Colliding Worlds

Music in New Zealand, Michael Norris, November 1999.

If you listen carefully enough, you can hear the sound of Schoenberg turning in his grave. The poor old codger; he would never have imagined his angular melodic lines pitted against those of nineties band-noir Portishead. But Secret Arnold, for symphony orchestra, is just that.

Welcome to the world of Juliet Kiri Palmer: a genre-bending, groove-laden universe of humour and iconoclasm. She is a composer who likes to pitch her tent in the interstices of style, critically engaging with the music that “turns her on”. She works in diverse media, her output ranging from small solo pieces to large multimedia installations, music theatre works and symphonic works. She is, perhaps, a typical New Zealand composer, in that she spends most of her time overseas.

Yes, in the grand tradition of talented artists who up and leave these shores – thanks to our small size and geographical isolation, not to mention an embarrassingly low apportionment of per capita arts funding and parochial attitudes towards artistic freedom – Palmer now lives in Toronto, Canada. A number of factors prompted the move, but primary amongst them was the need for a serious artistic and cultural challenge, something she felt that the New Zealand artistic community was not able to provide at the time. It comes as no surprise that her move abroad has increased her international standing as a composer and media artist, evidenced by an impressive resumé of performances and commissions.

Palmer comes from a globetrotting background: born on the Kapiti Coast, she lived in Singapore for five years, followed by a one-year stint in London. As a child, she had dreams of becoming an architect, until an architect friend invited her to a “hands-on” demonstration: pouring a concrete slab in a South Auckland factory, having the immediate effect of dissuading her from that career path. (Nevertheless, it is something that still sits in the back of her mind today, permeating her music.)

Her student years were lived in Auckland, completing a performance degree in clarinet and coming into contact with some of the twentieth century’s great works (Quartet for the End of Time, Contrasts). Feeling somewhat frustrated by the creative limitations of performance, she shifted her focus towards composition and completed her Masters degree before heading off to New York City, where she worked with Meredith Monk, landing a commission for the Bang on a Can Festival.

While in America, Palmer had a number of encounters that helped solidify her musical sensibilities. In 1992, for instance, she took part in an all-vocal Cobra (John Zorn’s musical improvisation “game”), which included, amongst others, a spoken-word artist, Jeff Buckley and a country-and-western singer. Such colliding musical worlds have now become the sine qua non of Palmer’s own oeuvre. In 1996, Palmer had a teaching job at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, for a year, which opened up a world of creativity for both her and her students. She is keen to encourage a complete openness of conception to her students, to give them a chance to really let their hair down and experiment: one student situated their installation inside a parked car, shadowy figures on the back seat being the “performers”.

It is pleasing to note that New Zealand performers are now beginning to acquaint themselves with her music: Auckland-based new music ensemble 175 East recently performed trellis for saxophone, bass clarinet and cello; the New Zealand String Quartet performed Egg & Tongue as part of their “Hot Young Things” tour and have just commissioned a new work; the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra recorded her Parted Tongues and the APO played and recorded Secret Arnold.

While she was in Wellington recently, digging through the film archives researching a new interdisciplinary work based on the 1924 silent film Venus of the South Seas, Palmer managed to find time to talk over coffee about her musical and her artistic outlook.
The first thing that strikes you about Palmer, aside from her lightly Americanised accent and her good-natured humour (“I don’t like the idea of taking myself too seriously”), is a concern with disruption or destabilisation of anything purporting to constitute a coherent musical system. In other words, her music, like her conceptual frameworks, never lets you feel like you’ve quite got a grip on it: it’s always being tugged between opposing forces of style, rhythm and conception.

For instance, take her use of rhythm. Unlike minimalism “proper”, which despite phase-shifts still maintains an underlying pulse-structure, Palmer’s rhythmic cells are constantly being varied so that just as you think a beat has been established she shrewdly inserts or removes a semiquaver. This is the aural equivalent of someone pulling the ground out from underneath you – the whole rhythmic cycle is thrown out of kilter, giving the rhythm a “limp”, or the effect of a skipping needle. It is, to say the least, disconcerting.

Another of Palmer’s preoccupations is with “found music”: extant snippets of material that she plays around with until she can call it her own. A phrase which she used to describe her music sticks in my mind: “it is like throwing things together and then embracing the accident”. Trellis, by way of illustration, takes as origin a sample from Earth Wind and Fire’s Can’t Hide Love, which Palmer maintains she “screwed around with, obsessively rehashing it”. Or in Secret Arnold, where Schoenberg meets Portishead: “when you start mixing them together, you get a strangely large amount of harmonic and melodic overlap…”

This destabilisation of the groove and the deconstruction and reconstruction of extant material hints at a deeper suspicion of stylistic agendas; her tastes in music are broad, but she is searching for a voice that acknowledges the inherent divisions between the opposing worlds. She is happiest when letting stylistic tokens come into contact or opposition with one another, creating juxtaposition, fusion or metamorphosis: “it creates a kind of energy that I can then bounce off”.

By funnelling her raw mélange of down-to-earth sounds through institutions which have traditionally represented the epitome of refinement and bourgeois values (such as string quartets or orchestras), not only is she acknowledging her own musical interests and imperatives, but she is also conveying subtexts which question dominance, power and class. “I like the idea of classical musicians getting into music which has a real physicality, which moves you. I’m excited by music that connects physically rather than just cerebrally. It becomes more of a sexual engagement with the music.”

The physicality was certainly tangible when I watched the New Zealand String Quartet tackling her Egg & Tongue. The material for the piece is inspired by decorative motifs on the Elgin Marbles; Palmer also chanced upon these patterns while in the Syrian city of Apamea. The imagery of “tumbled-down stones of Roman structures bearing this same pattern, rain-washed stones in a field of crocuses” vividly depicts the thought-processes behind the work. The work constitutes a hypnotic braiding of pitch and rhythm, but it is an edgy, fidgety sort of patterning, discontent and imperfect. Disjunct portions of motifs are strewn around the quartet in a manner not dissimilar to so many rain-washed stones; half-recognisable figures seem to come and go, buried beneath layers of accretion. It is quite undramatic, unsentimental music, having a palpably detached air about it. (The performance directions in Egg & Tongue give this mood a more apt description: “mellow”.) You could tell, however, that the quartet were really getting into it.

Circus Dog, for six pianos with “a modest amount of intra-piano intervention”, employs similar devices to generate material. In this work, commissioned by UK sextet Piano Circus, brittle chromatic patterns seductively intertwine in an atmosphere which Palmer describes as “a little more ‘acidic’ than the other music they play”. Out of the heady, jangly ferment spill shards of Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and John Cage like a rainfall of razorblades. The work explores accidental juxtapositions and coincidences of phrases, sounds and styles: each piano has its own individual flavour, dynamics, tempo and preparation. She likes to think of this as “breaking the hegemony of the synchronised minimalist concept”. Circus Dog is one of her more quirky works: the performance directions range from the obscure (“obstreperous”), to the worrying (“quietly remove the knitting needles”), to the downright wanton (“casually violent”). Even when their meaning is clear enough, there is still a sense of mirth (“play the material between the repeat signs 1.7 times through”).

Palmer’s engagement with the imperatives of biculturalism demonstrates a refreshing honesty. She told me how her schooling as a Pakeha kept her at a distance from Maori culture: “…while my encounters with Maori culture at school were moving and wonderful, they were alienating at the same time.” As a composer she doesn’t engage in any “naïve ideas about identity” by using material disconnected from her own life experience.

This is succinctly encapsulated in the work W is for, for two sopranos, drum set, keyboard and ensemble. “I certainly didn’t want to naïvely write a piece based on Maori songs,” says Palmer. “It’s not my own cultural background, so I’m being honest about the distance I felt.” The text is taken directly from the Reed Dictionary of Modern Maori, from waka to wareware. The English translations range from the traditional “waka: canoe; confederate tribes of one canoe” to the more contemporary “waka atea kopiko: space shuttle / waka pana: bulldozer”. Towards the end of the text, the translations become strangely autobiographical (although, of course, it’s just another case of Palmer’s ’embracing the accident’): “wakainga: true home, far distant home / warawara: yearning, longing / ware: ignorant / warea: occupied with, overcome by, immersed in, oblivious / wareware: forget, forgetful, forgotten”.

But it seems Palmer’s most strikingly original work is as a media artist, with a wide range of installations and music theatre pieces. Take Miasma, for instance: a sound installation for two CD players, weather TV and living room (commissioned by Artspace); Blood Shower, music theatre for percussion duo; or the citric-acid-trip Citrus, for tape, voice, electronics, slides, food blender and grapefruit (commissioned by SoundCulture Japan). The sheer theatricality of these pieces is where Palmer’s most unfettered dynamism and originality shines through, and that an encounter with one of these pieces is always guaranteed to be surprising, shocking and delightful.

And so how does Palmer now view New Zealand, as seen from a distance? Well, by the time we finished our coffee, I had gained the impression that she had found her turangawaewae in North America. But no, she later tells me, “each time I come back to New Zealand I feel more ‘at home’ and realise how much of me is connected to this place.”

If her music can be taken as a guide, then her feelings have just been substantiated, for her next project is to be a dance piece involving Douglas Wright, which includes a “strangely ethnic twist”: sheepdog trials.

“This piece,” she assures me, “couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world!”