Stroma’s “Spectral Electric” concert at City Art Gallery


Jonny Marks (throatsinger), Ed Allen (horn), Bridget Douglas (flutes), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone), Leonard Sakofsky and Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Michelle Velvin (harp), Catherine Norton (piano), Anna van der See and Alan Molina (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose and Robert Ibell (cello), Matthew Cave (contrabass): conductor Mark Carter

Luigi Ceccarelli: Respiri (1999)
Kaija Saariaho: Ciel Etiole (1999)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Fauno che fischia a un Merlo (1980)
Kaija Saariaho: Cendres (1998)
Annea Lockwood: Immersion (2001)
Michael Norris: Sygyt (2017)

City Art Gallery, Wellington, 16 November 2017

Large and flexible contemporary music ensemble Stroma subdivided into smaller units for most of their “Spectral Electric” concert. Founder member Ed Allen, using a mechanically and electrically modified horn, got to demonstrate aspects of virtuosity not typically heard in his work with the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington. In Luigi Ceccarelli’s Respiri, there were raindrop staccatos, deep pedal notes and plaintive keening. Horn calls were echoed and blended, acoustic sounds extended and processed in a manner similar to “granular synthesis”. Moment to moment the performance was very well paced, but in the end I did not feel that the moments – intriguing as they were – coalesced to form a coherent piece.

No such problem with fellow Italian Salvatore Sciarrino’s Fauno che fischia a un Merlo. Bridget Douglas’ flute and Michelle Velvin’s harp created a consistent sound world of high register trills and tremolos, like a dialogue between two birds, punctuated by occasional glissandos and palm-slaps on the harp.

New Zealand born, U. S. resident composer Annea Lockwood is known for her installations featuring recordings of natural sounds (as in Sound Map of the Hudson River), and for activities involving the burning, burying or drowning of pianos. A title like Immersion, then, had to be a bit of a worry. As it turned out, duo percussionists Leonard Sakofsky and Thomas Guldborg showed it to be a well made, almost conventionally structured piece, exploiting two different kinds of sustain: bowed or rubbed metal (bowl, cymbals and tam-tam), and rapid marimba tremolandos. It built up to a powerful climax on mysterious deep marimba and roaring tam-tam, before returning to its rarefied beginning.

Finland’s Kaija Saariaho also utilised the delicate effects of bowed metal (cymbals, crotales). In her Ciel Etoile (“Starry Sky”), percussionists Sakofsky and Guldborg were joined by contrabassist Matthew Cave, who provided dark low notes and high harmonics. Pizzicatos marked a more rhythmic section, before the piece evaporated into the stillness with which it began.

Saariaho’s Cendres was more varied and driven. Subtle effects, such as Catherine Norton’s inside-piano, the fusing a piano tremolo with Ken Ichinose’s cello harmonics and with Bridget Douglas’ flute, were contrasted with more conventional instrumental flourishes. These made beautiful intrusions, but also diluted the work’ stylistic integrity a little.

Saariaho was somewhat on the edge of the Spectralist movement, which began in 1970s France. Ironically then, the most spectral work in the concert was composed in 2017 Wellington. The full Stroma ensemble under conductor Mark Carter joined the remarkable throatsinger Jonny Marks for Sygyt by Michael Norris. Wellingtonian Marks studied in China/Mongolia, and performs with the All Seeing Hand, and at the Pyramid Club.

As a score with wordless voice, Sygyt joins a select list of vocalises that includes concertos by Gliere, New Zealand’s Lyell Cresswell, and English quarter-tone pioneer John Foulds (Lyra Celtica), and the small-group Preludio a Colon by Mexican microtonalist Julian Carrillo. These all used the female voice. Sygyt requires Marks to traverse his commanding range, from the gravelly, visceral, sub-bass kargyraa style, to the exquisitely ethereal harmonics (all the way up to the fourteenth) of the eponymous sygyt. Norris (and Marks) seamlessly integrated these ethnically Mongolian and Tuvan ways of singing into the language of Western music – or perhaps what Western music might have been like if it had followed the trajectory implied by Renaissance just intonation and meantone, instead of reverting to the modified form of mediaeval Pythagorean tuning that is Equal Temperament. Rich, resonant chords are built from the harmonic series (a preoccupation of the Spectralists), and the series itself is employed as a melody on instruments and on the voice. In the last section melodic lines are created from selected disjunct notes of the series.

Marks used a microphone to achieve balance with the ensemble. But he didn’t need it to produce the sounds, as he demonstrated dramatically at the end, leaving the room to sing in the echoing, reverberant spaces of the City Gallery.

Stroma will be performing in the New Zealand Festival (Mechanical Ballet, 16 and 17 March 2018), and taking part in the 2018 Chamber Music New Zealand series with The Rest Is Noise author Alex Ross (Wellington, 26 May).

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