Friday, June 19, 2009


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).


  1. PART I

    Hello Claire!

    What a treat to be back at your blog, especially in the shade of this marvelous post. based on your review, I hope someday to have the pleasure of hearing Mr. Kriikku myself one day. Your comments on the concert and on music remind me of a recent experience of my own. Not long ago, I bought a new CD by jazz drummer and band leader Chico Hamilton. My interest in his music came entirely from a documentary I'd seen some time ago about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and a long segment of Chico Hamilton's combo completely enthralled me with its mellow, meditative swing. Remembering how much I liked the music, I eventually got around to ordering a recording, and eagerly put on the new disc when it arrived. But I'd failed to do my homework. Instead of the cool easy sound I was expecting, each cut was a new foray into abstract texture and cacophony. Evidently, in the eight years between the Newport film and the CD I'd bought, Hamilton had taken to experimenting with free jazz, which you might describe as bebop on Benzedrine. It was, to say the least, not what I was expecting, but even after I made the mental adjustment, I found I was unable to get into the record. I've long been a devotee of so-called "West Coast" jazz, a cooler style of the music that originated in California in the 1950s as a counterpoise to the bop innovations of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, et. al. This was Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, etc. etc. and, of course, the coolest cat of them all, Miles Davis (who wasn't West Coast, but influenced everybody). When I was younger I liked bebop a lot too, but now, slower and mellower myself, I suppose, I find myself less compelled by the aggression and bravado of bebop, and increasingly moved by the slower, warmer, more (asi said above) meditative music of those old West Coast guys. One of the most affecting aspects of the cooler music (and this is the point of this exegesis) is the effective way cool jazz uses space -- rests, pauses, cesuras, silences. As you say, breath. I don't know if this experience transcends cultures, but here in North America every Christmas they play an animated cartoon special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." This has been going on since the mid-1960s, when I was a wee lad, and I remember exactly the deep thrill this program gave me musically the first time I saw it. There is a moment in the cartoon when Charlie Brown and Linus venture out into the wintery night to buy a Christmas tree, in search of a real evergreen among legions of artificially-perfect "trees." As they embark on their quest, the music behind them is "O! Tannenbaum," a song my grandfather used to sing according to its traditional plodding melody. But here, the same melody was placed in a whole new setting, one that lilted and shuffled, sped up and slowed down and even stopped in an breezy but always deeply felt rhythm. It was as if I'd entered a new world, a new time-zone. It was more than a musical experience, it was existential. It was exactly as you so eloquently articulated it -- it opened up a place for connection, for dialogue, in the cartoon represented by Charlie Brown's adoption of a spindly but noble little tree, and in my heart forevermore as a mode of engagement that is generous, positive, soulful, humane.


  2. PART II (Please read Part I first)

    More and more I am convinced this is the saving grace of art, and am most interested in those works that increase the space for connection, compassion, humaneness. As for Pat Metheny, if you don't know the record, I recommend an early collaboration he did with Lyle Mays, with the delectable title "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls." Finally, your mention of John Cage reminds me of when, some twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in his company. I was there as a photographer when he gathered with a small group of what can only be called acolytes, given the chance to sit at his feet (literally, in some cases) and carry on a conversation about music, modernism, life. I am still moved to this day by the way Cage responded. One of the assembled would ask his or her question, and Cage would receive it by remaining absolutely still, not speaking, not gesturing, not making eye contact, but obviously wholly present and attentive. After a long minute or so, he would give his answer, carefully considered and expressed. It was thrilling! an awesome display of concentration, engagement, depth. The wisdom of the silence added profoundly to the thoughtfulness of the reply. Patience, as the sage remarked, is never wasted.

    Stay well, and Happy Solstice

  3. Great prose Claire ... hey, maybe you should be sending stuff of this quality to the Otago Daily Times, and at least get paid for your efforts! ;)

    Hello Aquarian Aye - regarding your comments about Cage, I'd qualify them if I may, by mentioning that one should perhaps be careful not to suspend critical alertness in the face of such effective 'seduction' techniques. Such manipulations are easily contrived, and identical mannerisms were routinely employed by Hitler, to equal effect, most memorably at the Nuremberg Rally.

    Your comments about freeform jazz amused me! I made similar observations - less diplomatically than yourself mind you ;) - here.

    All The Best!

  4. I agree - you should be sending in reviews to the ODT Claire! A marvellous, breathtakingly articulate report - as always.

  5. Hi Aq. Aye. It's taken me a while to get onto responding to comments relating to this post. Life's been a bit full on. And here I am now with an indrawn breath and a wisp of soap bubbles instead of words...

    I'm an ignoramus when it comes to about a third of the musicians you've named here but your enthusiastic musings go some distance towards fattening up the picture. (I can imagine 'Bebop on Benzedrine' would have come as something of a shock if what you were expecting was quite 'other' than that!)

    re; Part II. Silence when mindfully, empathetically practiced can indeed be a form of wise expression.

    I'd also like to suggest that there are times when this kind of silence can be every bit as companionable and inclusive as speech.

  6. bluemoon - hello. Thank Q! for *popping!* by again, and for these sobering and valid points about the potential dangers lurking beneath contrived & manipulative silence. Discernment requires having one's antennae out and trusting one's instinct about these sorts of things. Good and evil are back-to-back and try to trick us by dressing up in each other's clothing.

    On this subject, have you heard of the Enneagram? It's an ancient mystical tradition/tool of discernment initially 'gifted' to the Sufis and handed down through various spiritual cultures through the intervening centuries. Amongst many other things, it suggests that our so-called 'gifts' can in fact be our vices - and vice versa. It's too complex to go into here, but the material is wonderfully rich and I think keys in with what you're advocating in your i-Magi-Nation. Richard Rohr is the Fransiscan teacher I recommend you read up. (I've just ordered a 7-CD set of his talks on the nine different energies described as dynamically occupying the circle... )

    On a completely different note, I read your boldly acerbic review on the rateyourmusic site. Ouch!

    All the best!

  7. bluemoon & kay - funny, I hadn't intended to write a review of that concert! I can see now how it kind of ended up becoming one, though... Oops!

    Have you heard the maddening news that the ODT is supposedly dropping all art reviews for the foreseeable future? Can you believe it? If either of you feels motivated to drop the arts editor a line of protest, it would be a move much appreciated by Dunedin's creative community.

    His email address is:

    Take care - C

  8. I'm only slightly acquainted with the Enneagram Claire - mainly as an allegory for mandalas! But I'd agree that gifts can be vices as well ... as such, it's a perpetual and perilous balancing act navigating the i-Magi-Nation!

    Still, I find that a lapse into 'pontificating' is a very good indicator for any loss of balance, and w*ndering towards the "Disneyland" model of existence seems to be a reliable sign for veering offcourse too. So daleks try to remain onguard against such developments!

    All The Best!

  9. You navigate well and with awareness, bluemoon.

    Pontificating is a dreadful trap/trip, I agree - something to be on the lookout for, that's for sure. Whew, w*ndering brings its challenge, there's no doubt about that!

    I'm off now to visit your latest entry and to leave a comment on your obd site; it's a while since I've done that, although I visit often.

    Best to you, too - C

  10. PS. The enneagram is itself a mandala - a particularly mysterious and dynamic one. C