Graeme Downes at Toitu

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Graeme DownesThe first lecture in a series from Global Dunedin at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, musician and lecturer Dr Graeme Downes from the Department of Music spoke about his collaboration with the Southern Sinfonia to produce the orchestral concert Tally Ho! dedicated to the Dunedin Sound.

I did not attend the Tally Ho! Concert.  I didn’t get around to getting a ticket.  What’s written below needs to be read with the proviso that my musical education is limited to the point of non-existence.

In the 1980s New Zealand was making a cultural shift from South Britain to a new identity.  Old Britain entered the European Union and New Zealand stopped being their sheep farm.  The Springbok Tour happened.  The Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sank in Auckland Harbour, the action of an allied European nation.  New Zealand changed its policy on nuclear issues, a course that would lead the nation out of a defense treaty with Australia and America.

Our music changed at the same time.  Our pop music was made stripped of the influences of African sound.  That left folk; urban white music like the Byrds and the Beetles, and Classical, both symphonic influences from Western Classical  and Sitar.  The first band to make this combination of sound was The Clean.  Other bands were to follow.

Culture took took two years to arrive in New Zealand.  This was the gap between the first Punk music in Britain and the first home-made release in New Zealand.  In an age of isolation the fashion was no longer cutting edge when it was imitated in the islands.  Rock bands learned off each other.  They were the minimum of two-three people, a poor man’s orchestra.  The cost of maintaining an orchestra makes it the music of the upper class.

The Dunedin Sound was an incomplete bar chord, which Downes replicated in Tally Ho! with an e sharp and a d from different instruments of the orchestra, creating a gnarly sound.  The symphonic idea was already in the music, as band members played around with the instrumental section.  The poetic depth existed in the music.  One set of lyrics Downes read out sounded it was already on the way into lieder territory.

The Sinfonia rose to the challenge.  I understand from one friend that the scores are stored away.  They will want another go at this in a couple of years’ time perhaps.

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Mozart and the Brodsky Quartet

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Mozart RequiemThis week has proved to be a good week to enjoy music.  A ticket was offered to me if I wanted to see the Dunedin City Choir and the Southern Sinfonia perform the Mozart Requiem at Knox Church.  I didn’t refuse.  There were two pieces, Shubert’s Stabat Mater and Mozart’s Requiem.  I was distracted during the Stabat Mater.  Knox Church does not have the softest pews, even with padding.  However that was all forgotten when the Requiem began.  It was a piece to hold my attention.

If there is a resurrection I would hope it sounds like that trumpet.

Was there a tyrannosaur in the church?  Rex! Rex! Rex! Or do the choir have a very disobedient dog?

Then after the weekend I was offered the use of a season ticket to the Brodsky Quartet at the Glenroy Auditorium.  A friend could not make time to attend and was delighted that I could go instead.  It was a wonderful concert: Schubert’s Quartet Movement, a very modern sounding String Quartet No. 3 from Shostakovich; and a String Quartet from Beethoven.

It sounds like doing Shostakovich’s complete quartets is a favourite challenge for the Brodsky Quartet.  There are fifteen in total covering the beginning of Shostakovich’s career until before his final years before his death.  To play them all takes a weekend.  I did not resist the promotion.  Irene from Relics Music was on hand in the foyer with a display of CDs for sale.  I was the second person in line to buy The String Quartets in the intermission.  Irene had already recommended it.  I think they all sold.  I got the programme book with the CDs signed by the Quartet.  A momento of a memorable evening.

Brodsky Quartet

Live Music at Dunedin Library – A Summary

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The amazing Nick Knox would have to be a highlight of Music Month Gig Night at the Dunedin Public Library.  The Library has other clips from the month on their YouTube channel.  The YouTube link in the screen above should take you to one of their pages.

I understand that performing at one of these venues can be terrifying for performers.  It’s well-lit.  You can see everyone.  No one is drunk in the library.  They are all sober and their focus is on you.

Not everything worked for me.  I found the simplest things worked best and kept me from thinking about wandering off to browse.  Often this was an acoustic performance, like Robin and Penelope from the Grawlixes who being as sexy as white acoustic music can be; or the three guys with two guitars from Kings College who sang their own stuff.  I don’t remember the name of their line-up.  There was Paul Cathro from Alizarin Lizard who seemed to be singing the same themes in six different songs.  He didn’t create a repartee with the audience like others managed but I still enjoyed listening.  The rap artist Arcee put on a London accent and pulled no punches with her profanity.  She made me blink several times.

Maddy Parkins-Craig from Some Other Creature may have got the best line with about a broken-down relationship: “The American Congress is gonna make more progress than us”.  Graeme Downes had some great working titles: “Too Old To Grow Up”, from a mutual interview with Shane Carter, and “The Fascist Boys Are The Snappiest Dressers”.  Kira Hundleby got in before the Library to thank them for having us all in their place.  Applause all around.

Back again next year?

Sung Versions of Pastoral – Songs of Love and Courtship

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A night of Robert Burns’ pastoral songs, a night in the Marama Hall, well attended, presented by Professor Nigel Leask of the University of Glasgow, and accompanied by the University’s Department of Music.  The singers and musicians passing themselves off as unquestionably fine.

I thought my edition of Burns was the Complete Poems and Songs, however I can’t find his naughty poem When maukin bucks… listed under any of its titles or lines.  Prurience perhaps, when others are included?

One hundred and thirty love songs, in a life’s work of over five hundred pieces.  Burns was more literate and familiar with his country’s poetry and sung culture than his persona suggests.  He sought out material and made it presentable, often preserving what would otherwise have been lost.

He funded himself supporting himself as an excise man.  “[Y]ou may think my songs either above, or below, price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, and etc. could be downright Sodomy of Soul!”

The final word from Lord Byron, “What an antithetical mind, a mixture of dirt and deity!”

Robert Burns

Music Month at the Library

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Music Month 2014My first night at this event.  People were already present by twenty past five and waiting for the show.  First on was Martin Philipps from The Chills.  He was singing new stuff, not covering his old stuff.  It wouldn’t have mattered to me as I’m not familiar with his song-book.  It was all good and there is a new album in production for the end of 2014.  We were asked to keep any recordings of tonights performance private as not to pirate what he is preparing.

This was followed by two young bands.  They had exchangeable members.  I thought Iron Mammoth was the more interesting front: three skinny guys, two beards, a Hammond, drums, a glockenspiel and a cornet.  I see the programme describes them as “indie trio with a touch of carnivale”.  I picked up on the fairground/carnival influences in their sound.  It was dark-edged and chirpy, and foot-tapping stuff.  They were fun.  People gathered to listen and sat down for more when they were finished.  They were the last act for the evening.  Wait another week and see if Wednesday’s and Thursday’s programmes bring more good sounds.

There was a discussion on National Radio earlier this week, “Do we still need Music Month?”  Dunedin Library’s Live Music During May was cited as something that draws out an audience.  I’m glad to see it going again this year, providing us with an opportunity to get and enjoy some public entertainment.

The march

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The Conductor by Sarah Quigley 2011Shostakovich was about to tell Boris to get back to the only work for which he was fit, grubbing around in the dirt.  As Boris’s voice hammered on, a tinny tune emerged from the insults.  Just as he grasped it (a mindlessly repetitive tune, but there was something there) and was trying to memorise it, annoyingly Boris stopped.

“You were saying?” Shostakovich gazed away in a casual manner. “Something about my worthless opera, its neurotic quality, its excessive number of notes?  But surely you’re simply quoting the famous Pravda editorial, Comrade.  Have you no views of your own?”

The ploy worked.  Instantly Boris started up again, his voice chipping away like the pickaxes behind them.  “Your conceited nature obstructs your music . . . Your ego is larger than what you write . . .”  Once more Shostakovich heard the tune.

Pizzicato, that was it! A pizzicato refrain rising  from a melancholic E flat melody like a puppet rising from a heap of toys.  Unseen hands pulled on the strings (slowly, relentlessly) until the puppet was marching repetitively against the snare drums.  “Idiotic,” said Boris’s voice from amid the growing dim.  “Arrogant. Imatative.”

“Exactly!” The words burst out of Shostakovich.  “You’re right! The themes of fascism.  It will be a fascist march.”

“What did you say? Did you call me a fascist?”

“Not at all, my dear Boris!  To tell the truth, I’ve never felt more kindly towards you than now.  Do you have a pen?  I seem to have dropped mine.”

Boris stuck his hand into his shapeless trousers and drew out the tiny stub of a pencil.  “Here. But be sure to give it back.  It still has some wear in it.”

“Certainly, my good fellow.  In such uncertain times, you’re wise to take care of your belongings.  One never knows where the next pencil will come from.  Perhaps the pencils of the entire nation will be sequestered for fortifications.”

Boris, looking nonplussed, trailed away.  Furtively, Shostakovich scribbled a few lines. True the pencil was as blunt as Boris’s wit and it wrote as badly as Boris played the piano — but it was enough.  He’d captured it!  As soon as he got home, he would begin writing.

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley, 2011

The Birthday

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Mr Shostakovich appeared at Sonya’s side.  ‘May I see the Storioni now?’

The cello lay on its side in the bedroom.  Sonya’s heart gave a leap when she saw it: it was so beautiful!  Carefully she picked it up and offered it to Mr Shostakovich, who ran his hands admiringly over its red-brown front and curved back.

‘A very fine instrument,’ he said.  ‘I saw your mother play it, many times, before you were born.’

‘Did you? Where did she play?’

‘In the Philharmonia Hall.’  Mr Shostakovich cradled the cello as if it weighed no more than a baby.  ‘Beautiful.  Quite beautiful.’  It wasn’t clear whether he was talking about the cello, or Sonya’s mother, or the concert hall with its soaring white pillars.

‘I haven’t played it much yet.  Just a little this morning, before I started preparing for the party.’

‘Does it like you?’

‘Does it what?’

‘Has it taken to you? It doesn’t matter if it knows you — it will come to know you.  But it is very important that it likes you, and vice versa.  A long time ago I used to accompany films at the Bright Reel Theatre, and you know what?  The piano hated me!  Every day, we battled.  Every evening we fought.  It was a disgusting job.’  He gave a sigh.  ‘Fighting the piano was like working with a person you detest day after day.’

‘When I took it out of its case this morning, the first thing I did was pluck the A string.’

‘And?  How did it sound?’

‘Like —’ Sonya shut her eyes for a second. ‘Like a voice.  It seemed to say something, only I’m not sure.’

Mr Shostakovich nodded.  ‘In my opinion, the A string is the least informative of the four strings.  If approached wrongly it can hold its secrets forever.’

‘So do you think it likes me?’

‘Definitely.  No doubt about it.  Would you consider playing a tune for your guests, if I accompany you?’

‘How about an adaption of Fauré’s Elégie?’

‘A perfect choice for a birthday.  The passing of time is a serious matter.’

As soon as he played an A on the piano for Sonya to tune to, everyone fell silent.  ‘A captive audience,’ said Mr Shostakovich.  ‘That is what we like!’

‘Fauré’s Elégie, an adaption,’ Sonya announced in a slightly squeezed voice.  ‘For my father.’

‘Ready when you are,’ said Mr Shostakovich from the piano.

Sonya straightened her back and pressed her feet against the floor.  The cello leaned into her.  I’m ready too, it said in a woody whisper.

Before this she’d seen the Elégie as a silvery kind of piece, clear-cut, almost icy.  Today, in the hushed moments before beginning, she saw it differently.  Fauré’s familiar notes were transformed: they hung in the air, round, opaque, like ripe golden fruit.  Already the cello had changed her way of seeing.    She took a deep breath, nodded to Mr Shostakovich, and the first note dropped into the silence, perfectly pitched and as sweet as honey.

And soon it seemed to Sonya that the cello was singing by itself.  All she had to do was place her fingers on the strings, and the song sprang open, phrase after phrase floating out as if she had unlocked a secret world with a magic key.  Then, with a sigh — was it from her or the cello? — the bow drew a last husky stroke across the string and there was silence.  She gave the cello a quick stroke on its smooth back.  Thank you, she said. You were wonderful.

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley, 2011

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