Voices of the World – Stroma’s ambient “girdle round about the earth”

Stroma presents:

Works by Celeste Oram, John Psathas, Luciano Berio. Julia Wolfe, Jack Body, Anna Clyne

CELESTE ORAM – An Overture (1807, rev. 2018, 2019)
(devised by Celeste Oram, Rob Thorne (taonga puoro), Ludwig van Beethoven and Stroma Ensemble, with Keir Gogwilt, violin, and Matthew Allison, trombone)

JACK BODY – “Bouyi” (from “Yunnan”2008)
Anna Van der Zee, Emma Baron (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola),Ken Ichinose (‘cello)

ANNA CLYNE – A Wonderful Day (2013)
Patrick Barry (bass clarinet), Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Sarah Watkins (piano),
Callum Allardice (guitar), Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Alexander Gunchenko (double-bass)

JULIA WOLFE – Reeling (2012)
Patrick Barry (clarinet), Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Sarah Watkins (piano), Callum Allardice (guitar), Ken Ichinose )’cello), Alexander Gubchenko (double-bass)

JOHN PSATHAS – Irirangi (Meditation) 2019
Alistair Fraser (taonga puoro), Bridget Douglas (flute)

LUCIANO BERIO – Folk Songs 1964
Bianca Andrew (soprano), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Michelle Velvin (harp), Thomas Guldborg/Sam Rich (percussion), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Thursday 1st August, 2019

Every Stroma concert I’ve had the good fortune to attend has pushed back my frontiers regarding what I’d thought of as viable and coherent musical expression, and by use of techniques and/or media that I might have previously regarded somewhat removed from “musical” realms. This “giving voice” to unconventional objects and means could be seen as taking one’s listening back to a time when music existed only as natural sounds which would have then slowly been developed alongside speech as a kind of language, the sounds then imitated by whatever objects came to hand, and which could in some cases be manipulated and varied for different results and purposes.

This latest Stroma presentation “Voices of the World” featured a couple of items which explored the idea of these pure, primitive sounds making their way into and through various human cultures and being gradually shaped for descriptive or expressive purposes. The concert’s first item was one of these, a new, intensely collegial work-in-progress called Overture 1807, rev.2018, rev.2019 (an impressive stand-alone chronology of connection in itself!). The work was the brainchild of NZ-born California-based composer Celeste Oram, an overture to a projected opera-in-progress whose material was “collectively devised and improvised” by a whole host of performer thus far in the work’s life, and included the playing of Rob Thorne, a noted exponent of taonga puoro, and material from 18th Century Vienna (though the overture as heard here extensively quoted Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, a work from the early 19th Century).

Stroma’s programme note most illuminatingly told of one Georg Forster (1754-94), who, as a teenager, accompanied his father, a naturalist and scientist, on the voyage with Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution between 1772 and 1775, visiting many South Seas Island places including New Zealand. As well as displaying sophisticated ethnographical skills in analysing different Polynesian Societies, the young Forster was a talented essayist whose book A Voyage around the World, published in 1777, earned him great fame as it uniquely combined factual and reliable data with colourful descriptions and observations of the different peoples and their customs, even including notated and translated  Polynesian songs. Goethe, Wieland, and even Beethoven were all said to have read some of Forster’s work, one commentator in the 1930s even suggesting that the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was inspired by a Maori chant!

By way of relating  the work of a great composer to a host of creative impulses that might have preceded it, and even “prepared its way” in generic forms, Celeste Oram chose the composer’s “Coriolan” Overture as the fulcrum around which were encircled various sounds and gesturings instigated by the taonga puoro playing of Rob Thorne – I found this experience a kind of “turned on one’s head” happening, the haunting tones, textures and timbres of the older instruments (including stones) “giving birth” as it were to the impulses that became the Beethoven Overture, by helping create the surrounding agglomerated ambiences. So this wasn’t “deconstructed” Beethoven, but rather “inseminated” (is there a unisex expression for this?) thought, impulse and gesture, all given musical and theatrical expression. Rob Thorne’s taonga puoro evocations of an ancient “being” instigating processes of creativity which, rather than self-consciouslessly wrought had a kind of “uncovered” aspect, made discernable by creative awareness, and leading towards the measures of (here) oddly-syncopated Beethoven that we knew so well, though underlining for us at the piece’s end the infinite patience of the sources of these tones and impulses in returning our sensibilities to the place of origin, though, of course, never to be quite the same again.

Each one of the concert’s next three pieces featured pre-recorded human voices (a duet and two solos) given a kind of freshly-wrought reactive ambience, as likely to contrast with as complement the singers’ sounds. These were “field” recordings, caught on the wing, as it were, and thus requiring from the instrumentalists a similar kind of spontaneity of utterance, an “entering into” the world of the vocalisings in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Jack Body’s Bouyi was something of a “rogue entry” into a catalogue of field recordings from Yunnan province in China, this being actually from Guizhou, a neighbouring province. It featured the voices of two Bouyi women duetting, though no translation was provided.

Two violins began softly and folkishly, evoking a spacious kind of serenity, enlivened by the women’s voices, to which the viola and ‘cello responded – the instruments gave the impression of “listening” to the voices, the instrumental harmonisings tender, sensitive and ambient, contrasted with the voices’ elegant earthiness. The instruments occasionally copied the voices’ interval of a second in places, but always discreetly and resonantly – it all gave an impression of a precious moment in time caught on the wing, to be enjoyed and marvelled at in times to come.

The ambient contrast between this and a similar kind of undertaking by British composer Anna Clyne couldn’t have been more marked, the recording being of an elderly man in a Chicago Street singing and tapping his walking-cane as he walked down the city’s “Magnificent Mile”. Stroma’s resident conductor Hamish McKeich magically appeared to direct this piece which was titled A Wonderful Day. The man’s voice made a great subject – very forthright, his “feeling” very emotional and overt, both in speech and song, the instrumental accompaniments gently “played with” the singer, before cranking the delivery up into a kind of gospel hymn! The piano and percussion helped to “open up” the ambiences, the double-tracking of song and commentary giving the performance a kind of resonance, riding triumphantly atop the traffic noise – a tremendously involving and great-hearted realization, the first of a collection of electro-acoustic recordings of street noises entitled “Chicago Street Portraits”.

American composer Julia Wolfe’s work Reeling used a recording of a French-Canadian singer who possessed an extremely rhythmic and lively vocal style, one generating tremendous momentum from the outset – the instrumentalists took up the vocalised rhythms firstly with fingers and feet, gradually bringing in clarinet, piano, cello and guitar, and finally the double-bass – the “ditty” was challengingly angular and syncopated in rhythm, sounding very street-wise, and clinching the “interactive” illusion when the percussion joined in with what seemed like proper “jamming”. The instruments were allowed a few measures without the singer, keeping the energy levels primed, the players matching the singer’s exuberance with gestures like the clarinet’s “transported” bird-calls sounded at the height of the tumult, and the singer then concluding with a flourish of strung-together cadences almost vertiginous in effect! Fabulous!

One would expect John Psathas’s music to easily replicate such Dionysian exuberances – but here was the composer of View from Olympus exploring a completely different realm of expression, one concerned with hidden, almost metaphysical properties of sounds and music, and evocations of such sounds. Psathas used the word “Irirangi” as a title for his piece, meaning a “faint voice”, a kind of “aspiration” produced by what he called a “reaching out” of realms towards other realms, but equating awareness of this phenomenon with the idea of “meditation”, a listening for these hidden voices (shades, to my surprise, of Robert Schumann’s proclaimed “one soft note for he who listens secretly” in his solo piano work Fantasie in C Major of 1839). As with the concert’s opening “Overture”, the piece here began with sounds equating more to the natural than to the “human” world via recordings of insects, birdsong, and rain, along with taonga puoro  played by Alistair Fraser, to which Bridget Douglas’s flute responded at first with simple, descending figurations, which gradually took on the character of something like an Aeolian harp, with as much breath as tone – all of these delicacies and subtleties attuned and honed our listening sensibilities in a way the composer undoubtedly meant with the word “meditation”, bringing into play the phenomena of normally inanimate objects such as stones being given the capacity to sound and “speak”, and “suggest” to the flute that it absorb these same sounds and “echo” them as the “faint voice” or “irirangi”. Haunting and moving……

As most people know, Luciano Berio wrote his Folk-Songs for the singer Cathy Berberian, to whom he was married. First performed in 1964, these are arrangements of folk songs and melodies from various parts of the world, and scored at that time for voice, flute/piccolo, clarinet, harp, viola, cello and percussion (Berio made an orchestral arrangement  in 1973). He’d set two of the songs, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” much earlier (part of a student work from 1947 “Tre canzoni popolari”), before reworking them for the later collection. One presumes that the composer’s professed “profound uneasiness” when listening to piano-accompanied popular songs stemmed from his dislike of what he regarded as some kind of “gentrification” of the music, and that his scoring for a chamber ensemble to accompany the singer was meant to bring listeners closer to what he called “the expressive and cultural roots of each song”. Certainly the individuality of each setting is sharply expressed by the instrumentation,  more so than could a piano accompaniment alone provide – though it’s worth remembering that, often, “less is more” in these matters, and that we all (the composer himself included) “hear” things differently…….

As much as I would like to pleasurably dwell on soprano Bianca Andrew’s smilingly-voiced and vividly-characterised realisations of each one of these songs, I must hold myself in check and report merely that she seemed to me to take us right into the ambient realm of each song’s idiosyncratic world – the work of an artist with a gift for direct communication. I never, alas, heard soprano Victoria de los Angeles “live”, but a good friend of mine who did would always recall that singer’s ability to communicate a kind of “personalized” warmth of utterance, as if performing for each individual listener alone – throughout these songs I felt a similar directness of giving from this singer, an invitation to “share” the words and the music, with each item a delightfully individualized experience.

The first two songs aren’t actual folk-songs, but were composed by a Kentucky song-writer, John Jacob Niles – in “Black, black, black” the viola introduced the song, then whispered an accompaniment, before “answering” the singer after the first voice, together with the harp, everything ambient and lovely – “I wonder as I wander” was more processional, like a harp-accompanied carol, the winds contributing gently-floating harmonies, with flute and clarinet impulsively contributing some duetting bird-song! The Armenian “Loosin yelav” featured liquid harp notes and a gentle clarinet descant to the voice, concluding with a flurry of wind notes as the moon was chased into the clouds! – after which the French “Rossignolet du bois” gently told of a nightingale instructing a lover how to woo a sweetheart, voice, harp, clarinet and gentle percussive effects used here to persuasive effect.

What a contrast with the Sicilian “A la feminisca”! – at once herioc and dangerous seafaring sounds, the vocal line declamatory, in places low and trenchant, the accompaniments strident, but concluding with some lullabic assurances! The two Italian songs, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” are both droll philosophical pronouncements concerning love, the former lyrical, the second energetic, with fantastic instrumental playing and a soaring vocal line rounding up the “whirling dervish-like” energies. More darkness with “Motettu de tristura” from Sardinia, plaintive vocal utterances, with deep, resonant chords, the flute and percussion piquant and pleading – far better to be in the Auvergne, unhappily married or no, as the case may be, in the first song! – the light, pastoral atmosphere here seeming somewhat at odds with the querulous subject-matter (Ironic as only the French can be, perhaps!) With the second Auvergne song we enjoyed the contrast between the viola’s and cello’s grim, sombre soundings, and the quasi-cautionary tale aspect of the singer’s story, the voice arched upwards so freely and expressively, the harp at the end adding a telling, liquidly-flowing  postscript.

As for the concluding Azerbaijan song, with the “untranslatable” words, here it swept along with plenty of elan, the musicians “telling” its unmistakably focused story without need of any translation, the discourse filled with glint, energy, mischief and scandalous revelation, finishing with a slate-cleansing shout, and metaphorically bringing the house down! –  the evening a triumph for Stroma’s avowed goal of engagement of its audiences with new music and new ideas, via performances of unfailing interest and brilliance.



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