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Stroma Nine Echoes


Stroma presented a major tribute to Douglas Lilburn on the day of his 100th birthday. Nine Echoes featured nine new works written by New Zealand composers, each work responding to one of Lilburn's Nine Short Pieces for piano. The piano pieces were performed in the concert by Emma Sayers . The new pieces were as diverse as the composers themselves, who ranged from major figures such as Eve de Castro-Robinson and John Elmsly, to recent graduates, and postgraduate students such as 21-year-old Stephen Clothier.

Nine Echoes was funded in large part by donations from music-lovers using the Arts Foundation New Zealand's crowdfunding website Boosted. It also received grants from the Lilburn Trust , Wellington City Council and philanthropist Dr. Jack C. Richards . SOUNZ partnered with Stroma in presenting the event, and also supplied the birthday cake and bubbles after the concert.

Margaret Nielsen and Michael Norris raise a toast to Douglas Lilburn on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, following the Nine Echoes concert.


Douglas Lilburn's Nine Short Pieces performed by Richard Mapp at the Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, 31 July 2015.

Douglas Lilburn: Nine Short Pieces

Michael Norris researched deeply into the harmonic structure of the Nine Short Pieces. His presentation on this topic at the 2014 CANZ Composers Conference can be viewed below.

The New Works and Interviews with the Composers

SOUNZ asked each composer three questions about their involvement in the Nine Echoes project:

Tell us about the original work by Lilburn you’re working from - what are the characteristics of the work and to what aspect(s) of it are you responding?

Where do you place the Nine Short Pieces in Lilburn’s Oeuvre?

Finally, tell us about the new work itself: what kind of approach are you taking and what do you think Lilburn would have made of it?

1. Sarah Ballard: Meditation

The opening gesture in the first of Lilburn’s Nine Pieces is of the most striking instrumental writing from the composer that I have heard. This vibrant, ascending sweep of notes merges together and diffuses, leaving the listener with an icy resonance. This resonance is characterized by a variety of intervals, which are all enclosed within a major 14th (major 7th). I found that there were so many colours and a great deal of inner activity within this single gesture, that it was all I felt I needed to generate the impetus for a response. Overall, the first short piece is very sonorous, and these upper register, crystalline moments are interspersed with lower and mid-range resonances.

In the new work, I am responding to this initial gesture, its resonance and harmonic construction, and to the importance the outer notes of this gesture play in creating a sense of tension and vitality. On a macro-level I have considered the resonance that runs throughout the piece. This resonance is thread throughout the registers of the piano and is kept afloat until the final note.

Although I don’t have a great knowledge of Lilburn’s oeuvre, it seems to me that perhaps the sort of pianistic thinking that is exemplified in these pieces began sometime before their conception, at least back to when Lilburn wrote his Prelude 1951 . I find much of Lilburn’s piano and orchestral music unmistakably Lilburn due to the very prevalent and characteristic usage of fourths and fifths and also repeated notes, which function in a rhythmic and melodic manner. I think that it was from this time of writing the 1951 prelude that he began to delve into a more varied harmonic language in his piano music. There is, perhaps you could say, a more electroacoustic sensibility to be found in his Nine Pieces in that more consideration is being given to colour, harmonic content is richer and more varied and also the attack and decay of pitches seems to become of interest.

I have tried to highlight the resonance of the initial gesture by extending the first and last notes. I have done this through allowing various timbral shadings to travel throughout the ensemble and to heighten the impact of the final note by combining timbres that I think are true to the nature of the original resonance.  I would hope that Lilburn might have found it interesting to hear something completely new grow out of his material.


2. Glen Downie: The Li[lbur]ndy Hop


The second piece drew me in because of it's quirkiness. Many of the works explore a static resonance, but this one is much more articulated and bouncy, modal clusters appear on attacks and seemingly slide into consonant/open intervals, and it presented to me as something that I could have real fun with.

With the nine pieces, you can definitely see a shift in Lilburn's thinking, but many traces of his language remain, such as modal sub-sets, which are audible even in the more chromatic of the pieces. But also the focus on instrumental colour seems to be something that developed over time, rather than a sudden shift, works such as Diversions for string orchestra are highly colourful and imaginative works.

I wanted to really exaggerate these attacks, and so I've played with different modes of attacks, such as snap pizz. jazz inflected brass stabs, piercing winds and different percussive effects on bongos and congas. However, catching the resonance are harmon muted brass and various string colours. The register has been expanded, the original piano piece occupies just under two octaves, yet I've used the range from the double bass up to the Eb clarinet. All of the harmonic groupings remain, but are divorced from any function, and are used to build colour fields.

I would hope that Lilburn would appreciate it as a bit of fun, a celebration.



3. Eve de Castro-Robinson: No.3

The third piece has a whimsical, almost cartoonish feel to it, as well as a Latin swing, it's syncopated, suggestive and insinuating, with nudging little statement-phrases answered by low punctuations. It's high-spirited, repetitive, insistent and, ironically, very restrained - vintage Lilburn.

I've heightened the qualities I hear in it, and exaggerated them, since to me it's crying out to be released from its rather reserved and sparse setting. It seemed to beg colourful, distinctive instrumentation, a clear texture which is enriched where needed, and I've added characterful percussion and sonic touches such as a flexatone and the vocal ahhs and oohhs to release its quasi-jazzy quality.

To me, it's in Lilburn's piano oeuvre that he reveals his true self. Composers understand that they are laid bare in pianistic utterance, and this is particularly evident in DGL. If you listen say, to the first of the Three Sea Changes , the material itself is extremely economical, but its emotional impact is immediate. Few works speak to me so eloquently of NZ, as many of DGL's piano pieces.

Despite DGL being rather cool and terse on the surface, the interactions I had with him exposed a warm and wry side. There's an irony, in that the first thing he ever said to me, after hearing a student work of mine played in St Andrew on the Terrace in the mid-80s, was: "Yes, I heard your piece. (Pause) A bit too intellectual for me". I offer up this arrangement as a non-intellectual birthday gift from a fellow-Scorpio, whose birthday is a week after his.


4. Dorothy Ker: pulse-echoes


No 4 from Nine Short Pieces contains the DNA of Lilburn’s musical language, rhythmically and melodically. While it also displays traces of Messiaen, it feels like ‘pure essence of Lilburn’. What particularly arrested me is the sheer life force it harbours–the opening gesture is like a spring which, bursting from the low bass, shoots to far treble at the peak of the piece. The still point in the centre, where the energy is focused into one ‘ticking' middle C, reminds me of the moment when one pauses having reached the top of a hill or the heart of the bush.

If my house was burning and I could only salvage one score of Lilburn’s it would be the Nine Short Pieces. They stand alongside Schoenberg’s Op19 and Boulez’s Notations in their distilled clarity.

There is a strong metaphor for me related to the experience of living an entire year in Lilburn’s house, rattling around in that kitchen, house and garden, submerged in the sea of birds, walking up through the Botanical Gardens—tracing the energy lines of the quotidian pulses and pathways that Lilburn inhabited. The raw vitality in piece No4 for me echoes what it is to dwell at 22 Ascot Street —the sheer life force needed just to climb the street, the many different pathways to be taken through the Gardens, the euphoria to be found while on arriving at the ‘top’ of Wellington, emanating from/returning to the still point of the house. I was very struck by the musical fertility I found in the piece, the easy connection I could make between his language and mine as an act of intergenerational osmosis, and a gesture of empathy and kinship.


5. Stephen Clothier: A Stable Reference

 The fifth piece from Nine Short Pieces is to me characterised mainly by its harmonic content and the rather limited register that it encompasses. Harmonically, it features largely quartal chord structures in the low to extreme-low register of the piano, which plane around in response to a highly chromatic melody in the piano's mid register. Texturally it is rather austere, and the forward motion of the flowing quavers is frequently stymied as harmony and melody converge into a unison, dwelling there for a time before moving on. There is an enormous amount of weight and inertia to this music, and my piece is very much a response to this.

I find the Nine Short Pieces to be a rather significant point in his compositional output in the sense that, when taken together, they produce a kind of summarising statement about his oeuvre as a whole. In each miniature, he captures some aspect of his music in a very pure and distilled form -- you have the harmonic accessibility of V, the pointillistic rhythmic profiles of II and IV, the contrapuntal textures of VII and VIII, the expressive bitonality of VI and VII. It's a really diverse range of pieces, and each speaks directly to a different facet of Lilburn's instrumental style while also capturing an element of the textural 'play' of some of his electroacoustic works.

In my piece, I take the harmonic frame of Lilburn's original and construct a kind of inverse reflection of it on an instrumental canvas. Where once we had ponderous rumblings from the depths of the piano, we now have delicate string harmonics and sinuous, suspended lines in the alto flute and oboe. Certain concrete references to Lilburn's piece reappear throughout to keep my piece from drifting too far away -- an echoing horn call based on the opening gesture in the left hand of the piano; a whole bar quoted verbatim near the end of the piece. I'd like to think that Lilburn would appreciate the timbral and registral subversion of his original construction; the inertial earthiness of his piece transformed into a vaporous echo, tethered to the ground by only the barest of stable references. After all, it is this textural playfulness and multiplicity that characterises the Nine Short Pieces in their entirety.


6. Salina Fisher: Dream 6

I was immediately drawn to No. 6 as there are aspects of it that really resonated with me, particularly the harmonic language (bimodality, open fifths). I also felt that the writing actually suggests other instruments/timbres. For example, many of the open fifths are natural string harmonic notes; and for me, some of the melodic shapes suggest pitch bending.

After listening to the piece many times, I wondered how it might come back to me in a dream... I've played around with fragments from the original in new colour/timbre combinations that are based on what I think the music suggests, within the harmonic language of the original.

7. Louise Webster: Number 7

My relationship with the music of Lilburn goes back to my childhood, when we would visit the house of Margaret Neilsen and Mario Fleischl with our family friends during the school holidays. Margaret often played Lilburn's piano works, and I have strong recollections of hearing her play Lilburn on the grand piano in that home setting (possibly around the time that she and Lilburn were selecting the 9 short pieces), and subsequently at concerts in the university music department. My parents also had a vinyl recoding of 'The Return' which we listened to  - that would have been the first electronic music that I heard, and certainly the most familiar. I went on to play some of Lilburn's piano works myself when studying with Judith Clark, and I have a 'second violinist' perspective of the orchestral works which I have played repeatedly in non-professional orchestras throughout my life. His tonalities and rhythms feel as if they are 'in my bones' as a musician and a New Zealander.

The original work that I have taken for this project is piece number seven from the nine short pieces. The aspects of the work that stand out for me when listening to and playing that piece are the feeling of space, the overlapping 'voices' in different modes, and the repeated motivic figures, and those are the elements that I have taken for the new piece, the 'echo'. Very small fragments of the dissonant juxtaposed chords - for example the notes F# and G underpin much of the work, I have used the idea of over-lapping voices, and one of the melodic motifs has been used as a 'hurry-gurdy' figure towards the end of the piece. However I'm not sure that any of the links to the original work will be very apparent to listeners - at the end of the day, I just wrote the piece and it turned out how it turned out.

I have no idea what Lilburn would have made of it. His original 9 pieces are so very recognizable as 'Lilburn'; iconic, short, intense bursts of the essence of his music. My worst case scenario is imagining him saying " no no no that's not what I meant at all!". But as a composer you lose control of the composition once it is written - others make of it what they will. Maybe he would be intrigued, bemused, delighted by the 9 echoes. I'm certainly looking forward to hearing them all.


8. Michael Norris: Mesophase

The 8th of the Nine Short Pieces is in strict inversional counterpoint — in other words, the right-hand is an exact mirror image of the left hand (albeit with the rhythms slightly changed). Having said that, I’m not really responding to this rather technical aspect of the work — instead, I’m creating a ‘sonic fantasy’ on the piece, based on the metaphor of ‘melting’ and metamorphosis. The ensemble interacts with the original pitch material in a way that sublimates and transforms the rigidity of the piano’s timbre into something more akin to Dali’s ‘melting clocks’.

In some ways, the Nine Short Pieces are rather tangential — they point to a particular approach to composition that could have taken him further if he’d had the time and energy to follow through on the directions hinted at. But it’s precisely this ‘hinting at possibilities’ that gave me the impetus for the project — that our composers might take some of these nascent ideas and explore them more fully. It’s a shame that Stroma was not around in the mid-1960s. It might have given him renewed motivation to continue his instrumental practice.

While I’m not really interested in the hypotheticals of what Lilburn would or would not have liked… I feel it’s a little bit of a pity that he never strove to find greater connections between his impressive electroacoustic oeuvre and his late instrumental works. He felt that instrumental writing was a dead-end — I’m hoping Stroma can disprove this… :-)

9. John Elmsly: In October Light

Since it comes at the end of the set it might be tempting to view the piece as some kind of final statement, though for me it is the harmonic openness of the last phrase that appeals, closing the set sufficiently but leaving everything open. The chords built of superposed fourths form structural pillars within the piece, with more typically Lilburn figures providing much of the motivic material: the falling  thirds (often with birdlike grace notes), the subsequent falls of a tone, the major/minor melodic swapping, the repeated notes and calls, but the real appeal of this piece for me is its mystery, its very inexplicability, which give a sense of freedom and fluidity within the tiny context of 58 bars of music.

My response was firstly one of respect, and wondering how I could possibly build around this something which viewed it from different angles, explored some of its suggestions a little tangentially yet retaining some of the compactness of the original. I had the advantage of looking into the Lilburn garden, hearing descendants of the birds he heard every morning …

My approach has been to work outwards from the original, so that there are parts which are pure orchestration, colouring the original through the available instrumentation, but throughout I have treated the original as one might an electronic composition on recorded material, allowing myself to transform (transpose, invert, stretch particularly), repeat, echoing… So what began as something analogous to a medieval illumination of a manuscript took on its own personality. Much of this came through the instrumentation, where it was really important to me that every instrument had an essential role in the piece. In order to complete this, the form of the piece evolved with the instruments and their special characters. Yet throughout I hope that the strangenesses and personal touches complement the musical framework which derives from the original. The wonderfully cogent compactness of the Nine Short Pieces needed to be reflected in the instrumental writing, even allowing  for elaboration and colouring.