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Philip Brownlee (b.1971)
Synonta (2000)

Performer: Xenia Pestova (piano)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand at a Stroma concert in the Ilott Theatre, Wellington
18 August 2000

David Downes (b.1967)
Expulse (2002)

Performer: Donald Nicolson (piano, laptop)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand at a Stroma concert in the Ilott Theatre, Wellington
24 September 2008

Introductions by Kenneth Young


Philip Brownlee has been active as a composer and sonic artist in Wellington for many years. Alongside his collaborations with ensembles and artists such as Stroma, 175 East, Bridget Douglas and Richard Nunns, he's been working at transferring compositional techniques between traditional instruments and electroacoustic media.

In 1997, together with artists such as Dan Beban and Jonny Marks, he founded Amalgam, a sonic arts collective which for several years produced Fringe Festival shows in Wellington. This activity extended Brownlee's explorations into the elements of theatre and free improvisation.

The work of Philip's we're going to hear is called Synonta and was commissioned by the excellent contemporary piano music specialist, Xenia Pestova, who gives it a beautifully judged performance. The title is coined from Greek roots (syn: together, and onta: being), and describes things existing in the same space, which in turn refers to the underlying organisation of the music.

The composer writes: "Several distinct bodies of musical material are simultaneously present. The performer's (and the listener's) attention is thrown abruptly from one to another", and "The component identities amplify each other as their energies are transferred, transcending their own boundaries."

Brownlee says the form of the piece arose from an unexpectedly successful experiment: a number of unrelated sketches from different musical trajectories were segmented and reassembled in an arbitrary order. The performer is asked to lurch between a series of tempi and textural types, while attempting to maintain the continuity of each group of material. The friction between the different elements generates greater momentum than the materials possess in themselves.

In other words, this piece is a collage; it makes sense out of disjointed bits of information. But it's not all just disorientation and dislocation: there's relief in the form of lower-register chords, held for a long time by the sustain pedal. This affords the listener time to reflect.

This recording of Philip Brownlee's Synonta is by Xenia Pestova in August of 2000.


And now onto another Wellington based musician whose endeavours are many and varied.

The sheer variety of David Downes' musical activity marks him as one of New Zealand's most versatile musicians - both as a composer and performer.

He is proficient on keyboards, guitar, drums and as a vocalist, and he's also very much at home in the world of electronics. His interest in video and film, which is an extension of his approach to music and sonic art, has led to experimental music videos, long form narrative films, animation, and computer generated imagery. Several of these films are award-winners.

He's also produced contemporary dance scores and has been commissioned by the likes of the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra, NZTrio, Stroma and Strike. Having lived and worked in New Zealand, China and the UK, David has collaborated with musicians from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and you can hear those influences in many of his pieces.

Expulse is a work for piano and tape commissioned by Stroma and written for Dan Poynton in 2002.

This initial gesture of repeating the very highest note on the piano as loud as possible almost makes you think it's in the texture of the pre-recorded material. The gradually rising pitch of the tape part creates tension along with that rhythmically hesitant persistent high pitch.

The section that follows is very simple; a gradually accelerating and then decelerating series of quiet single notes intoning and repeating a chromatic scale from D to C#, but with each note displaced over almost three octaves. This is occasionally interrupted by disturbingly insistent knocking.

The piano seems to be in the dominant role however the tape texture can be unnerving and percussive in its own right.

David Downes says he used the metaphor of exorcism as a means of exploring the tension of pulse: on the one hand it's a force of unity, identification and grounding, and on the other it can be an agent of violent transformation.

There's a theatrical element which grew from the distorted heart shape of a grand piano. The instrument is played, tapped, pounded and jolted, enduring all the extremes of pressure and tension as a human heart does.

The very end of the piece is performed with a plank of wood placed over all the keys. The performer stands forcing his whole weight onto the wood as if administering CPR. The piano produces a series of enormous explosions as it hammers all its strings at once.

More about Synonta on the SOUNZ website

More about Expulse on the SOUNZ website