north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

Music in the University
New Zealand String Quartet

Written by Alan Cooper

reproduced with permission


Music in the University, New Zealand String Quartet

Monday's concert by the New Zealand String Quartet was a joint enterprise bringing together the promotional muscle of three separate bodies: Aberdeen University Music, sound and ecat, the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust. The special remit of the last two is to promote the performance of new music by living composers. This concert certainly did that and in addition, it gave us in Scotland a valuable insight into the musical ecology of a country right on the other side of the world.

While America and even Australia have each evolved their own distinctive musical voices and have with varying degrees of success managed to export these round the world, for us in Scotland, New Zealand has remained largely a closed book; that is until now. The native Maori people have of course a tradition of vocal music which has indeed travelled round the world and several of their singers have become celebrated exponents of European classical music; however Monday night's concert opened an informative window on the varied and colourful musical scene in New Zealand today.

As Douglas Beilman, the Quartet's second violinist explained, New Zealand is very much a country of immigrants from many other countries each with its own musical tradition and two of the composers working there today Gao Ping and John Psathas are writing music that reflects their own particular roots.

Bright Light and Cloud Shadows by Gao Ping reflected many aspects of the music of his native China. There, Gao Ping is referred to as one of the Sixth Generation Composers. Later in the concert we were to hear music by Tan Dun a Fifth Generation Composer. That Gao Ping's piece should be inspired by a verse of Chinese poetry follows a tradition of that country. The way in which the string players slid upwards onto their notes in the opening section of the piece suggested to me the singing style of classical Chinese opera. This was just one of the techniques that Gao Ping used in an exploration of sound that suggested the experiments of electro-acoustic music. As the piece began we heard countless very delicate gestures of bowing before the music gathered pace and intensity to become quite stormy then mutating into a more conventional western style with quite glossy even romantic playing. It concluded by subsiding back into the delicate mood of its opening bars.

The family of John Psathas hails from Greece and his piece was entitled Kartsigar (2004) for String Quartet. Its two sections were named Unbridled, Manos Breathes the Voice of Life into Kartsigar and Vagelis Varies the Sazi Riff at the Paradiso. It is interesting that Psathas has taken on the habit of many contemporary European composers of giving his music very long, involved and rather mysterious titles! Nevertheless these were two very attractive and unusual pieces. Both had compellingly hypnotic rhythms, in the first driven mostly by the cello and then the viola while in the second the pizzicato ostinato was the principal feature of the music. Psathas had used one of the many Greek scales so that for a moment the impression given was that the performers were playing badly out of tune but very soon the ears became attuned to what was a very intoxicating and exotic sound. I was terribly tempted to get up and dance to this music but I am sure I would have been very quickly and embarrassingly escorted from the building.

I did not feel much like dancing to the music of Shostakovich and his String Quartet No.13 in Bb minor, Op138. This must rank alongside Tapiola by Sibelius as one of the darkest pieces of music ever conceived. It has a similar pared down musical content and yet the String Quartet does have a core of human feeling that is quite absent from the tone poem by Sibelius. There is something too in the central Doppio movimento section of the feverish terror expressed in the Purgatorio of Mahler's Tenth Symphony although the pieces do not sound alike at all. The hollow knocking of Death expressed by the wood of the bow rapping against the bodies of the instruments is indeed meant to be terrifying and the New Zealand Quartet gave a very graphic performance of this Quartet.

The two pieces after the interval struck a far more cheerful note. Eight Colours by Tan Dun had something of the compression and detail of Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles that the Edinburgh Quartet performed in the same venue just last week. Tan Dun's musical vocabulary however is far more adventurous and the pieces a little more diffuse. I particularly liked the pizzicato and slap technique that the New Zealand Quartet brought off with such style.

The real eye-opener of this concert and perhaps the most authentic sound of New Zealand came with the last work Puhake Ki Te Rangi for string quartet and Maori instruments by Gillian Karawe Whitehead. For this, the Quartet was joined by Richard Nunns who has spent a lifetime of dedicated research into every aspect of taonga p√ľoro (Maori traditional instruments). During the interval I had the opportunity of having a close look at some of the instruments carved from whale bones and teeth and albatross bones. They were every bit as beautiful as they sounded. Gillian Karawe Whithead has a love of whale song as deep as that of Messiaen for birdsong and she has incorporated its sounds into her music. You could sense the voices of these creatures singing through the string playing and the whole work was punctuated by the sounds of the Maori instruments. I was particularly taken with one instrument that had a high or low pitch depending on which way round it was blown.

Thank-you New Zealand Quartet and Richard Nunns, please come back again and let us hear more of the music from your homeland.

Original article reproduced here with kind permission.

events mentioned
  Date Day Time Location Event Details

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10Mon 7.45 pmAberdeenNew Zealand String Quartet, with Richard Nunns, Maori instruments