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Pride review: After Lilburn

Sat 23 Feb 2013 In: Performance View at Wayback View at NDHA

Featured composer Gareth Farr After Lilburn Curated by Samuel Holloway Music Theatre, School of Music, Auckland University Friday 22 February With only limited musical insight and experience I knew from the first moment of After Lilburn last night that I was way out of my depth. As a reviewer of gay stuff, not cutting edge contemporary musical composition and technique, I realised all I could do is to convey my impressions and try to relate them to concert curator Samuel Holloway's enigmatic response to a question a few days ago: "Whether there is a ‘gay sensibility’ that can be located in the work of these [gay] composers remains, I think, an open question…" That first sound we heard, in Slides 3 by David Hamilton and performed by Luca Manghi, was produced by blowing strongly and directly through a flute, somewhat in the manner of a side-entry blow-pipe and sweeping it through the air like a scythe. The result is like a slow motion whip crack or what a striking snake might sound like if it had its own sound. It's a defiant sound, perhaps of something trapped lashing out at its jailer. Or maybe I'm being fanciful. If Slides 3 evoked impotent frustration and a touch of sullenness, Slides 8 seemed to see that tension released, some new and tentative experience was emerging between the sounds and notes Manghi produced. Unexpected sounds, soaring notes, delicate tonguing and rushes of energy followed by thoughtful pauses. Slides 3 and 8 were the perfect introduction into this world of barrier-breaking music which defies classic form and expectations. More than defies it... shatters it and builds something new from the shards. In wood : strings : hammers : flesh, performed beautifully by the NZTrio, Claire Cowan's unexpectedly percussive scoring of violin, cello and, especially, piano, almost relegated the music to the background. We marveled at the range of sounds knuckles, fingertips and palms can make on violin and cello bodies, strings, and the fallboard, rim and underside of the piano case - aside from the sight of a pianist practically climbing inside Mr Steinway's instrument to pluck, mute and do who knows what else to the strings and other hardware inside. Drama, intrigue, unexpected turns and aural and visual surprises blended with the actual music to fascinate and delight. Pianist Flavio Villani performed Alex Taylor's recent short work, constellations, with flair and just a dash of panache, unafraid of the pauses and cliff-hanging moments and relishing the power that contrasts in tempo and volume can achieve. Compared to Cowan's glittering work this was restrained drama. Jack Body's Meditations on Michaelangelo, performed by Mark Menzies (violin) and Sarah Watkins (piano), which alternates Body's music with readings by Menzies of Michelangelo's poems, was more sedate, almost meandering, Unfortunately Menzies voice did not always carry all the way up through the audience. While I wasn't sure what to make of the longest piece of the night a transwoman friend in the front row commented immediately afterwards in the interval: "My god, they just performed my life!" The second half began with the most heart-stopping performance of the night. Claire Scholes solo vocal performance of Anna Lockwood's I Give You Back was a bulls-eye shot, squarely between the eyes and dead centre into the heart. A chilling and defiant lament (Lockwood and Scholes proved last night that such a thing is actually possible) from a wounded soul it blends raw, blasting tirades of vocal energy and tender, lilting moments of self-preservation. This woman was broken-spirited but she's on the way back. She... will... survive! In an evening of often sparse, almost austere pieces, frequently inhabiting in soundscapes that Vincent Ward kind of take on the New Zealand landscape - moody, bleak psyches at the mercy of the moody, bleak elements - Gareth Farr's Waipoua, performed by Finn Schofield (clarinet) and Flavio Villani (Piano) was by contrast a glade of lilting, sombre calm. In its intimacy it is perhaps the antithesis of Farr's magnificently cataclysmic full-orchestra composition Te Papa. If Te Papa embodied the collisions of geology and cultures that created our nation, Waipoua evokes the softening, moist, green influences of nature. Tectonic change followed by the gentle hand of Tane. Ben Hoadley's Winter I Was, with words by Gregory O'Brien, a duet for flute and spoken voice, performed by Luca Manghi and Alex Taylor, was more personal, conveying simply, almost unemotionally, a sense of loss. No pyrotechnics, just a soulful simplicity. As an experiment I closed my eyes to listen to Samuel Holloway's Stapes, performed by the NZ Trio. Holloway's description of the piece says "the players work both together and against each other" and the constantly rearranging patterns and morphing, unreliable notes did feel like the shifting alliances of a passionate love-hate love triangle, alternately workable and absolutely untenable. Opening my eyes at one point to see cellist Ashley Brown repeatedly biting strands of broken hairs from his bruised and disintegrating bow, such was the power of the conflict, only reinforced the mental image. John Elmsley's Four Echoes, performed on viola by Menzies, returned us to our landscapes, its four parts evoking the still, almost mournful, calm of the night, a sense of isolation and distant horizon, of the rising of the wind and light and hope, and finally brightness, a bustling activity as of dormant or sleeping creatures scurrying on warming rocks and rising on thermals. I scribbled down that imagery before reading the programme notes, which read: "Prelude: From still night air; Voices behind: Lament; Voices ahead: Resurgence; Postlude. For me at least Elmsley got it spot on, Menzies conveyed it perfectly. The late, great, gay, Douglas Lilburn may have been the first New Zealand composer to successfully set out on the waters of new and progressive music, but his spirit definitely lives on in the gay and lesbian contemporary composers featured last night. So, what about that "gay sensibility" thing? After Lilburn, showcasing the work of nine of NZ's foremost cutting-edge composers who just happen to be non-heterosexual, was a night of musical and visual surprises. Of learning to take nothing for granted. Of discarding inherited rules and rebuilding new expectations. Of heartbreak and rebirth, of personal exploration, of discovering and coming to terms with the unexpected. Of impressions and experiences reinterpreted, of cutting through the bullshit of ill-fitting habit and normality. Of breaking out of the cages of conformity and of social and cultural givens and embracing the different and the confrontational and the personal. Sound like the lives of anyone you know? Footnote: After After Lilburn I wandered up to the annual Lantern Festival, Auckland's Albert park filled with glowing wire-and-silk ducks and polar bears and dragons and frozen re-creations of startled kiddies with firecrackers and all manner of lanterns in sometimes garish and sometimes delicate hues. Bright and cheerful and gaudy and as fun as ever this year, after After Lilburn, it all seemed to me, a tad more hollow and lacking in genuine soul or actual meaning. Plenty of form, not enough substance. Thank you curator Samuel Holloway and patrons James Wallace and the GABA Trust, I think. -Jay Bennie   Jay Bennie - 23rd February 2013    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 23rd February 2013 - 12:57pm

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