During 2007 I spent a lot of time making field recordings of background noise in Paris, and analysing the spectral and rhythmic content of those recordings. I found the more I listened to my recordings, the more musical material I found hidden in these background hisses and hums, chatterings and otherwise banal noises: rhythms, mysterious melodies, energies and harmonic tensions. While working on this commission for the NZSO, I decided to try to capture the intrinsic musical essences I could hear in my field recordings, and interpret those sounds in an orchestral context, with the juxtaposition of the original noise recordings finding musical relationships in the orchestral counterpart. The resulting piece is a conjuring of various energies, or furies, caught in the background noise of Paris, and finding their way into the back of my throat to be sung into a quiet fury.
violin, cello, piano (some preparation required); all performers required to speak
Piano preparation: the strings between c’’’ and a’’’ need to have a flat metal object laid on top to achieve a bright, jangly ringing sonority (especially from mm 26-37). This/these to be removed by the pianist in the section from m 45.
The three strings F, G, A flat, should have firm rubber wedges between them to create a dull thuddy sonority (for the section at m42), but with a still discernible pitch
At water’s birth is a meditative, ritualistic work, whose sonic palette includes prepared piano sonorities and some vocalising from the players, including whispering, spoken words and whistling.
The pushing out of the boundaries of the conventional instrumental sounds is something I have employed in other works such as the whistling and knocking on the piano lid in small blue for piano and the bell and tamtam playing in Ring True. The meandering sections of the music suggest a relationship with the forces of water, its depth, currents and undercurrents and there is a sense of ritual in some of the chant-like rhythms.
Human beings have a fragile relationship with reality: our beliefs are formed from a disordered stream of sensory impressions that flood our synapses. Although our brain is normally very good at packaging this into something that can get us through the day, certain pathological circumstances reveal the tenuous nature of reality. Blindsight is a condition in which a patient cannot “see” visual stimuli, and yet their body instinctively senses and reacts to them. This suggested a musical image: the two winds recite simple chordal gestures, which the strings reflect through a distorting mirror — “sensing” without “seeing”. The piano acts as an intensifying agent, sending flurrying signals down tangled pathways, and releasing static charges through the system.
blindsight was written for the Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Vienna, as part of the Sammlung Essl Music Series 2009.
The poem is by Li Yu (李煜) [937- 978], who is a well-known Chinese poet. He was the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty, deposed in 975. His works focus on the memory of lost pleasures.
I believe baritone and orchestra are the best medium to convey the emotion and color of this poem. My personal interpretation not only reflects the dark life after he was deposed, but also shows visions of the wonderful events that took place when he was in his homeland. My piece is an interweaving of these mixed emotions, and a sense of confusion of timeline as Li Yu ponders his past memories and his pitiful reality.
This work for String Quartet consists of four short movements, the titles of which are taken from poems by Janet Frame: The Icicles, The Stones, Moss and The Birch Trees. Each one is a kind of natural miniature, exploring stillness and the simple beauty of quiet sounds, and underpinned by a sense of gentle unease. The Icicles is a fragile, intimate movement without development, tiny fragments of tune colouring the sparse soundscape. The Stones sets up an insistent, pulsing rhythm that hints at the sustained violence to come in Moss, a much denser, edgier beast, a breaking point before the calm. In the final movement, the action is brought back to a quiet nostalgia, recalling the delicate, frail harmonies of the opening. The work as a whole owes much to the aesthetics of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and to Janet Frame’s virtuosic portrayal of New Zealand landscape.
French Overture was composed for The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on request from conductor Tecwyn Evans, for inclusion in the 2009 tour of the North Island. It is scored for a Classical sized orchestra, and adopts the structure of the French Baroque overture: slow-fast-slow. Some features in the music also suggest a neo-classical character, such as stern dotted rhythms at the start and a fugato section in the quick section.
The composer wrote this overture while on study leave in Paris, and it is informed by some of his experiences in that city: the plethora of ancient buildings and sites, the noise and bustle of the place, the people living on the streets. At one point a strange waltz emerges, reminiscent of music from an organ grinder. Another feature is a long, climbing melody on violins near the start of the overture, which represents the eye’s search for light in Paris. Surrounded by tall apartments, we have to look up to see beyond them, something a New Zealander is not used to doing. There is elegance in Paris but there is also a tough and forbidding quality that makes a strong impression on someone from a small, unpopulated country. When the stern opening returns late in the piece it finally subsides into something softer and more human, a folk-like version of the climbing melody, which now descends peacefully into a quiet timpani solo at the end.
Hammerheads is a double piano duet. It was composed in 2008 for four talented young Nelsonian pianists, Emily Deans, Jennie Verstappen, Natasha Ironside and Holly Tippler who played the piece several times during the year. These pianists are students of acclaimed teacher Mary Ayre who commissioned Hammerheads with funding from Creative New Zealand.
The work is in 5 sections contrasting slow with fast music and draws some of its pitch material from one chord in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Hammerheads presents ensemble challenges for the performers with tricky rhythmic patterns in the fast sections. Its harmonic language is based primarily on a six-note descending scale heard in the opening bars.
For experienced violinist with beginner string ensemble, this piece was written for The Stringed Instrument Company staff members to play at their 2008 Christmas party celebrations. Cath Mayo performed the violin solo.