On Thursday evening, I went down to the Town Hall with a trio of friends to hear Finnish Clarinettest Kari Kriikku playing with the NZSO. Pietari Inkinen was musical director.
Here's an excerpt from pre-concert advertising -
Clarinet Revolution. Musical Revelation. There's something about Finland. . . In the last two decades this small and remarkable country has been producing great musicians in such continuous waves it has become a source of global wonder. Amongst this catalogue of new musical giants is the clarinettist Kari Kriikku who has firmly established himself as a fearless performer of almost outrageous virtuosity. . .
Three very different works featured in this concert: (i) Tchaikovsky's Overture 1812, (ii) Tiensuu's Puro for clarinet and orchestra and (iii) Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
For me, the concert would have been complete - and I, replete - with the Jukka Tiensuu piece all on its own. It seemed a little irreverent to sandwich this breath-holdingly complex composition between the extravagant pomp of the 1812 Overture and the similarly theatrical Scheherazade. Not that Tiensuu's Puro didn't include certain of these elements; it did, but in such a way that seemed to be more about content and communication than display - which was surprising, given the composition so blatantly called on virtuosity for its rendition.
And Kari Kriikku? He was so at one with his instrument, he might as well have been inside it - or it inside him. He was earnest, mournful, sexy, playful, respectful, provocative, as engaged with the audience as he was with the conductor and orchestra. There he was, in perfect control of the breath, sustaining notes for what seemed like an eternity - and there I was, perched on the edge of my chair, forgetting at times to breathe! (So much for what I'm supposedly learning in my yoga classes?) Kriikku drew layers and textures from his clarinet that were unlike any I'd heard before.
It's not my intention to be ungenerous towards the Tchaikovsky or Rimsy-Korsokov pieces, but in the context of this particular concert, Tiensuu's Puro deserved to stand alone. (I confess that at the end of the concert, I was reminded of an old boarding school punishment; if we were caught having a midnight feast, everything would be confiscated and we'd have to eat a pulverized concoction of all the ingredients for breakfast the next day; sardines, jelly babies, vanilla wine biscuits, caramelized condensed milk and the SA equivalent of Twisties are delicious on their own, but being offered them all mushed together in one bowl was not a tummy-calming combination!).
Since the concert, I've found myself wondering whether the nature of performance might be changing? I like to think of performers as being amongst us, and of performances (whether music, poetry readings, art exhibitions, etc...) as being less about the individual musician, writer or artist and more about the content and its potential to prompt dialogue, forge connections and invite community engagement.
My wish for 'just' the Tiensuu piece that night very likely relates to the fact that I'm increasingly content in the company of silence these days; when I do work with music, I tend to choose composers like Faure, Arvo Part, John Cage, Philip Glass, Pat Metheny (who stays up late and plays his guitar to the 'Quiet Night' in his garage at home), Zbigniew Preisner and, sometimes, early Keith Jarrett (how could one tire of his Koln Concert?).
It's just occurred to me - where are all the women? I almost omitted one of the contemporary musicians I admire most - and yes, she's a woman; cellist Zoe Keating. Meet her and tune in to her music here.
Anyway, getting back to where I was. . . Each of these composers has spoken about the importance of working as consciously or deliberately with silence and the space between notes as with the notes themselves; a method I deeply appreciate. To be honest, I find densely jam-packed, heavily-scored (every-instrument-must-be-in) music slightly alarming. While I can respect its cleverness, the 'too-muchness' of it can feel like an assault and knocks my ions around.
Restraint, measure and distillation I find far more alluring. When there's less rather than more, we as listeners are offered time, space and permission to enter the music differently and to participate. When this happens, we're less separated out from the music and the musicians and for a time are free to roam the landscape of staves and airwaves together - the experience becomes less 'them' & 'us' and more 'thus'; i.e. a community in it together. This has to be a good thing.
John Cage has plenty of insightful things to say about music, sound and listening - and for an astonishing and moving performance of his 4'33" piece, click here.
When it comes down to it, music, dance, research, plumbing, writing, anaesthetizing, diving, brick-laying, teaching, painting, etc... are all pretty much one and the same thing; each is a balancing act, an outward expression of our combined humanity. Rising out of everything and nothing, each activity pays attention to the weight of a particular note (or notes) and its relationship to what happens to be on either side of it.
The ear asks for resting places every bit as much as the eye, the feet, the hand, the mind and the heart do.
PS. I've just been browsing the web and... well, I'll say no more, but please treat yourselves to this (Zoe Keating improvising with violinist Paul Mercer) and this (May 2009 performance of 'Escape Artist', a track from her forthcoming new album).