Ian was much better known to me as a critic for the newspaper than as a Teachers College colleague and as such I have a lot to thank him for. Not only was he well informed, he was brutally honest. On days when I had a performance that he was to write about and we met by chance in the corridor, he hardly spoke to me and I would have to wait until the day after to read his judgement in the Star. In general he was always very supportive of what I did but at the same time he wouldn’t hesitate to criticise. See Ian’s criticism of The Ever-Circling Light.
Looking back on this time in New Zealand I can honestly say that I was never so well served by critics as then. After every premiere I could count on at least two independent reviews in the daily papers. Ian was without a doubt the best informed of these when it came to writing about contemporary music, but there were other very high quality critics including Philip Norman, all of whom made an absolutely important contribution to the cultural life of the city.
Birthday Tribute to Kit (December 2012)
My dear Kit and family and fellow Zürich friends who are celebrating your 75th birthday. In 1979 when we were music colleagues in Christchurch New Zealand you told me: The whole of life is a multiplicity of chance systems. There are semblances of order. Chromosomes tell us to grow in different ways. But chance gives us the variety. I guess this is what I do with my compositions. I create systems. Chance then operates on these systems. There’s Kit the composer ahead of his time in conservative New Zealand.
But Kit in 1983 was also a Music Lecturer in the division for training students in secondary teaching. Kit was the radical side of training while his colleague the late Frank Dennis taught the traditional elements of how to train students in conducting school orchestras, choirs and preparing the children for academic exams at sixteen to seventeen year old level. Here is Kit the music educator which I have translated from his booklet Musik mit gefundenen Gegenständen: This wider sound-world makes the improvisation and discovery of sound pictures with children much easier. If one chooses only conventional instruments their imagination becomes inhibited, because they need a lot of time to master these instruments first. With found objects one can spontaneously touch their sound vocabulary enormously and at the same time develop in them a greater sensitivity towards sounds and noises in the environment. What started in the realm of music education quickly became absorbed as one of the key components in his composition.
To integrate chance structure and found instruments into music theatre became the third component of Powell’s style. The key to this was seeing the surreal theatre of Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel in action in Germany then with his Match (1964) for two cellos with percussion acting as the referees and to announce the start and close of each fighting round.
At this point Powell paired up with one of NZ’s best poets Michael Harlow to help create an intensely emotive use of music theatre in Texts for Composition. Five musicians play, act and dance simultaneously with plywood wobble-boards on a stage in the round. Later in the movement they exploit these wobble-boards as shields to defend themselves against the invasion of these same sounds thrown back at them from the corners of the room by electronic feedback. Says Powell at that time, “The effect is emotive and dramatic—a wordless opera scene in which the visual elements emerge from within the music and reinforce its emotional power.”
Powell’s use of found instruments is different from United States composers such as Lou Harrison who fashions his on the scale and sonorities of Eastern ethnic instruments or Harry Partch’s home made but very sophisticated cloud bowls and microtonal xylophones requiring a professional musician. “My instruments are designed to be played by amateurs”, claims Powell.
Chance music which developed with Cage’s “Music of Changes” had many facets including indeterminacy which almost gives total freedom to the point of improvisation such as the works of United States composer Earle Brown. Cage used tossing of coins and number charts to determine the durations, silences, pitches, dynamics and modes of attack in the work. This randomness such as coin-tossing is central to existentialism to remove all conscious human control, inspiration and personality of the artist from the compositional process. Nothing could be further from Powell’s aims. He knows precisely what he wants from chance. “Most of my music expresses my own feelings very strongly and the chance systems I devise are always intended to serve that purpose The aesthetic I strive for has a balance of logic and irrational, symmetry and chaos, order and surprise.”
The Ever Circling Light (1980) for four choruses and six percussionists shows the opposites of chance and Powell the mathematician—a subject he taught before doing his B. Mus. Hons. at University of Canterbury. “I chose texts from traditional Maori poetry and arranged them in movements to show New Zealand today as I saw it. The programme therefore decides the macroform while chance supplies the microform. For example the introductory “night sounds” movement is subdivided into bars whose proportions are derived from the Fibonacci series 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34. (And here Powell the mathematician and chance music proponent join hands) “Six of these numbers are written on the sides of a die which is rolled till the total adds up to 90 seconds. In this way the structure of the introduction becomes a framework of nine bars of irregular length of 1, 5, 34, 8, 2, 13, 2, 3 and 1 second.
We can now back pedal to his music degree in 1965 and fill in the gaps till this above 1980 work. He undertook further study overseas in 1966-67 where he met and married his Swiss wife Brigitte. His first year studying under Petrassi in Italy disappointed him. It was his attendance at the Darmstadt Summer School where he suddenly found himself face to face with the latest from the new wave of Stockhausen, Pousseur and Earle Brown. A short time later his hearing of Stockhausen’s Gruppen enabled Powell to absorb the work’s “directionality” into his technique and Ligeti’s micropolyphony in Atmosphères. All this gave him more strings to his bow if he wanted to absorb more into his acquired chance, found instruments and Kagelian music theatre. By 1980 his knowledge of all new movements in music were decidedly well in advance of conservative and isolated NZ. In 1984 he relocated permanently with his wife Brigitte to Switzerland.
Kit, you and I were more than colleagues. We were and still are friends and both lovers of modernism. Frankly I do not recall me criticising much of your work in my role of professional critic. But if I did, you accepted it as a friend. I remember my Polish pianist friend André Czajkovski took me to hear one of his closest friends Stephen Bishop-Kovachevich playing Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 with Ashkenazy conducting the London Symphony. Stephen’s Brahms failed to catch fire. He seemed to need a rest from the touring circuit. André said he would go backstage and reproach Stephen for such a dreadful performance! As they were both close friends Stephen would have accepted that. I think any small critisims I had of your stuff Kit would be accepted in the same manner as one friend to another. For you and Brigitte a big hug from me. I hope your family and your Zürich friends will celebrate your 75th birthday concert as an unforgettable occasion for you.
NZ Listener weekly.