Stroma: Voices of The World
Thursday August 1
In a wide-ranging program that sought to show connections and cross-pollinations between cultures, between the scored notes of music and the more off-the-cuff field recordings of human and animal voices, of natural sounds (rainfall), once again the Wellington-based Stroma collective hit it out of the park. This was an extraordinary night of musical movements and entertainment.
We started with Rob Thorne (taonga puoro) blowing his way to the stage from the back of the auditorium, a mighty bullhorn held aloft. Once on stage he integrated with the evening’s core ensemble (Bridget Douglas, flute; Keir Gogwilt and Anna van der Zee, Violins; Ken Ichinose, cello; Matthew Allison, trombone; Patrick Barry, clarinet; and Alexander Gunchenko, bass.
An overture devised by Thorne, compose Celeste Oram and Beethoven saw a dramatic overture repurposed – updated, re-arranged. The program notes tell us it is part of an opera-project-in-process. It was a subtly thrilling start, the musicians all providing percussion to Thorne’s opening section before picking up their respective instruments as Thorne moved from horns to stones, bones, whistles and other found and devised noise-creators and music-makers.
Next was a traditional string quartet (Andrew Thomson on viola joining Ichinose on cello and the violins of Emma Baron and Anna van der Zee) to perform a short piece composed by Jack Body. Here, with shades of the Kronos Quartet, the strings stated a musical theme before punctuating a field recording of a duet performed by two Bouyi women. Body was given the tape by a musicologist friend and created a second ‘dance’ with the strings accompanying the voices he likened to a Bulgarian women’s choir. It was a short, compelling piece. A beautiful melody making way for the first human voices of the world, following the evening’s opening instrumental piece.
Anna Clyne’s A Wonderful Day saw a band of piano (Sarah Watkins), guitar (Callumn Allardice) and percussion (Thomas Guldborg) joining with cello, double bass and bass clarinet to perform an intriguing piece set around a field recording of an elderly American street performer singing and speaking.
The same group of musicians then attacked Julia Wolfe’s Reeling which featured a field recording of a French Canadian singer. Wordlessly the voice on tape created rhythmic mantras for the musicians to dart in and around. It was a clever piece of unfurling folk music, as the reel repeated and moved up in tempo the musicians were showing true skill as they basically rubbed their tummies and patted their heads, playing cross-rhythms over and under a blurr of vocalised syllables. It had Celtic notes for sure. A true world music piece.
John Psathas’ Irirangi (Meditation) was given its world premiere – with just Alistair Fraser (taonga puoro) and Bridget Douglas (flute) on the stage. From a slow beginning, Fraser providing the sounds of the bush, Douglas gently adding traces of melody we could feel and then hear the evocation of birdsong – and then the taped field recordings of birds, cricket, rain and a Pureora dawn chorus entered into the fray. Beautiful, haunting, beguiling work. When it was completed Douglas and Fraser took a bow, it was as if they had been ice-dancing together.
The evening’s closing piece featured Kiwi-born, London-based soprano Bianca Andrew with a piano-less ensemble of percussion, strings and horns to perform Folk Songs, a suite of re-composed tunes by Italian maestro Luciano Berio. Beginning with Black Is The Colour the eleven songs that formed this 1964 composition took us from America to Armenia, France, Sicily, Italy, Sardinia, Auvergne and Azerbaijan and as Andrew seamlessly moved through the texts the musicians, guided by NZSO conductor and Stroma co-founder Hamish McKeich, provided intriguing motifs and counterpoint. It’s an audacious work – essentially taking existing folk songs from a variety of geographic locations and re-arranging them, all but re-writing them, to offer them as one whole piece that moves and thrives.
Stroma’s shows are always a delight. Where previously I saw them focusing on rhythm this was more about melodies, about stylistic and cultural collisions and the new dialogues that occur when music is married to context-removed field recordings.
It was art music that was never too clever and always beautifully performed and easy to engage with; another triumph.
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