Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

SILVER STONE WOOD BONE a miracle of evocation from Rattle Records

By , 29/10/2021

SILVER STONE WOOD BONE

Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Al Fraser (taonga puoro)

Instruments used: Putorino (3 -flute, trumpet, voice-enhancer) Karanga Manu (bird-caller) Purerehua
(swung bull-roarer) Tumutumu (tapped percussive instruments)
Flutes (3 – piccolo, C and alto)

Audio acknowledgements: Grant Finlay (opening and closing Aroha Island crickets), Tim Prebble (rain), David Downes (birds), Dave Whitehead (Pureora dawn chorus)

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Graham Kennedy

CD artwork – Bridget Reweti

Accompanying notes – the composers, also Ruby Solly for her piece “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath”  (reproduced by permission of  Chamber Music New Zealand)

Rattle CD D115 2021

I have written less of a review and more of an account of a listening journey, here, which seems, now that I have returned to where I began my listening, a pity to disturb or subject to more conventional reviewing strictures. I hope readers might enjoy this slightly different approach, marked by many moments on my part of wide-eared wonderment at such “age-old newness” as is conjured up by these remarkable sounds.

Track No.1

GILLIAN WHITEHEAD – Hine Raukatauri

Hine Raukatauri – goddess of music and dance – takes the form of the female case-moth

In the notes accompanying the CD recording Bridget Douglas and Al Fraser pay tribute to Dame Gillian Whitehead for this, the opening track, “Hine Raukatauri”, as it was the piece that originally brought the two musicians together as a performing duo. Birdsong (Karanga manu), is answered by the flute, at first in “forest” style, then stylised – the flute’s part is notated (though improvisation is encouraged) and the music for the taonga puoro is improvised. I would say it’s the piccolo flute, as many of the notes are so stratospheric. The Putorino calls, and the lower flute answers in a kind of duet – a richly resonant sound when the pitches combine. Chanted words come through the putorino, ghostly and other-worldly in effect, as two different tumutumu tap, one wooden-sounding, the other stone, with entirely different kinds of resonances – joined by the flute (alto? – a very rich and fruity sound), the figurations reminiscent of Ravel’s solo flute writing in Daphnis et Chloe in places – the Putorino calls again, the flute tongues in reply, varying textures in order to make contact, intertwining with the karanga manu. The purerehua rumbles impressively, like a giant voice unlocked from the depths of the earth – the karanga manu is awed, and falls silent after a few chirrups! – again the putorino “voice” and the flute tones intertwine “making” something new from the combination of resonances, the flute half-breath, half tone,  seeking to draw the voices into a common resonance. In this way, the goddess Hine Raukatauri animates her world.

 

Track No. 2

ROSIE LANGABEER – Drawing Fire from the Well

“Fire is the will. The well is the self”

Breath, harmonic-like sounds, waves of tones coming forth, rising and falling like the body of a giant animal – a sudden irruption of impulse and only the breath remains….after which the bullroarer awakens, vibrating the very air with the deepest of tonal pulsations, while the ambience is flecked with scraps of “spirit voices”, fragmented harmonics, derris-dust of the interactions, something the composer calls “simultaneously charming and unsettling”. The sounds are used by the composer to characterise both “fire” and the “well”, the well perhaps being the “source”, the crucible, the “cradle” of all things, while the fire is the “potential” that enlivens that space. We get something of the ambivalence of fire from the sounds, the “warning” aspects of fire’s presence because of its destructive properties, and conversely the life-enhancing aspects of fire, its warmth and comfort – its capacity for love, as composer Rosie Langabeer mentions, the love that warms and protects rather than destroys. Long-breathed sounds echo and re-echo from this space, gradually energising as the “will” exerts its influence, before being drawn back into the “well” again, the process seeming to take on a ritual-like quality that gives an impression of “playing out” for time immemorial, the infinitesimal differences part of the web and waft of evolution as the will is activated by the self to continue the ever-changing ritual. The sounds themselves invite closer scrutiny – Langabeer describes with a touch of wonderment “the note revealing other notes, multiphonics, the hidden sounds of the sound” and goes on to characterise these as “layers of physical energy, alive and ancient” – when the stick taps, or the bone or stone scrapes, as they both do in this piece, that energy is awakened from its ancient sleep.

 

Track No. 3

BRIAR PRASTITI – Terra firma

(“Terra firma” – firm land, the land one gratefully returns to)

Briar Prastiti’s piece is inspired by her relocation to Greece and her experience of loss of support of the familiar in doing so, of the immediacy of her surroundings and of relationships. The taonga puoro in this piece represent “terra firma”, the homeland, the place of belonging; while the flute is the kinetic force, representing explorations of arrivals and departures. The flute relies on the support of the taonga puoro, the provision of a “solid home”, and also stability whenever the composer finds herself “running too fast”!  In the piece itself there’s a pronounced dynamic contrast between the almost compulsively exploratory flute and the more “grounded” taonga puoro exchanges, almost a Don Quixote/ Sancho Panza-like relationship of different aspirations but common concerns. The flute-writing is epic in its territorial span throughout, while being accompanied by “guardian-like” wraiths of impulse keeping watch. Particularly moving is the meditative sequence halfway through the piece where the flute’s peregrinations are accompanied by earth-chime sounds, a “home fires burning” kind of ambience holding everything in an embrace – the flute’s sudden bursts of energy and restless exploration spring from this solid foundation. Earth-chimes give way to deep-seated voice-enhancers sounding a reassuring “breath of life”, which then turn skywards to birdsong over the last few measures of the piece, suggesting the idea of a homecoming kind of flight.

 

Track No. 4

JOHN PSATHAS – Irirangi – a meditation

I found this piece, accompanied as it was in the notes by a wealth of life-experience of its frequent and extraordinary manifestation, extremely moving – it’s as much a testament to the power of evocation possessed by all music as it is to these more specific people-driven instances of “connection” with the spirit world. Irirangi is described here as a “spirit voice”, one “floating alongside” a group of voices singing together. While this might have an unnerving aspect in some instances (Dylan Thomas’s story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” describes something of this phenomenon happening to a group of youthful carol-singers, who promptly disperse in fright!) it can put people more in touch with their own inner worlds of memory and sensation by attesting to an “uncovering” of sounds and impulses within,  a continuing stream of life-force which one can discover if one is receptive. In Ruby Solly’s essay “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath” in the CD booklet, she alludes to the voice of the “Irirangi” most movingly, as a voice “you already know”….

The composer of this piece, John Psathas, quotes Richard Nunns, an important instigator in the promotion of awareness of taonga puoro and their significance, as remarking upon Irirangi being what was “looked for” when these instruments were being played, and not merely the sounds in themselves. Psathas talks about using natural bird-sound recordings to “activate” the music further in this way, instigating a kind of “aspiration” of the sounds themselves to awaken impulses that express more that initially meets the ear – just as the voices cited in earlier accounts appeared to stimulate “spirit voices”. This singularity of music-making would partly account for performances of similar music having vastly different effects upon listeners (and other performers as well) – the activations having varied effects upon that vast range of harmonics, overtones and partials which inform notes and tones differently……

Psathas calls his work “a meditation” to enhance the idea of sitting and absorbing the natural world’s  “hidden voices” in a state of reflection. The piece begins with birdsong recordings, a stirring of the Purerehua, and what appears to be a pre-recorded “background” of  both airborne and earthbound atmosphere underlying the birdsong, the taonga puoro and the flute. Time and space seem suspended here as the instruments convey the exhalation of breath, the tinkling of stones and living voices – a great spaciousness seems waiting, wanting to be filled, the various irruptions energising the spaces with potent impulses. Such is the breadth of these soundscapes that time’s stillness consumes itself with unnverving swiftness, the interaction between the taonga puoro and the flute achieving to my ears that continuity of inner life and “mingling” of aspiration that results in a sense of “irirangi” imbuing the whole soundscape – remarkable!

 

Track No. 5

JOSIAH CARR – Tihei Mauri-ora

One would expect this piece, given its title, to declaim the presence of that life-force, the “breath of life” in no uncertain terms – Josiah Carr has done this in a remarkably lyrical, rather than declamatory way, interweaving the taonga puoro and flute voices together , the instruments contributing to a manifestation of the same life-force, the flute gradually “exploring” and pushing upwards with its melodic line, joining another taonga puoro at a higher pitch – the breath of life, the mauriora, allows the flute to soar, with another taonga puoro remaining its guardian close at hand. A frisson of intensity grips both instruments as they appear to reach for the sun towards the piece’s end, their lines and timbres interlocked in a kind of fierce ecstasy.

 

Track No. 6

GARETH FARR – Silver Stone Wood Bone

“Silver Stone Wood Bone” is a piece about breath and human expressiveness….. words straight from the composer, Gareth Farr, who brings a great deal of previous experience with the use of Taonga Puoro in conjunction with the late Richard Nunns, previously the doyen of Maori musical instruments and their use. Farr describes working with Al Fraser as having its own uniqueness, made all the more fascinating by Fraser’s extensive collection of instruments, many of which were new to Farr. He found the similarities between the European flute and taonga puoro more pronounced than any other combination he’d previously encountered, and decided to make those similarities a point of focus for his work. To draw the instruments as closely together as possible Farr asked Frazer to echo the note pitches of the flute as accurately as was achievable, wanting the instruments to “inhabit” each others’ worlds as completely as they could manage.

The music straightaway impinges on our sensibilities – like a wake-up call or a jolt from a dream than brings sudden consciousness, one material resonantly strikes another and stimulates reactions, coming instantly from the strike itself and then in response to its effect, from other taonga puoro and then from the flute. From the silence that follows the putorino and the flute trace concurrent though not exact pathways, keeping their pitches closely related – at one point the taonga puoro invites the flute to soar, which it does, before returning to the chant-like concourse of related sounds. At this stage in the proceedings I’m wondering whether the title of the work contains a ritualised kind of order of objects or impressions, or whether those elements mentioned are randomly evoked throughout the piece – certainly there’s a “shape” of sorts emerging, as the tintinnabulations of the first section give way to the breath-driven exchanges between taonga puoro and flute. Also, each of the four elements has its own text, which isn’t spoken or sung, but is possibly alluded to in specific instances –  I haven’t yet made any such connections other than the generalised references to “taonga of resonance and “minerals of great power” found in the first of four sections of the text, “Silver”, but am presuming that the “silver” represents the flute, as metallurgy was unknown to pre-European Maori.

The “chanting manner” abruptly changes to a kind of dance, reminiscent of a dancing piwakawaka – this time it’s the flute that drives the interlocking voices upwards and into a sonic “clinch” with the karanga manu (bird-caller). The dancing continues, the putorino voice-enhancer offering encouragement to the dancing flute, whose contrasting soarings are again matched and augmented by the bird-caller. While there seems to be no direct correlation between music and verse in the second “Stone” text, other than the “nose to the grindstone” quote which places breath and stone (pounamu, for instance) together when the stone is being fashioned, the text goes on to unlock the overall message of the sounds – “in this way we animate the inanimate”……

From the pause as the dancers regain their breath comes a rhapsodic meditation suggested by the tranquility of trees – the sounds invite us to reflect a while as we sit within a house made from wood and imagine it as a forest once again, the text of “Wood” powerfully evoking the idea of the trees pushing away the sky’s embracing of the earth to give the latter’s life room to breathe – flute and putorino rhapsodise on these spaces and their power of “presence”, as does Finnish composer Jan Sibelius in his “Tapiola”, in a more elemental and baleful sense.

How magical to return at the end to those sounds which began this evocation! – flute and taonga puoro at one with the bell-like strikes, the irruptions continuing in our minds as with all things in the natural world content for the moment of reflection to play in the confines of her silences.

He pai te mahi – tihei mauri-ora!

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