Maximum Minimalism – simple, state-of-the-art complexities from Stroma


Bridget Douglas (flutes), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Reuben Chin (saxophone), Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion), Leonard Sakofsky (vibraphone), Emma Sayers (piano), Anna van der See , Rebecca Struthers (violins), Giles Francis (viola), Ken Ichinose(cello), Matthew Cave (contrabass), conducted by Mark Carter.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet (2007)

Alison Isadora: ALT (2017)

Julia Wolfe: Lick (1994)

Terry Riley: In C (1964)

City Gallery, Wellington,

Thursday, 19 October 2017

“Maximum Minimalism” was the wittily oxymoronic title for this concert by Wellington’s (New Zealand’s?) premiere contemporary music ensemble, Stroma. “Minimalism” was the name bestowed on a group of American composers who, in the 1960s, reacted against the forbidding complexity of atonal and serial music and began (largely independently of each other) employing the extended repetition of simple elements. Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley were the pioneers (La Monte Young is sometimes included, but this is confusing, because his work explores indefinitely sustained sounds, tuned to ratios from the harmonic series, rather than rhythmic repetitions).

Steve Reich preferred the term “process music”. His early compositions were as rigorous in their way as anything in the preceding period of modernism: tapes which went gradually out of phase (Come Out, 1966), or chirping chords progressively lengthened until they became an oceanic swell (Four Organs, 1970). Later, he started making composerly interventions into these strict procedures. In Double Sextet the forward driving momentum was interrupted by slower chordal sections, and the whole piece included a slow movement. The live instrumentalists (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano) played with precision against a recorded version of themselves (hence the “Double”), producing a dense, busy texture. This, and the interaction between Emma Sayers’ high piano and the piquancy of Leonard Sakofsky’s vibraphone, created an edgy, astringent world of sound.

If Double Sextet represented late minimalism, Terry Riley’s In C stood right at the beginning. His approach was very different from Reich’s. Here the complex counterpoint was the result, not of careful calculation, but of giving the performers freedom progress through a series of short melodic fragments, each at their own pace. I was impressed by how these classically trained musicians handled the improvisatory elements. While there was no particular overall shape, Stroma created the dynamic ebb and flow that could be expected from experienced improvisers. There were even segments of long notes where the tempo seemed to slow down, despite the persisting pulse of the high C’s on piano and percussion.

American cross-genre composer Julia Wolfe’s Lick began with short, arresting phrases before the syncopated rhythms kicked in. Reuben Chin’s saxophone and Nick Granville’s electric guitar contributed to the jazz-rock ambience. Again I felt the absence of a clear overall structure, but was engaged by the well-paced contrasts of texture and rhythm.

For me, the highlight of a Stroma concert is often the premiere of a New Zealand work, and this was no exception. Victoria University graduate Alison Isadora has spent much of her life in The Netherlands, but maintains her connections with New Zealand, and held the 2016-17 Lilburn House Residency. Many of her compositions have involved mixed media, often with a political undertone (“agitator-prop”, perhaps – one piece included an onstage washing machine). Her recent scores have been more introverted however, the string quartet ALT notably so. Ethereal and understated, ALT wove its texture almost exclusively from string harmonics, sometimes near the top of musical pitch-perception. But its quietly seductive surface was underpinned by a well-formed musical structure, propelled to a subtle climax by a gentle pulse in the cello, before resolving into a sustained sense of suspended time. It could almost have merited a place in Stroma’s next concert (“Spectral Electric”, City Gallery, Thursday 16 November), which will be a tribute to the Spectralist composers who base their sonorities on the harmonic series: this will feature a new concerto by Michael Norris for Wellington’s own, Mongolian trained, throatsinger, Jonny Marks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *