Maverick honours cherished friend

By William Dart

Piece to be played was inspired by poet's strong anti-nuclear convictions

Composer Chris Cree Brown (left) with poet Hone Tuwhare in Dunedin in 1983.
Composer Chris Cree Brown (left) with poet Hone Tuwhare in Dunedin in 1983.

For three days next week, Auckland becomes Composer Capital of the country, with the Composing Now conference coming to town.

Over the weekend, cognoscenti from the Composers Association of New Zealand will deliver papers and addresses with titles ranging from "I don't do pulse" to "Can we have a nice tune please?"

There will, however, be a public face to the event with two enterprising concerts. Alex Taylor gets in early, at Devonport, with Friday's Intrepid Music Project, featuring younger voices. Titles like Unsavoury Liaisons and Jive for Giuffre sound tempting.

On Saturday, Karlheinz Company presents more established names, including Chris Cree Brown with his electro-acoustic soundscape, No Ordinary Sun.

The 60-year-old Christchurch composer is a Kiwi maverick. This is the man who once wrapped a cello in 9km of cotton thread and he's also known for his Aeolian harps, sculptural objects with strings that sing only at the will of the wind.

"You just need a small breeze," he says. "A good nor'wester causes too much turbulence and not such a good sound."

Then there was his controversial Black and White, premiered by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 1987. Based on the 1981 Springbok Tour, this extraordinary collage caused an uproar and still makes for provocative listening at sounz.org.nz/works/show/10781.

"I remember being scared stiff the whole time," he laughs. "I knew it would be confrontational with four tape-players and the sound of helicopters coming down from the roof. Two musicians actually walked off stage during the performance. It divided both orchestra and audience along the lines of real life. The anti-tour people loved the piece; the pro-tour loathed it."

More recently Cree Brown has been writing more traditional chamber and orchestral scores. He is amused by the concept of mellowing as you grow older.

"But it's really important to be angry when you're young," he counters. "That's what many lack today. They're not firing. They're not telling me that I don't know what the f*** I'm on about."

Cree Brown can wield a dazzling orchestral palette, as in his Celestial Bodies which the NZSO brought us in 2012, but the electro-acoustic medium enables him to "feel like a musical geneticist, altering the very genes of the sound".

His 2009 Pilgrimage to Gallipoli, remembering World War I, is a masterpiece. Created over 15 years, it began with a 1994 trip to Turkey, with tape-recorder, collecting material. He remembers one serendipitous coming-together when God, or perhaps Gaia, seemed to be on the side of tonality.

"There was this moment in the trenches, when both sides threw food and cigarettes to each other. I followed this with the Muslim call to prayer sounding against the hymn, Abide with Me. With a bit of pushing and pulling, it all ended up in the key of E flat major."

No Ordinary Sun is his most recent work, growing out of his friendship with the late Hone Tuwhare and his fierce anti-nuclear convictions.

"Hone was a man of intense intelligence and sensitivity," he muses. "A man of strong beliefs with a great sense of humour. A friend and I were having an argument in a pub and ended up threatening to pour beer over one another," he laughs. "Hone defused the situation by pouring a whole jug of beer over himself."

No Ordinary Sun uses the voice of the poet reading his own words which "work better by themselves without me mucking around with them," Cree Brown notes.He goes on to describe how the 13-minute piece relates the life of a tree before and after a nuclear holocaust. "I go through a number of ways in which the tree itself might feel and then finish with Hone's words. And I hope that the silence at the end will make us all think a little bit about the great danger of nuclear recklessness."

Performance

What: Intrepid Music Project

Where and when: Kerr Street Artspace, Devonport, Friday at 8pm

What: Karlheinz Company

Where and when: University of Auckland Music Theatre, 6 Symonds St, Saturday April 12 at 8pm

On disc: Chris Cree Brown's Pilgrimage to Gallipoli is available from info@sounz.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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