In the 1990s two composers increased the profile of New Zealand music both in this country and beyond.
Wellington’s John Psathas made an impact with his singular style, deriving its rhythmic momentum from jazz, funk and his own Greek heritage. He impressed British percussionist Evelyn Glennie with his Matre’s dance (1991), and the influential American saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker chose to premiere Psathas’s 2000 saxophone concerto Omnifenix.
Psathas received weighty commissions, providing music for the 2004 Olympic ceremonies. This echoed his percussion concerto, View from Olympus, written for Glennie two years earlier.
Although Psathas’s music often exuded extroverted energy there was gentler poetry in the hypnotically wavering chords of his 1996 Abhisheka for string quartet.
Gareth Farr and Lilith Lacroix
Gareth Farr’s compositions were heavily influenced by his training as a percussionist and his innate theatricality. So was Drumdrag, a show starring his drag queen alter ego, Lilith Lacroix. It was billed as ‘booming bass drums, crazy costumes, death-defying dance, terrifying tom-toms, preposterous platforms, big bad bongos and wild wacky wigs!’1
Gareth Farr, also Wellington-based, and a professional percussionist, shared Psathas’ preoccupation with rhythm. Sometimes inspired by his alter ego, drag queen Lilith, he secured a reputation for spectacular orchestral canvases, starting with his 1996 From the depths sound the great sea gongs.
The sound world of Indonesian gamelan informed his 1995 Kembang suling and few could weave textures as diaphanously as Farr in works such as his 2007 piano piece, The horizon from Owhiro Bay.
Farr’s theatrical instincts ensured the success of his 2005 score for the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The wedding, and his skill in melding Western instruments and taonga puoro were revealed in the 2008 He poroporoaki.
Exciting rhythms and novel effects also featured prominently in the work of several composers whose impact was more local than international.
Philip Dadson first came to notice when his percussion ensemble, From Scratch, launched its first album, Rhythm works, in 1979. He wrote for orchestra (a fanfare, Maya, for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 1999) and created individual sound worlds with exotic and often fantastical hand-fashioned instruments.
David Downes’s work ranged widely in style. CDs like the 1994 Pavilion navigated rock, ambient and new age idioms. He also brilliantly engineered instrumental pieces such as Defense mechanism (2013).
The resourceful Victoria Kelly wrote for the concert hall, including a lyrical Sono (2000) for NZTrio. She became best known for apt and evocative music for the screen, such as Magik and Rose (1999) and Under the mountain (2009).