Beautiful, visceral, hypnotic, disconcerting – Stroma’s “essential experimental” at Wellington’s Pyramid Club

Stroma presents:
An intimate evening of song, water, glass, harmonics, beat frequencies and vases

Music by John Cage, Peter Ablinger, Antonia Barnett-McIntosh,
Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, Chiyoko Szlavnics

Stroma: Michael Norris (sponges), Barbara Paterson (soprano, voice), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Antonia Barnett-McIntosh (voice) Rebecca Struthers, Kristina Zelinska (violins)
Reuben Jelleyman (accordion), Emma Barron (viola), Matthew Cave (double-bass)

Venue: The Pyramid Club, Taranaki St., Wellington

Thursday 29th November 2018

The venue really brought it all alive, in a way that I thought a more conventional concert-chamber-like place wouldn’t have done. In the most positive way we in the audience seemed to be “put at ease” by the “late-night club” surroundings at Taranaki Street’s Pyramid Club, and, rather than attending a concert, were instead made to feel we were “eavesdropping” on the ongoing creative processes constituting and shaping each item. It was a feast of visceral interaction between performers, media and audience; and even if the results at times gave rise to as much bemusement as illumination (speaking for myself, here!) I felt these moments pulled our apertures further apart and teased our sensibilities with even more of the workings and their trajectories.

This was the first of two performances scheduled that evening, and the venue was packed in the most encouraging and atmospheric way possible. Stroma’s presentations, under the leadership of Michael Norris have constantly sought to stimulate, engage and challenge audiences, and have steadily earned the group a loyal following based on its remarkable set of capacities for renewal in the form of fresh explorations and bold, and compelling performance practices. This evening’s programme, entitled “Essential Experimental”, was no exception, the items generating sounds from sources and practices in some cases far removed from conventional means, even when a number of familiar instruments were involved in the process.

Michael Norris called the outcomes of these presentations “unusual but beautiful sound-worlds”, and the first of these, featuring a 2002 work by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger called Weiss Weisslich 31e, certainly made good that description by way of a most intriguing and diverting set of procedures. Norris himself was cast in the role of “performer”, with the title given in the programme of “kitchen-sponge hanger-upperer”, his function being to fix a number of wetted sponges to places along a line strung over a number of amplified glass tubes laid on the ground, allowing the drips of water from each sponge to land on corresponding individual tubes. Because the “operator” can only hang or remove one sponge at a time, the acceleration and deceleration of “drip incidence” from each sponge takes place at a different time from each of its seven fellows, making for complicated “canonic” results involving different tones from the amplified tubes. Norris further varied the interplay of the drips and their sounds by rehanging the freshly-wetted sponges in a different order a second time round! Magical!

At times the very slow drips found themselves “paired” with rapid ones – and with the different amplifications directed through speakers placed in different parts of the room, both the different speeds, pitches and physical placements of the speakers made for some atmospheric antiphonal effects. Interestingly I found that in sequences where many different drips were sounding, I often noticed specific ones ONLY when they stopped or the sponge was removed, indicating that it was as much my subconscious as my conscious hearing that was “registering” the drips. The composer himself wrote that his material here “was not sound but audibility” and that he could “set audibility then inaudibility”, further explaining that “inaudibility can arise through…too little occurring, but also through too much occurring…” The drips created pulse, melody, counterpoint and texture at various times, ranging from altogether what one commentator somewhere called “a turbulent polyrhythmic forest”.

From these abstractions we were taken to John Cage’s 1958 composition Aria, originally dedicated to one of the most renowned performers of contemporary vocal music, soprano Cathy Berberian, and here performed with remarkable assurance by Barbara Paterson, her voice dealing most adroitly with the work’s many changes of mode, style, timbre and character – at certain points I was in fact reminded of composer/pianist Donald Swann’s virtuoso rendering of his similarly exploratory song “Korkoraki” (part of the well-known Flanders and Swann “At The Drop of a Hat” presentation). Here were far more divergencies from the conventional “art-song”, including words from different languages and rapid fluctuations between different styles of delivery – the emotional effect of Paterson’s cornucopian rendering was not unlike witnessing a performer attempting to piece together some kind of coherent message while in the process of either suffering from a kind of schizophrenia, reliving a series of traumatic experiences, or giving us the full gamut of what any singer’s physical and vocal equipment is put through in performance, most of which the performer has ordinarily been taught to suppress! – an incredible display!

Continuing to ring the changes, the concert next featured a work by Alvin Lucier, featuring the ‘cello-playing of Ken Ichinose, performing in tandem alongside a number of empty, differently-sized vases, all amplified – somewhat literally, the work was called Music for ‘Cello with One of More Amplified Vases.  The cellist was required to begin with his lowest note and slowly play an upward glissando, right up to halfway along his top string. At certain points along this journey, the resonances created by the notes reverberated within the empty jars and created an additional “presence” surrounding the tones already being sounded by the player. To my surprise I thought I distinctly heard the nostalgic “drone” of the engines of a distant DC3 taking off from Milson Airport in Palmerston North, a regular occurrence for me when a small child. Sometimes the vases seemed to be “duetting” or “quartetting” with the soloist, while at other times the effect was that of a companion ghost or guardian angel. Perhaps the work ought to be retitled “Unlocked…” or “Liberated” Voices………..

I must confess to the readership that I found the next piece, by Antonia Barnett-McIntosh, the current composer-in-residence at the Lilburn House in Thorndon, a REAL challenge! This was a work given the title yesterday blocks, and one to which the term “composed” seemed to me, for some reason, an inadequate description of the process! In Barnett-McIntosh’s own words, her work is described as presenting “the specificity of sound gestures and their variation, translation and adaptation, often employing chance-based and procedural operations.” As with John Cage’s Aria the only instrument in evidence was the voice, here the composer’s own voice in tandem with that of Barbara Paterson’s. The two “artists” produced narratives that seemed at several degrees’ removal from one another, though towards the end of the different discourses there seemed to be glimmerings of TS Eliot-Waste-Land-like attempts at communication, of the “Speak to me – why do you never speak?” kind of impulsiveness. Up to then, the composer’s disjointed narratives had run teasingly and tantalisingly alongside the other speaker’s half-conversation with what seemed like unheard inner voices. Was it delineating a fragmentary relationship between thinking and vocalising, an out-of-phase attempt to bring together recall and the present, or a conversation between parts of the same personality? – somebody playing with/being played by their alter ego? I found the crossover aspects involving both spoken theatre and music fascinating, as the voices seemed to me to increasingly coalesce, as if they were starting to “decode” one another – in effect very daring! – but for me very confusing!

More “conventional” (if such a word is allowed ANY currency pertaining to this concert!) was the next piece, Canadian composer Chiyoko Szlavnics’ Triptych for AS, written in 2006 for two violins and an accordion (“AS” is the composer’s mother, incidentally). Described as a “visual artist” as well as a composer Szlavnics is credited by the programme note with an “idiosyncratic” method of working, something about converting lines on a drawing to glissandi that exactly replicate the drawing (to say the first thought that came into my head, which was “Oohh, what about the “Mona Lisa” in sound?”, is to trivialise the concept, which I won’t!) What I also thought (hardly rocket-science!) was that there would be three “somethings” in all of what we were about to experience, as per the title.

The sounds were to be produced both acoustically (Rebecca Struthers and Kristina Zelinska the violinists and Reuben Jelleyman the accordion-player) and electronically (a bank of five sine tones). The opening chords straightaway had an “electric” quality, the upward glissandi generating incredible intensity, sounds with long, burgeoning lines, reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”. They seemed cyclic in effect with the strings re-entering the fusion and working their glissandi gradually upwards again. Both the second and the third pieces seemed to use higher pitches with a more intense result and a clearly augmented string-sound, the “quality” agglomerated by the electronic resonances. I liked the growing tensions, and the uncertainties of the points where the lines for the individual instruments “crossed” and the sounds “reared up”, Then, at the third piece’s conclusion, the accordion was suddenly left to carry the thread, a lone plaintive and isolated voice.

So we came to the final presentation in this hugely enjoyable panoply of creative innovation, a work by American James Tenney that’s part of a multi-movement piece called “Glissade”, in fact the first movement of the work, itself called Shimmer. Its three instrumentalists (Emma Barron, Ken Ichinose and Matthew Cave playing viola, ‘cello, and double-bass respectively) shared the sound-stage with ”delayed” computer-recorded reminiscences of what the strings played, the ensuing “womb of resonances” the agglomerated and on-going result of this five-second delay.

The viola began with a drawn-out repeated note, before moving into harmonics in a repeated arpeggiated pattern, before the ‘cello did the same, as did the double-bass – with all three instruments contributing plus their overlaid recorded echoings, I found the effect uncannily similar to parts of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” Prelude, hypnotic and compelling, drawing one’s listening into the web and waft of it all. The discernible flecks of colour and tone added to the ongoing magic, as did the ever-increasing prominence of the glissandi, the sounds eerily ascending, before becoming like impulses of sunlight dancing on cloud-tops! As the tones gradually surrendered their intensities we became aware of being returned to a “place of origin”, eventually reaching a point where the players ceased, and allowed their own resonances to continue for a brief further moment in time, a treasure as much in the hearing as the letting go……what better a way to end such an absorbing collection of sound-adventures?



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