The Basement
August 13 | Reviewed by Samuel Holloway

175 East is an unusually constituted ensemble, with an emphasis on the bottom end. It’s an idiosyncratic combination of flute, clarinet, cello, double bass, bass clarinet and trombone that has, for over ten years, performed some of the most interesting ‘new music for old instruments’. Their recent Auckland concert (repeated in Wellington) proved no exception. The concert took place at the acoustically-interesting Basement, and the ensemble, joined by horn player Carl Wells, presented six works, including three from New Zealand composers.

Opening the concert was Vitus, a work written for the ensemble in 2001 by Wellington composer Michael Norris. Vitus reflects the legend of St. Vitus in which the titular Saint is tortured a number of times. It is an energetic score that requires considerable rhythmic coordination, particularly in the central section that is intended to suggest an episode of St. Vitus Dance (a brain disorder that manifests itself in involuntary jerking movements), and it was taken at a particularly lively pace under conductor Hamish McKeich. While some of the rhythmic unisons sound a little mannered, Norris’s work creates considerable excitement in its five-minute span, and it gave an early chance to hear guest clarinettist Richard Haynes, who ends the piece sotto voce.

Haynes featured as soloist in James Gardner’s a study for voicing doubts, also written for the ensemble in 2001. In the programme note to the work, Gardner (formerly of Apollo 440 and now director of 175 East) cites Francis Bacon as an example of an artist who has created a series of ‘studies’ around a subject that stand both as complete works as well as commenting on the primary works for which they are studies. Though less common for a composer, Gardner had this in mind when writing a study for voicing doubts, which is both a substantial work in itself while also acting as a study for Rank and File Movements, a clarinet ‘concerto’ due to appear in 2010. Gardner’s study is a miniature ‘concerto’ too, although the lithe clarinet solo eschews any flashiness. The role of the soloist is constantly questioned, and this is exemplified when the soloist leaves the ensemble towards the end of the piece (in this performance moving through the audience and leaving the room). Again, the ensemble easily navigated the rhythmic complexities but sounded at their best when giving chorale-like harmonic support to Haynes’s fluid lines.

The third New Zealand work on the programme from a fixed point (2009) was a Creative New Zealand-funded commission by Rachael Morgan, one of our more interesting young composers. The work is based around the idea of fixed ‘points’ of various kinds that appear throughout the work and move towards more unstable manifestations. This occurs most obviously at the opening of the piece, with an extended unconducted double bass solo that explores a single pitch and from which the other instruments gradually emerge. Morgan’s interest in the nature of sound is evident in the timbral investigations that she successfully undertakes throughout the work, while pitch and registral shifts remain important. The performance was uniformly thoughtful, with Katherine Hebley’s cello playing towards the end of the work a particular highlight.

Of the three works from abroad, Christian Wolff’s Two Players (1996) was the most surprising. Receiving only its third ever performance, the work for the paring of Carl Wells’s horn and Katherine Hebley’s cello brought a welcome moment of space to the concert. The work consists of heterogeneous musical ‘chunks’ pieced together in a way described by Wolff as analogous to quilting. The unexpected trajectory of the piece proved enjoyable despite the sometimes naďve passing of material between the players, and overly measured quality of some gestures.

There was no such naivety in Richard Barrett’s codex I for 6-12 improvising musicians (2001), a guided improvisation that was here performed by five of the ensemble with Gardner on laptop. The idea that the score is an ancient, damaged text is one of the conceits of the piece, and within the instructions that range in degrees of specificity, almost anything is possible. Superficially, it seems like something of a departure for a composer who has tended towards prescription with highly detailed scores, and it’s a work that could decisively fail in the hands of lesser performers. Given good enough musicians however, as in this performance, the work has the kind of tumultuous energy, colour and structural nuance that characterizes all of Barrett’s work. The work opens on a timbrally-fluctuating pitch that soon explodes outwards and moves through a wildly varying succession of musical states. Notable contributions came from almost all players, with bassist Lachlan Radford’s bow-destructing enthusiasm and Tim Sutton’s vocally-distorted trombone performance of special note. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, James Gardner’s otherworldly electronic soundscapes and Andrew Uren’s understated contributions on bass clarinet were a welcome contrast.

Another work by Richard Barrett, the fiendish knospend-gespaltener (1992-93) for solo C clarinet, was performed from memory by Richard Haynes, who has tackled some of the most challenging clarinet music of our time. (A performance by Haynes of the work can be found on youtube.com). The solo is part of Barrett’s ninety-minute instrumental/vocal/electronic work Opening of the Mouth, based around the work of Jewish poet Paul Celan, and which Barrett has described as being ‘concerned to some degree with questioning the possibility of expression, of symbolism, especially faced with the unspeakable’. knospend-gespaltener unfolds with leaping between four registral layers, and eventually Haynes’ breath became so prominent as to almost become another ‘layer’. The leaping that falls at times into a lurching semi-regular rhythm is interrupted by liquid microtonal lines, and the pieces moves between the subtle timbral shifts of alternate fingerings to intense wailing. Captivating throughout, this was an utterly committed performance.