This weekend NZ Barok plays a selection of rarely heard descriptive music. Richard Betts discovers that it is a big noise and it is clever

Anyone attending NZ Barok's concerts this weekend might be taken aback by the cacophony raised by the usually elegant orchestra.

This is not the players tuning, nor has the group abandoned its commitment to 17th and 18th century music in favour of 20th century atonality.

Instead, it's one of the earliest examples of polytonality, where the musicians play in different keys at the same time. The 45-second snippet comes from Battalia, written in 1673 by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

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The short movement comprises seven overlapping and intermingled folk tunes, and is intended to depict separate groups of soldiers singing around their different campfires. It's both a remarkable clatter and remarkably clever.

"Battalia has been on my wish list for something like 10 years," says Miranda Hutton, NZ Barok's co-artistic director. "I've played it overseas and it's so much fun; it's beyond its time in so many ways"

Apart from one or two pieces, Biber's music is seldom played these days but in his lifetime he was considered among Europe's most important composers, and Battalia is the centrepiece of a selection of music that conjures up images of non-musical subjects.

Alongside Battalia, the orchestra plays works such as William Williams's In Imitation of Birds and Francesco Geminiani's The Enchanted Forest, which gives the concert its name.

NZ Barok's marketing material has been careful to avoid the word "programmatic", preferring instead the term "descriptive". Hutton says the difference between the programme music of the Romantic era (roughly 1820 to 1900) and descriptive music of the Baroque (1600-1750) lies partly in the intent.

"In the Romantic era, everything was about the soul of the artist, so programmatic music is about showing your deepest feelings and tragic love affairs, that sort of thing. During the Baroque period there's a separation, music is not about the performer or composer, it's more functional.

"Musicians were almost like practitioners who would align your humours, which people believed were swishing around inside you; you might have wept with sorrow but that would sort out your internal goings on."

Although there was a lull during the Classical era (1750-1820), descriptive music was no short-lived fad. The works in NZ Barok's concerts span some 80 years, and criss-cross Europe's artistic hotspots, so despite the unifying theme, the music is diverse; pieces written for the court of Louis XIV jostle against Geminiani's pantomime.

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Despite giving its name to the concert, The Enchanted Forest is perhaps the least descriptive music on the programme, and a touch pedestrian compared to some of the other works.

From its opening section, you might be fooled into thinking Telemann's suite Burlesque de Quixotte will be pedestrian too. According to Hutton, that's entirely intentional, and mirrors the hero of the work, which is based on Cervantes's novel Don Quixote.

"The French overture is in a mock-heroic style but it's incredibly boring, it goes nowhere harmonically," Hutton says. "That's Telemann poking fun at Don Quixote, this guy who's dreaming of greatness and of being a knight. Like him, the music is impressive on the surface but it lacks depth."

Burlesque de Quixotte is peppered with musical jokes like the way Telemann describes Pancho Sanza's donkey with obstinate stop-start playing. He also uses some popular compositional tricks of the time, such as a two-note descending figure to represent a sigh.

"Don Quixote is sighing for the love of a princess – who's actually a peasant – and you hear that time and again in music, where someone's either sighing or weeping. People [in the audience] would have understood that."

Hutton says there was a whole musical shorthand that an 18th century audience would have recognised.

"If you heard recorders in F major, you knew you were out in the countryside," she says, "little wavy figures and you're beside a brook."

These days most of us lack that sort of musical literacy, but the concerts are nevertheless an opportunity to hear music that rarely if ever gets played in this country.

"I think it's going to rock," Hutton says. "If people don't run away after the Biber."

Lowdown
What: NZ Barok, The Enchanted Forest
Where and When: St George's Church Takapuna, 7:30pm, Friday; St Luke's Church Remuera, 7:30pm, Saturday, November 9 and 2pm Sunday November 10