Commissioned in 2000 by the NZTrio, A Feather of Blue takes its title from a phrase in a poem called A View From A Window by New Zealand writer Kevin Ireland. I have always admired the wry humour and brightness of Kevin Ireland’s writing and many years ago set three of his poems for soprano and mixed ensemble. As a kind gesture Mr Ireland sent me a copy of his book of poems Skinning A Fish, and I was particularly struck by the imagery of colours, flowers, feathers and birds in this poem, which illustrates rain pouring down a window pane and giving way to a burst of sunshine after a storm.
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.
These twenty (mostly very brief) bagatelles were among the first pieces I wrote while on a one-month residency at the Visby International Centre for Composers in Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, in October 2005.
The musical material I use in these Bagatelles I feel relates to my being in Europe (albeit a rather far-flung part) for the first time, and my subsequent reflection on my ‘European’ classical musical upbringing on the other side of the world in New Zealand. At times the music veers into irony, such as the violin caught in a maze of its own making (bagatelle 7) or the pianist unable to stop her rapid motions at either end of the keyboard (no. 14), sometimes to a laid-back jazzy feeling (no. 11) or quasi-improvisation (no 10); there are dance-like numbers too (4 and 19). The set ends with the longest bagatelle, a chromatic meditation over the open fifths of the cello and low register of the piano.
‘blessed unrest’, was one of six short pieces commissioned by the New Zealand Trio as “attention-grabbing”, programme opening pieces. They wanted something that would start a concert “with all guns blazing”; a piece that ought to be “high-impact, dynamic and edgy”. It took a long time until I found something that I thought satisfied this demand, as I didn’t want to write an obviously motoric pulse-based piece. I wanted to create a sense of pent-up energy and its release in bursts. Many approaches were tried and rejected and while this was going on I came across the quote that gave the piece its title. I don’t think my dissatisfaction with earlier versions of the piece was either ‘queer’ or ‘divine’ and I dislike the lofty tone, but parts of Martha Graham’s statement nevertheless resonated with me: “There is vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not yours to determine how good it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
burlesques mécaniques is a rather extroverted collection of grotesque miniatures whose characters are not people or animals but dances. These dances have been mechanised, electrified, and often obscured by their own rhythmic impulse. Old forms and formulaic tropes are given new identities, freed from the confines of metric stability and the expectation that they be “danceable”. The essentially mechanical, artificial aspect of music (and of art in general?) is embodied in the piano, here a brittle, seedy protagonist whose string limbs hover and flail about it. Conflicting rhythms dominate the surface, oscillating between insistent repetition and mad, angular flourishes. The generally jerky, muscular rhythmic material is periodically frozen throughout the work, most strikingly in the ninth movement (chain). Here a string of rich, impressionistic chords briefly reveals an alternative, interior world which is then rudely dismissed in an almost haphazard finale.
The title refers to the seemingly insurmountable challenge faced by the fallen, the struggle to gather sufficient strength to rise up and overcome that which strives to extinguish their spirit.
The piece opens with a statement in unison of the high spirited principal theme. A series of energetic gestural statements follow, interspersed with brief moments of calm. Momentum builds and wide melodic leaps highlight the instruments contrasting tonal colour. Suddenly strident pulsed accompaniment figures in the strings interrupt, the piano quickly joining in adding an insistent angular melody reminiscent of the opening theme. This dissipates and the slower middle section begins – an emotive pas de deux between the strings, the violin for the most part leading. At the end of the duet the solo violin line is abruptly interrupted by a return to the previous strident propulsive section. All three instruments now join forces and rush onwards to the finish.
dirty pixels was written in response to two stimuli: an exhibition of the same name (curator, Stella Brennan) in the Adam Art Gallery featuring New Zealand artwork of a certain rough-hewn, ‘gritty’ nature; and hearing the work Jagden und Formen by German composer Wolfgang Rihm, an unremittingly wild and preposterous discourse of extremes.
These two stimuli caused something of an aesthetic dilemma: leaving behind my rather French fondness for euphonious washes of sound, I became interested in the characteristics of ‘roughness’ and ‘raggedness’, and in how a ‘pure’ conceptual scheme, such as the quite systematic construction I had formulated just prior to starting this piece, became ‘dirtied’ by intuition, by the exigencies of the material and by the reality of having it performed.
Notes taken from The NZTrio – Spark Morrison Music Trust MMT2066
For Violin, Violoncello and Piano was completed in 1999 for the final year of my Masters degree. It was first performed at the Nelson Composers Workshop that year by Mark Menzies, Katherine Hebley and Donald Nicholson. Here it received the Workshop prize, and later in the year the work also received the main prize in the Victoria University School of Music Composition Competition.
The piece follows no programmatic ‘storyline’ but moves rather within shifting emotional sound-worlds. The opening is very ‘inward’, and the intensity eventually builds and explodes into areas of anger or yearning, or maybe something far more subconscious and indefinable. Moments of beauty surface above the intensity, and the journey ends having come full circle – introspective, transcendent, resigned.
Notes taken from NZTrio – Spark, Morrison Music Trust MMT2066