciarrino’s Caprice that make it feel as if time has been suspended. Writing Lightbox was like getting lost inside a maze designed by M.C. Escher, complete with impossibilities, improbabilities and optical illusions. I hope you will all enjoy being lost in it too.


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