12 December 2013

Review: 175 East

Q Theatre, Loft

Music by Philip Brownlee, James Saunders and Dorothy Ker
Performers: Ingrid Culliford, flutes; Donald Nicholls, clarinets; Andrew Uren, bass clarinet; Tim Sutton, bass trombone; Sam Rich, percussion; Robert Ashworth, viola; Katherine Hebley, cello; Bella Zilber, double bass; Hamish McKeich, conductor
Artistic director: Samuel Holloway

Alex Taylor

A 175 East concert is a keenly anticipated event amongst Auckland's new music community, guaranteed to present a unique and challenging programme. Artistic director Samuel Holloway has continued the group's staunch advocacy of both New Zealand composers and composers from the UK and Europe, especially those works with an uncompromising conceptual framework. A 175 East concert makes no apologies for demanding the attention and engagement of its audience; it is one of the few music events on the Auckland calendar that consistently provokes discussion and divides opinion. Some critics have opined 175 East's concerts as opaque or even hostile, committed to a particularly austere aesthetic. I would argue that this brand of combative listening experience is fundamental to Auckland's cultural life, encouraging us out of familiar and passive modes of listening.

In recent years 175 East's core instrumental line-up has shrunk to a handful of key members, so it was heartening to see the inclusion of new blood and a wider instrumental palette. Many of 175 East's early commissions included percussion, which has been generally absent for some years, but Sunday's concert was a percussion revival of sorts, featuring in ensemble works by Philip Brownlee and James Saunders. Brownlee's Tendril and Nebula was delicately crafted, with particularly nuanced percussion writing bookending the work. Mallet man Sam Rich proved himself equal to the task, bringing a taut and deliberate approach to his playing, a good foil to the rather relaxed style of some of the more experienced members of the ensemble. Tendril and Nebula for me had an appealing looseness to it, an organicism with roots in free improvisation, where other works in the programme seemed more tightly structured, albeit in decidedly non-linear fashion.

Just as Brownlee's work was bookended by reaching and receding tendrils of percussion, the concert itself was framed start and end by the two works featuring percussion. James Saunders's 511 possible mosaics presented a fascinating matrix of modular sounds, here sixty different “variations” of an eight-bar musical fragment. I say “variations” because these sixty repetitions are exactly identical except for which of the six instruments are participating in any given iteration. The work is completed when all possible instrumental combinations have been performed. I found myself alternately gripped with boredom and captive fascination, the distinctive but homogeneous sound of larger permutations of the group periodically undercut by more characterful solos and duos. Particularly effective was the late introduction of the percussion, waiting ominously in the back row, and the zippy contributions of Tim Sutton's muted trombone and Bella Zilber's double bass. Advocates of new music often complain that we need repeat listenings to fully appreciate a new work's language and craft; Holloway here let us listen sixty times, and I was surprised how much I became aware of changes in harmony and texture, each voicing containing its own very individual palette and character. I found myself inexorably drawn to the end of each repetition, where the scurries and stipples broadened out towards something sustained and tangible.

Saunders's other work on the programme, instruments with recordings, was a very different beast, although just as forceful in its exploration of a particular sound world. Abrasive, mechanical electronic sonorities, both harmonic and inharmonic, were joined by flute, trombone and cello. The entries and exits of these instruments drew attention to particular changes in the spectra of these huge monolithic columns of sound, although I wondered if closer attention to intonation could have produced a more brilliant and convincing intersection of the mechanical with the organic.

Nestled within the shiny boundaries of those two Saunders pieces were two works by UK-based New Zealander Dorothy Ker. Le kaléidoscope de l'obscurité, written in 2004 but revised for this performance, bore structural similarities to Saunders's 511 possible mosaics, insofar as gestures were largely small and self-contained, obscuring a linear reading of the work. For me this piece had a paratactic quality, reaching back and forward across fragments, residues reappearing and disappearing. I was reminded of the work of American poet Lyn Hejinian, whose prose-poetry autobiography My Life encapsulates this paratactic, non-linear quality, discrete sentences accumulating a massive network of sensory and linguistic connections. Many of Ker's gestures had a similar sensuousness: recurrent deep, rich chorales that swelled to broad plateaus; tactile flurries of amplified double bass pizzicato; melifluous bass clarinet licks touched with whimsy. As much as the kaleidoscopic effect of the work was jagged and dazzling, and at times startling despite its ephemerality, I longed for a few more moments spent hanging on those velvety bass chords.

Ker's Reef, a world premiere, seemed in this context almost a magnification, a concentration, of the opening swelling gesture of le kaleidoscope de l'obscurite. But here the process and residue of that ebb and flow was much clearer, more linear. Ingrid Culliford's flutes were expanded timbrally, both by the other instruments in the ensemble (including a star turn from Donald Nicholls on scampering piccolo clarinet) and through amplification. Culliford's liquid, dextrous lines left rich patterns on the texture of the music; one particularly exquisite moment came near the centre of the piece where the flute left a long static wake, edging towards inaudibility. When this moment shattered in an almost rude clarion call from the bass clarinet I found myself strangely perturbed; this concert had thrown up so few of these overtly dramatic structural points that its sudden impact felt alien. This reconfigured my attention back towards the gestural, the momentary, and though initially jolted, I listened almost vigilantly for the rest of the concert.

175 East continues to impress: with the opportunities it provides for its listeners to engage; with the dynamic interplay of the works themselves within a programme; with the quality of composition and performance; and most of all with the chance to reconsider and reshape how we listen.

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