Aural (and visual) feast from Stroma at the Wellington City Gallery

Stroma, Wellington’s contemporary music ensemble, presents

Music by Alison Isadora, Michael Norris, Jeroen Speak and Jack Body

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington City Gallery,
Civic Square, Wellington

Sunday 30th August, 2015

Contemporary music ensemble Stroma performed at the Wellington City Gallery, in a space flanked on three sides by images created by photographer Fiona Pardington, whose exhibition “A Beautiful Hesitation”, brought an additional resonant and interactive context to the “sounded out” work of the composers. As the images suspended objects in time for us to register our thoughts and feelings about them, so too did the music seek to impinge its sound-impulses upon our sensibilities and memories – each a process of entrapment, display, re-evaluation and judgement, fascinatingly juxtaposed.

Stroma’s artistic director Michael Norris might well have been making reference to the visual exhibition as much as to his own work in the concert, when he wrote in his programme note regarding music and human memory,  and how it depends on “both the long-and short-term storage and recall of “aural echoes” of past events which might have occurred in the recent ….or distant past….”.  It’s a view of the process that accords with Fiona Pardington’s idea of photography’s power “to suspend time and interrogate our memories”.

On the programme was a world premiere – Jeroen Speak’s Eratosthene’s Sieve, written last year (2014) while the composer was the Creative New Zealand/Jack C.Richards Composer-in-Residence at Te Koko New ZEaland School of Music – and two other relatively recent works, Alison Isadora’s 2014 Point of Departure, and Michael Norris’s 2012 Time Dance. The fourth work was written by Jack Body, his 1987 piece called Interiors, which, as can be seen, gave its name to the concert.

Alison Isadora’s Point of Departure eponymously deserved its poll position in the concert, the music creating an “exotic” feeling of scene-setting for the listener’s delight and pleasure, with a string quartet’s distinctive timbres augmented by gong strokes and muffled drum-beats. The composer included lines from a work “Falling” by a Dutch Poet, Remco Campert, which I found singularly evocative:

In memory’s long fall
I seek the essential moment.
Above becomes beneath
and the earth comes swinging up.

She also pinpointed in her notes the “ferris wheel” idea, which, in the music is expressed as a feeling of ascending and then falling back, with throbbing pulsations underlining the sustained tones. So we got the occasional frisson of impulsive energy amid sostenuto likes, quite Debussy-like in effect, hence the slightly Oriental atmospheres generated, and an accompanying philosophic feeling that things are constantly in a kind of change, but return to their origins and begin, perhaps differently, all over again.

Amid the layerings and the explorations of these worlds in between, Alison Isadora’s disclosure of the circumstance of a colleague’s accidental death and how it coloured the piece’s second half added a whole new strata of response to the sounds for us, and deepening the ritualistic sense of it all – the percussive effects (snare-like drum beats and wood-block sounds were stinging, disruptive phrase-end punctuations which played their part in what the composer called the process of moving from anger to acceptance.

Michael Norris’s Time Dance, which followed evoked a markedly different kind of response from me, intrigued as I was by the prospect of the composer’s “deconstruction” of one of my favorite pieces of Baroque music, JS Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite (the one featuring the solo flute). The transformation was indeed a radical one – we were duly warned in the programme note as to the “subliminal” nature of our experience of the original piece’s essence!

This was a condensed concert version for piano quartet, presumably taken from Norris’s score for a 40-minute film “Time Dance”, a collaboration between the composer, choreographer/filmmaker Daniel Belton, and Good Company Arts. So we had four movements from the Suite, beginning with the Sarabande, followed by the Polonaise, Menuet and finally the Bandinerie. The Sarabande featured delicate piano figurations at the beginning, which strings turned into obstinate, enlivening the textures with pizzicati, the music resembling a mechanical device performing idiosyncratically, in places reverting to a “teashop” manner, with gestures resembling quasi-Viennese swooning.

Sustained arpeggiated notes from the piano began the Polonaise, the strings eagerly overlapping their figurations, the piano beautifully colouring each phrase’s flourish – the music’s phrases looped around, strung along, echoed and drew out, going into the stratospheric regions, giving us a sense of something suspended for all time. A contrasting response to this was provided by the Menuetto, the music busy, burrowing and motoric in the bass beneath sustained upper harmonies, the piano kaleidoscopically changing its chord-colours, and the phrases ending with upward-thrusting exclamations. The ‘cello kept the main rhythm going, but even its strength waned at the end as the music drooped and lay still.

The solo violin roused everybody in time for the Bandinerie with a cadenza-like sequence, everybody else joining in the ambient fun, the piano’s phrases and the strings’ tremolandi passages giving us a “lift” with their emphatic phrase-endings, and leading our sensibilities into and out of the thickets with their wonderfully unpredictable harmonic changes, everybody playing at their instruments’ extremities – as unpredictably, the music broke off into “other realms”, with harmonics and tremolandi from the strings, and curtain-opening-and-closing arpeggios from the piano. Bach may have been there subliminally, but I was too caught up in the here-and-now of it all to notice him!

Jereon Speak’s work Eratosthene’s Sieve was the evening’s world premiere, performed by an assorted ensemble of strings, flute, harp, accordion and percussion. The composer’s starting-point was the Greek philosopher Eratosthene’s “Sieve”, a device by which any prime number could be easily recognized, the music representing an attempt by its composer to similarly “sieve” his musical creations and constructions, and in the process discovering hitherto uncovered presences within this existing material.

Such a splendid array of instruments! – and how tellingly it all began, with breath (no tones) given by the accordion as a “gift of life” to the rest of the ensemble, whose initial pointillistic touches gradually became more animated with each succeeding wave of sound, the marimba, harp and vibraphone resonating magically. The music seemed to me to resemble an organic process at work (and, of course, maths, like music, is digitally, or step-wise organic), the coalescings seeking cues from their shared ambiences, and thus generating a definite sense of mutual expressiveness which informed each gesture.

Some Archimedian excitement then irrupted between ‘cello and percussion, stimulating what seemed like random, isolated responses from other instruments at first, all generating great excitement. The flute seemed to have a role of peacemaker towards the end of this sequence, as the energies dissipated, and a kind of “melting-down” of tones and their timbres, a “draining away” of energies, with the harp’s sustaining notes lengthening the shadows. Only the occasional flute scampering remained towards the end as a final act of impulse, the accordion’s breath evoking a dried leaf blowing across desolate desert sands at the piece’s end.

I was interested in the significance of the title Interiors given by Jack Body to his piece – he made many transcriptions of pieces of music from exotic places such as different regions of China, wanting in particular to capture some of the music from ethnic minority groups. These were undertakings that involved the making of “in situ” field recordings, and devising various instrumental “backdrops” to these recordings, to enhance the listener’s appreciation of the original music’s “interior”.  The work we heard tonight involved three separate recordings of ethnic performances, two instrumental and one vocal. The largest instrumental group of the evening was on hand to contribute various augmentations of these sounds.

First was that of a long-ge, a Sichuan version of a Jew’s harp, the recorded instrument’s easy, loping rhythm reinforced by clarinet and flute and joined by violin and ‘cello, with the piano adding its own excitement to the mix. Then, in contrast with the dance rhythms, the pianist “activated” the piano’s interior, the percussionist “bowed” the vibraphone and various scintillations held time and its passing in abeyance, leaving long exhalations of melody to drift lazily away. A lovely contrast to this was afforded by a recording of three women from Guizhou singing a forthright melody, the instrumentalists supporting and colouring their singing lines with lovely, long-held notes, and continuing to play over the spoken exchanges between the singers recorded on the tape in between verses.

Something of this “anecdotal” re-enactment technique also coloured the final recording, that of an ensemble, no less, of lusheng, the instrument a six-pipe bamboo mouth-organ common in the south of China, and throughout South-East Asian in various forms. A plastic westernized version of one of these was used by one of the ensemble, as the other instrumentalists supplied various counterpoints to the mouth-organ ensemble, and occasional hand-clapping, adding to the festive character of the piece – and we in the audience enjoyed (and joined in with) a delicious and spontaneous-sounding bout of giggling on the tape after the music finished! What a concert!

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