Jack Body – lightning leaping from the pages

JACK! – celebrating Jack Body, composer
edited by Jennifer Shennan, Gillian Whitehead & Scilla Askew
published by Steele Roberts, Aotearoa, 2015

Available from:
Steele Roberts Publishers,
Box 9321, Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand
e-mail: info@steeleroberts

Wednesday 10th June 2015

This beautifully-prepared and richly-annotated volume contains a remarkable array of testaments of love and regard for a man whose life and work deeply touched not only immediate friends and colleagues, but many people involved with music in New Zealand, throughout South-East Asia and around the world.

Happily, it appeared while its subject, Jack Body, was still very much alive, by all accounts – an acknowledgement is made by the editors to the composer’s “stamina and concentration” in making every effort to assist with the work. Hence the opening pages proudly carry the dedication “To Jack and Yono, with love” (Yono Soekarno being Jack’s long-term partner).

Appropriately heading the list of names on a subsequent “Acknowledgements” page is another Jack – a long-time friend and supporter of Body’s, and much-esteemed arts patron Jack C.Richards, recipient of the 2014 Arts Foundation Award for Patronage, and whose support for this project made the book’s publication possible.

A feature stemming directly from the attitude of the book’s subject to biography is its avoidance of what one of the editors, Jennifer Shennan, calls “conventional ordering”. In citing Body’s “low tolerance for boredom, cliche and comfort zones”, she relishes all the more his initial response to the project – “Oh, I don’t need a book – better to have a concert!” – before recording the composer’s inevitable “day-follows-night” movement towards interest and enthusiasm for it all.

It follows that the finished work is, like its subject, a unique phenomenon, inviting no comparisons and following no formulae – it assuredly won’t be the last word on Jack (other biographers will see to that!) but his proximity to its “making” gives it all extraordinary resonance, his presence almost talismanic throughout its many adroitly-woven parallel strands which cluster around and about “pools” (well, oceanic lakes, really!) of deep-currented osmotic activity.

The composer’s actual biographical details can be found amid these different contexts, both via a section of its own called “Beginnings: family and music” (significantly, NOT at the book’s very beginning!) and a transcript of a landmark interview of Body’s with Elizabeth Kerr, as part of Radio NZ Concert’s “Composer of the Week” Series during 2014.

So, Jack himself tells some of his own story, but by far the bulk of the observations regarding his life, activities and achievements are made by the hundred-plus people whose contributions (mostly the written word, but also photographic and musical) give the reader something of the true measure of the man’s manifold accomplishments regarding his own and other people’s music, his range and scope of things in those areas alone being positively Lisztian!

One would think that the impression made by such and so many laudatory statements would begin to pall upon a reading-through of them – but Jack’s net of contact with people was obviously cast so widely and deeply (and cross-culturally), that one is struck as much by the variety of response as by its positive consistency. As individuals recorded their responses so must they have been encouraged from the start by Jack’s openness and warmth to be themselves with him deeply and utterly – so what comes across is a rich diversity and vibrancy of response that simply encourages one to read more – and more……..

There are more gems of individuality among the tributes than I can list, but I offer a few, nevertheless – “musical spark-plug” – “a true rangatira” – “visionary nation-builder” – “bottomless bounteousness” – “a great “zhi yin” (bosom friend) of Chinese music” – “the song-catcher” – “totally subversive” – “gift of a man” – “changed my life by 180 degrees” – “wonderful Body-parts”……one senses that Jack’s inspiration often gave rise to creative impulses of affection and admiration for which music was only the starting-point.

Speaking of starting-points, one such is the direct initial impression made by the publication, a volume without a dust-jacket but still nevertheless eye-catching in appearance with its gold-leaf title “Jack” embossed upon an (appropriately?) burgundy-hued cover containing also a white-pencil sketch of the composer’s face, featuring the characteristic moustache. Inside, the paper is pleasing to the touch, and the fonts with their few variants are attractive and clearly set, invariably on white backgrounds, and never against colours or hues which clash with and obscure the letters.

The words having been given their dues, the accompanying graphics are telling and vivid throughout – each of the sections features an introductory title page bedecked with designs or motifs characteristic of and readily suggesting its subject, and almost every contributor is represented by a photograph, colour, sepia and/or black-and-white. Some bring a smile, while others raise the eyebrows with a start – a particular favorite of mine features Body as a mad, google-eyed gamelan player delightedly unnerving two hapless members of the ensemble.

In short, it’s a book which to my mind has considerable visceral appeal, even before one begins reading – one enjoys the ready “chaos of delight” of colours and textures which blaze forth, but is then drawn into the “mix and mingle” to find method in the tumbling warmth of it all, the strands encircling the different pools and resonating with the sounds of voices and music suggested by the words.

Cleverly, we’re taken to each of the different areas of exploration and activity Body involved himself in and with, beginning the process with a section devoted to Indonesia, the first of the composer’s “exotic” explorations, and here subtitled “discovering a new sensuality”. As well as warm and grateful tributes from his indonesian mentors and students, there’s a detailed appreciation of his work from a fellow-ethnomusicologist, who did work for the Smithsonian “Folkways” set of recordings from the USA. This was inspired by Jack’s recordings of the country’s ethnic music, his American colleague admiring the “integrity” of his gathered material and his methods.

And so the book proceeds through the various “theatres” of Body’s work, by way of similar sections devoted to China and to Cambodia, as well as activities and projects back in New Zealand and elsewhere.  In the “China” chapter, events of vital significance to this country’s cultural heritage, such as the premiere of Jack’s opera “Alley”, are highlighted. The premiere’s conductor Peter Walls thoughtfully and beautifully equates the genesis and societal context of the work with that of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in seventeenth-century Italy. Another section, “In performance – embracing the world”, brings into focus Jack’s relationship with groups such as the Kronos Quartet, for whom he wrote a number of works that have since been performed in places far removed from New Zealand.

Running alongside and through these sections is the inspirational Radio NZ Concert interview with Body, conducted with insight and sensitivity by Elizabeth Kerr – again, no mere retelling of a life’s minutae, but one furnishing so many insights per minute (rather than the other way round!). I found most illuminating the sections where the composer outlines and explores his compulsions to firstly explore material and then use, or (as he puts it) “reinterpret it”. He goes on to confess, openly and modestly, that the music is transformed through his actions  to reveal something of himself, with all his limitations.

What’s refreshing is the candor of the man, a composer who doesn’t hesitate to express his creative angst of having to fill emptiness, and therefore turning with relief to something that’s already there and refashioning it “nearer to the heart’s desire”. And what about any associated “crises of confidence”? – in the same utterance they’re characterized as “no bad thing” for a composer, which is remarkable as a metaphor for strength of will overcoming self-doubt. It’s also part of the demystification processes which Jack Body saw as central to his particular “heart’s desire”. And this book gives us many such instances of the essence of Body’s particular no-holds-barred brand of creativity.

The most complimentary thing I can think of saying about the book is that it’s enabled me to feel as though I now know Jack Body a whole lot better than I did. People who knew him well will be far less surprised by what’s covered here, but to others like myself whose contact with him consisted of meeting occasionally at concerts, registering, however briefly, his warmth and friendliness, and who know some of his music through live performances and recordings, the sheer range and depth of his activities here presented is nothing short of revelatory – as fellow-composer Helen Bowater said about meeting him for the first time, it’s like “being struck by lightning – never the same again!”.

Editors Jennifer Shennan, Gillian Whitehead and Scilla Askew can, I think be extremely proud of the result of their labours, in tandem with Steele Roberts Publishers. Together they have done for Jack what he himself repeatedly did in his own work – expressed essential and enduring things, which his friends already knew, but which people such as myself can now discover and realize more fully for ourselves throughout these lively, warm-hearted and inspiring pages.





Engaging “Klezmorim” at Ilott Theatre

Wellington Chamber Music


with Philip Green (clarinet)

Kugeltov Klezmer: Rebecca Struthers (violin) / Ross Harris (accordion) / Tui Clark (clarinet) / Malcolm Struthers (double bass)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Sunday 24th June, 2012

I felt in a bit of a quandary regarding this concert, torn as I was between feelings of unease through wanting someone else to do this review, and curiosity at experiencing some of this “klezmer” music for myself. I did do a little bit of exploratory research – not too much – so that I’d have a notion, however vague, of what I was about to hear. So, I found out that Klezmer music grew from the desire of Jewish communities to provide music at celebratory events, particularly at weddings (I read one droll remark from a commentator that there wasn’t much difference between a Jewish wedding and a burial except that the former had musicians (klezmorim) in attendance!). This music drew from a wide variety of sources, and (as time went on) assimilated elements from different cultures and diverse musical styles.

Interestingly, these “klezmorim”, itinerant Jewish troubadours, were at first regarded as little more than vagrants on the social ladder – in fact, the term “klezmer” was used for a long time as an insult, one akin to being called a criminal – though their usefulness on occasions that seemed to call for music became more and more valued. If one was a klezmer, one was an untrained musician, unable to read music but able to play by ear. As with jazz musicians in the West, the status of the klezmorim has considerably advanced to the extent of their being regarded as true artists, especially with a recent revival worldwide of the genre.

A glance through the programme notes for each of the items gave one a sense of the ease and fluidity with which the music has taken on aspects of different influences from various places, both East and West. Implied as well is the improvisatory element in performance, one which I imagine would enable performers of klezmer music to give personalized expression to their views of and concerns with things in their world.

Here, I didn’t pick up on any such threads of focus in the concert, other than the desire by the performers to present a number of attractive and enjoyable examples of the world of this music. What did come across throughout the afternoon were evocations of ritual, of gatherings of people, and of symbolic gestures. At the concert’s beginning Rebecca Struthers entered strumming the strings of her violin, followed by clarinettists Tui Clark and Phil Green, simulating a kind of processional whose mode was suggested repeatedly by various pieces in the concert. The program notes spoke of wedding ritual, which a number of pieces evoked , three of which were similarly entitled Kale Bazetsn (Seating the Bride), as did Firn di mekhutonim aheym (no translation, but the title suggesting the entry of the bridal couple’s parents).

In a number of instances the emotion of the music was palpable, such as Rebecca Struthers’ violinistic depiction of a near-hysterical bride in the first Kale Bazetsn, with Tui Clark’s clarinet chiming in for good measure, the grotesquerie of it all underlined by Ross Harris’s somewhat manic piece Narish (translated as “Silly”) being played as a kind of add-on (virtuoso playing from all concerned). Rather more dignified, though just as deeply-felt, was the sequence beginning with Vuhin gaitzu? (“Where are you going?) the flattened fifth at the piece’s beginning commented on by Ross Harris as being particularly mournful in effect, and compounded by the unison of violin and clarinet, whose timbres then by turns gave the upper reaches of the melody almost unbearable anguish, the rhythm weighted and infinitely patient in effect.

In the second “Seating of the Bride” item, Bazetsn di Kale, consisting of two transcriptions of traditional tunes by Jale Strom, the music was again a vehicle for displays of bridal weeping, the first, on Rebecca Struthers’ violin sweet and comely, the second on two clarinets raw and raucous – a more animated section toward the end featured skillful work by both clarinetists.

As with “normal” chamber music, as well as jazz, the sense of the musicians enjoying their collaboration was nicely unequivocal – in Sun, a piece adapted by a Polish Klezmer group and borrowed for this occasion, the asymmetrical 7/4 rhythm produced an interaction which had the feel of a “jam session”, the spontaneity of it all underlined by a sudden counting-call of “one-two-three-four!”, at which the piece jumped forwards excitedly, keeping the rhythmic angularity but at a faster pace. Phil Green used, I think, an alto saxophone in this piece, the timbre and colour contributing to the music’s distinctiveness.

At halftime I found myself musing on what I’d heard thus far, amongst other things in regard to the playing of Phil Green and Rebecca and Malcolm Struthers (the latter playing a double-bass), each sounding right into the idiom of this music. It struck me that these musicians were displaying executant skills they would rarely, if ever, be called upon to employ in their “other” musical lives involving membership of the NZSO (and, of course, Tui Clark, the other clarinetist, was no stranger to orchestral work as well). I couldn’t help reflecting how ironic it was that these musicians’ energies and impulses of vital and colorful music-making seemed so overlaid in a normal orchestral setting. It didn’t seem altogether right that these elements should be allowed to sink more-or-less below the closely-monitored oceanic surface of corporate music-making.

But these somewhat contentious thoughts were short-lived, as they were peripheral to the real business in hand – and the concert’s second half gave as much delight as did the first – beginning with the ‘serious fun” of Ross Harris’s own Vaygeshray, an adaptation of a movement from his Four Laments for Solo Clarinet, which I had heard premiered in 2010, and was here played in a two-clarinet version by Phil Green and Tui Clark. This was music coursing through veins as life-blood, and meeting all kinds of stimuli, bringing about both adulteration and purification – focused, and concentrated, and to the point.

It was an interesting foil for the dance that followed – Makonovetski’s Zhok, a traditional Roumanian dance (a “zhok” is a 3/4 dance, similar, we were told, to the Yiddish hora). Compared with the quiet circumspection of Ross Harris’s piece, this throbbed with a kind of dignified emotion, the dance coloured by a kind of “weeping” sound, with a cadenza-like episode for the first clarinet and some recitative-like interaction between the second clarinet and solo violin, before the return of the processional – again, a sense of ritual was predominant.

To mention all the pieces would be to write tiresomely for pages and pages, though there were things that couldn’t be passed over completely – the almost schizophrenic contrast between the madap Voglenish (Wandering) and the following Melancolia, for example. Both were written by Ross Harris, the first delightfully Keystone-Cops-like, with lovely “bending” and “curdling” of tones from both clarinet and violin, and finishing unexpectedly with a witty snipped-off ascending phrase from the violin; and the second a kind of “sad clown” portrait, the music and playing filled with bemusement and pathetic gesturing.

The final bracket of pieces featured some virtuso playing from all concerned, the rapid-fire Breaza ca pe Arges (the names of two towns in Roumania) demanding energy and agility from both clarinets, a short, sharp and exciting Hora-Staccato-like Rukhelleh, and a full-on, closely-meshed piece Loz’n Gang (translated as “To set off”) requiring great precision and poise, and finishing with a quiet disappearing phrase. The audience was, however, merciless in its appreciation, and demanded an encore, which was forthcoming. Its title I didn’t get, but it certainly turned out to be a whirling dervish of a dance, driven by modulatory swerves from the accordion in places, and winding up with a satisfyingly concerted flourish.










Ravi Shankar – a living legend in Wellington


(with Anoushka Shankar – sitar)

Accompanying Musicians:

Tanmoy Bose (tabla)

Ravichandra Kulur (flute and tanpura)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 12th March 2010

To convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of a remarkable concert at the Michael Fowler Centre, one of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts series of concerts,  I can do no better than quote the words of the musician around whom this same concert was centred:

” Music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is GOD – Nada Brahma. By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to a realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe – its eternal and unchanging essence – can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which this essence can be perceived”.

The words are, of course, those of Ravi Shankar, 90 years young this year (2010) and performing in New Zealand for the first time, with his daughter Anoushka, with tabla-player Tanmoy Bose and flute-player Ravichandra Kulur. This was more than a concert occasion – it was an act of homage on the part of a receptive Western audience towards one of the acknowledged “great ones” of World Music. Even if he played for only half of the concert, Ravi Shankar made his presence felt through the wonderful playing of his daughter Anoushka,who gave us two ragas in the concert’s first half. Since the age of nine she had studied the sitar with her father, making her debut in public in 1994, at the age of thirteen. She’s obviously also become a powerful force in the world of Indian music, and in World music in general. Her playing made, to these untutored ears, an interesting contrast with that of her father’s, when he made his appearance after the interval – obviously she had inherited his focus and directness of expression, and had the physical means to apply that energy to her music-making more consistently and strongly than he was now able to do. Her tones were fuller, her rhythmic detailings more direct, and her passagework more even – manifestations of youthful strength and stamina which the elder Shankar could command no longer.

But in Ravi’s playing one constantly sensed the imagination going beyond the boundaries of the technique – there was nothing “contained” about what his very physical way with the sitar suggested. Rather like passages in the late Beethoven Quartets, whose ideas transcend their means of execution, the Indian master’s explorations of fancy took us right through and above the means of making the sounds, into realms whose relative frailty of physical manifestation seemed to further “charge” the experience. A player able to resound his or her instrument with far less apparent physical effort may produce a more beautiful, more even and well-rounded sound, but might be satisfied with what is produced and no more. What I sensed we took from Ravi’s playing was a feeling that there was always something beyond, something that his gestures often suggested even when there was little sound – his movements choreographed the act of reaching out towards those regions where sound is indeed God,  beyond reason and understanding, and into the realms of awareness and revelation.

So, it was very much a concert of two halves, each with its own specific kind of raison d’etre, as well as reflecting in the lustrous glow cast by the other. At the beginning, Anoushka Shankar introduced her fellow-musicians and told us that her father would appear for the concert’s second half. The group then played two ragas, the music in each case arising out of the ambient colour of the concert’s general atmosphere, the familiar “drone” sound and downward flourish of plucked strings introducing each of the works. In the first raga, the flute joined in with the opening recitative-like explorations, the cannily-placed microphones “catching” the sounds and their resonances and overtones, and bringing them out without seeming to interfere with the antiphonal relationships of the instruments. The entry of the tabla opens up the vistas, especially by means of the instrument’s deep bass notes, the rhythms at this stage teasing, going in surges and pulling back, but maintaining a mesmeric pulse. Heretical though this might sound, I actually found the flute a distraction whenever it entered, so mesmerised was I by the interaction of sitar and tabla, and the spectacularly complex rhythmic patternings made by the drummer. The second raga presented was written by Ravi Shankar for his daughter, the sounds at the outset giving the impression of being made upon impulse, as if something spiritual is using player and instrument as a conduit through which to pass whatever message. Whether or not I had penetrated several layers into a different kind of time-frame by this stage, I coudn’t be sure – but this work seemed to move more quickly towards the tabla’s entry, the music more forthright than in the previous raga, the drumming very lively and volatile-sounding, with scalp-prickling szforzandi matched by the sitar, indicating something of the framework of the piece beneath the surface configuration’s spontaneity.

After the interval Ravi Shankar’s arrival onstage was a great moment. Smiling, gracious, both frail-seeming and with bird-like resilience, he acknowledged the tribute before settling to the ritual of tuning. He then welcomed his audience “to Wellington” to great applause and some amusement, and told us about what he would be playing. The first piece he began dreamily and unhurriedly, as if reflecting on a great deal of experience. More so than his daughter Anoushka, he moved his instrument about, choreographing the shakes and swoops and crests of tone, occasionally shaking the sitar almost tonelessly, as if the notes were suggested rather than played. Anoushka joined in with the recitative, taking up the argument – her joining in underlined the very ‘tactile” feeling communicated by Ravi in his playing, perhaps partly due to age, and partly to the physical effort of realising those sounds. Together the sitars built up the mood’s momentum and amplitude almost imperceptibly, each exchange adding a kind of different level of energy, the result magnetic and compelling. No tabla was in this part of the piece – the sitars carried it all before them. It was unclear whether the tabla-accompanied episode which followed the audience’s applause was part of the same work or a different stand-alone work, but it involved exhilarating exchanges between the sitars, with remarkable agility displayed by both musicians.

The final work was a raga in classical form but with modern improvised interpolations – my Indian friend who accompanied me to the concert called it a “crowd-pleaser”! Again, one could experience and enjoy the contrast in styles between father’s and daughter’s playing, Ravi’s meditative, almost other-world fancies set alongside Anoushka’s more direct and cleanly-focused phrasings. The themes and accompaniments seemed quite Westernised in places, with a very quasi-Oriental theme brought out at one point (rather “cheesy” in effect), which was then blown away by a terrific accelerando, featuring some remarkable thematic invention expressed with a lot of energy from the sitars plus the tabla. The player of the last-named instrument, Tanmoy Bose, was able to show his mettle in a cadenza-like sequence whose volatile physicality was almost transcendental in effect, music-making visibly acknowledged by both Shankars, before they joined in with bringing the Sawal jabab, the exciting final section of the raga, to a close.

Not unexpectedly, the applause was rapturous at the end, especially so when Ravi himself came out to take the final bow – the acclaim was for many things at once, but set the seal on a rich and truly memorable occasion.