NZSO, Made in NZ 2009; Wellington Town Hall
May 29 | Reviewed by Lynley Edmeades

PART WAY through the performance, Ross Harris, contemporary New Zealand composer, was invited on stage by conductor Hamish McKeich, to take on a question and answer session. Although he stood with arms crossed, a warmth emanated off him as his facial expression provided a bridge between Douglas Lilburn and what had just been performed: Landfall in Unknown Seas, a collaborative project between Lilburn and literary comrade Allen Curnow, written to commemorate the tercentenary of New Zealand’s discovery by Abel Tasman.

Still somewhat of an enigma in the contemporary world of music, Lilburn remains a burning ember in our quiet appreciation of the development of modern orchestral and experimental music, and our collective celebrations of vernacular artist Rita Angus, whose portraits of Lilburn and well documented artistic (albeit tumultuous) relationship, provide an alternate take on this otherwise hushed character. Although trained and borne of an enthusiasm in classical music, Lilburn went on to work with experimental sound engineering, deviating from the somewhat conservative orchestral endeavours of the time, and went on to become the ‘founding father of New Zealand’s electroacoustic music scene’.

As a mirror and perhaps homage to Lilburn’s oeuvre, Electric. Eclectic. Acoustic. morphed from a seemingly predictable and discerning performance of a large number of strings, to the interpretation and incorporation of poetry, aptly employing Bill Manhire to perform the spoken word, then, onto more geographically and environmentally inspired pieces, which sought to employ most instruments of the orchestra, as well as the modern phenomenon and relatively new element – the mixing desk. Following this, the brief interlude of Harris and McKeich discussing the creative process came as a finely pointed queue for the long standing patrons of the Chamber Music Society to gather their scarves and blazers and leave the more experimental pieces for what seemed to be an equally eclectic and diverse range of literati, musicians and those with a more impressionable temperament. The lights were then dulled to minimum, and those of us remaining were made subject to the first live ‘performance’ of some of the Lilburn-inspired-Harris work from the late 1980s, originally written for Radio New Zealand and recorded in Harris’s home studio. However, subjected many were not – through the shaded interior of the Wellington Town Hall, one could quite easily make out the pairs of electrified eyelids drawn to a close and the mentally massaged minds grinning in sonic pleasure.

Lilburn remains one of the only New Zealand composers to have attempted and succeeded in the marriage between poetry and orchestration. The success, to the literary minded, seems to arise from his shared vision with contemporary Allen Curnow. Like Lilburn, Curnow has a small and select following, somewhat disregarded amongst their more main-stream equivalents. And yet both remain, on closer inspection, as pioneers and craftsmen in their vision of a more cultured land, here in the unknown seas. To the musically minded, the performance succeeded in reminding us that the new thing may not be shown to us on the makeshift stage of some upstairs bar on Cuba Street. It may be hiding away in a downstairs basement somewhere in the suburbs, waiting for its queue to emerge.