Stroma – Iconic Sonics at the City Gallery, Wellington…..revisiting the new, along with the new

Stroma presents:
ICONIC SONICS – Music by Reuben Jellyman, Iannis Xenakis, Kaija Saariaho,
Witold Lutoslawski and Gyorgy Ligeti

SAARIAHO – New Gates (1996)
LIGETI – Ramifications (1968-9)
JELLEYMAN – Designs (2018 – world premiere)
XENAKIS – Aroura (1971)
LUTOSLAWSKI – Chain 1 (1983)

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich

City Gallery, Civic Square, Wellington

Wednesday 29th August 2018

Eighteen years into the 21st Century a lot of music-lovers are still coming to grips with the innovators and radical figures of twentieth-century music.

It’s a process which was in some ways mirrored a century ago by the fin de siècle attitude of many people to the works of Berlioz, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Bruckner and Mahler, all of whom had to wait for a “later time”, at which stage their creative achievements were able to be given a fairer, more contextual hearing. Each of these composers achieved some degree of early success based on less challenging, more populist aspects of their output at the time, but all as well produced significant music that underwent neglect and/or earned them hostility, some of which “fallout” continues in certain cases to this day.

Each one of the offshore composers represented in this concert emulates those 19th century figures in their music of a century later, wanting to change the existing order of rules and conventions in order to discover hitherto unexplored worlds and renew human creativity. Though there continues to be something of a “divide” between traditionalists and supporters of the new, it’s by no means as pronounced or indeed as “character-assassination-like” in intent as of yore – and in fact there’s plenty more coming-and-going between the two “sides” than there used to be in the good/bad old days!

It’s possible that the music of Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006)  is the most widely-disseminated of that of the group, having, of course, been given a “head-start” by Stanley Kubrick in his iconic film 2001 – a Space Odyssey (albeit without the composer’s consent at first).  Ligeti’s music evokes the cosmos like no other, with no sounds conceivably more unearthly or far-flung than his Atmospheres, enthralling a whole generation of film-goers with his micro-polyphonic clusters piled up and intertwined like a great city’s communication-centre’s wires and cables. But he was never content to repeat himself, and though he was continually fascinated by polyphonies he strove to formulate new ways of arranging, or even “de-arranging” (deranging?) them. His Ramifications, for twelve solo strings, which we heard tonight, and which date from the end of the decade of Atmospheres, already show the composer employing “destabilising” techniques – diversifying the polyphonies by having half the ensemble tune higher than the other half, thereby heightening his writing’s tensions with built-in-dissonances.

The piece opened with “nature-sounds”, gently undulating textures pursuing separate patternings, like distant individual conversations, whose resonances seemed to gradually fuse as if organically linked, a kind of naturally-wrought beauty burgeoning towards the stratospheres and growing in intensity. The sounds clustered around and fused with a single note, before others magically “turned on” as if they were glow-worms in a dark cave. Lower instruments began their own patterned journeyings but with more volatile results, irruptions, re-stratifications, everything pursuing its own rhythmic and pitch courses – what frenzy! – what abandonment! – what devastations, as everything played itself out and tumbled down to the depths in a kind of private Gotterdammerung.

But with that, was the work finished? No, Ligeti’s fine wisps of skeletal light then quietly reactivated the “survivors” across a spectrum that reached down to things that went “bump” in the night, all of whom enigmatically withdrew, whispering ethereal blandishments into the composer’s eternities.

At this point I ought to confess that I’ve jumped ahead, as, for housekeeping reasons, the first piece Stroma presented was not Ligeti’s but one written by Kaija Saariaho (b.1952).  This work, titled New Gates was written in 1996, and was derived from a ballet called Maa, from five years earlier. The concert’s excellently-notated printed programme informed us that this ballet is constructed not around a plot as such but built out of “thematic archetypes” representing passing through into something new – gates, doors, journeyings, new worlds. Saariaho’s  sound-world here was accordingly made up of lucid, minimal gestures and figures, allowing we listeners time and space in which to connect with both finely-wrought timbral detail and larger, further-reaching ambiences and movements.

Written for just three instruments, flute, harp and viola, the music sounded a single note out of the silence of its beginning, whose pitch was bent upwards in a way that suggested a striving of impulse towards the heavens.  Throughout the music’s course the flute and violin breathed, bent and stretched their lines as the harp “texturised” the spaces and/or circumlocuted the portals of passage, often “bardic-sounding” as if accompanying a sequence of storytelling, or “fleshing out” an ongoing pulse. Those “fine timbral details” mentioned in the programme note were very much in evidence throughout, the timeless process of progressive change taking on varying forms, the most prevalent being a series of on-going exhalations which for a while gathered up energy and focus and threatened to burgeon without actually doing so, the light and movement of the impulses turning increasingly inward and gradually becoming infinitesimal.

Amid these and other compositional “heavies” stood steadfastedly the music of Reuben Jelleyman, here a world premiere of a work called Designs, written for the Stroma ensemble earlier this year. I thought the programme note, written by the composer, nicely “of a piece” with his music (which, of course, should go without saying, but at times doesn’t always seem to), having a freshness and candour regarding his youthful impressions. The music’s quiet opening belied the soundings of energies that followed from the eight instrumentalists, extremely visceral bendings, burgeonings, swayings, slidings, creakings and slippings, all very kinetic, and uncannily fluid and jagged all at once. The work unhesitatingly reacted with itself along its course, blending repetition with its composer’s reinvention of remembered things, the more extreme sonorities (an agonised screeching whose origin I couldn’t identify through sitting too far back, for example) becoming more integrated dynamically and rhythmically, as if the process of recollection had “shaken them down”. Things reached the point of tonelessness with thrummed strings, and breathed-through winds and brasses resembling ambient sighings as the ghosts drifted back to their places of origin, the harp uncannily playing what sounded like a brief reminiscence of Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” from the midst of the sonic debris, the remaining fragments becoming as things forgotten but still forever imprinted. I enjoyed this work due to its accessibility and its thoughtful exploration of the relationship between memory and recreation.

Having always previously trod cautiously around and about the music of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), I was interested to encounter an autobiography of sorts on an internet post (words which will probably already be familiar to the composer’s fans, of course), in which he talks about the uniqueness of individual human response to music, and specifically to his own creations: – “….Whatever I place there, consciously and probably also unconsciously, is perceived by the listener in a way that is perhaps not completely different, but sufficiently different in any case that you can never immediately draw conclusions about the meaning or value of a piece of music.” Along with Stroma’s programme note for Xenakis’s piece Aroura (1971) which was also written by the composer, the two statements in their different ways emboldened me to throw caution to the winds and “think inside” the sounds that I heard throughout the piece.

Xenakis’s opening observation regarding the title being the Homeric word for “earth” itself spoke volumes, as did the “word-made-flesh” textures of the piece’s sounds, a “virtual recreation” of the earth itself as we perceive it. My notes recorded as many of the multifarious realisations by the instruments as I could (my shortcomings in this exercise obviously akin to one’s limited conscious perceptions of the world – as with life, one does what one can with music!). So this piece marked, for me, an encounter with sounds which I could not only equate at least to some degree with their composer’s avowed intentions, but also allow myself my own impressions of, with hitherto unrealised confidence.

Too many to dwell upon all in detail, here, I’ve retained, firstly, a memory of a particularly haunting sequence of glissandi that opened up most disconcertingly what seemed an ever-widening chasm between lower and upper strings, exposing mysterious and suddenly vulnerable spaces between extremes in which it seemed we lived most of our lives. Then, at the piece’s conclusion, I registered a quiet, sardonic gesture of finality which silenced the “danse macabre” bouncing of bows upon strings (difficult to distinguish between hair and wood from a distance) with a single instrument’s whisperings.

Lastly came the work of Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) whose music I was introduced to in the 1970s via the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra. This was a work entitled Chain I, written in 1983, and one of a trio of works similarly-titled, though  otherwise unconnected. As with Xenakis’s work, the composer’s comments regarding the music were reproduced in what I thought was a model of its kind for a concert’s printed programme.

Lutoslawski was quoted as saying that he thought the act of composing was a search for listeners who thought and felt the same way he did—he once called it “fishing for souls”.  He wrote his work Chain I in something of that spirit, as a “gift” for the musicians of the London Sinfonietta, whom he had enjoyed working with – he called the work a “souvenir of……common music-making”.

The form of Chains I divided the music into two strands, with sections along the strand overlapped or “staggered” in terms of their beginnings and ends, and forming the greater part of the piece, with things increasing in complexity towards the end and allowing for individual figurations played “ad libitum” forming what Lutoslawski described as a “network of melodies”.

In effect, the sounds were impactful from the word go, with opening bursts of colour and energy reinforced by reverberant brass, then contrasted with cheeky winds flecked by harpsichord and percussion sonorities. The music developed into a dream-like dance, various instruments crossing the spaces as if entranced, the ambiences ghostly or crepuscular, depending on the listener’s predilections. A series of instrumental games featured several solos dovetailed as to produce ever-changing textures containing ravishing moments, whose freely-concerted strands of lyrical expression burgeoned in intensity and energy. Things took on an increasingly martial air until the gong and cymbals sounded us all up with a round turn, the winds flurrying like frightened birds! Having briefly tasted freedom, the ensemble was then reined in, the textures dissolving hue-by-hue and strand-by-strand into the silences.

Mention must be made of the concert’s surroundings, the City Gallery’s walls featuring parts of an exhibition entitled “Iconography of Revolt”, and visually expressing something of the determined individuality and uncompromising impact of new art found in abundance throughout Stroma’s skilled and whole-hearted musical presentations.






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