15 April 2014

Review: Intrepid Music Project presents New Blood - Chris Holdaway

Kerr Street Artspace, Auckland, 8pm 11 April 2014

featuring works by Glen Downie, Nelson Lam, Celeste Oram, Salina Fisher, Alex Wolken, Callum Blackmore, David Grahame and Reuben Jelleyman
performed by Sam Rich (percussion), Kenny Keppel (clarinets), Alex MacDonald (viola), David Framil Carpeno (accordion), Eric Scholes (bass), Peau Halapua (violin)

conducted by Alex Taylor
artistic direction by Alex Taylor
review by Chris Holdaway

Alex Taylor’s Intrepid Music Project series of new music concerts has operated out of Devonport’s Kerr St Artspace for some time now.  He’s developed a rotating cast of preeminent musicians, themselves intrepid enough to tangle with composers intent on creating great music, often well beyond conventional experience—not always an easy task in the world of the classically trained.  I understand the April 11 concert was something of a ‘fringe’ event to the Composers’ Association of New Zealand conference running during the weekend.  It also happened to be the most compelling show of contemporary music in my recent Auckland-based memory.

Every work was superlative in some aspect.  Each contributed to the concert waxing in a way that was—in various combinations at varying times—both wonderfully reckless and luminously crafted.  And I felt like there was a lot of music on this particular evening.  One had only to walk into the hall—perched on the side of Mount Victoria with its open rafters—to get an oozing sense of laboratory madness from the plethora of instruments lurking in all corners.  Like stumbling upon a weapons cache, which, with the North Head fortress just up the road, didn’t necessarily seem all that implausible.  Destruction ne’er too far from creation & all that.

8 works were programmed, for the most part occupying that ‘sweet spot’ of 5 to 10 minutes.  As a poet, this has always seemed to me a tough parameter of necessity for such outings.  We generally understand music as a broadly temporal art, one not necessarily as suited to aphoristic scales as text; one that takes time to unfold and work itself out.  So writing short music is hard; to not feel like it moves on too quickly, but still to ‘do’ something.  The way I have found myself thinking about a lot of the works in retrospect focuses on how they operated in a locative sense, taking that time frame as setting up a particular kind of space, Euclidean or non-Euclidean as the case may have been.  The way their vectors traversed is often what distinguished them for me in terms of scope.

This is true of Glen Downie’s Jive for Giuffre, which opened the concert.  Set up like a trio of the kind that inspired it (clarinet, upright bass, drum kit), I was interested in how the musicians navigated in a manner not immediately obvious, or familiar, to such a system.  Improvisation as an ideal always hints at the group mind in terms of psychology; the ‘all-over’ in aesthetics.  Not that it has to be synonymous with ‘improvisation’, but a lot of jazz music is constructed around individualist solos cutting through the web.  You could hear Glen’s musicians sitting back together like the Jimmy Giuffre 3 did in the 60s albums, to explore a more tempered, less abrasive mode of free jazz.  I was most impressed by percussionist Sam Rich, who, even when playing continuous figures in driving sections, never felt like a ‘drummer’ at a kit laying down ‘riffs’.  The best moments saw the percussion suddenly suck the other two instruments in underneath its dress, or spill like a liquid to occupy every crevice, but there was enough trading & separation so that you really noticed this happening.

I felt similarly about Alex Wolken’s quartet at the end of the first half, which presented the curious assemblage of sharp-edged accordion amidst more wholly mellow timbres (bass clarinet, electric bass, vibraphone).  The accordion’s sound is always excessive; endlessly on the verge of splintering into a thousand pieces.  Yet there’s also a deep, almost geological, drive in the background pulmonics.  If it seemed like the majority were working to take the edge off the accordion, to strip it back to its base, the most captivating experiences were brief revolts into the exact opposite, as if the vibraphone’s round tubes were replaced by spears.  Alex’s work was to me the most hamstrung by its brevity.  I really wanted to see how he could work out the network of flood gates & canal locks around the accordion in that instrumentation, and though what was exhibited riveted me, I’m not sure he really got to do that.

Nelson Lam’s two short movements was in some ways one of the more conservative, in terms of an abstract, string-heavy (violin, viola), identifiably contemporary setup—no programme notes offered beyond I. spectra; II. recoil.  But that being neither here nor there, the formal conceit that cropped up for me was the most interesting of the night; a question of timescales & relative perspective.  Long drones of the 2 instruments shifting over one another recalled for me similar figures frequently used by Steve Reich (particularly in Eight Lines), but isolated from any wider context.  Then, marked by more frantic passages, instead of temporal movement through a sequence, I had a distinct feeling of being projected in and out to view essentially the same structures from different ‘distances’.  The notes are this long only because that’s how close you are to them right now.

A similar duo setup existed for David Grahame’s still life (clarinet, viola), and was probably the concert’s most cohesive and stable piece.  While Nelson’s choice of individual notes came across as more complex, David’s work I think offered more guts by remaining, not necessarily feeling forced or obliged to go anywhere else.  The form of slowly offering successive tableaux of harmony may not be anything radical, but the particular tensions in gaps between snapshots here were able to show, or at least hint at, something beyond itself, without needing to explicitly tell of it, appealing to this reviewer’s particular taste for music that doesn’t require any great telos.  It filled out ideally into its own timeframe.

Celeste Oram’s eye music featured Sam Rich on percussion, alongside a video projection of Ella Mae Lentz performing her American Sign Language (ASL) poem of the same title.  To be clear, this is a poem native to ASL, not one that has been translated from a language of the hearing.  And so Celeste grapples with how traditions of setting text to music may or may not cope under a new strain.  Sam begins away from his percussion station, mallets in hand, playing the air, and obviously mirroring some manual sign actions from the video.  The on-screen poem ends.  He moves into the percussion station.  And it then plays again, mallets this time meeting vibes & blocks instead of air.  It was not until this point that I realised the first section was not just miming playing in general, but miming the exact sequence of actions to be performed on the instruments.  A third section sees musician play without accompanying video.  Thanks to complexity of both underlying concept & practical setup, this work was less seamless or polished than most of the others, but that is in many ways what set it apart, and may in fact have been crucial to its goal.  The silence during the opening mime sequence was a physical weight, like humid air.  You could feel Sam struggling, his movements incomplete, partially because he’s a percussionist, not a dancer (that I know of), but more that he’s forced to ‘speak’ without the apparatus that normally allows for ‘speech’.  Struggling as the hearing struggle to relate to the deaf, as the deaf struggle to simply live in a world that refuses to be built for them.

Interval was chased up by Callum Blackmore’s dramatic Unsavoury Liaisons, an homage to Stockhausen’s Licht opera cycle, reportedly swapping the “divine exchanges” of angels for the “mundane interactions” of the everyday.  Filing back into seats, the hall becomes suddenly set ‘in-the-round’, but ensemble rather than audience are at the periphery: percussion in front, accordion right, clarinet behind, conductor left.  Hemmed in, the audience is subject to an onslaught on all fronts, most noticeably from the conductor’s threateningly frantic gestures, & an accordion that seemed to conceal the power of a full orchestral string section.  Initially it feels like the composer’s theatrical scrutiny is on the audience, as the musicians do seem to just ‘play’ through the first Invocation section, and I can’t help but watch for those who try to defend themselves out of discomfort.  That is until the respective ‘solos’, where antics from opposing stations threaten to entirely derail focus.  For Accordion Solo, clarinet downs instrument to manically jump up, down, yell, spray deodorant on himself.  First, there’s the pressure of a terrified vanity in vulgar scented Lynx™, but also likely an obsessive hypochondria, especially in the viable parity with bug spray.  And so the two complexes become one another.  During Percussion Solo, accordion cackles apocalyptically, shredding newspaper over the instrument’s frame.  In Clarinet Solo, percussion first slices up a carrot, before choking on a bite of apple.  Coming to, he jumps in circles on the spot, feverishly counting, as if that’s what it takes to recover from the apple, or to escape from the nightmare.  All the while clarinet tries to noodle on.  It was completely wild, completely wonderful.  If I have one criticism, it is that the newspaper & carrot actions as actions as such were a bit ‘easy’; a bit Hmm, domestic…Oh! I know!  However, the absorption of these archetypes—complete with colander percussion—into a structure labelled by contextually absurd “invocation”, “tutti”, “coda”, produced a chiasmic projection of the crisis of the everyday as the crisis of existence, and the crisis of existence playing out every day.  I wouldn’t say he completely dispensed with the angels, however.  The Coda, with its delicate bow on bells, & empty accordion breath, gives the impression of suddenly looking upon the same scene from a vast, cosmic distance.  As if Mars were watching the battle.

The night’s final slot was taken by Reuben Jellyman’s pair of In Nomine à 5 II (violin, viola, clarinet, accordion, double bass, percussion), a reworking for six musicians of Nicholas Strogers’ original for five, and In Nomine, Gloria Tibi Spiritus (same except bass clarinet)—the most intellectual exercises of the evening.  The first piece reconfigures the 16th Century counterpoint towards having more requisite parts than available musicians, demanding increasing sideways mobility from players as it develops.  The steady pulse familiar to polyphonic music from that era remains, but shifting layers & timbres, as instruments manoeuvre into other pockets of the counterpoint, significantly dislocate the music from its time, into the uncanny space where something long-familiar now seems newly odd.  The second piece was of the composer’s own devising, driving the same In Nomine tradition towards a more explicitly contemporary end.  Extended techniques on the strings, & dry breath from the accordion & clarinet make sure of this.  In retrospect I find myself leaning towards the first, where the mismatch between deep source & actual realisation was more subtle; where you could only just feel things starting to change, rather than existing in a more stable zone already well-altered and becoming geologically solidified.  The accordion is an intriguingly odd timbre for music of that texture, and once again Sam Rich was heroic on percussion, his station allowing him to be fully immersed in the counterpoint, not just with the coded pitches on his vibes, but the complete array of his weaponry.

It should be apparent by now, but while all performers were outstanding, Sam Rich deserves a gallantry award for his efforts.  He featured in all but 2 pieces, and was made to leap through fiery dramatic hoops far beyond the job description.  But don’t think that this could do anything to diminish the inspiration of his ‘regular’ playing; an artistry of utilising different mallet weights & bows to have the vibraphone fully articulate variously suspended waterfalls of sound, perhaps mostly notably in Salina Fisher’s meditative painting Komorebi, a singular Japanese term that translates into English as something akin to ‘light that filters through trees’.  As a matter of personal taste, I have never been one to easily accept such uncomplicatedly sweet mediation of ‘beauty’ in nature; to expose only a very narrow view—a vein of naivety that is too easily weak…  I am interested in the grace of a system insofar as that is not the sole property of said system.  However, the programme notes state the piece as a response to the word.  So perhaps there is reason to argue that the extension is not at play here, rather, we explore a more heavenly realm of purely intensional semantics.  The constancy of high frequencies, & fullness of the vibe tone certainly could serve to abstract.

With its balance of wilderness & polish, & just the general tone of setup & proceedings, this concert confirmed emphatically the Intrepid Music Project’s cardinal place more than any other event in the series that I have been to (and I think I’ve been to all of them).  Musicians, composers, & convener are all to be commended.  Let’s do it again sometime.

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