Neil Horner | RATTLE
Four RATTLE albums
An overview by Neil Horner
Rattle is a label from New Zealand which "specialises in instrumental music produced by artists working with contemporary styles", a typically modest self-description that hardly does justice to the wealth and breadth of the musical experiences contained within the handful of CDs (well, nine actually!) it has released in the last decade or so. The emphasis is therefore very much on quality rather than quantity and the artistic integrity and community feel is very much of the kind that has made longer established bastions of ingenuity and eclecticism, like ECM and New Albion, such a success.
The four discs reviewed here, as an introduction to Rattle's recorded riches, include no less than three New Zealand ‘Classical Album of the Year’ award winners (all in the last five years!) and a gold selling disc. As far as this listener is concerned, these accolades are all fully deserved. If you are intrigued and wish to purchase any of these albums, the best way is via the website (www.rattle.co.nz). The discs covered here are Jack Body's CD of "classical" transcriptions from the folk musics of the Pacific Rim and beyond, Dan Poynton's seminal survey of New Zealand solo piano music, John Psathas' rhythmically thrilling fusions of classical, jazz, rock and folk influences, and Hirini Melbourne's and Richard Nunns' inspired rediscoveries of traditional Maori instrumentation. Several of these releases, despite their obvious diversity, are interrelated, illustrating the close working relationships that exist between most of the Rattle composers/artists.
PULSE | Jack Body
Rattle's most recent release and winner of the NZ 2002 Classical Album of the Year, Pulseprovides an excellent and definitive introduction to the pioneering work of Jack Body. In thoroughly idiomatic performances, it makes explicit Body's debt to the musics of various (not only pacific rim) native cultures and, innovatively, also includes the source materials for the transcriptions on a bonus disc. Imagine the impact of this happy and inspired idea on releases of folk-derived/inspired music by, say, Bartók or Vaughan Williams. Prior to obtaining this disc, I had only encountered Body on the Kronos Quartet's Ancient Music miscellany (Long-ge) and a disc of solo cello compositions by NZ/Australian composers (Aeolian Harp) but my appetite had certainly been whetted.
Although the source materials are drawn from as far away as Bulgaria, Greece and Madagascar, it seems reasonable to emphasise the Asia-Pacific influences in particular (Rattle's publicity material credits Body with "practically single-handedly introducing new Zealand audiences to the sound" of that region), while acknowledging that he does have antecedents, however fleeting, in this department (Debussy and Ravel's "orientalist" works are well enough known but there has also been Britten (e.g Prince of the Pagodas), the Canadian Colin McPhee and even Hindemith in his gamelan inspired Sonata for Two Pianos. More recently the brilliant Californian composer Lou Harrison has produced a substantial body of music, e.g. Concerto In Slendro, heavily indebted to the music of south-east Asia (albeit interwoven with medieval and minimalist strands) not forgetting, of course, there his celebrated collaborator John Cage. Anyway, I would say that Body's colourful music is, in general, of a more accessible nature than anything listed above (Debussy, Ravel and Harrison aside).
The Three Melodies for Orchestra link pieces inspired by Greek, Indonesian and Indian folk music. Interestingly, they meld together rather well. The Greek first section, like the third of the Three Transcriptions (of Bulgarian origin) for string quartet, is not a million miles removed from the frantic but very listenable soundworld of, say, Bartók's east European folk derived pieces. Artists like Norway's Jan Garbarek have long since been convincing us of the musical connections between the Indian subcontinent and the music of Asia Minor (as was!) so it is not that surprising to find common elements between the first and third pieces. The central section (based on a West Sumatran flute solo) forms a subtle but telling contrast. Throughout the piece as a whole, Body achieves a high degree of success in his stated intention of using orchestration to "build coherence and continuity" around the source materials which he has transcribed in such a way as to make them "as literal as I could". Whatever the technicalities, the spontaneity of the music makes for an eminently listenable fourteen minutes. Campur Sari ("mixed essence") attempts, successfully, to blend Western string quartet writing with Indonesian gamelan instrumentation and vocals, resulting in a haunting sequence, initiated by metalaphone, which builds to a more intense climax in which drums, strings and vocals all play a part.
The three pieces that comprise African Strings provide a somewhat gentler listening experience. Only the latter two are included in this version (as the first, Ramandrana, also appears in Three Transcriptions) but they are expertly played by the Japanese guitar duo and represent a centre of relative tranquillity in what is an often intense, if tuneful sequence of works. Anyone especially captivated by the combination of the West African kora (lute harp) and "classical" traditions in Chedo might like to seek out a copy of Tunde Jegede's underrated Lamentation CD which makes similar musical connections. Long-ge kicks off the Three Transcriptions and the NZ Quartet's version stands up well against that of the celebrated Kronos Quartet, with the Chinese folk music base slightly more apparent in this version. The Madagascan bamboo zither inspired the central movement and an off kilter Balkan dance completes the sequence. Once again, Body makes clear the similarities between apparently unconnected folk cultures while placing them in the context of a more universal musical language.
Pulse itself is based on the Bainang Fire Dance of East New Britain. This piece is a tour de force that not only brings the spectacle of the ceremony that inspired it vividly to life but also manages to involve Beethoven, Berlioz and Stravinsky, as keepers of the rhythmic musical flame at various stages in (relatively) recent "western" musical tradition. By turns primal and highly entertaining, this work demonstrates, beyond doubt, Jack Body's various abilities as orchestrator, melodicist and, I suppose, it has to be said, iconoclast. There is, however, it should be stated, absolutely nothing difficult or unapproachable about any of the music on this disc. Anyone who has any interest in Antipodean/pacific rim music ought to hear it (Body's work is no less important than that of Peter Sculthorpe) and, for that matter, anyone who professes an interest in contemporary music (including those for whom "melody" and "folk music" represent, wrongly in my opinion, outdated notions!). In addition to the composers already mentioned, I would expect admirers of the Kevin Volans of, say, White Man Sleeps and Leo Brouwer's orchestral pieces (especially his marvellously eclectic Concerto di Toronto) to find a great deal to interest them here. Performances and production are of a high standard and the booklet notes are informative without being over-detailed or over-technical. It is useful and indeed illuminating to have the disc of source materials, although personally I am unlikely to listen to it as often as the main disc. Recommended.
RHYTHM SPIKE | John Psathas
John Psathas is a young New Zealand composer of Greek extraction whose musical star is definitely in the ascendent. His music was featured in the gala concert for the recent Commonwealth Games and he has worked extensively with renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The latter devoted almost half of her debut New York performance to Psathas' music and recorded his Matres Dance on her Drumming CD as far back as 1996. Percussion, as one might expect from someone who draws on jazz and rock influences, plays a large part in the Psathas scheme of things and his Drum Dance, also commissioned by Glennie and included on Rhythm Spike, is "well on the way to becoming standard repertoire".
The rest of his CD, the 2000 NZ Classical Album of the Year, presents a good cross-section of Psathas' music and, as such, utilises various combinations of instruments, from Dan Poynton's simple and affecting solo piano on Waiting for the Aeroplane (a piece grounded in, among other things, "the emotion of farewells") to the complex interplay of percussion, piano, bass, guitars and electronics on the most overtly rock and jazz influenced work, Stream 3.3. Mentor Jack Body describes some of this music as "a frantic roller-coaster ride" but I also found some of the gentler, more contemplative passages very affecting. I have know idea of the provenance of the title of the string quartet (Abhisheka) but its haunting sonorities suggest influences originating somewhere in the Caucasus. It wouldn't have sat uncomfortably on the Kronos Quartet Night Prayers CD alongside Giya Kancheli et al.
Likewise, the extended single movement piano duet Motet finds "a profound sense of space and distance" (Body), separating two four part pieces, the unsettling Calenture (for piano, guitar and percussion) and the exuberant Drum Dances. Some of the more upbeat works, e.g. Spike, show some affinity with contemporary British composers like Fitkin and minimalism is a word that occasionally surfaces in one's thoughts. Ultimately, however, this music is far more involved, both emotionally and artistically, for such a bland label to stick. The closing Stream 3.3 aligns Psathas the most with popular (jazz, rock, jazz-rock?) idioms. It demands and, in this case, receives a high level of virtuosity from its performers and yet, for all its energy and excitement, like most of this composer's music, has moments of quiet, peaceful beauty. While this record bears little resemblance to a typical "mainstream" classical release (both in content and presentation), I have no doubt that we shall be hearing a lot more from the composer it so effectively showcases.
YOU HIT HIM HE CRY OUT | Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton's record is simply superb and has to be the best mixed recital disc, featuring (mainly) contemporary music, I have heard since Elena Riu's lovely Piano Icons (Linn, 2000). It begins as it means to go on with John Psathas' sublime Waiting for the Aeroplane, seven and a half minutes of melodic but highly distilled musical emotion. It is also included on the Psathas disc reviewed above and is a stand out track on both CDs. Jack Body's Five Melodiesinclude explorations of "a melody within a melody" and music inspired by bagpipes and the thegu-qin, an ancient Chinese zither. They are much more minimalistic and pared-down than his orchestral works and, while the melodies are there for all to hear, they seem quite astringent after the unambiguous poetry of the Psathas piece. I hear echoes of both Bartok and John Cage in the various movements but, as usual, Body is very much his own man, and the delicately scored final section is quite exquisite.
Philip Dadson previously released a CD on Rattle with his ensemble FROM SCRATCH and their "hand-made melodic percussion instruments" and Sisters Dance, written for his daughters, also allows Dan Poynton to play both melodically and percussively. Its interpolation of jazzy, upbeat sections with quieter, more moody passages is highly reminiscent, to these ears at least, of some of Samuel Barber's superlative piano music, especially Excursions. Gillian Whitehead's Lullaby for Matthew, a celebration of the birth of her nephew, is far removed from the soundworld of the few pieces I already know her for (Resurgences, The Journey of Matuku Moana) in that it shows a much more introspective, lyrical side. By definition a minor piece but poignantly beautiful for its four minute duration.
I was very pleased to see, on receiving this disc, that it contained a work by Lilburn. I am very much a convert to this composer's orchestral work but have heard next to nothing of his other music. The Sonatina #2 was written the year after the Third Symphony and shares some of that work's darker, more ambiguous traits. Anyone looking here for the composer of Aotearoa or the first two symphonies may be disappointed but this is still classic Lilburn. The booklet notes speak of its inspirations in nature ("sea, wind, clay, the browns and grays of the rugged Wellington coastline") and, in the first movement, traditional Maori chant. Lilburn's economy with his material and the tautness of structure, which characterise most of his music, are definitely there in the austere beauty of the Sonatina.
The penultimate piece, Nga Iwi E, was written by Poynton himself and is something of a touchstone, both for him personally and for Rattle as a label. It is based on and celebrates a song by Hirini Melbourne (more of whom below) and draws on Bach, Beethoven, Maori chant and even jazz pianist Keith Jarrett as influences. Poynton describes it as being "written out of admiration for the music of diverse peoples" and this could accurately describe all the music being produced by Rattle and its associated composers and artists. The piece itself starts off percussively before a delicate and memorable melody (originally written by a Maori princess) makes its entrance. While not quite as intense as, say, Peter Sculthorpe's Djilile, this short essay in cultural cross-fertilisation is one of the many highlights of the record. It would have formed an effective conclusion to the CD but there is still sixteen minutes of Annea Lockwood's substantial, single movement Red Mesa, inspired not by New Zealand but by the unique landscapes of the US south-west, to come. Although not particularly heavy going, by its length and the fact it is often very quiet, it requires somewhat greater concentration than the rest of the CD (and maybe several hearings) to fully reveal its secrets. The recording is excellent, the playing both poetic and searching, and the booklet notes informative but accessible; it is no surprise that this disc gained Dan Poynton the 1998 NZ Classical CD of the year award. I would strongly urge you to make its acquaintance.
TE KU TE WHE | Hirini Melbourne & Richard Nunns
Maori say that the creation of sound in all its forms preceded human existence. The sounds on Te Ku Te Whe are old, traditional sounds of bone stone, wood, shell and voice. The music weaves these sounds into a whariki (mat). Traditionally, at birth a whariki was ritually laid…. At death it was rolled up again…." The first paragraph of the booklet notes makes crystal clear the ambition and scope of this project. It is an epic undertaking featuring only traditional Maori instruments, rediscovered over a period of twenty five years (!) by its creators, and a lone voice. Hirini Melbourne is an ex-schoolteacher who has been pivotal in the revival of the Maori cultural inheritance, whereas Richard Nunns comes from a brass, jazz and improvised background (he has collaborated with, among others, avant luminaries Marilyn Crispell and Evan Parker), and they interact (and have been doing since 1989) brilliantly to produce some of the most unusual but genuine music I have heard for a long time.
As the disc tells us a story (of life), it really needs to be listened to in a single sitting - it hangs together very well, as one might expect from such an organic, naturally evolving undertaking - and doesn't make anything like the same impact if dipped into (many of the tracks are very short but are vital parts of a greater whole). It also seems a little pointless to describe each track in separate detail - the booklet notes do this excellently, focussing in on the key instruments (e.g. the pukaea - a long, wooden trumpet used during war and peace; the putatara - a conch shell used, among other things, to announce a birth). We are also told that "the sound images have been chosen to evoke the closeness of Maori music to the land, the sea and the wind", and Hirini Melbourne's haunting, often half-whispered vocals confirm this as much as any of the often astonishing instrumentation.
How easy the music itself is to assimilate will probably depend on the listener's musical background but also openness of mind. It is magnificently performed and recorded and anyone au fait with the more world music oriented areas of improv (e.g. ECM's Paul Giger, Pierre Favre, Stephen Micus, even Jan Garbarek in his more experimental works) or the organic side of modern electronica (e.g. Japanese sound sculptor Koji Marutani, Chris Watson's marvellously atmospheric field recordings) will have little difficulty in appreciating the Te Ku Te Whe. Those of a more conventional musical bent may take more time to penetrate the often austere but always gripping soundworld.
Astonishingly, at times, Melbourne's singing almost recalls Irish sean nos and even the blues (especially in Ororuarangi), set of course against the context of his own and Nunns' extraordinary and original soundscapes, and this album could well be a revelation to anyone who values the folk and traditional musics from around the world (and their naturalistic origins and (hopefully) living traditions in which they continue to evolve).
So, this is in no sense an easy listening experience (it will repay repeated hearing) but what is evident from the start, from the booklet notes and presentation to the production and performance values, is that this is truly a recording straight from the hearts of these artists. They clearly live and breathe this music with a passion and New Zealand and the wider world is certainly in their debt for making it available, by committing it to CD, to the widest possible audience.
Neil Horner, 2002