Stroma breathes life into its collection of “Sonic Portraits”

STROMA – Sonic Portraits

Works by : Simon Eastwood/Alistair Fraser, Liza Lim, Ashley Fure, Salina Fisher,
                    Rebecca Saunders, Toru Takemitsu

SIMON EASTWOOD/ALISTAIR FRASER – “Pepe” from Te Aitanga Pepeke (2019)
LIZA LIM – An Ocean Beyond Earth (2016)
ASHLEY FURE – Soma (2012)
SALINA FISHER – Kingfisher (2018)
TORU TAKEMITSU – Water Ways (1977)

(All performances except that of the Takemitsu work were NZ premieres)

Alistair Fraser (putorino)
Séverine Ballon (solo ‘cello)

STROMA – Bridget Douglas (piccolo, flute(s), Thomas Guldborg/Lenny Sakovsky (percussion), Anna van der Zee, Kristina Zerlinska, Megan Molina, Rebecca Struthers, Andrew Thomson (violins), Emma Barron, Andrew Thomson (violas), Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Patrick Barry (clarinet(s), Gabriela Glapska, Amber Rainey (pianos),  Alexander Gunchencko (double-bass), Michelle Velvin, Madeleine Crump (harps)

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Shed 11
Customhouse Quay,  Wellington

Thursday, 19th September, 2019

I came across an interesting article on the American composer Virgil Thomson when exploring the idea of “Portraits” in music. Inspired by novelist Gertrude Stein in Paris during the mid-1920s, who had made a series of free-association “literary portraits” written in a single sitting, Thomson thought he would try the same technique in music composition – his subject would “sit”, and Thomson would compose, on the spot – the subject was allowed to do anything except talk, so that the “psychic transference” (the composer’s words) of the process wouldn’t be otherwise impeded. Picasso was one of those sceptical about the idea, but posed for Thomson, anyway, and received, for his pains, a hyper-energetic bitonal piano “etude” which Thomson called “Bugles and Birds”. To many of the subjects their pieces came across more as how the composer was feeling about them at the time, than what they felt about themselves.

“Portraits” abound in music composition, with perhaps the most well-known musical “gallery” of personalities being that contained in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. But away from the direct “visual art” process connotations pursued by Thomson, the “musical portraits” idea has been put to multifarious use, from well-known large-scale instances such as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” and Schumann’s “Carnaval” for solo piano, to stand-alone works like Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” or miniatures like Edvard Grieg’s “Niels W.Gade” from his Op. 57 ”Lyric Pieces”, or Elgar’s “Rosemary” 1915 (for piano or orchestra).

Stroma’s “Sonic Portraits” collection further enlarged the concept of musical depiction in  no uncertain terms.  with a collection of evocations of all kinds, mythological, other-worldly, psychosomatic, avian, emotional and locational. The venue chosen by the ensemble, the NZ Portrait Gallery at Shed 11, was itself a challenge for listeners like myself who arrived just in time for the concert and had to sit some way off down a narrow-ish, unraked space, feeling a wee bit divorced from the sound-sources through having little or no sight-lines, and then having to watch one’s back in close proximity to the art hung on perilously imminent walls when one got up to talk with someone or to go! Happily, the vivid and arresting quality of both music and its presentation by these players compensated amply for any such privations, even if I was disconcerted to see Séverine Ballon, the guest ‘cellist, carrying off the platform at her solo item’s conclusion a violin in addition to her ‘cello, which combination I had no earthly (!) idea she was using!

Beginning with the mythological, we heard “Pepe”, a piece from a collection called Te Aitanga Pepeke (the insect world), currently being developed by composer Simon Eastwood in conjunction with ngā taonga pūoro artist Alistair Fraser. This piece evolved out of a transcription by Fraser of a work by Eastwood, the two then reworking the music to bring forth an interactive and intimate dialogue between the ensemble (violin, viola, ‘celli, bass flute and percussion) and the expressive pūtorino. The instrument is unique in that it functions both as a trumpet (the kokiri o te tane /male voice) and as a flute (the waiata o te hine / female voice) and is reckoned to be the home of Hine Raukatauri, the Mäori goddess of flute music. Here, it was Alistair Fraser’s gloriously trumpet-like pūtorino who played Hine’s amorous swain, Pepe, the voice by turns vigorous and insinuating, moving in accord with the ambient earth-sounds of the ensemble.

Having felt the earth’s breath on our cheeks we were then transported by the alchemy of suggestiveness to one of the planet Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, via Australian composer Liza Lim’s work for solo ‘cello,  An Ocean Beyond Earth. Lim’s imagination was obviously fired by recent “news from space” regarding the presence of a body of water akin to an ocean on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, according to data collected during NASA’s Cassini exploratory mission to the world of one of our solar system’s most iconic members. The same data has suggested that Enceladus has an environment which could support the existence of life as we know it.

Prefacing her work with evocative excerpts from poetry by the 13th-Century poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, and a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, Lim’s music, brought into being by cellist Séverine Ballon’s exquisitely sensitive “voicings” at the outset, developed a kind of intermittent dialogue between wind-borne sounds of the air, and grittier, rather more corporately substantial gesturings. Some of the flourishings brought to mind Bach ‘cello suite utterances, framing whole sequences of spatial infinities, juxtapositionings that helped “define” each sound’s antithesis, in places having an almost “electrical” quality of current and intensity, thus throwing into bold relief a parallel sense of objects wrought in a cauldron of ancient natural creation. Other sound-relationships deemed to denote meetings and then minglings of states, effortful “seconds” suddenly scrambled wildly and frenetically, for example, as if “spooked” by their own forwardness – perhaps Virginia Woolf’s quoted cry to the heavens of “Consume me” sparked the irruption; or was it the thought of a limitless “sound of no shore”? The music’s concluding darkness merely opened its cloak and enveloped us in an enigmatic response.

I found listening to the next work – Ashley Fure’s Soma –  something of an unsettling experience, as its “specific psychological referent” was the composer’s own grandmother, who had (perhaps still has) advanced Parkinson’s Disease – the thought that we were anatomising the aberrant condition of an actual human being resulted in my finding it difficult to maintain an uninvolved focus of response, the sounds for me occasionally conveying all too piteously the “plight” of the individual subject and the helplessness of her state being “showcased” – the composer may well have intended such engagement to occur as part of the listening experience, of course.

The degree of “inner turmoil” conveyed by the ensemble here, something “locked in”, but occasionally trying to escape or express something, was all too palpable, with both physical and mental processes respectively conveyed – a rumbling, pulsating percussive presence seemed to express the former in terms of heartbeat, breath and bloodflow, while what seemed like infinite manifestations of both gestural and ambient “disturbance” were engendered by what the composer called “aberrations in placement, pressure, angle, force and speed” of instrumental activity,  and resulting in “fragile and chaotic” soundscapes. While these impulses voicelessly cried out, the percussion rumbled throughout like a kind of tinnitus, disconcertingly looming and then receding, before a final gentle but sharpish blow mercifully suspended the process!

Rather more delightful disengagement was then offered by Salina Fisher’s work Kingfisher, written in response to a poem by Robert McFarlane as part of a larger work The Lost Words, and performed by the New York-based ensemble Amalgama in 2018. Beginning with a not altogether unexpected “splash” and a series of propulsive flurries, the ensuing birdsong figurations were leavened most adroitly by delicate ambient touches, the whole having a delicacy and grace which accorded with the poet’s “neat and still” description of the bird, one which conflagrated as it flashed downwards into the water, and into a different kind of ambience, the piano’s liquid grace flooding into the air-blown vistas and completing the music’s ritual.

Though unspoken, words featured prominently in this  “Portraits” presentation, via the many stimulating and evocative texts and commentaries associated with these pieces. Rebecca Sanders’ Ire was no exception, her accompanying note including a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher whose paradoxical train of thought here delightfully derailed my every attempt to get through the passage unscathed! Sanders spoke of the “sonic potential” of a trill, hinting at the paradox of the concealment of musical activity beneath a “surface of silence”. Ire is one of three works for strings which Sanders has written to explore this quality – she spoke of exploring “two diametrically opposed guises of the trill” in her work, this seeming to take the form of anatomising both fast and slow trill-like figurations. 

A quiet, almost subversive beginning to the music presented a silence “stirred and shaken” by the instrumental activity, deepening with heavy percussion and double-bass rumblings and groanings. Séverine Ballon’s solo cello trilled in varied and exploratory ways under the fingers of the player, to which the ensemble added weight in the guise of unexplained energies from a void. The “Ire” of the piece’s title accumulated all too readily and nastily, reaching points of frenzy almost as a process of repeated expiation, the whole punctuated by rumbling and roaring percussion (I was too far back to see much of the players’ actual gesturings which would have enhanced a sense of the physical ebb and flow of the outbursts) – uncannily, at the point where I felt we had “had enough” the sounds seemed to abruptly transmorgrify as if by telepathetic means – string harmonies tipped, swayed and groaned softly as if great doors were being swung open to expose the futility of anger – all seemed suddenly like “thistledown on the wind”……

Written well over a quarter-century before any of the above pieces was the work that concluded the programme, Tōru Takemitsu’s 1977 work Water Ways. Inspired by a visit to the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the composer was at first reportedly unmoved by the regularity and symmetry of the world-famous vistas until he noticed that a woman visitor had disturbed the water surfaces on one of the ponds – “Only then the music came”, the composer enigmatically remarked!

But what music! – from the very first notes a saturated soundscape, with a piano that simply couldn’t help sounding so Debussy-like with every utterance, vibraphones that exuded pure liquid outpourings, and two harps whose limpid tones helped bind together a flowing and interactive ensemble. These sources were coloured by strings and clarinet whose lines represented fluidity of contrasting textures and tones at their most focused and vibrant, whether a spectacularly cascading waterfall-like gesture from the piano or a long-breathed distillation of stillness and purity of flow from the clarinet. Whether breathtakingly still or gently and raptly moving to a larger rhythmic pull, the players generated a spellbinding amalgam of depths and shallows whose patternings coalesced into a long-breathed three-note life-dance, from which ritual the music bade us farewell, the clarinet uttering the last mysterious, distant word.

A significant proportion of my enjoyment of this concert was registering the pleasure expressed by others sitting around and about me, and, most happily, discussing each of the items with a fellow audience-member next to me – herself a musician, and similarly struck by the range and depth of intensities generated by the players and their conductor, Hamish McKeich, from the evening’s programme. That a concert made up almost entirely of New Zealand premieres of contemporary music could so obviously satisfy and enthral its audience spoke volumes regarding the skill of the performers and the receptivity of their listeners – definitely a feather in Stroma’s cap regarding its avowed mission statement of bringing to audiences new music from both home and abroad.




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