James Gardner & Samuel Holloway
James Gardner (b.1962)
Blessed Unrest (2006)
Performers: NZTrio - Sarah Watkins (piano), Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Ilott Theatre, Wellington
29 April 2007
Samuel Holloway (b.1981)
Malleus (2005, r.2006)
Performers: Andrew Uren, Nicola Walton & Anna McGregor (clarinets)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the University of Auckland Clocktower
15 October 2006
Introduction by Kenneth Young
James Gardner is probably best known, in New Zealand, for forming the Auckland contemporary music ensemble 175 East in 1996. Until recently James was their Music Director and for 13 years he oversaw numerous top-drawer première performances of works by both New Zealand and overseas composers, which have gained the ensemble an undeniably deserved international reputation.
Since moving here from England in 1994 his own compositional achievements have been many, but he wasn’t always on the path of writing contemporary "classical" music.
Through the 1980s and early 90s Gardner worked with various pop music groups in the UK, and co-founded Apollo 440 in 1990. However in 1993 he decided to devote himself to composition, coming under the influence of Brian Ferneyhough and the wider "New Complexity" school.
This must have been a pivotal time in his career as I sense these influences in his more recent music too. New Complexity is a term dating from the 1980s for composers seeking a multi-layered interplay of extended techniques, usually abstract and relatively dissonant in sound.
This work by James Gardner is called Blessed Unrest, and it's written for a trio of violin, cello and piano. His investigation of extremes of colour, timbre, rhythm, dynamics and nuance is of prime importance, so the notation of detail in the score is highly complex and admirably meticulous. In short, this work is really difficult to perform. The skill and dedication demonstrated by NZTrio in the performance you are about to hear is beyond commendable. I’ve spent some time with James' score and I can assure you that their attention to detail is honest and accurate.
The work has a multitude of glissandi, various types of accents, many sudden changes of dynamic; a myriad of bowing effects, trills, tremolos; constant complex asymmetric time signature changes; technically fiendish passage work for all instruments - and on top of all this, the strings have to play microtones on a regular basis.
The end result of all this complexity in performance is what I know James will have been after; a piece that sounds almost like an improvisation, creating, as he puts it, "a sense of pent-up energy and its release in bursts".
In contrast to those bursts Gardner also presents us with softer, gentler textures where the cello joins the violin in its upper register as they glissando their way, almost in unison, through an implied melodic motive above atmospheric, pianissimo cluster harmonies in the piano.
The title Blessed Unrest comes from a statement by the American choreographer Martha Graham, about the concept of artistic expression:
"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."
And now on to another Auckland composer whose work has been capturing deserved attention both in New Zealand and overseas for the past few years. Samuel Holloway was awarded the 2006 Composers Association of New Zealand Trust Fund Award; and his piano trio Stapes was awarded First Prize in the Asian Composers League Young Composer Competition at the 2007 ISCM World New Music Days in Hong Kong. He’s currently lecturing in music at Unitec and also at the University of Auckland School of Music.
I first became aware of Samuel's work during the Asia Pacific Festival which was held in Wellington in February 2007. I conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his 2004 work Fault, a rather apt title for Wellington! It’s also on Passing, a joint release from Atoll Records and Melbourne's Move Records, which documents the New Zealand and Australian orchestral works performed at that festival.
The work of his we're about to hear is a clarinet trio called Malleus, the second in a series of three trios collectively entitled "Middle Ear". It won first prize in the 2005 Lilburn Competition at the University of Auckland – and the previously mentioned prize winning piano trio Stapes is the first of the set.
The malleus (or hammer) is one of three bones that transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the internal ear in the process of transforming external sound waves to an emotional or cognitive response within the listener.
In this work, Holloway explores the concept of a 'meta-instrument', with the three clarinets acting as one, playing a near-identical melodic line. The single sound becomes increasingly fragmented as the players tire – due to both the unbrokenness of the piece and the different tunings which places stress on the instruments: more on that later.
The line is based entirely on the three-note opening motif: a semitone step down followed by a whole tone step upwards. It's a novel approach to give all three clarinets near identical material, but it is corrupted through independent tempi and tuning.
Clarinet 2 is in tune as we recognise it: straightforward enough. However, Clarinet 1 is tuned between half and three-quarters of a semitone sharper than clarinet 2, while Clarinet 3 is tuned between half and three-quarters of a semitone flatter than Clarinet 2. Moreover, Holloway asks that the two out of tune clarinets are not exactly a semitone apart. It's not enough just to pull out or push in the component parts of the clarinet to achieve the required pitches, you also need dedicated performers with exceptional ears.
Holloway also precisely indicates subtle changes of tempo for each player. A two bar shift from 60 crotchets per minute to 66 is then followed by a 4 bar shift back down to 54 crotchets per minute, However, as the three players are only roughly following these indications, there is never any exact unison. This gives the overall texture of the work an almost liquid quality which is totally compelling.