In January 1998 Gareth Farr was commissioned by the James Wallace Chariable Trust to write this Piano Trio for the Ogen Trio, a leading NZ ensemble. Taking its subtitle Ahi from the Maori word for “fire”, it received its debut performance in Auckland, NZ in March 1998 in the presence of the composer. The style of the work varies in each of the four movements: the flavour of a French lullaby predominates in the first; an intense and unrelenting second movement harbours overtones of a Russian military factory; whilst a Balinese pop-inspired fourth movement contains numerous gamelan-like effects. The brief third movement is merely a quiet interlude, with a melodic reference to the first movement. The composition stands in stark contrast to Farr’s previous works. He has experimented with stripping away the density characteristic of past compositions in favour of clearer textures, exploring classical form, and allowing a simplicity of line to come through and speak for itself.
(You should be afraid of the armed man!
Everywhere people are saying that you should
protect yourself with a coat of armour.)
Anon (early 15th century)
When I decided to write a work based on this ancient tune I had to balance three competing and apparently incompatible intentions.
Firstly, given the text of the song and the time at which I was writing the music – prior to and during the hostilities in Iraq – I wanted it to express something of my feelings towards the institution of war.
Secondly, since the melody of L’homme armé had been an inspiration to dozens of composers over more than five centuries since its composition, I intended to honour that tradition by alluding to some of the musical styles and
employing some of the techniques of my predecessors.
Thirdly, some evidence points to the origin of this tune as a drinking song, so it was important that the music should have an element of enjoyment and exuberance.
As the music progressed I was surprised at the extent to which the first intention became dominated by the second and third. However, traces of the war theme can still be detected in the finished work. Examples are the siren-like opening and closing motifs, the rhythms of Te Rauparaha’s war chant ‘Ka mate, Ka ora’ (if I live, if I die), a ‘pleading’ motif derived from a ‘waiata tangi’ (mourning song), and a brief march and funeral procession.
The ‘homage to musical tradition’ is seen in the form of the whole piece – that most ancient of musical structures, variations on a theme. Within this overall form canons of all possible types and descriptions abound. I quickly came to the conclusion that L’homme armé owed much of its popularity with composers to its great contrapuntal potential.
As for the ‘enjoyment theme’, elements of dance and popular song from several ages and places infiltrate much of the piece and power its momentum to a vigorous climax.
Gradually I came to see that my three intentions for this piece were not entirely incompatible. In my research for a programme note I discovered the following curious quotation with which Pierre de la Rue (1460-1518) concluded one of his two exquisite mass settings on L’homme armé:
Extrema gaudii luctus occupant (the extremes of joy can ward off sorrow).
Perhaps one antidote to the sorrows of war can be found in the art and joy of music.
Poet Dennis Lee came to visit and left a blue folder on top of the piano. While plunking away at a new piece for Danny and Kathy the inevitable happened: I reached for the folder, opened it and began to read the most extraordinary sequence of poems I’d encountered in years. Like a thief in the night who turns out to be an incredible tango partner, Lee’s poems snuck into the house and danced their way into my music. mindmeat is based on four of the fifty-one poems which make up the recently published UN (Anansi Press). In the thick of an apocalyptic fug I was reminded that art can move us forward in a way that no scientific treatise or academic tome could even hope to. Thanks to Dennis for allowing me to ride the wave his poetry inspired.
The title roughly translatable as ‘conjunction’, Psyzygysm is an exhilarating chamber concerto that brings together an eclectic ensemble in support of the mallet percussion soloist. Psathas’ preoccupation with jazz and traditional music is synthesised in this work into an explosive, headlong rush. The piano, double bass and drum kit work together like the rhythm section of a jazz combo, the winds and string quartet feature wailing, Middle-Eastern-inspired melodies and the percussion quartet create a musical and visual focus to the piece that locks all the elements together. Psyzygysm is dedicated to the composer’s dear friend David Crossan, guardian techno-angel, saviour of computer crashes, and resurrector of long-lost files.
Because of the limitations of range of the instruments (only the piano has extremes of range), their different tuning systems and the fact that only the clarinet among the wind instruments has possibilities of extended techniques. This piece explores more “classical” ideas than some of my other recent pieces. The work uses a set of six notes as its basic idea: sounded together they have a restless quality, but the structure of the set provides both diversity and connection between the sound worlds of the piece.
Quintet is in a single movement with several sections. At the outset, a variety of ideas and textures are presented, not unlike moment form, but not using the extremities of classical moment form. A second section, over a piano pedal, initiates an exchange between the bassoon and other instruments. This leads to a rapid scherzo-like section, with a monodic trio. It is closely followed by a slow movement, based on a close-range melody that is a tribute to Hirini Melbourne, who died during the writing of this section. The oboe cadenza which follows is the structural centre of the quartet, and is followed by a reworking in reverse of the material already presented. The ending leaves the piece unresolved.
The piece draws metaphorical substance from the movements of air currents: spiralling eddies, flowing breezes, sudden gusts, expanses of calm disrupted by turbulent cross-currents. The title is taken from an essay by Francois Bayle, which discusses the phenomenology of musical experience in richly poetic language. While not to be taken literally, this phrase reflects the play of energies in the music, and the transfer of energy between different regions, an evanescent surface, subject to unseen subterranean forces.