The Art of Black and White

The Art of Black and White

Lyell Cresswell

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Lyell Cresswell 

Stephen De Pledge (piano)
Jennifer Maybee (soprano)
Christopher Bowen (tenor)

Lyell Cresswell is one of New Zealand’s most important contemporary composers. He has written for most genres and settings across a broad classical spectrum, but much of his chamber music (particularly unrecorded songs and piano works) remain unrecorded—until now. This recording addresses that—with a vengeance.

The Art of Black and White is a succinct overview of Lyell's often witty but always precisely focused chamber music. The compositions were composed over a long period and highlight the diverse quality of his output. Recognised as a significant voice in contemporary music, Lyell's achievements in Europe attest to his international standing.

The recording of his piano works is long overdue and this album will be welcomed and appreciated by music lovers here and abroad. Stephen de Pledge is the ideal pianist for this material. He has established himself as a committed and superb advocate of New Zealand music for many years. Accompanying him on this celebration of Lyell's chamber music are two exceptional muscians, tenor Christopher Bowen and soprano Jennifer Maybee.


Produced by Kenneth Young
Recorded by Steve Garden with assistance from John Kim
Piano tuning by Glenn Easley
Design by UnkleFranc
Printing by Studio Q


RAT-D074 (October, 2017)






Lyell Cresswell 


01  Acquerello  (4:27)
02  Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue   (4:24)
03  White Relief  (3:34)
04  Impasto  (4:18)
05  Mezzotinto  (4:01)
06  Chiaroscuro  (4:55)
      Snatches, from Baptised Generations
07  No. 1  (1:33)
08  No. 2  (1:00)
09  No. 3  (1:59)
10  No. 4  (1:43)
11  No. 5  (0:54)
12  No. 6  (2:17)
13  No. 7  (1:05)
14  No. 8  (1:53)
15  No. 9  (0:37)
16  No. 10  (1:46)
17  No. 11  (1:33)
18  Tre canti  (6:16)
      Old Mick
19  No. 1  (2:51)
20  No. 2  (2:53)
21  No. 3  (2:22)
22  No. 4  (1:06)
23  No. 5  (2:15)
24  Das Lied von dem Fisch  (7:10)
25  Four Sentimental Songs  (6:23)
26  Apteryx   (1:48)


      Total playing time: 76:XX




Lyell Cresswell comments on the compositions


The Art of Black and White


Kandinsky, in "On the Spiritual in Art", says that clarity leads towards white and obscurity towards black. Together they give the greatest contrast - "the art of black and white". He writes "Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hands which play, touching one key or another to cause vibrations in the Soul" and... "white is used to colour pure joy and infinite purity. Black is the robe of greatest, deepest sorrow and the symbol of death".


These piano pieces explore the links between painting and music. They consider various styles and techniques found in painting and engraving. Acquerello (watercolour) revolves around two quiet and contrasting ideas - one slow, one fast. The principal idea is a slow and highly ornamented descending line. Sometimes the line is stripped of all ornamentation and moves in chords. Three times this is interrupted with a short, fast refrain.


Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue is a short condensed piece. There is no background, only the bright foreground music of primary colours divided up by loud percussive chords. "The zip (vertical stripe) acts as a divider, marks off intervals, and by regulation of its color intensity indicates stresses, as in a species of visual music" (Harold Rosenberg, 'Barnett Newman'). Primary colours have always provided a challenge to painters. Barnett Newman faced up to this challenge in four paintings: "Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue I, II, III, and IV."


White Relief: In the 1930s Ben Nicholson produced a series of white paintings. These "White Reliefs" were made by sticking layers of board on to one another or by carving into the surface. He likened the pure formal relationships in these paintings to musical harmonies. Impasto: thickly applied oil paint. The strokes of the brush or palette knife are pronounced, and the texture is lumpy and globular.


Mezzotinto (half-tinted) is a form of engraving in which the surface of a metal plate is evenly roughened. The artist then creates an image by smoothing out parts with a scraper. The smoother the parts the less ink they will hold resulting in tones that vary between black and white. Only a few copies can be printed before the quality deteriorates because the shallow pits in the plate soon clog up. Mezzotinto investigates the softer gradations of tone between black and white.


Chiaroscuro is a method used applying light and shadow to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects. The music makes a simple contrast between light and shadow. The question is, which of the two - the faster music or the slow chords - provides the light and which the shadow. Which is chiaro and which is scuro? Chiaroscuro was commissioned by Stephen De Pledge.


These six pieces make one complete work, "The Art of Black and White", but may be played separately.



Snatches, from Baptised Generations

Snatches, from Baptised Generations was a Quiuncentenary commission from the University of Aberdeen. The mystic and idiosyncratic world of Emily Dickinson is redolent with musical imagery. These settings of her poems were written in 1994 and first performed by Neil Mackie and Roger Williams.

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins —
The Positive — of Bells —
When Cogs — stop — that's Circumference —
The Ultimate — of Wheels.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

Drab habitation of Whom?
Tabernacle or Tomb —
Or Dome of Worm —
Or Porch of Gnome —
Or some Elf's Catacomb?

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room —
In search of Something — as it seemed —
Then Cloudier become —
And then — obscure with Fog —
And then — be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'T were blessed to have seen —

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one's name —the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Ample make this Bed —
Make this Bed with Awe —
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

Be its Mattress straight —
Be its Pillow round —
Let no Sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground — ¬

Over and over, like a Tune —
The Recollection plays —
Drums off the Phantom Battlements
Cornets of Paradise —

Snatches. from Baptized Generations —
Cadences too grand
But for the Justified Processions
At the Lord's Right hand

There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — upon it —
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see —
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Too few the mornings be,
Too scant the nights.
No lodging can be had
For the delights
That come to earth to stay,
But no apartment find
And ride away.

Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!


Tre Canti

These poems were written by Marco Bucchieri. Marco Bucchieri was born in Rome in 1952 and lives in Bologna.. He alternates his literary work with conceptual work in photography.

Il Nome (The Name)

E bianco — And white
e vuoto — and empty
bianco — white
e vuoto — and empty
e soffia — and blows
frenetico — frenzied
bianco — white
e vuoto — and empty
in salita — rising
passo — step
per — by
passo - — step -
carte, — papers,
di giorno, — by day,
per notti — by nights
e al contrario, — and conversely,

È ingombro — Cluttered
di voci — with voices
il tessuto — the fabric
del nome. — of the name.

Sfiorarci le mani (Our hands brushing)

Sfiorarci le mani — Our hands brushing
fu come parlare — was like talking
di fantasmi — of ghosts

Novembre (November)

Il respiro — The breath
nel — in the
freddo — cold
declina — declines
il silenzio — the silence
del — of the
mondo. — world.


Old Mick

These settings of lines from poems by Denis Glover were commissioned by Christopher Bowen and first performed by Christopher and Lindy Tennent-Brown at the 2015 Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts in London. The poems were written in memory of Glover's old drinking and sailing companion on Banks Peninsula, Mick Stimpson.

You were these hills and the sea,
In calm, or the winter wave and snow.
Lie then peaceful among them,
The hills iron, the quiet tides below.
       In Memoriam, H. C. STIMPSON, Port Levy

Mick trudged there alone
Or by my silent side.
He thought only of tide and time
Land firm under his feet
Above where land and water meet.
Timeless in time
The sea again will claim its own.
       from From a Summit

You are salty dust where you lie.
But quickened is the anonymous sea,
And the hours lick endlessly
At the stone of the sky.
       from Mick Stimpson II

There's earthy humour in Mick
But not for high-flown things.
For him the sea may be
Friend, more likely enemy.
He'd known it in all oceans
And holds no poetic notions
       from Mick Stimpson II

Who can know or land or sea
With certainty? Firm land
Is unstable, liquid sea
An eternity.
       from Positive Mick


Das Lied von dem Fisch

On the morning of 2nd January 2015 I heard a compelling news item on the radio. There was an interview with a vet who had just carried out an hour-long operation on a constipated goldfish. She said, "he had a lump blocking his bottom". I sent the Internet reference of this story to Mary (my sister-in-law) and by return email she sent the first poem. Aha, I thought, Das Lied..., and set the words. Other poems followed.

The songs contain some dubious quotations—or, rather, misquotations. Song 1 has some mangled quotations from Schubert - Die Forelle. The accompaniment in Song 3 comes, more or less, from Mahler – Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredgt. In Song 4 there are some references to my piano concerto, and in song 5 there are misquotations from Beethoven – Sonata Op. 27. No.2 Moonlight and Webern Konzert Op. 24. The vocal line in Song 7 begins with Schubert – Kennst du das land? Any other quotations are unintentional.
       Das Lied von dem Fisch by Mary Cresswell

aber man kann nie wissen
ob die Fische pissen

crappie bass
and bluefish
patagonian toothfish
but trout

shark-suckers spill from the marlin’s gill
but not when the whiting are biting

we were profound
now we are gone
fish with a tooth
soup of your youth
we only bemoan

in diesen Hallen
Fisch gefallen
mische tische
gefilte Fishe

honi soit qui halibut

kennst du das Glas
wo die Fische poopen?

       Jennifer Maybee and Kent Isomura first performed these songs on 12th May 2015


Four Sentimental Songs

I wrote these songs in 1971 when working as a postman in Dunedin. They are for soprano, piano, bamboo chimes, and a bag of wooden clothes pegs. There is plenty of scope for interpretation.

A long, long trail winds to the mud cabin,
The mud cabin where my true love has dePosited her chewing gum

If you would come then we would go unto the snow and I would know the love you show would flow and flow and flower so
And oh the glow of my big toe you would not know although you sow the seeds that grow and flower so, so oh do come

I weeP
I weep
For a hideous, insidious idiot
I sigh
I sigh
For a knavish, lazy crayfish
I croon
I croon
For an hoary, corpulent corp'ral
I weep, I sigh, I croon
For my foolish, crustaceous soldier

The moon shines over the sleeping cow
When I put out the milk bottles




The apteryx (or kiwi), like the composer, is flightless, short-sighted and clears its nostrils often. Apteryx was commissioned by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 2002.








Lyell Cresswell



Lyell Cresswell was born in Wellington, New Zealand, 1944. He studied at Victoria University of Wellington, Toronto University (Commonwealth Scholarship), and the University of Aberdeen followed by further study at the Institute of Sonology, Utrecht (Dutch Government Bursary 1974-75) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Scottish Arts Council Bursary, 1982). From 1978-80 he was Music Organiser at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff; from 1980-82 he was Forman Fellow in Composition at Edinburgh University; and from 1982-85 Cramb Fellow in Composition at Glasgow University. Since then he has been a full-time composer based in Edinburgh. He was artistic director of the ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust) "New Zealand, New Music" festivals in Edinburgh in 1998 and 2001

Lyell Cresswell's music is widely performed and broadcast, and has featured in many festivals around the world – Tokyo, Edinburgh, Warsaw, Bologna, Wellington, etc. He has written works in most genres: for orchestra, large and small ensembles, solo instruments, operas, choral music, and works for solo voice. 2017 will see the premiere of the clarinet concerto, Llanto, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and his second piano concerto, commissioned by Micheal Houstoun.

The numerous awards he has received include recommendations by the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers, the Ian Whyte Award, a Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award, an honorary D.Mus from Victoria University of Wellington, the inaugural Elgar Bursary, and the Sounz Contemporary Award for his first Piano Concerto. In 2016 he recieved a New Zealand Arts Laureate Award.






Some years ago, pianist Stephen De Pledge, in recital, treated us to the exhilarating tangle of New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell's Who's afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.


A new CD of Cresswell's piano music and songs now puts it into context as one of the six short pieces of The Art of Black & White, offering musical interpretations of various painting techniques.


Impeccably recorded, De Pledge glides incisively from the cool, shivery dissonances of White Relief to the storm-tossed Impasto. De Pledge is also a simpatico accompanist in five Cresswell song-cycles.


What a pleasure it is listening to tenor Christopher Bowen, just a few months after his memorable Evangelist in Auckland Choral's St John Passion. Predictably, he illuminates the 11 songs of Snatches, from Baptised Generations, with the same vocal cut and clarity.


Poet Emily Dickinson's words, pointed and pithy, resonate in Cresswell's remarkably lean responses, as the tenor deals out images of despair and dark humour with Brittenesque flair. The five Denis Glover poems of Old Mick don't share the wistful, sepia-tinted nostalgia of composer Douglas Lilburn's iconic Sings Harry. Here, the versatile Bowen balances searing poignancy with occasional chilling outbursts of anger.


Soprano Jennifer Maybee takes on the thornier side of Cresswell, investing the wild writing of Das Lied von dem Fisch with the same theatrical intensity that she brought to the work in concert. It's a rollercoaster ride of witty musical quotes with all manner of unbridled vocalising while De Pledge relishes explorative soundscapes.


Four Sentimental Songs, written in 1971, is also radical fare, but the three settings of Tre Canti, to the poetry of the Italian Marco Bucchieri, meld the mellow with the passionate, magically so when soprano and pianist evoke the cold November winds of an imminent northern hemisphere winter.


Rating: 5/5


William Dart, November 2017







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