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New Zealand Women Composers
Dorothy Ker
The Structure of memory (1997-9) [10.29]
Jenny McLEOD (b. 1941)
For Seven (1965-6) [19.21]
Gillian WHITEHEAD (b. 1941)
Ahotu (O Matenga) (1984) [18.34]
Annea LOCKWOOD (b. 1939)
Monkey Trips (1995) [15.02]
Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. Christ’s Hospital Sussex, May-June 2003
LORELT LNT 116 [63.59]


Lorelt have slowly been bringing out music by little known women composers for some years now. It was through them that I first came across the late Minna Keal (LNT 110) for example. They also have the ‘British Women Composers’ series. Their noble and enterprising efforts should be praised for bringing this music to our attention. Lontano and their ever-brilliant director Odaline de la Martinez deserve similar recognition for an enthusiasm so obviously and commandingly communicated. Lontano show incredible aplomb and commitment to this singular repertoire.

It is not altogether surprising to read in the composers’ own booklet notes that two of them have had to search out other pastures to advance their careers. Dorothy Ker now lives in the UK, and was working at Reading University - haven’t they recently closed their music department? Annea Lockwood is now resident in the USA. Jenny Mcleod studied in Cologne with Stockhausen. Gillian Whitehead worked in the North of England before returning to New Zealand in 1996 on taking early retirement.

I say I am not surprised because New Zealand friends tell me how rare it is to hear new music in that country. No doubt women composers find it as hard as men to receive recognition. However I should add that Jenny McLeod received membership of the NZ Order of Merit in 1997 for her services to music. Gillian Whitehead has been composer-in-residence with the Auckland Philharmonic.

So what of these four works? Well, many of you might describe them with the old-fashioned term ‘avant-garde’. Even if you do not like the term you probably know what I mean.

Dorothy Ker’s piece, performed here in a revised version of 1999, is quiet, pointilliste, delicate and refined. However it is difficult to comprehend its progress, development and form. It simply exists; I suppose that this is what memory actually is. To quote the composer, memory “surfaces in a cyclic succession, elaborated and transformed by the passing of time”. It is that concept that helps the work to create its own form.

Jenny McLeod’s ‘For Seven’ definitely sounds like a product of its time. There are virtuoso parts for piano, cello, flute and vibraphone doubling marimba. The work was written for some of the finest performers in the world at that time including the great cellist Siegfried Palm for whom Ligeti composed his Cello Concerto. The composer says that the work is full of “irrepressible energy”. It has undergone some revisions since its 1960s premiere. I can quite see what she means when she comments, especially about the quiet sections, that “some elements are reminiscent of the New Zealand bush”. They are said to reflect her longing for her homeland at a time when she was living in Germany. Sadly the Darmstadt avant-garde influence is too strong a presence to give this somewhat prolix piece much of an identity of its own.

The third work ‘Ahotu’ (O Matenga) is inspired by Maori ritual: the idea that the dead need and take food with them on their journey into the after-life. It starts with percussion which is soon followed by a distant horn solo. There is a dominant flute and a virtuoso cello solo each punctuated or accompanied by percussion - typically bongos. The effect is like something primeval and disembodied ... other-worldly.

The last piece is quite original and good fun. Annea Lockwood’s inspiration here is “a work based upon the Traditional Buddhist metaphor of the six states/realms of being we constantly recreate and assume to be reality”. Not surprisingly it falls into six sections. Not only are the players required to play their often demanding parts but they are required to sing or perhaps I should more accurately describe it as ‘making vocal noise’ in section four ‘The Animal Realm’. It is however a partially improvised work. I am far from clear exactly what Annea Lockwood’s precise control over the piece actually was apart from prescribing the overall concept and section planning. The notes include some useful directions and clear analysis of each section. The descriptions include, for example, the first section being predominantly for solo violin, the second for percussion, the last also for percussion ... etc.

The recording enables the music to be presented without any problems although the quiet sections need careful concentration. If the volume is too high, you might, at the stronger moments, frighten the neighbours.

If you feel like a challenge go for this disc. You can be sure that the performances are unsurpassable.

Gary Higginson


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