NZ Trio with Xia Jing – violin, ‘cello, piano and guzheng

NZ Trio with Xia Jing – Fa (“Open up”)

ZHOU LONG (China/USA) – Spirit of Chimes
XIA JING (China) – composition for Guzheng
JEROEN SPEAK (NZ) – Serendipity Fields (World premiere)
DYLAN LARDELLI (NZ) – Shells (World premiere)
DOROTHY KER (NZ) – String Taxonomy (World Premiere)
GAO PING (China) – Feng Zheng (World premiere – commissioned by the NZ Trio and dedicated to Jack Body)

NZ Trio
Justine Cormack (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)
Xia Jing (solo guzheng)

Adam Concert Room
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 16th September, 2016

This concert was part of Victoria University Confucious Institute’s China/New Zealand Musical Exchange programme, and sponsored jointly by the Confucious Institute and the China Cultural Centre in New Zealand, with support from both the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music.

A special feature of the concert was the presence of Xia Jing, one of the foremost exponents of the guzheng – a kind of Chinese zither or dulcimer, whose documented use dates back over two thousand years. The instrument is growing in popularity in modern times, and is frequently used in popular and modern classical music, as either a solo or chamber music instrument. As one of the concert’s items Xia Jing played one of her own compositions for solo instrument, one which enabled us to experience at first hand the guzheng’s unique tonal and timbral characteristics.

Also on the programme was a work for piano trio, and four other pieces for the ensemble with guzheng, which were world premiere performances. The work for Piano Trio was written by Chinese/American composer Zhou Long and was called Spirit of Chimes, while Chinese composer Gao Ping contributed a piece commissioned by the NZ Trio and dedicated to the memory of New Zealand composer Jack Body, which was called Feng Zheng. And no fewer than three New Zealand composers  wrote works for the Trio to be performed at this concert – so the event represented a kind of feast of creativity come to the table to be savoured and enjoyed.

Zhou Long’s Spirit of Chimes opened the programme, the composer telling us in a written note that his inspiration came from “the sounds of chime-stones, bone-whistle and chime bells from ancient China”, though he additionally confided in us that, because of the disappearance of early pre-Tang Dynastic Chinese music, he had to imagine in his head the “real sound” of such ancient instruments when composing for the piano trio.

Beginning with soft, mournful sliding notes on the ‘cello, echoed by the piano and joined by the violin with its delicate sliding figurations, the music before too long took on a kind of processional aspect, as if bringing to us from the past the different sound-characters that could unlock our appreciation of these ancient gestures and tones. The strings interacted warmly and readily, firstly in full-blooded vocal terms, and then in a more folksy, homely, throw-away manner – the piano joined them, partly to support the interaction and partly to push things on, to plant and then to till elsewhere.  This seemed to provoke division in the ranks as the cello broke away from the discourse of three and disrupted the dovetailed interactions –  suddenly the musical exchanges were volatile and angular, with the different lines and timbres of the instruments colliding and opposing one another as much as they were colluding and intertwining. Though a measure of calm was restored  we got the feeling that those same disruptive elements were waiting for their chance to strike again, something that an enormous tam-tam stroke more-or-less- confirmed.

I enjoyed the “danse macabre” sequences which followed, the piano instigating the dry-bones manner and enjoining the strings to take part, which they did, adding weight and extending the motif to a six-note tattoo, which got all kinds of treatment. As if in payment for pleasure, the music irrupted again, almost vengefully, as if a veritable battery of physical assault, characterised by savage trills and tremolandi………did we want to be there? But what amazing sonorities!

Strings mused on the quiet that followed, the cello occasionally bursting out, more in sorrow than in anger, the other instruments following suit, and, it seemed to me,  transforming by osmosis the mood to one of great longing, almost to the point of weeping! The piano’s ambient colourings were left, pushing out the spaces and leaving us drifting, contemplating a certain “tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect” ambivalence……whatever my stance I was left contemplating the startling presence with which the players enabled the voices of those “ancient chimes” to speak to me, whether real or imagined……

‘Cellist Ashley Brown then introduced the guzheng player, Xia Jing, who demonstrated to us by way of some kind of improvised solo, what her instrument could do. Sitting flat at the instrument like one might at a Western dulcimer or Japanese koto,  Xia Jing plucked the strings with her right hand and pressed the strings down with her left hand at certain points to produce pitch variations and different kinds of vibrato. Her hands seemed to alternate between melody and accompaniment, producing timbres not dissimilar to a balanaika or a cimbalon. I was astonished at the degree of energy she seemed to be able to produce, in terms of both strength and excitement.  She brought the music’s energy down to a more ritualistic level,  finishing her piece with a beautiful kind of postscript or epilogue.

Justine Cormack, the Trio’s violinist,  told us briefly about the four pieces especially composed for the trio in collaboration with the guzheng, inviting us to enjoy the pieces on their own terms as well as relishing the differences between them.  For me to try and repeat the kind of “gesture-by-gesture” commentary I noted down throughout the course of the first piece, would, I think, run the risk of depleting both my vocabulary and the number of people prepared to stay the course in any case!  The first three pieces of this group seemed to me to reflect certain philosophical attitudes towards “sound content”, though Jeroen Speak’s work Serendipity fields I thought more inclined towards out-front expression than was the case with the relative reticence of the other works, each displaying a reluctance to “resound”. Both Dylan Lardelli’s Shells and Dorothy Ker’s String Taxonomy seemed in fact more like physical choreography than sound generation, each composer stressing the importance for their piece of “semblance” (Lardelli) and “shared gestures” (Ker), ahead of creating tones from notation, a more oblique, almost “underbellied” manifestation of things.

Serendipity fields made each instrument say its name at the music’s beginning with terse but characterful impulses, which I liked, the guzheng dalicate and lyrical, the piano percussive and the strings angular and sinewy – then tossed these characteristics about, resulting in the music veering from vehement, through whimsical to wraith-like……Speak’s music had an extremely volatile inclination allied to an interior quality whose character seemed furtive and inward, setting up situations where the sounds seemed to “goad” one another, and build up sequences whose textures and ambiences produce what sounded like some kind of “chaos of delight”. Any semblance of permanence was short-lived, as the instruments swooped, burgeoned and withdrew their tones as required and then as quickly disapeared, with a final, characteristically short-breathed pair of impulses. What teamwork there was between the players in the realisation of these scenarios!

Compared with Jereon Speak’s engaging ‘serendipities”, the impression left by Dylan Lardelli’s Shells was dry and taciturn, which underlined the appositeness of the piece’s title. Whatever “substance” gave rise to these gestures, whatever fleshed-out intentions that once perhaps spoke their names, had long since disappeared, leaving only encasements and frameworks, like a luggage-room filled with empty suitcases and leaving behind little more than spaces for conjecture.  Pianist Sarah Watkins used her hands to resonate the piano’s “box” rather than any actual tones, apart from occasional single, transfixing notes, while the string-players pursued a kind of “silent music” course – for someone as sleep-deprived as I was just at that time, the effect was hallucinatory, filling my half-lit consciousness with surreal light and dumb-show gesturings, a narrative at which I felt I was little more than a mute spectator.  Dorothy Ker’s String Taxonomy seemed to me less of an “inward” experience, the movements of the players more out-going and exploratory than in Lardelli’s mutescape, vis-à-vis the use of knitting needles by both the ‘cellist and violinist, making for a dry, metallic effect involving little or no flesh-and-blood. The pianist activated the strings inside the box, the three string-players joining in with the effect through brushing or scraping, creating what the composer styled as “a sonic alchemy”, an interaction of which worked on my sensibilities to produce a kind of looking-glass-land effect – a language of meaning through gesture rather than its conventional result, counter-intuitive when it came to making sense of it all.

Again, one had to marvel at the sounds that were conceived by such original means, right from the outset, with its “knitting pattern” exchanges and determinedly non-pitched language – furious irruptions of energy biting and snapping and resonating from the stringed instruments were followed by their antitheses – coded whisperings took the place of shouted or semaphored riddles. Together these sequences gave the impression of some kind of dynamic coagulation which could surely have blossomed forth in a kind of “transfigured night” synthesis of gesture and melismatic fruition – but apart from a startlingly brilliant metallic scintillation, the work’s conclusion was as enigmatic in its effect as was the whole.

To Gao Ping’s work Feng Zheng we then came, to conclude the concert, the piece’s title transliterating into English as “Wind Kite”, as fitting an image as any for a work dedicated to the recently-departed Jack Body, a friend of Gao Ping as well as a fellow-composer. A Chinese tradition was to fly kites during the time of Qingming, when the living pay respect to their deceased ancestors by way of the kites bearing their thoughts and feelings to the realms of the departed.  Here, the music was divided into four sections: – (1) Still Clouds, (2) The Breeze, (3) Breaking the Air, (4) Broken Line. Gao Ping underlined the connection of the music with his late friend by devising a motif from his name (jACk BoDy) used at the beginning and end of the piece.

The opening “Still Clouds” captured the ‘calm magnificence” of the sky, and the wonderment of those still earthbound beneath its splendour – the music’s resonant, drifting textures suggested a peace and order away from earthly conflict – string pizzicati spiked these ambiences, attempting to disrupt the undulating tones of the guzheng and piano, violin and ‘cello irruptions tumbling over themselves before being borne away on the piano’s “wind-borne drift” of tones to which the strings contributed tremolandi and the guzheng mesmeric repeated notes.  The instruments seemed to rise from out of the music’s layered textures and then submerge again, the argument growing more and more involved – a kind of “communion of impulse”, one which brought forth some heartfelt responses from the players, such as Sarah Watkins’ exciting, toccata-like irruptions from the piano. The music developed real “schwung” with what I presumed was its “Breaking the Air” sequences, everything propulsive and exhilarating, with emphasis on the ensemble rather than individual strands, reaching a kind of crisis-point of function with trenchant tremolandi from the strings, the  weight of sound becoming more and more stratospheric, abetted by echo-chamber effects from the guzheng, almost like voices humming off-stage! It seemed very much a valedictory point, one which the composer, by some alchemic means, was able to suggest to me a “here-and-now” feeling not unlike that which infuses the final song “I Remember” in Lilburn’s settings of Denis Glover’s “Sings Harry” verses – something that could have taken place nowhere else but here – something one knew, by dint of awareness and experience. The musicians played out this mood with a deep sense of having travelled and of, at the end of it, returning home.

The Chinese title “Fa” and its associated character for this concert suggested the English words “open up” – which, it seemed to me, the NZ Trio, Xia Jing, and the composers and their music encouraged our imaginations to do here most rewardingly.