RAT-D057 (April, 2015)
This recording was made possible with the support of Victoria University of Wellington and the Wallace Arts Trust
Produced by Jack Body
01 Fire in the Belly (7:05)
Tribute to the Blues (21:12)
09 Arum Manis (8:32)
10 Epicycle (13:17)
11 The Street Where I Live (4:06)
12 Intimate History No.2: Sssteve (14:43)
13 Caravan (5:51)
14 Intimate History No.1: Yono (13:42)
15 Aeolian Harp (5:12)
16 Music dari Jalan (Music from the Street, 8:18)
17 Children’s Games (1:50)
A few years ago Kronos Quartet told me an amusing story. As they descended in a hotel lift on their way to rehearse a piece of mine, one asked another, “Did you remember to bring the Body parts?” A startled silence fell on the other passengers in the lift …
Well, the parts of the body are a rich source of metaphor, hence the concept for this trio, which has the potential to grow beyond the two movements already completed. First came Fire in the Belly, commissioned by NZTrio in 2010. This is the fire, that energy that impels us to do things, to make things, to act with urgency and a sense of necessity. It is one important source of creative energy, and without it art can be flaccid and dull. It is what teenagers tend to have a lot of, and what the rest of us need to recapture!
Then came Pain in the Arse, completed in February 2011. From time to time we all experience that someone or something that really annoys us. To tell the truth, I actually find the business of composing a ‘bit of a pain’, meaning that it’s hard work!
On the other hand, the rewards in the end can make it all worthwhile – such as having the music played by the wonderfully spirited NZTrio! And the upbeat mood of this piece surely suggests we shouldn’t take these irritations too seriously!
Nocturne was commissioned by Radio NZ for inclusion in a concert to mark Douglas Lilburn’s 75th birthday. I was inspired by a recent visit to New Zealand of Steven Isserlis whose playing of Taverner’s The Protecting Veil could not but impress, as the cello ascended to unimaginable heights of exquisite sweetness.
My nocturne is a journey into sleep. The piano sets up in asymmetric pulse, a rocking motion that is at once comforting but is also tinged with anxiety. The cello shares this character until a moment when both instruments open out into simple, widely spaced chords. The sound is imperceptively amplified and reverberated as the instruments “lose consciousness”, and are released into sleep.
Why did I choose to mine the heritage of blues? The simple answer is because I know so little about the genre, and this was my chance to broaden my horizons, by transcribing five very contrasted pieces. First is a classic track from Big Joe Turner and which I entitled Big Joe’s Moan, in a sense the most identifiable blues both in its ensemble and its character. The movement that I next arranged was John Lee’s Pluck, a kind of snappy guitar track from John Lee Hooker, intimate and nervous in its syncopations. Finally I took a piano composition of Mary Lou Williams’s Deuces Wild, which is almost Chopinesque in its rich detail. The score is subjected to fragmentation, as if the composer is imagining the work in her dreams – hence my title, Mary Lou’s Dreams. Movements two and four were added later, transcribed from recordings made by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the penitentiaries of the American South during the 1950s. In this recorded version, the original field recordings have been inserted into ensemble, creating a heady mix of raw blues and ‘art music’.
Arum Manis, (literally ‘ sweet aroma’) is Indonesian for candy floss, or, in the US, cotton candy. The string quartet accompany the pre-recorded and sometimes multi-tracked sound of a strolling candy-floss seller, which I recorded Bangkalan, Madura, Indonesia in 1977. The hawker/musician plays a two-string fiddle, which he called a rebab, shaped rather like the Chinese er-hu.
The string quartet are asked to modifying their sound, acoustically and electronically, to match as closely as possible the sound of the original rebab. I like the image of a anomimous street hawker (he was to shy to give his name) as the ‘guest soloist’ (albeit in absentia), in the midst of a Western string quartet …
The work attempts to catch the quality of candy floss – light and filled with air, not a food of weight or substance, but sweet, easy to eat, and leaving a pleasurable aftertaste.
Whenever I write for string quartet I have a tendency to think of the instruments as equal partners within the same register, each with its own quality of sound, not in the vertical hierarchy (from cello upwards towards the first violin) that we normally hear from a string quartet. This can make strenuous demands on the cello of course, who must ascend into the violin’s register.
Epicycle is a ‘cycle within a cycle’, in this case a circular melody that generates slower melodies from within itself. The first section is a kind of auditory kaleidoscope as a single line transforms ‘before our ears’, utilizing some of the techniques of minimalism, such as variation within repetition, and ‘phasing’ as the instruments follow each other in close succession. The second section draws inspiration from Korean traditional music exploring different styles of vibrato.
Since I composed Epicycle for the Kronos Quartet in 1989, I have always been dissatisfied with its brief conclusion. In 2004 I decided to compose a new final section which is a kind of antithesis of the rest of the work – instead of a single line melody we have chords, instead of single upper register we explore a fuller spectrum of sound, though still based on the original circular melody. Thus Epicyle concludes.
I was thrilled that the San Francisco Del Sol String Quartet accepted to play and to record this new version.
Pianist Stephen de Pledge had the idea to commission a group of New Zealand composers to each write a piece on the theme of landscape. My initial reaction was to consider the brief rather cliché, but on reflection I realised that every place is in a sense landscape, or at least positioned in landscape, including the house where I live. I recorded a little account of where I live and composed a piano part that sometimes reflects the intonation of my voice and sometimes picks up in some of my images.
This piece has been played by several pianists but I was delighted that Stephen, the instigator of the landscape project, accepted to record my piece especially for this CD.
This work is constructed from an interview I conducted in June 2005 with musician and ethnomusicologist Stephen Jones, when the Hua family shawm band (which he managed) held a residency at SOAS, London University. Our conversation covered Steve’s researches in Chinese music and also aspects of his particular speech impediment, his stammer.
His account of his struggle to communicate verbally is expressed with light-hearted good humour. On a serious note, however, Steve stated his sincere hope that this piece, which is very much a collaborative creation, might serve to give heart and encouragement to fellow stammers.
During the interview Steve demonstrated, at my request, two Chinese instruments, the erhutwo stringed fiddle, and the double reed sounaFrom these musical fragments I created some ‘faux’ ensemble folk music that become the ‘glue’ for holding together the heavily edited and frequently manipulated conversation. The playful repetitions of ‘s’ in the title were Steve’s idea.
In 2014 a received the commission to composer the ‘test piece’ for the Michael hill International Violin Competition. Since I am not a string player myself, I needed to do a bit of research, with the Paganini Caprices as an obvious first stop. It didn’t take me long however, to realize that this was a bit pointless since all the competitors would naturally be choosing repertoire that was technically difficult and flashy. And so I settled on another kind of technical challenge, using an unfamiliar intonation, where the players had to play in a mode with some deliberately ‘out-of-tune’ pitches. In effect they would need to ‘rewire’ their sense of ‘in-tune-ness’, something they had spent many years in developing.
The material for my piece I sourced in Iran music, a famous piece called Carevan, which I had first heard on a never-to-be-forgotten bus journey across Iran in 1971. My piece is a loose transcription of a fragment of the original for violin and voice. My piece integrates both performers – the vocal part being particularly challenging because of the extraordinary ‘yodeling’ technique found in Persian singing.
During the course of the competition I had the rare experience of hearing my piece played 23 times by 23 very talented young violinists. Indeed, I had succeeded in giving them a challenge ‘with a difference’ – many had to struggle to make the unfamiliar intonation sound natural, several came close, but one contestant really nailed it. Thank you David Radzynski!
My idea for a series of Intimate Histories was to record stories from my friends, and to ‘reframe’ these stories with music, rather like mini-documentaries. The stories that attacted me were those of a rather personal nature, initimate accounts that I felt privileged to have shared with Yono and Steve, the friends who are the subjects of the two completed Intimate Histories.
I met Yono in 1976. The stories of his childhood in a village in South Sumatra have always fascinated me, his upbringing being so different from my own. The subject of his story is, in our society, almost taboo. But in his sincere, light-hearted telling of it, we can reflect that the values of our society are not necessarily held universally, and that we should never lose sight of the fact that the range and variety of customs and belifs is what makes this world of ours such as fascinating place.
The musical interludes are my own field recordings, which, except for the first, were all recorded in Yono's village in 1977 and ‘78. These genres include children's music with bamboo stamping tubes, music to accompany martial arts (pencak silat), Islamic chants accompanied by frame drums (jedor), rice pounding music (lesung), and music played on instruments improvised from cut rice stalks (dremenan). Yono himself intones and sings a traditional Javanese song, in the pangkur poetic form. Its message is a plea for the preservation of tradition and for a balanced human existence.
The Aeolian harp is an instrument whose strings vibrate freely, activated by the movement of air, rather than by any human action. Placed in position where currents of air make the strings hum through various natural harmonics, the instrument takes on an almost mystical quality – a musical instrument playing itself. Named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, the sounds have an ethereal, otherworldly quality.
I have tried to recreate this resonating principle using the first three natural harmonics on the strings of the violin, viola or cello. Because there are significant duplications between the four strings (being tuned in 5ths) I ask the player to tune two of the strings a minor 2nd lower, thereby providing a greater range of available harmonics.
Alexander (Sasha) Ivashkin was an outstanding Russian cellist who lived and worked in Christchurch for some years. His passionate, fiery style of Russian cello playing astonished (and sometimes alarmed!) New Zealander audiences, but his performance of my Aeolian Harp is close to perfection.
During my first significant visit to Indonesia in 1973 I was struck by the singularity of the soundscape – the colourful mix of bicycle bells, the singing of caged birds, the hum of human activity where the streets are never empty. But most startling of all were the sounds of street vendors advertising their wares, calling out in strange, penetrating tones, or beating a percussive instrument, or even playing a fiddle or reed instrument.
At the time I had no apparatus with which to record these sounds. And so, on my return home, I borrowed recorded samples that my friend, ethnomusicologist Allan Thomas, had made, to create portrait of the Indonesian urban soundscape. Unbeknownst to me the work was submitted for the 1976 Bourges International Competition for electronic music. Imagine my astonishment when I received a telegram to inform me that I had won!
The success of this piece was one of those life changing affirmations that impact on one’s future career path – in my case Musik dari Jalan prompted a whole series of electro-acoustic compositions that explored the Indonesian soundscape. In 1992 the piece was honoured by the award of Euphonie D’Or by the Bourges studio as one of the most outstanding of its competition winners.
To those unfamiliar with Indonesia the voices and sounds in this work can sound cryptic and mysterious. In fact they are very prosaic – words like “bananas”, “cooking oil”, “mattresses”, the percussive sounds advertising hot food, and the actual music that of a one-man-band playing angklung, tuned bamboo rattles…
The ‘message’ of Musik dari Jalan, perhaps, is that music is all around us – we have merely to listen.
Rainforest is a suite of six movements based on Pygmy music from Central African Republic. Originally written for flute and harp, the work is equally effective with flute and piano. It has had numerous performances internationally including one by the Tokyo-based Nomad Ensemble. The conductor, Norio Sato, asked me in passing if I was happy for him to make an arrangement for flute and marimba. That sounded OK to me, but it wasn't until he sent me this one track, the final movement played alone as an encore, that I realised what a flash of brilliance his idea had been! The flute and marimba are mixed with the original field recording of children singing to exhilarating effect.
In 2000, Rattle Records released Pulse, two discs of orchestral and chamber compositions by Jack Body, including field recordings of the original non-Western music that inspired them. Passing By brings us up to date with 13 further pieces.
This is a wonderful testament to one of New Zealand's most revered and cherished composers, who died this month. It is a musical monument and treat, with chamber music contributions including new recordings by the New Zealand Trio and pianist Stephen De Pledge, as well as recent ones by the Kronos Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, Stroma New Music Ensemble, New Music Works Ensemble, David Radzynski, and Ensemble Nomad.
In the very early Eighties, I bought an album on New Zealand’s Hibiscus Records, an imprint which seemed to be a sub-division within Kiwi Pacific. I suspect I picked it up on the strength of its cover photo – a man squatting and playing what looked like an oversized thumb piano and a tagline which read “Street Musicians of Yogyakarta”.