21 November 2016

a New Zealand composer at Darmstadt

Deep in amongst the riches of our cultural archives, there’s a wonderful recorded interview between two New Zealand composers: Jack Body and Douglas Lilburn. They’re by no means household names, and yet they are arguably two of the most important and influential musical figures in our cultural landscape. Part of their conversation goes something like this.

Jack Body: Can you tell me, when you have to fill in your tax form, under occupation, do you put “composer”?
Douglas Lilburn: No in fact I don’t. I would use a word like musician, which seems to have a general coverage of what I do, and the word’s readily understandable to anybody, even tax collectors.
JB: Have you never used the term composer?
DL: Oh yes I’m sure I did, especially in early years, because when one’s young one takes oneself much more seriously, and it seemed quite a natural thing to do then.
JB: Did you find at any point that you felt that had to assert yourself as a composer, as a valid profession?
DL: It was perhaps a bit of a strange occupation when I began it, here, but on the other hand, as a student in London it seemed a perfectly natural thing to be, and later in Christchurch there was a large group of people who took themselves quite seriously as painters, as writers, as poets, and musicians, and so it seemed to me quite a natural thing to set up business as a composer. I mean all those writers and painters I knew listened readily to music and could talk very intelligently about it, in fact they gave me a lot of encouragement at that time. And of course I was learning a tremendous amount from them too.

I think Lilburn’s deflection here is telling. Whether or not he asserted himself as a composer is to him beside the point: he simply did the “perfectly natural thing”, and went about the business of being a composer.

Perhaps I’m one of those younger people Lilburn mentions, taking themselves rather (too?) seriously. I’ve started putting “composer” on my arrival and departure cards. (Whether anyone actually reads those, I’m not sure). I do feel it’s important to assert myself as a composer, however silly or peripheral it might seem to others, or whether it’s readily understandable to tax collectors. Our work in the arts is valuable, but we have to remind ourselves of this, to assert that value. As a composing community we’ve inherited Lilburn’s generosity of spirit, Body’s fostering of artistic networks, the friendliness and respect they both had for peers and students. But we’ve also inherited their humility and Lilburn’s reticence. We’re reluctant to trumpet our own, even each other’s, achievements; we tend to see ourselves as cultural outsiders; we’re not effusive in writing or talking about music, in documenting our cultural heritage.

So as much as I’m interested in pursuing a career as a composer, I’m also interested in developing the discourse around music here. We ought to take Jack Body’s lead above and ask each other questions about what we do and why we do it. Writing and talking about music is a way of sharing experiences, but also of articulating our strengths and weaknesses, how we might develop and celebrate our art. Mostly I think of it as a crucial supporting infrastructure: it’s difficult to imagine New Zealand literature without Landfall, or New Zealand music without the Nelson Composers Workshop.

In this spirit I found myself signing up for a music journalism course at Darmstadt, one of the biggest new-music festivals in Europe, and the home of the post-war Avant-Garde. In two and a half weeks we created screeds of content, from reviews, interviews and op-eds to producing and presenting full-length radio shows, with guests from Brian Ferneyhough to Jennifer Walshe. As well as the intensive writing and radio workshop, my days were filled with a plethora of weird and wonderful concerts, lectures and discussions, not to mention all the brainy people I met and the unusual performances I got roped into (think group Tai Chi with theramins, disco balls and birdcallers).

One of the composers I interviewed was Klaus Lang, who spoke not only about his relationship to musical time and notation, but also about composers as a community. He said that we tend to think of composers as these individual creators, but that actually we’re all sharing the same questions and as a community working towards answers to those questions. The composer, the artist, is not a lone wolf, but a product of the times and the community. This is an extract from his lecture “Love and Notation.”

“If we read War and Peace by Tolstoy, he elaborates on one basic idea: he says that it’s not the great individual, not the solitary genius that directs the masses and creates history, but on the contrary, like a surfer, he or she is riding on the wave of history. he is not leading, but is driven; he is not creating history, but he is a creature made by history. The individual is like a focal point in which the effort of many is concentrated.
[…] The ideology of competition has become the dominating theoretical model to be applied to all areas of our lives. Competition makes us dependent on other people and their judgment, and forces us to see ourselves and other human beings in a very narrowly restricted way, as competitors. In this ideology there is no mutual help or support, no solidarity. Human beings are seen as solitary fighters that fight for themselves in a hostile environment.
This pop-Darwinism, which is one of many possible worldviews, is being propagated to be the only true and scientific one. More than a hundred years ago, Mr. Kropotkin proposed a completely different and much more humane worldview. According to him, improvements are based on the principles of co-operation and mutual support. For him the fundamental values are love and empathy and caring, and not competition and aggression.
It is absolutely absurd for me to think a composer should try to compose better than his colleagues. Whenever one composers, one tries to give one’s best, and tries to do his work as well as possible, and should not be distracted by the thought of competition. Quality lies always in the thing itself.”

In a place of such conviction and intensity, and a fair amount of self-righteousness, it was striking how humble Lang was, how much he valued and learned from the exchange between teacher and student, how much he cared about the wellbeing of the wider community (certainly in the abstract sense). And it reminded me of the specialness of our scene here in New Zealand, where everyone knows everyone, and (mostly) we all get along.  Witness the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, New Zealand’s premiere composition prize. This year the three finalists have been announced, and 22-year-old Salina Fisher is up against two of her former composition teachers, Chris Cree Brown and Ken Young. And regardless of who wins, everyone will be happy about it.

No matter how well or poorly connected you think you are, there’s never more than a couple of degrees of separation, and always a sense that we’re all part of it together. You can rock up to the Nelson Workshop as an undergraduate and on the first evening find yourself sharing a bottle of wine with Chris Gendall and talking shop with Eve de Castro-Robinson over dinner.

We’re quietly proud of this. Visiting composers often comment on how friendly we are with one another, how the competitiveness you find rampant in European countries or in the States is almost completely absent here.

It's important that we support each other, in a wider music community where being a composer sometimes feels like being at the bottom of the food chain. But the flipside to a tight, friendly community is the difficulty (or perceived difficulty) of critique. We’re protective (understandably!) of our patch, and the people in it. It’s hard to take criticism at the best of times, let alone from a friend or colleague, or indeed to give criticism to someone whose work you respect and whom you know personally. But I would say it’s too easy, and in the end a bit stultifying, to sit together in a bubble patting each other on the back, retelling the same stories, simply because it feels good to do so. And I would also say that mutual support and criticism and discovery are not in fact at odds with one another, that they are in fact synergistic.

But it’s a difficult balance. To compare music with rugby might seem perverse, but I found myself very much relating to a recent Spinoff interview with rugby columnist Chris Rattue, who said:

“New Zealanders are quite insecure about the national identity. They get very defensive about anything they feel is sort of non-patriotic. On one side, we have this overly patriotic ‘can’t criticise New Zealand’ crowd, then on the other side you have someone like me, who people deem to be overly critical. We’ve never been strong in that middle ground of putting ourselves into perspective without using a sledgehammer.”

Klaus Lang had reminded me of New Zealand but his comments had also pointed to the importance of questioning and reflection. What was refreshing (and a little bit scary) about Darmstadt was that the questions were being asked, shared even, and that the community seemed genuinely interested in dissenting voices. For example, there was a huge push (led by composer Ashley Fure) to re-evaluate the canon of the European Avant-Garde from a feminist perspective. Perhaps inevitably this ruffled a few feathers, in a historically male-dominated and conservative institution like Darmstadt. But the response to the GRID project (Gender Relations in Darmstadt) was overwhelmingly positive, and it showed a real willingness, particularly from younger generations of all genders, to critique the status quo.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being at Darmstadt was being part of that culture of questioning. I asked my own questions. Or rather we did, myself and fellow New Zealand composer Celeste Oram. It was obvious from the GRID project research that Darmstadt had been dominated by a handful of mostly European luminaries – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, John Cage – but where did New Zealand fit in? Did people care?

There’s that slightly awkward moment when you introduce yourself to someone overseas, at a festival or whatever, and when you say you’re from New Zealand there’s usually first some surprise and curiosity. And then, understandably, some attempt to pin New Zealand to a European thing, a canon tradition that they know: “where are you studying?” “somewhere in Europe, no?” “Is there much of a scene down there?” “Oh, Liza Lim’s from Australia isn’t she!”
In an interview with the Lumiere Reader’s Joan Fleming, Eleanor Catton expresses a similar thought:

“People generally seem surprised that I live there, as though New Zealand is a place to be from rather than a place to be. They ask if I’m moving to New York or London soon. But there’s rarely a sense of connecting my work to the work of other New Zealand writers, or placing me in the context of a tradition. I’m not sure if there is a very real sense, overseas, of what New Zealand literature comprises.”

Part critique and part celebration, part history and part hoax, was our show “The Unauthorised History of New Zealand Music”. In our own imperfect and highly personal way, we tried to join some dots, and to give Darmstadt folks an idea of our particular corner of history, a sense of what New Zealand music might comprise. We were interested in how New Zealand composers and their music had intersected with each other, with Darmstadt, and with the wider world; variously rejected, ignored, met with curiosity, warmth, acclaim, alarm.

Cliques had already formed at Darmstadt: by language, instrument, country of residence, tastes. The Italian guitarists raved about Lachenmann; the American West Coast composers dug Takasugi and Walshe, who exhorted you to “find your tribe.” My tribe, as I saw it, was tiny: the New Zealand contingent. Apart from relatively brief though memorable visits from Sheffield-based composer Dorothy Ker and Berlin-based composer Antonia Barnett-Macintosh, the New Zealand contingent was two-strong. Myself, feeling initially a bit like an impostor - a not-very-avant-garde composer here ostensibly as a journalist and trying to fake his way through making radio and practising Tai Chi – and Celeste Oram, who when not undertaking her composition PhD in San Diego makes an excellent partner in crime.

It’s quite possible Celeste and I could be taken to task for crimes against New Zealand music with our fast and loose take on “history”. In which: Aaron Copland calls Lilburn’s music “stodgy”, Jack Body and Ross Harris argue, Pierre Boulez gets drunk on New Zealand Pinot, Annea Lockwood and Pauline Oliveros plan ‘female chauvinist’ concerts, Jenny McLeod throws a harmony textbook overboard on her way to study with Messiaen. And much more of course. Perhaps this was our own quasi-mythology to sit alongside the more established myth of the reticent Man Alone New Zealand Composer: our own way to get a few dissenting voices at the table.


It’s probably a little self-indulgent to say so, but there was something special about presenting a New Zealand Music History, however partial, at Darmstadt. It was a way to say, this is our tribe. We’re still discovering it: there’s so much to be found if you go looking. 

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This article was written for the Arts Foundation's Applause magazine in September.

21 September 2016

GRID, Darmstadt and Jenny McLeod

Recently I was in Germany, attending the Summer Course at Darmstadt, an intensive new-music festival for composers, performers, academics and music writers. While I was there, it was virtually impossible not to become aware of the outstanding work being done by GRID, a research project led by composer Ashley Fure, to document and critique gender representation in the Darmstadt archives. Fure had compiled a range of imformative statistics, perhaps the most glaring of which is that in the first twenty years of Darmstadt (1946-1965), only eight works by female composers were included in the programme. That's out of a total of 1362 works programmed in those years: slightly less than 0.6%. With the help of many other researchers, Fure also aims to document and rediscover the work of those in many cases now relatively little-known female composers. 

[You can read more about GRID, which has grown into a substantial feminist movement, here https://griddarmstadt.wordpress.com/]

One of the few female composers (and one of the few composers from the Southern Hemisphere) represented at Darmstadt in the early years was New Zealander Jenny McLeod, who having studied in Europe with Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen was appointed Professor of Music at Victoria University of Wellington at the age of twenty-nine. While I was in Darmstadt Jenny’s name came up, and I asked her a few questions via email. ­

Alex Taylor: What brought you to Darmstadt in 1965? What was your experience of the course like?

Jenny McLeod: I had been awarded a two-year NZ Arts Council scholarship to study music as a post-graduate in Europe (1964-66) and had already spent my first year at the Paris Conservatoire in Messiaen's class. (It was I who had chosen Europe - in those days it was for me the only place to go, and Messiaen was the main teacher to draw me irrevocably.) Time was precious and I didn't want to waste any, so it was important to take in as much as possible during the summer as well.  I wanted to meet the European avant-garde head-on, come to grips with it and understand it.  After the year with Messiaen I had already spent three weeks in Basel on an early summer course with Boulez (along with a bunch of my other Messiaen ex-classmates and several of their friends, all French) - then some of us moved on to Darmstadt, and also moved on the following autumn to Stockhausen's class in Cologne.

I had also bought somewhere (maybe from Ivan Whitehead - [New Zealand composer] Gillian's father, a music-seller, used to offer a brilliant range of contemporary music scores and literature at the Cambridge [NZ] summer schools at St Peter's School in Cambridge in the early 'sixties) all the (English) issues of 'Die Reihe', which I had been reading.  I was puzzled by certain passages here and there. Imagining that by going to Darmstadt I would be at the 'heart of the avant-garde', so to speak, and that there I could learn all I needed to know, when I got there, I began asking various people if they could tell me the meaning of these various passages that had stumped me.  To my severe disappointment, nobody could tell me a thing - nobody else understood the meaning of these puzzling passages either! (not that I could even tell you now exactly what these passages were).  But for me, it was rather like a case of the 'Emperor's New Clothes' - what was all the fuss about then? My first experience, really, of a musical 'scene'. 

I think now I had probably expected eloquent and inspiring discourses based on some sort of unimaginably superior rationale, from high musical beings who were somehow leading the rest of us confidently into a new world. (At least, this was the sort of impression I had more-or-less been given by Freddy Page, who had earlier encountered Darmstadt, and particularly Boulez also.)  But that was not what I found at all.  The Darmstadt concerts were okay, can't now remember any of the music I heard, and the only workshop I can now remember was a highly entertaining flute workshop by that native virtuoso Italian flautist Severino Gazzelloni.  

The workshops I encountered later in Cologne, during Stockhausen's course - given by conductor Michael Gielen, and members of Stockhausen's ensemble, Siegfired Palm, Christoph Caskel, Aloys Kontarsky - were much more serious affairs where we had to do some work, especially for Gielen.  By comparison the Darmstadt 'workshops' were more or less for musical tourists, I surmised.

And that year at Darmstadt (1965) Boulez one evening gave what was for me a very unexpected talk, especially after his extremely engaging and successful course in Basel - I have never heard or read anything else like it from him, ever at all (you can find it reprinted in Orientations, I seem to recall).  He was actually quite depressed, and was finding his life as an avant-garde composer difficult, let alone having to stand up and speak about it - and he said so!  It was a totally surprising acknowledgment from one of the two most distinguished leaders of the avant-garde, and I never forgot it.  Later on I would take it more as a warning of what to expect myself, now and then.  The strangest thing of all perhaps was the fact that none of the rest of us ever discussed this talk at all.  Not a sound, not a word from anybody.  Into the black hole.

AT: What was the significance for you of having For Seven performed at Darmstadt (and conducted by Bruno Maderna)?

JM: I had nothing to do with organising the later performances under Maderna - the Stockhausen Ensemble and/or Stockhausen himself must have arranged all that.  In fact I think I did not even find out until afterwards, and nobody ever sent me any reviews.  I also very much regretted never meeting Maderna (a man and composer much loved by all who knew him, but who seven years later was already dead too soon).  

But I was very glad that the Ensemble had got the whole piece together finally, so that [percussionist, Christoph] Caskel eventually learned his whole part. At the Cologne premiere, he left out a few voices in his solo vibraphone part because he hadn't had time to learn them properly. He explained to me at the time (as an excuse?) that I had enlarged the performing technique of the vibraphone, with my extensive use of three and four sticks. Happily this did not prevent H. H. Stuckenschmidt, the wellknown writer on contemporary muisc, from giving this first performance of the piece a good review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

I think it must have gone down reasonably well at Darmstadt or they would hardly have played it again at the 1966 Berlin Festival.  On this latter occasion, [lecturer and pianist] Freddy Page was actually present and was astounded to find a piece by me on the programme! (Back in Wellington and covering his own sabbatical absence by teaching for him at Victoria, I hadn't warned him of this because I didn't know myself).  There were a bunch of Polish composers there in Berlin also, and when Freddy later went to Warsaw and met some of them (as he later related to me), they asked him if he knew me.  "I was her teacher," he related gravely - and after that, he said, everything went "swimmingly" in Warsaw, they couldn't do enough for him.  This would partly also have been because after Stockhausen's course had finished in Cologne, I had sought out Lutoslawksi's address in Poland and had sent him a score of For Seven asking him if he would teach me.  And he showed it to others there, so they had already seen a score in Warsaw before they heard it at the 1966 Berlin Festival.  

What would have interested them, I think, would have been the way I combined quite highly-wrought serialism with the more amorphous style of the Polish school (and this I got from Boulez's ideas in connection with Jeux [see Die Reihe} of 'background' and 'foreground.')  But anyway, Lutoslawski contacted me and we arranged to meet in the inner-city lobby of his hotel when he was passing through Cologne.  There in a quiet corner, surrounded by high glass outer walls, we had a sort of 'tutorial' together poring over my score, whereupon Lutoslawski told me he 'couldn't teach me anything' - whereas I believe on the contrary he could have taught me heaps.  But it was not to be, in any case, as the time turned out to be too short, and he was already too committed elsewhere.

Some years later, Aloys Kontarsky (who had played the piano part) visited New Zealand and at Judith Clark's house one evening I met him again, for the first time since Stockhausen's course in Cologne.  He was quite excited to see me again and told me that For Seven had gone really well at Darmstadt and Berlin.

Later still, in about 1993 or 4, when I was in Amsterdam and staying with my composer friend Peter Schat, during the Netherlands Opera season of his opera about Tchaikovksy, Symposion (for which I had translated the poet Gerritt Komrij's original Dutch libretto into English), we met on the street one evening the grand old man Walter Maas, 1945 founder of the Gaudeamus Foundation, and with dear old Walter was one of the organisers of the Darmstadt Festival (whose name alas I have forgotten).  But I was very surprised and chuffed to find that this gentleman still remembered my name and the 1966 performance of For Seven most enthusiastically (nearly thirty years later). He then promptly also invited me to write another piece for Darmstadt (which I never got around to, however).

But in 1966 Darmstadt had quite a world reputation as the top avant-garde festival, and Stockhausen's Ensemble, with its collection of virtuoso soloists, was the top avant-garde performing group in the world.  So despite my rather disappointing experience in 1965, I still felt it was a feather in my cap to be performed there, especially as the first composer from the South Pacific.   

AT: How do you more generally see the relationship between New Zealand music and the European Avant-garde? At the time, and now?

JM: It's not something I think about much any more, though I found I had to recently, when writing some extended commentary notes for the CD booklet accompanying my 24 Tone Clock Pieces (Rattle Records). At the time, there was a fairly tenuous relationship between NZ music and the European avant-garde.  Robin Maconie was in Messiaen's class the year before me, and also moved on to Stockhausen's in Cologne - but he had stopped composing, and he didn't go back to NZ for about the next thirty years.  He had a very bright, interesting and encyclopaedic mind, however, and he very soon started writing about (later becoming the world authority on) the work of Stockhausen, who even put him in charge of his website. Before Robin and me, only Ron Tremain, of the preceding NZ generation, had studied in Europe with the Italian 12-note composer [Luigi] Dallapiccola. (Gillian Whitehead studied with Ron at Auckland University, and I with him also, for a couple of years running, at the Cambridge (NZ) Summer School in the early sixties.) The others, such as [Douglas] Lilburn, [David] Farquhar, Bob Burch, Ted [Edwin] Carr had all studied in England when they were younger, and were temperamentally and psychologically miles away from Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez even, let alone Boulez or Stockhausen.  Fred Page was right into the 'New Music' however, and he kept going on sabbatical to Europe, and hearing more, and coming back to NZ and talking about it - also trying to play it.  Douglas [Lilburn]'s 1961 Third Symphony was ostensibly a 12-note work - but mostly (I believe) because he felt pushed into this by Fred the critic, in love with Boulez. Clearly it was not an experience he enjoyed very much.

I remember in my early years at Cambridge hearing Maconie (dressed in a long night-shirt, with bare feet, sunglasses and a funny little cap) giving from memory a concert performance of Webern's piano variations, Op. 27.  It was the first avant-garde music I had ever heard, and at first I thought it was a joke - until Robin came back and played it again, and I recognised it as the same piece. It was at Cambridge again in January 1963 that the celebrated cellist John Kennedy (father of Nigel, who would emerge later) played to the composers' class a tape recording he had made recently of Messiaen's Quattuor pour la fin du temps, which completely blew my mind.  This was the first time Messiaen's music had ever been heard in NZ, even on a recording.  After that, for me, I couldn't possibly have gone to England to study, I knew I had to get to Paris.  Meanwhile Gillian, whom I now knew because she had spent her honours year at Vic (escaping from Auckland, where apart from Ron Tremain there was little love for contemporary music, and the senior students had come into rather distressing conflict with silly old Charles Nalden, the then professor).  Gillian, whom I would describe as an 'independent' later took herself off to Sculthorpe in Sydney, and eventually to Peter Maxwell Davies in the UK. When she did go to Europe, she didn't go anywhere near any of the avant-garde centres, but (like Janet Frame) went to Portugal instead, and later lived for a while in Orkney, in as remote a location as you could think of.

I always felt that NZ was a good place for a composer to be, because from the edge of the world you can get a pretty good view of what is happening in the rest of the world whilst simultaneously remaining far enough away not to be caught up too much in partisan groups and fashions.  In order to find oneself as a composer it is necessary to meet and break through all kinds of resistance and obstacles.  At the edge of the world these are more likely to be inner than outer obstacles - apart from the never-ending obstacle of ignoranceand pretence in high places.  But over the years there proved to be plenty of partisan reactions in NZ also.  Nowadays (though I haven't really kept up with it all so much - too busy) I would say our best composers can hold their head up with confidence in any company, whether they actually live here or not.

Our greatest composer in my view is [Scotland-based] Lyell Cresswell, who holds his own brilliantly anywhere, and whose multiple influences have all long been assimilated into a powerful individual voice. The old avant-garde has spread across the world, though has by no means 'swallowed it up' - all the post-modernist movements have followed likewise, and there is still room for everyone.  Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen are dead, and people these days are asking where all the 'great composers' are anymore. The eternal search for the 'masterpiece', manifesting itself only among a handful of mighty spirits, was already a hangover of the nineteenth-century romantic aesthetic. This has subsided perhaps into a more substantial wave of honest artisans rather than partisans - since there are now also a lot more composers than there used to be, and many of these are indeed very gifted, and there are many, many more different voices - which is all right and good, if you ask me. The main difference now is probably that the European avant-garde syndrome is no longer new - in fact it is kind of old, even old-fashioned.

AT: From Ashley Fure's empirical research it seems like Darmstadt was overwhelmingly male-dominated - did that have an impact on your experience in darmstadt and perhaps more generally in your involvement with the European avant garde?

JM: You know, I seem to have gone through most of my life with my head in some sort of (mc)cloud?!  It simply never entered my head that my gender could possibly have anything to do with my work - and none of the people I met, great or small, ever seemed to question this either (or if they did, they never did so to my face). To me what mattered was obviously the quality of the work.  

Perhaps I was a surrogate male? I was always a bit of a tomboy as a kid, getting around building huts in my father's old khaki shorts, or excavating around the piles in the basement and collecting horseshit to grow mushrooms. As the oldest, I was the boss - my two younger brothers were my devoted slaves in mischief, at which we were rarely ever caught (there was the smoking club under the stairs and the nudist club up in the roof).  Girls often struck me as silly, their conversation bored me, and though I always had at least one close girlfriend, we never talked about 'boys' or 'clothes' or 'make-up' - mostly we laughed a lot.  Also, at school and university I always found things relatively easy, was normally top of my class everywhere I went, so this became my own expectation of myself (being not interested at all in what my parents might have expected of me, since I hardly agreed with whatever they thought about anything).  I never questioned that I could do anything I set my mind to - and neither apparently did anyone else.  If anyone had ever suggested to me that I couldn't do something I wanted to simply because I was a girl, I would have been outraged!  

Consequently I found the later women's movement initially rather hard to relate to. I didn't care to be described as a 'woman composer'.  Surely (if I am one) we are just 'composers', I thought - and we are all a mixture of male and female in any case, just like music itself.  Only later did I realise I must have been exceptional (since when young we tend to think that other people are just the same as we are).  I never really changed, however: I still think like this.



13 June 2016

Review: NZTrio at Q Loft

NZTrio: ZOOM

Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano

Q Theatre Loft, Sunday 12 June 2016

John Musto, Piano Trio
Chris Watson, Schemata – Three Views of an Imaginary Object
Elliott Carter, Epigrams
Alexander Zemlinsky, Piano Trio in D Minor op. 3

Review by Alex Taylor

NZTrio has been able to attract and sustain a substantial and committed audience over its lifetime as an ensemble. It’s my view that that has a lot to do with the trio’s programming: there is always a huge (sometimes bewildering) variety of styles, and always something to suit any tastes. Sunday night was no exception: the late Romantic Alexander Zemlinsky, the jazz borrowings of John Musto, and the post-Webernian modernism of Elliott Carter and Chris Watson.

For me the potpourri approach to programming succeeds on paper: it gets people interested and builds an audience from different corners of taste and experience. But I think it’s less successful in practice; personally I find it more satisfying to be able to draw connections across a whole concert. So it’s pleasing to see that the second and third concerts in NZTrio’s Loft series, GLOW and FLARE, have a more tangible sense of focus.

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John Musto’s Piano Trio showcased NZTrio’s characteristic precision and skill as an ensemble, the strings gliding elegantly over a piano-driven groove. Works built on ostinati and rhythmic patterning can often become rather earnest and wearing, but Musto’s trio mostly swung seamlessly from section to section, never jarring or forced. Nevertheless it was a relief when pulse-laden material gave way to spacious harmonic play in the second movement; this was Musto at his most sophisticated, with hints of Schoenberg and Thelonious Monk. Sarah Watkins gave us a dazzling opening to the finale with coruscating ascending scales, heralding a return to clean and compact showpiece.

NZTrio are generally masters of the pointed attack, and conversely of the more delicate feathery textures, but for me, this kind of jazz-heavy work needs a weightier, more grounded groove to lift it beyond merely a collection of stylish rhythm changes. Championing as they do the works of composers that draw on jazz and popular musics, the trio could polish further their impeccable technique with a deeper understanding of phrasing and articulation in those genres.

Having been written more than a hundred years before anything else on the programme, Zemlinsky’s youthful D Minor trio felt a mite out of place here, its closest cousin the neo-Romantic Musto. Pushing against the already fraying edges of Romantic tonality, Zemlinsky invoked Strauss in his relentless harmonic oscillations and lyrical intensity. In the intimate loft acoustic, the opening strains were rather strident, but the work itself is already unavoidably lush and dense, and the trio did well to sustain the line and drama through all Zemlinsky’s harmonic tangents. By the end of the three substantial movements I was in need of a palette cleanser.

Earlier, Chris Watson packed all the tension and surprise of a full-length work into three minutes of shudders and scurries with Schemata, guiding the ear through the corridors and crevices of an imaginary object. Here Cormack, Brown and especially Watkins were flexible but articulate, all the detail of phrasing in the score conveyed with impressive conviction.

On paper Watson’s Schemata and Elliott Carter’s Epigrams seem like a natural fit side by side in the programme, but in performance they revealed their differences in tone and temperament. If Watson’s Schemata had all the tactile finesse and shade of architectural sketches, Carter’s Epigrams were craggy, cryptic hieroglyphs.

At the age of 103 Carter neither wasted nor repeated a single idea; Epigrams is an unapologetic series of statements without ornament. That’s not to say that this is insensitive music; the hard edges – and stoic resistance to groove – threw into relief the more lyrical and fragile elements. Duets of glassy harmonics and tight scrambles of pizzicato were interwoven with raw blocks and dots of sound. Where Watson followed the tiniest inflections and curves, the instruments hanging and sliding off one another, in Carter’s work they felt brutally at odds, irretrievably perpendicular or parallel.