Tuesday, November 28, 2017

New music review: Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute

Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute (2010-2014)
Peter Adams
©2015 Promethean Editions Limited

Native New Zealand composer Peter Adams studied with Peter Maxwell Davies, and he also cites the serial work of Anton Webern as an influence. Breath of Souls is clearly very carefully crafted with regards to structure, and it favors both symmetrical shapes and the loose employment of 12-tone rows, but the effect is nonetheless truly captivating.

The composer’s notes which precede this edition comprise a brief master class in the tonal form of the piece, which is interesting in itself--the intricate detail of this work is admirable.  But what is even more fascinating is how something that can be described in such mechanical terms can become something else entirely, as if each “breath” was improvised, growing organically from first note to last. The piece began as a set of three movements for treble recorder and was only completed last year with the addition of the second and fourth movements. The entire piece is inspired by the poem Mercy by Greek-Armenian poet Olga Broumas, which describes breaths of “sea smoke” rising from the waters of a harbor and compares this natural phenomenon to a more spiritual “breaths of souls”.

The first and fifth movements, both called “Pounamu”, serve as prologue and epilogue in this setting, and they are both constructed of identical pitch content. The first serves as a contemplative idea which develops slowly and incompletely, while the second (the last movement), has been drastically altered in rhythm to reflect the rhythmical development of the middle movements, ending in a more restless, but still incomplete thought. Movements two and four, “Waiata Aroha” and “Waiata Tangi”, are the newly added movements, and they are meant to explore themes of love and loss, respectively. “Aroha” (love) leaps and soars gracefully with a nimbleness expressed through rhythms that develop in density throughout.  A general sense of upward motion at the end of many phrases lends an optimism which is later crushed in the slow and meandering “Tangi” (loss).  “Moeraki (Jewel of the Sea)”, depicts transcendence in the form of the poet’s rising “sea smoke”.  It is organized in a simple A-B-A arch.  The A theme is a light 3+3+2 dance, interrupted in the middle of the movement by a B theme which suddenly slows, employing pitch bends and wiggling sixteenth notes meant to be played unevenly, with a sense of rising up into the atmosphere.

Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute in its current, fully developed incarnation is a set of meditations which build upon and inform each other; each one is pure magic. And while the composer suggests that these brief ideas may be performed individually, I would urge the performer to commit to this eight-and-a-half minute suite in its entirety, for a result that is pure sonic poetry and a refreshing new addition to our contemporary solo literature.

Nicole Riner ©2016

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