30 September 2013

Guest Review: Karlheinz Company

The University of Auckland Music Theatre

Karlheinz Company: Spring Forward

Music by John Cage, Peter Scholes, John Elmsly and Jonathan Mandeno

Performers: Jennifer Maybee, soprano; Kenny Keppel, clarinet; Uwe Grodd, flute; Abigail Sperling, flute; Alex Taylor, violin; Angela Kong, violin; Rachel Grimwood, viola; Robert Drage, cello; Madeleine Lie, double bass; Laurence McFarlane, percussion; John Elmsly, conductor

Guest review: Callum Blackmore


The Karlheinz Company’s second annual offering, a daring and enriching programme aptly entitled “Spring Forward”, certainly had no lack of ‘spring’. Curated by music director John Elmsly, the buzzing Sunday afternoon audience were presented with a brilliant programme of old “new” music and new “new” music from both New Zealand and international composers, showcasing some of Auckland’s most outstanding performers.

John Cage’s 1958 “Aria” showcases the human voice at its most colourful. Notated in coloured wavy lines and black rectangles, containing texts from five different languages, this is a staple of 20th Century vocal repertoire. Veteran performer, soprano Jennifer Maybee, led the audience on a gripping exploration of the voice’s outer limits, not shying away from the most extreme forms of vocal production, from meandering pianissimo coloratura to barking fishwife. A mesmerising performer, Maybee kept us on the edge of our seats from start to finish, seamlessly transitioning between ten different vocal timbres, creating an endlessly evolving and seemingly continuous spectrum of colours. Moments of drama came in the form of the various “noisy events”, which punctuated the vocal line with various percussive interludes, including, among others, the maddened squeaking of a rubber toy, retrieved from inside the nearby piano. With her vocal versatility and striking dramatic intensity, Jennifer Maybee presented Cage’s masterpiece as an unforgettable concert experience.

Peter Scholes, in his “Wireless”, does for clarinet what John Cage does for the voice in “Aria”, exploring the very extremes of instrumental colour. Inspired by the development of radio transmission, Scholes creates a dazzling collage of vivid sonic gestures that range from squealing high register sirens and incessantly forceful multiphonics, to barely audible electric whispers which evolve into vibrant sonic swirls. Clarinettist Kenny Keppel chartered this virtuosic marathon with panache and musical flair, in an outstanding feat of performance that lasted just a little over thirteen minutes. Keppel demonstrated an incredible command of sound itself, shaping every gesture with remarkable sensitivity. His truly whole-hearted commitment to every sonic event resulted in a rare kind of raw energy that quickened the pulse and livened the soul.

The second John Cage offering provided the lowlight of the evening. Compared with the endless colour and energy of the first two items, “Three pieces for flute duet” seemed to fall flat. This is early Cage, and it seems to lack a certain dimensionality, with all three pieces presenting a sort of brazen contrapuntal monochrome. In these duets, harmonies occur almost by accident, resulting from the chance encounters of two independent contrapuntal voices and while this produced some distinctly vibrant intervallic combinations, the lack of timbral variety and musical dynamism and evolution certainly made this piece one of the less engaging items of the programme. It was not until the more cohesive third movement, where Cage distorts harmonic space through contrasting wide and small intervals, that flautists Uwe Grodd and Abigail Sperling truly began to inhabit the piece, more a criticism of the piece itself than of its musically meticulous and sonically expressive performers.

John Elmsly’s “Soft Drop II” for two flutes provided a stunning opening to the second half of the concert. This piece proved a much more effective showcase for the two talented flautists of the evening than the earlier Cage work, allowing a unique kind of chemistry and communication between the two that the Cage seemed to deny (in spite of the fact that Elmsly positions his performers antiphonally, at complete opposite poles of the space). A reworking of a piece written as a response to the death of John Cage, Elmsly demonstrates how simple musical formulae can be effectively woven into a delicious musical offering. Pitch material derived from the acronym C A G E ' S D E A D and rhythmic material derived from 1 9 9 2 (the year of Cage’s death), was systematically transformed, musically and spectrally, between the two flutes in a manner that hinted towards Stockhausen. The backdrop to this musical transformation is provided by the audience themselves, who were asked at the start of the piece to hum the notes C A G E continuously for the duration of the piece, creating an endlessly moving, yet eerily still, musical aura that enveloped the spatial to and fro of the two flautists (reminiscent perhaps of the “Unsichtbare Chöre” of Stockhausen’s “Donnerstag aus Licht”). As an audience member this was at first quite distracting, the focus being on the humming, and rather than on the delicate gestures of the performers. However as the voice became used to the mechanical production of these four notes and the ear became accustomed to the sonic balance of the piece, what resulted was a highly effective, deeply meditative and endlessly moving piece in which the souls of performers and audience members are collectively at one with the music. Particularly effective were the moments where the flutes took up the same melodic material as the audience, creating a magical sonic blend of vocal and woodwind timbres. My only criticism is that the audience instructions would have been more effective if they had been written verbatim in the programme to allow for more effective communication of the unorthodox audience role.

Jonathan Mandeno’s “Le Tribolazioni de Pulcinella”, the most recent work in the programme, provided an enchanting finale to the concert. Described as a “musical enactment of Italian Commedia Dell’Arte”, each instrument in the seven-strong ensemble takes on the persona of one of the stock characters of Commedia theatre, interacting with one another both musically and physically in a manner again akin to Stockhausen’s “Licht” (and more aptly, his hallmark clarinet work “Harlekin”, although the composer assures me that neither piece was a conscious influence). A lively and action-packed plot ensues, packed full of flamboyant pantomime and slapstick violence. This adventurous dramatic context was a courageous framework for the piece, and one that could have easily fallen into imagination-limiting programmaticism, or, worse, overblown pastiche. However Mandeno approaches this framework with the perfect balance of subtlety and boldness, creating work that is humorous and entertaining, yet mature and intellectually engaging. Pastiche, when used, is nuanced and sensitive and there is enough abstraction in the work to allow the intellect and the imagination to find engagement. The music itself is bristling with raw, uncontained energy, matching perfectly the primal instincts of the theatrical archetypes portrayed. Complex, intricate, dramatically shifting textures and always busy textures gave this piece a sizzling sonic pulse that was both fresh and rousing. Mandeno demonstrates a great dramatic impulse, with each gesture carefully sculpted to the theatrical flow of the piece.

This piece was another tour de force for the outstanding Kenny Keppel, who portrayed the delightfully vulgar protagonist of the title with charm and flair. Mandeno’s clarinet writing is very accomplished and Keppel takes the entire work in his stride. Keppel won the audience over right from the outset, from his flagrantly mischievous entrance to the taunting backstage echoes of his final strains. Keppel demonstrates the same commitment to sound and character that made his performance of the Scholes so endearing. His every movement totally embodied his dramatic persona, somehow managing to be simultaneously mischievous, malicious, adorable, crude, seductive, brutish and lively with a physicality that matched both his own sound and also Mandeno’s varied musical colours. Particularly effective was a sexy shimmy that accompanied a particularly gaudy passage in scene 5.

Under the animated baton of John Elmsly there was a strong cohesion in the ensemble. The interactions between the clarinet and the various stringed instruments were handled particularly well both by composer and performers (including the spicy interchange with Alex Taylor’s Columbina and the heated tussle with Madeleine Lie’s Il Dottore) with Laurence McFarlane skilfully providing a sharp percussive backing track that flitted between slapstick sound effect and emotional narrative. Delicious cameos from Anglea Kong, Rachel Grimwood and Robbie Drage proved that this was an ensemble of first-rate musicians. Mandeno has a knack for bringing out an eclectic array of colours from his ensemble. In select moments, he allows the string section to shine past the charismatic woodwind writing in intricately complex, spine-tinglingly vibrant and occasionally pointillistic counterpoint. I personally found the piece lost its spark a little in the third and fourth movements, which seemed to resolve a little into placidity; however this had the upside of providing relief from the intense sonic explosions of the outer movements. Overall this was a powerful, colourful, invigorating and fresh piece, which worked equally effectively as both theatre and abstract concert music, securing Jonathan Mandeno’s place as one of New Zealand’s most exciting musical voices.

In a recent article in this same publication Alex Taylor and Celeste Oram advocated for adventurous programming that presented “the boldest work of the highest available quality” and also presented the very best international works “to build a frame and a platform from which our music takes off”, advocating for risk and flair over familiarity and conservatism. This concert did just that, presenting the fresh, the bold, the exciting and the daring, for the intrepid audience to sink their teeth into.

27 September 2013

Guest Post: Celeste Oram and Alex Taylor

The University of Auckland Clocktower

The Committee: Equinox


Music by Yvette Audain, Sarah Ballard, Leonie Holmes, Kevin Kim, Rohan King, Louise Webster and Peter Willis

Performers: Yvette Audain, saxophones; Sharon Baylis, viola; Felicity Hanlon, oboe and cor anglais; Ben Hoadley, bassoon; Kevin Kim, recorders; Tom Pierard, cello; Claire Scholes, mezzo-soprano

Guest post: Celeste Oram and Alex Taylor


It would have been much easier not to write this article. Then we would still have all the skin on our noses; no toes would have been stepped on; no feathers ruffled. But we sense a lack of in-depth and provocative music critique in our city, and hence a lack of incisive discourse surrounding the work of young(ish) composers. This makes us itchy and impatient. New Zealanders can be notoriously acquiescent; but this is not particularly conducive to a robust composerly environment. This article is hence written the spirit of wanting to start the conversations that desperately need to be had, but we don't hear anyone else starting.

This is not an attempt to divide and conquer. It is not an attempt to snatch ourselves more pieces of pie. It is absolutely not fueled by any petty sense of resentment. It is a genuinely determined effort to start a discussion about how Auckland composers (and more widely, musicians and artists) can work together to forge an artistic scene that demands more of us, that makes us better composers and makes our performers better musicians, that enthuses our audiences, and that we can take a great deal of pride in. Our only "agenda" is to write seriously good music, to advocate for a scene in which we can do so proudly, to seek out the terra nova: and encourage our fellow composers to do the same, so we can all write the best music we can.

As young composers, we are told that entrepreneurship is the golden ticket to what we do. Gauche is the undergraduate who embarks on their path thinking that putting the right dots on the page is enough to establish them and their music. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard the phrase "composers have to make their own opportunities", I would probably have enough in the kitty to negate the need for this comment in the first place.

It is, of course, a catchy mantra. It is a convenient paraphrase of the mentality drilled into each Gen Y-er, in any field: cementing our generation's individualism and cutting some slack for the larger establishment organizations that are likely to fail us. This aphorism's valuable merit is that it encourages young composers to reject complacency with the scene they find themselves in: to imagine what a music scene could and should be, and to empower them to make happen what they see lacking.

This aphorism's problems, however, lie in its potential for sanctioning mediocrity and deincentivising a composer's striving for excellence. At its worst, this mentality spawns patchy, self-indulgent vanity projects. By essentially bypassing the quality control of third-party peer reviewers, anything goes: if you write it, it can get performed. At this point, you might think, but it's just simple market economics: if the audiences come, they must be doing something right. Or perhaps, that the tastemakers in their ivory towers are all wrong - that we need grass-roots vanguards who will democratize the process and give each creative voice an airing. These are very valid points. But they don't leave room for imagining how this DIY attitude can be put to best use. For, at its best, this mentality can fire up a community that works together to insistently lift their game, make possible valuable opportunities, and shake the cobwebs off the establishment mausoleums.

An interesting case study to use in exploring these questions is a recent concert by The Committee, an Auckland-based composers' collective, whose stated mission is to promote the work of Auckland composers. The idea of a composers' collective promoting their own work is not without merit; new music needs advocates wherever it can find them. But it is also essential for a community of composers to discuss how such a collective can best serve the composers in its city, and best cultivate its creative community.

Last weekend's concert gave us a good deal of hope by proving two encouraging points. The first is that The Committee had secured Auckland Council's Arts Alive funding to support the concert. One little pohutukawa blossom of hope printed on the programme's back page shows that central funding bodies--specifically, and rightfully, Auckland-based ones--are amenable to funding our efforts. But receiving funding is a two-way transaction: both backs must be scratched. In other words, a venture that spends taxpayer money must genuinely believe that they are embarking on something that best serves and enriches their artistic community. Composers must put their best feet forward to their city, and offer to their audiences only that which shows the boldest of what we do, so they keep coming back.

Secondly, the afternoon's performances were notably excellent; the Committee have succeeded in getting high-caliber performers onside to do justice to the works presented. Auckland is lucky to have mezzo Claire Scholes, whose sensitive versatility and indefatigable adventurousness makes her an ideal advocate for new vocal music. I greatly look forward to seeing her, and other singers, showcased in The Committee's next concert in November, devoted to vocal music. It is always a delight to hear performances from long-time champions of new Auckland music, such as Ben Hoadley and Tom Pierard. And we are also lucky to have the chops of Yvette Audain and Kevin Kim--great players on unusual instruments--who, as composers themselves, have the potential of bringing extra insights to the pieces they approach. It is clear that our city is home to superb performers who are committed to the work of composers, and with whom very fruitful relationships can be forged.

But again, there is a flipside to this: as advocates for composers and their new works, surely a composers' collective could (and should) be more proactive in engaging performers more comprehensively in the development of new works. Composers are never best served by an attitude of "make sure we can get it together in a couple of rehearsals". Really really good music can be really really hard. Music that is really worth playing sometimes takes more than a couple of calls to make magic happen. Composers advocating for composers must never settle for the easy way out when it comes to negotiating with performers. Yes, I know, we're all busy, our pockets are all a bit thin, all the good musos are overstretched. But this is precisely why a composers' collective has a responsibility to foster good relationships with fantastic performers, to get them as fired up about our music as we are. Despite the professionalism and undoubted ability of all the performers on Sunday, there was no sense that they were invested in the music, that they were really risking something.

With these two essential batters--financial and human resources--run home, an independent composers' organization such as The Committee are in a unique and privileged position. Free from the sometimes turgid immobility of larger arts organizations, their scope for adventure and innovation is unbridled. The best service such a composers' collective can therefore offer is to champion the boldest work of the highest available quality that would not necessarily get airings by other performance groups. We are not convinced that, on the whole, last weekend's concert measured up to those three parameters.

Although one might expect a bewildering plethora of styles and tones in a line-up of eight new works, there was a disappointing flatness to the programme. Notable exceptions were the tightly-wound lines of Webster's Quicken and the compressed vitality of Sarah Ballard's Axis. To commission a fresh face, such as highly talented emerging composer Ballard, to add to the Committee's regular lineup resulted in a beautiful, sophisticated work that was the unequivocal highlight of the concert.  Holmes's Fourth Station, too, was gripping and poignant, if rather earnest. 

The flatness of the programme came from a lack of energy, and a lack of concision. The remaining pieces tended to suffer from a debilitating verbosity and a reliance on meandering modal lines without much rhythmic or gestural impetus. There must be a note here too about programming – we were presented with seven long pieces; I experienced this as a sort of extended malaise, broken most convincingly by Ballard's bold ensemble work. The curator's role is surely to provide balance, tension and relief in a concert programme, to allow the listener space and to present each work in its best light. In another context, perhaps flanked by propulsive miniatures, Rohan King's Temporal could have been strikingly meditative, but here, at the end of a long programme, it felt tired and overworked.
It's all very well to criticise the make-up of the programme, you might say, but these were new works – surely the commissioners couldn't have predicted what the composers would do? Two of the works were not in fact new: Holmes's Fourth Station, fit for purpose as part of an Easter exhibition celebrating the stations of the cross, is an impressive piece, and a suitable if safe choice. Audain's Hazine has had many outings, and for me epitomised the meandering sameness of the concert as a whole. These two slots were an opportunity to create greater rhythm and direction in the evening's line-up, an opportunity perhaps not best used. The programming reflected an aversion to risk that is perhaps inevitable from such a collective; what is chosen is what is least offensive to the greatest number of Committee members. And this is at the heart of why for me the concert failed: risk and flair were sacrificed in favour of familiarity and mediocrity, even and especially in many of the newly commissioned works. Conservatism for its own sake is surely the death of new music.
To begin to imagine what a highly successful and valuable composer-run performance platform might look like, let's offer the example of Sydney's Chronology Arts, founded in 2007 by then-emerging (now established) composers Andrew Batt-Rawden and Alex Pozniak. Chronology Arts have an audaciously ambitious vision for their support of emerging composers. Whilst commissioning and performing works from emerging composers is the bulk of what they do, they also facilitate professional and commercially released recordings of young composers' works, commission brokerage, and mentoring and professional development. Since its inception, Chronology Arts has premiered 130 new works by 80 composers - some internationally, such as kiwi Alexandra Hay. They are funded by the federal Australia Council for the Arts, the local Arts NSW and City of Sydney, and private donors. They collaborate with other local artists--dancers, video artists, photographers--and have jumped on the bandwagon of major festivals, including the ICSM World Music Days, when it was in Sydney in 2010. All this, dreamt up over a few beers (so I have been told) by two young and hungry composers who desperately wanted to lift Sydney's game.

To whinge that there is more arts money in Australia is to completely chicken out of facing up to why there is not a similar drive and vision among composers in New Zealand. Chronology Arts work bloody hard, but they have radically changed the new music scene in Sydney, and powerfully bolstered the careers of many young composers. Around the world there are countless instances of similar organizations.

And something else I'd like to put forward: a group that aims to serve NZ composers does not necessarily have to play New Zealand music all the time. If we want performers to get better at playing new music, if we want audiences to better understand and appreciate the crazy places we're coming from, it certainly won't hurt to engage them in the stuff that we know and love: to build a frame and a platform from which our music takes off. And there's a lot of karma at play in this business: to showcase the work of superb international emerging composers here in NZ is to open up avenues for NZ music to heard overseas. A parochial attitude only limits our horizons.

On a smaller matter, I personally was not convinced by the venue of the Clocktower. Yes, it's beautiful, yes, the in-the-round setup is highly effective, and yes, the mezzanine space was used well. But its hyper-sensitive acoustics brought out all the worst awkwardness of classical music concerts: the audience feeling paralyzed, like bugs in amber, lest the slightest shuffle or throat-clearing wrench the limelight away from the performance at hand. Why we continue to insist that internment in such an uncomfortable coffin is the most effective way to listen to and be engaged in music is completely beyond me. When interval comes as a relief, you know there's problems.

The Committee have a long and solid history behind them of supporting Auckland composers, and it is a legacy which ought to continue. They have the potential to offer a great service to new music in Auckland and beyond. But a concert such as this does not best represent the city's talent and creativity, nor does it do the greatest service to composers and the composition tradition in Auckland and beyond. If we as composers are committed to being fiercely innovative, to striving for excellence, determined to avoid stagnation and mediocrity, we need to have some more astute and discerning conversations about the kinds of channels we forge for our music.