Birthday presents from Stroma in Wellington

Wellington-based contemporary music group Stroma couldn’t have chosen a more engaging and demonstrably virtuosic ensemble piece than British composer Thomas Ad?s’ work Living Toys, with which to commence the celebrations marking their tenth anniversary as a performing ensemble. As well as beginning the concert, the piece also gave the evening its truly apposite title, one which seemed to express something of the character of each of the works chosen by the group, an alchemic sense of something having been created in each case which then evolved a life of its own - a metaphor, of course for all artistic creation, but particularly suited to the abstract medium of music. In other ways the sense of occasion regarding the anniversary wasn’t exactly writ-large or over-inflated by the group - the printed programme sweetly featured a modest image of a single burning birthday candle, accompanied by a “thank you” note to the group’s supporters for their encouragement and attendance at concerts over the years. It was the music that did the talking and the ensemble that brought it all to life - an anniversary celebration that proclaimed that Stroma meant to go on as it had begun, the implication being an intention to deliver at least ten more years of exhilarating chamber music.

One of a number of things that was pleasing about the concert was the programming of both New Zealand and overseas works - of course the “double whammy” of such an arrangement was the tacit proclamation that (a) home-grown works could stand alongside pieces by iconic composers such as Thomas Ad?s and Iannis Xenakis, and (b) local musicians had the skills and interpretative capacities to tackle the best of the contemporary crop, both from home and off-shore. The New Zealand works were freshly-minted, two of them world premieres ( Peter Scholes’ Relic and Alexandra Hay’s An Island Doesn’t Either), and a third, Jeroen Speak’s Silk Dialogue VI, receiving its New Zealand premiere at this concert. Incidentally, two of the musicians in the ensemble played in the world premiere of this work in Australia last year, clarinettist Richard Haynes (for whom the work was written), and flutist Paula Rae, from Melbourne. Rae had to be flown in from Australia on the day before the concert to deputise for Bridget Douglas, Stroma’s regular flute-player, but alas, flu-ridden and temporarily out of action.

Thomas Ad?s’ 1993 work Living Toys is a kind of chamber symphony in a single movement, but with clearly-defined, often insinuating narrative episodes (a detailed note by the composer was reproduced in the programme). The piece seemed to resemble a continuous interaction of confrontation and persuasion, the sounds alternating rapidly between the two states, with the sharp bite of some of the writing a perfect foil for the lullabyic character of the contrasting episodes, befitting the work’s prefaced programme - a somewhat elliptical account of a child’s dream-fantasies that blurs the divide between sleeping and waking. The raucous squeals of delight right at the work’s beginning quickly moved into narrative mode, with arabesques rolling around a bardic horn solo, the music going on to depict a kind of subconscious Jungian unfolding of imagery involving angels, extinct bison and space-age computers (the iconic H.A.L. from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey even makes an appearance!). Then there were connecting sequences whose anagram-style titles both helped to connect and further complicated the scenario. While it might seem invidious to single out single players in a performance of such a complex ensemble work, one must particularly mention Mark Carter’s brilliant trumpet-playing during the “militia men” sequence of the piece. Conductor Hamish McKeich directed with both energy and patience, steering the players through both concerted and fractured frenzies, and the equally compelling ghostings of timbre and colour that propelled and intensified the work’s course.

On the face of things, any music following Ad?s’ cornucopian inventiveness might seem to have a hard time making any kind of impression; but both Peter Scholes’ Relic and Alexandra Hay’s An Island Doesn’t Either provided soundscapes of such a different and distinctive order that one’s ear was straightaway led to contemporary equivalents of Schumann’s “different realms” of expression. Scholes’ relatively tonal style evoked a certain exotic element in his work’s colourings and an underlying suggestion of ancient ritual in its rhythmic character. The composer indicated in a programme note a certain fascination with Middle Eastern antiquity and its manifestations, stimulated by a visit to Egypt and the prospect of working with Arabic musicians, the harp-and-drum combination that opened the piece presiding over age-old processionals, then goading the ensemble into a lively primitive-sounding dance. Interestingly, Scholes cites the Locrian mode as the dance’s melodic “key”, emulating twentieth-century composers as diverse as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Sibelius and Britten in his use of this exotic-sounding sequence (a minor scale with the second and fifth notes lowered a semitone). I enjoyed the music’s concurrent states of mystery and clarity, judiciously worked by the composer.

Alexandra Hay’s An Island Doesn’t Either was a piece whose sounds were more hinted and suggested in effect than articulated, but as one moved into her aural world the many subtleties of timbre and colour brought innumerable impulses of delight to the careful listener. Verses written by the composer gave clues here and there as to the music’s direction, with phrases such as “chance unions are framed in watery free fall” hinting as much, one suspects, at the piece’s creative philosophical impulse as suggesting a poetic description. That tone and pitch were pared away almost to nothing created worlds of burgeoning potential involving gestures and timbres which were as likely to dissolve as coalesce, those “chance unions” given their freedom and charged with expectation at one and the same time. I enjoyed the feel of the underlying tensions which to my delight occasionally irrupted as scintillations, whose “ripples-on-a-pond” effect create resonances very much at the mercy of the same random impulses that influence our lives, whose grip upon existence on “the warm surface on this limb of archipelago” is of course as evanescent as each breath exhaled by the music that we heard. A bold and compelling work, realised by the ensemble with considerable sensitivity.

Jeroen Speak’s Silk Dialogue VI, composed in 2009, was written for and dedicated to the Australian clarinettist Richard Haynes, whom I had heard play with Stroma previously to stunning effect. This performance, more concertante- than concerto-like in effect was nevertheless astonishing in its virtuosity and sensitivity. The music reflected Speak’s current activity in both China and Taiwan, where he has worked since 2004, among other activities studying ancient Chinese music notation systems with a view to reviving some of the traditions in “new approaches to contemporary notation, instrumentation and tonality”. A feature of the new work was the use of snare drums by each player in addition to his or her own instrument, the resulting activation of percussion adding a theatrical element linked by the composer to traditional Chinese opera, as well as delineating the flow of time throughout the work. From the beginning, the music pulsed outwards and upwards, each individual burst of energy an almost systolic-like impulse countered by a gentler exhalation. These alternations gave rise to the idea of the sounds seeking light and space, inclined as they were towards buoyancy rather than weight, and accompanied by a gradual emptying-out of tonal and colouristic elements in the music. Speak’s researches into a particular aspect of Chinese notation involving a traditional instrument called the guqin (a kind of zither) emphasised his interest in the gestural aspects of the music-making, and suggested a certain kinship across centuries with independently-conceived soundscapes like those of Alexander Hay in the previous work. But the added theatricality of Speak’s music made a powerful individual impression, especially the clarinet’s increasingly desperate attempts to give voice to the growing abstractions, before resigning itself to seeming incoherencies, its gestures at the work’s end indicating a hard-wrought transition towards an even subtler language.

In attempting to sum up ten years’ worth of contemporary music performance Stroma very appropriately turned to the work of an iconic figure, Iannis Xenakis, often described as a true renaissance man because of the range and scope of his interests and activities both in music and other associated areas. His works touched every media, from acoustic, through electro-acoustic to multi-media; and his interests took in mathematics, experimental engineering, architecture and education. His work Thalle?n for fourteen instrumentalists dates from 1984, one whose Greek title suggests growth or germination leading to organic evolution, except that the composer stipulated the exclusion of all human gesture and expression in performance, thus denying conventional musical rhetoric and emphasising “a more impersonal sound-utterance” (for instance, Xenakis wrote on the front page of the score “vibrato is not permitted”). Theoretically, the plan sounds impervious, except for its realization via the same human element in performance, which sets up all kinds of creative tensions as different attitudes on the part of both musicians and audiences kick in. Be the approach one of acceptance or denial of the composer’s visionary directives, confrontations were bound to occur between participants in the exercise - not everybody would, I expect, want to buy into the composer’s “purification of the spirit” idea as a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoying the music. There was no question as to the music’s raw power, or its ability to engage with its listeners, as the opening “no holds barred” paragraphs demonstrated. Perhaps the composer might have found Stroma’s full-blooded performance manner too engaging, too expressive, as the players certainly seemed to put their energies on the line within the instrumental “blocks” and confront one another without reserve. As with the Ad?s work, the soundscape was occasionally saturated, the music’s intensely physical aspect at those times both imbued with and going beyond what the programme note (Xenakis’s own?) called “the heat of the human world”. My own reaction to the music was ambivalent - such unidentifiable realms as the composer’s sounds hinted at I felt both drawn towards and repelled by almost by turns, possibly reacting to the inevitable process of recognising such gestures as the players were visibly making, and then struggling to equate my expectations with what I heard, and drawing back in search of more solid ground on which to put my feet. My enduring memory of the work is a sense of a mid-life melt-down crisis (contrasting markedly with the feeling of things thrusting upward suggested by Jeroen Speak’s work), followed by energised reawakenings of those same instrumental blocks registered earlier and their incorporation into a march-like processional, whose short-lived but unashamed theatricality occasioned brassy shouts, percussive roarings, shimmering strings and trilling winds. What was Xenakis thinking of? Drama and interaction such as this surely tends to stimulate, not eliminate, “human” gesture.

Presumably, reactions such as the above keeps the skin of music porous and moist and stimulates the heart still beating within (more human imagery? - what is this reviewer thinking of?). At the concert’s end the enthusiasm of the audience for the performances, the programming and the occasion must have gladdened the sensibilities of Stroma’s players and administrators. It struck me that people at the concert who regularly go to hear the NZSO wouldn’t have failed to register familiar faces from orchestral ranks among the ensemble’s personnel, suggesting lines of connection between what’s considered “establishment” and the newest music, and helping to break down the “that” and “this” divide which puts art in pigeonholes, to everybody’s long-term disadvantage. On that count, Stroma represents a powerful force for new music across a wider spectrum than its own performance schedules. But considering simply the ensemble itself, one looks expectantly towards the next ten years and wishes the group a similarly fruitful and richly constituted twentieth anniversary celebration.

- Peter Mechen, middle-c