11 March 2014

Review: 175 East 'New Music' - Jonathan Mandeno

the Loft, Q Theatre, Auckland, Sunday 9th March, 5pm

Music by James Saunders, Eve de Castro-Robinson, Tim Parkinson, John Lely, Samuel Holloway
Performers: Luca Manghi, flutes; Donald Nicholls, clarinets; Andrew Uren, bass clarinet; Sam Rich, percussion; Alex McDonald, viola; Katherine Hebley, cello; David Kelly, keyboard
Artistic director: Samuel Holloway

Review by Jonathan Mandeno

Under the directorship of Samuel Holloway, 175 East is boldly putting forward more challenging new works than ever.  While these can range from the sublime to the exasperating, it is always gratifying to be given access to such radical experiences, which provoke us to think deeply and critically about music and art. 

At Sunday’s concert the programme moved seamlessly between order and randomisation.  It is the second time in a row UK composer James Saunders has been featured, last time with the technically ambitious but utterly gruelling 511 possible mosaics.  This second work was in many ways the complete opposite.  AT LEAST ONE HUNDRED DEVICES BEING TURNED ON AND OFF was written for a centenary celebration of John Cage, and did exactly what it said on the tin.  The audience was faced with a kaleidoscopic array of whirrs, hums, clicks and roars from an impressive battery of fans, weed whackers, mixers and lightsabers which the performers darted around, finding scintillating timbral combinations between them.  Exuding a typical Cagean philosophy, much of the process of creating music happens on the part of the listener, whose imagination is left to make musical sense out of the sounds being presented.  As rewarding as this is, I couldn’t help but feel that Saunders brought nothing new to the table.  It was a reiteration of a statement that Cage made over fifty years ago with works like 4’33” and Water Walk.  In the light of historical context, what  was radical then seemed little more than gimmickry now, once you looked past the visual/aural spectacle.

The snare drum was featured as a solo in two of the evening’s works, and between them no surface of the drum was left untouched.  Percussionist Sam Rich distinguished himself by performing with accuracy and an admirable attention to detail.  Eve de Castro-Robinson’s whisper was written as a eulogy to Iannis Xenakis.  Part miniature and part performance art, Rich was seated with drum cradled on lap which he lightly tapped and scraped with fingertips, then producing a ghostly whistle across the snares, making sounds of astonishing tenderness and moving intimacy.  With every movement measured and ritualistic, the sparseness and cunning spacing of events helped one lose ones sense of time, despite it being the shortest work on the programme by far.

While played on the more traditional surfaces, Tim Parkinson’s snare drum provided an extended exploration of the instrument’s sonic capabilities.  It began with a driving repeated beat centre-drum, then moving outwards around the skin providing a tantalising string of morphing timbres. From the dull thud of the centre to the bell-like overtones on the edge, every sound was treated with the precise touch of a jeweller.  Yet more sounds were explored with snares, fingers and rimshots, and monotony was adroitly broken with strategic pauses and deft shifts in rhythmic pattern.

Bookending the concert were two ensemble works that shared a similar sonic plane, although their approaches were extremely different.  Opening the concert was John Lely’s Symphony No.3 (The Parsons Code for Melodic Contour).  Notated using the Parsons code, the players are given the indication to move their pitch up or down, but by how much to move it is left to the individual.  The work consisted of evenly spaced sustained notes, and the freedom allowed to the players brought forth a rich and constantly shifting harmonic tapestry.  Such a composition highlighted the skilled ensemble work of the players, who seemed to relish the sonic exploration of each chord while also exhibiting the discipline to move as one, often returning to a unison note as something of a ritornello.  The mood was hypnotic and lulling, to the point where subtleties such as extended stretches of silence were deafening, and where the music happened to occasionally alight on the familiarity of a triad the effect was electrifying.  Sadly, the long runtime of the work coupled with its determined lack of variation in rhythm, dynamics or orchestration meant it ended up overstaying its welcome somewhat.

According to the programme notes, composer Samuel Holloway has “been thinking a lot about literalness in music.  Also: the movement in perception between singular forms and their constituent events/objects.  And: how relationships form and meaning accrues even when you try to avoid them.”  He invited us to consider these questions with his massive work Things, an exploded jigsaw puzzle of a piece where every page of the score was host to a single musical event, replete with a solemn pause between each.  Confrontational in the extreme, painstakingly methodical and unapologetically long, Things nonetheless forced one out of listening complacency to regard every single note and harmony with concentrated attentiveness.  In doing so, one became more acutely aware of patterns and relationships forming between each event, in spite of the gaps:  A snatch of something approaching a melodic line, notes traded between players, unisons or even the occasional suggestion of a cadence.   If this was the object of the experiment, the bold[bald]ness of it perhaps made it a success.  However while all music has pattern, pattern by itself is not music, and as we crept round to the thirty minute mark I couldn’t help but think about other admittedly more airy-fairy (but in my opinion no less essential) aspects of music.  Music is also imagination, provoking or provoked by an instinctive response.  What of music’s potential to transport the listener emotionally, psychologically or spiritually – the things that make people remember the experience, and the things I began yearning for.  Are these more metaphysical elements able to survive under the intense glare of Holloway’s microscope?

175 East again proved itself to be on the cutting edge, and the expertise and dedication the performers bring to each performance is something we are fortunate to have in Auckland.  For all the challenge and intellectual stimulation the concert provided though, perhaps the programme could have benefited being leavened ever so slightly - if only to give the exceptionally patient audience some respite to help them through some of the more austere moments. 

A note from the editors: Please note two reviews of the same concert have been published. We recognise this is uncommon and see it as a progressive and innovative to have more than one view on an event. Please also read Celeste Oram's review

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