By Poppy Tohill
Described as a ‘national treasure', the genre-bursting NZTrio continue to thrill both national and international audiences. Bringing the second show of their three part loft series to Auckland's Q Theatre this month, I sat down with cello player Ashley Brown for an in depth conversation about contemporary and classical music, working with composers and what we can expect from the trio's upcoming show this Sunday (September 14th).
"During my years at Canterbury University, I had this Russian teacher, who was really the first to introduce me to crazy, classical and contemporary sounds, which were kind of abuse of the instrument material," Brown began explaining when asked how he fist became interested in the specific genre and style of contemporary/classical music. "He introduced me to sounds that were bordering on non-musical, they just sat somewhere between music and noise," he continued. "So that was the first bit, then more recently when NZTrio, (which is myself on cello, Justine on violin and Sarah on piano), first got together we just had a real interest in making all sorts of music. Of course we were all very keen on contemporary/classical music if that's what you'd call it, but not in isolation," he admits.
"Justine and Sarah are both Christchurch girls," Ashley responded, when asked how the trio met and formed. "They actually played chamber music at school age, but then parted ways and followed their own career paths later on," he continued. "I came through Canterbury University after them, still not knowing them at this stage. It actually just happened that all three of us studied in America, but in different places. Then Justine and I came back to New Zealand separately and she began playing with NZSO (NZ Symphony Orchestra) and I was playing in a different chamber group. Then we both began working in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, she was the concert master and number one violin and I was the number one cello, so we had a lot of work to do together in the orchestra environment," Brown exclaimed. "Justine was really good friends with Sarah, who was living in New York at this time, so we just decided to get together one time and have a jam and see what happened. Before we even met, together musically, we found a concert that was happening so there would be a reason for us to all get together first. Then Sarah came back from America, we rehearsed for about a week and then went and played at this concert, which was about 13 years ago now," he concluded.
"It felt really good and easy, like we all had the same kind of sense of what we want music to be and how to find a way through a piece. For a couple of years it was a bit difficult as Sarah was still in New York, but we worked at it and kept getting together for one tour every six months or so. Then we landed a gig at the University of Auckland, and that meant Sarah could officially come back and live here and we could spend a lot of our time together. Right from that point, we started rehearsing fairly regularly, and just building up gigs around NZ and overseas. Now it's been about 13 years and we just keep reflecting on what we're doing and trying to achieve. So it all sort of just happened naturally really," he remarked.
"Strangely NZTrio has been cubby-holed a little bit as a contemporary classical group, which is only because we do as much contemporary/classical as we do the regular stuff," Brown exclaimed. "There are plenty of groups around that just play the ‘old dead German guys' and we love that music, but we also like to mix it up with some really fresh stuff from New Zealand and around the world. Every now and then we feel like Kiwi ambassadors, and ambassadors of New Zealand music," he declared. "We are examples of students coming through the public school system and then through the university system learning music along the way. We are Kiwis through and through, but we also really support our artistic environment, so our colleagues who write classical music. That's why we chose the name NZTrio," Brown remarked. "It's not exactly imaginative, but it really says what we're truly about- we're kiwis, bringing Kiwi music, to Kiwis," he concluded. "That has always been our stated mission, but we also take that same stuff around the world. We're really proud of what our composer/colleagues are churning out. There's some beautiful music coming out of New Zealand at the moment and it really stacks up against the music that is coming out from all around the world. It's just a really natural thing, it's not something we really try really hard to try fit into, it's just what we feel passionate about."
"It's definitely kind of a niche market at the moment," Brown remarked, when I confessed to not knowing a whole lot about the classical music scene, and asked how the trio aim to encourage others to open their minds to this specific genre and different world of music. "Chamber music, if you call it that, has even more of a heavier brow feeling than classical music," he exclaimed. "Chamber music is this very rare thing that only a few people know about or would dare go into, and it tends to be our older demographic who do. We look around at the regular chamber music audiences and its grey hair and glasses," he remarked. "I'm getting that way a little by myself at the moment so I'm not going to knock it at all," he added, laughing, "but there is a whole other crowd that just needs to be exposed to what we're doing and allowed in," he truthfully concluded.
"I think there are a lot of things that go on in a classical music concert which make normal folk feel a little bit silly. The fact that there's an un-written rule that you don't clap in between movements of a particular piece, requires you to have to study up and work out what pieces go together, so you can find out when you're allowed to clap or not. But that kind of thing is actually changing," Brown confessed. "In fact, in Europe there's this new tradition which I hope New Zealand grabs a hold of and runs with, where if people just feel excited after a movement, they'll just give some applause and yell out and that certainly happens in our concerts. We kind of try to break down those politenesses. We make sure people have had a drink before they come in, because we really do react well to vocalisations, gasps and stuff like that happening in between movements. We feed off the vibe coming from the audience, and then feed it right back to them," he admit, "because it's live music and in the end that's what it's really all about!"
"We're always trying to find ways we can break down that scary thing. Like the idea of having to push open a big heavy door and go into an unusual space and buy an expensive ticket to something you don't know or are unsure how to behave at. We'd rather go into an art gallery or a school hall, that people are used to walking into that don't have all the scary connotations to it, just so people can get in there and feel relaxed and see what happens."
"We've done some really exciting concerts out in South Auckland to some school kids that have never ever seen a cello in their life, and we were just so blown away with how our music actually meant something to them. So it's just that kind of dealing with peoples open mindedness which we lose over time," he remarked. "Which is why school kids are the best to play to because they're still open to all of these things. People sometimes think ‘oh this is my kind of music, so that's what I'm going to listen to, but if they were to just open their ears and listen to other genres and styles, they might be moved a certain way, you just never know!"
"One of the other ways we kind of open out our audiences is by doing collaborations with other groups," Brown exclaimed. "We've played as a trio with Moana and the Tribe, and have also done some work with the MASSIVE Theatre company and NZ Dance Company," he continued. "So just sharing audiences and getting in front of people who would normally come to dance but not normally to a classical music show, so we can try and then convince people of all the different types of music that chamber music can be," he declared.
"When people come along to our shows, it is very different to putting on a cd, because not only are we feeding off each others vibe, but you're able to see the way these crazy sounds are being made. Especially in the really new contemporary stuff, there are some sounds that when I listen to a recording of, I really thought these guys were whistling, and so to then play through and discover that its all this crazy use of bow and fingernails and stuff like that making these interesting sounds, if nothing else its kind of a spectacle," he laughed. "Sarah is sometimes leaning into the piano and playing the strings inside. Then with the Beethoven piece, it is in a language you're used to, so you kind of know what to expect, but there's still some surprises in there for sure," he admit. "It rolls along like you would expect classical music to, then we'll throw in a curve ball somewhere at the end. When it comes to Mendelssohn, it's at the end of the programme when you don't have to be so active in your listening, so you can sit back, let the wine do its work and let the music wash over you and just get carried away. It's passionate music, you know. So it's like when you're done watching your thriller movies, you might put on a nice romantic comedy to end the night," he chuckled.
"It's all about finding that crazy repertoire or breathing new life into the old stuff," Brown remarked when asked how they bend the boundaries of classical music. "We're all about mixing the different genres together, so with this coming concert, we've got a couple of old European masters alongside some crazy new stuff. But also taking chamber music onto the theatre stage," he exclaimed. "Earlier this year we were working with MASSIVE Theatre company where there was six actors and the three of us musicians on stage, but we were nine players. We were all acting and the actors were doing some singing and rhythmic work too, so we both crossed paths into each others sectors," Brown explained.
"With the NZ Dance Company, it was a little bit more of our music being on one part of the stage and the dancers being on the other. But there was a real reaction to each other," he truthfully admits. "We were reacting to the vibe that the dancers brought each night, and of course they were reacting to what we were laying down too, so it was kind of a nice conversation between artworks or the art genres."
"We're just all about breaking down any perceived elitism, where classical music is concerned. We're looking for new terms," he continued. "Because we don't like the word chamber music, that's for sure," he added. "Even the word ‘chamber' itself, is this thing that existed hundreds of years ago- we don't have chambers anymore. It's just music, it's just communication, its a work of art that people should be able to enjoy together. So, in that way we're just doing everything we can or everything that we can think of to break down any walls, and letting people with open minds just come on in and experience whatever they experience."
"Yeah totally!" was Brown's eager response when asked if the work with the theatre and dance companies is something they would be interested in doing more of. "The mix with dance is a really natural fit, it's really easy and it makes sense to us," he confessed. "It certainly doesn't make sense to me, why, if its possible to work with live musicians, you wouldn't. I mean of course for the dancers there's a certain sense of unpredictability, and I guess if you're flying through the air you want to know exactly when to land," he laughed. "But it seems to me that the natural kind of organic movement of the body is inextricably linked with the pacing of music."
"The theatre however, was a really big challenge, and while it's something all three of us and I'm sure this is mutual from MASSIVE aswell,would all like to do again, it was really challenging," he chuckled. "Because their particular flavour of theatre is very kind of- ripping your heart out and allowing everybody to see it. You feel very emotionally naked and vulnerable in that situation and while we do that to a certain extent with our music, we're always hiding behind our instruments, which we're really comfortable with, because we've spent 37 years behind them, but to put the cello down which is what I had to do a few times, and move in a particular way and speak some lines in a kind of honest, meaningful and real way, not something that was us pretending to be somebody else, is really scary," he laughed. "So yeah, I'd love to do it again, but maybe only once a year," he admits. "For doing it full time it would be so thoroughly taxing, and emotionally exhausting. But it was really cool and it's good to be challenged right!" he declared, laughing once more.
Having been together for over a decade now, I asked Brown for some advice and tips on what he believes has helped them stay together for so long, that others should take into consideration. "It just keeps coming back to mutual respect," he began. "We came together because we had a similar concept of how music fits together, what it can be and what we want music to be for people and society. But that word respect is essential. We spend so much time with each other- touring but also when we're working together it's really intense. We're not actually staring into each other's eyes, but we are always motioning towards each other and you can't just have a shit day then go through the motions and play what everyone else plays and not be involved. You have to be fully committed for these hours that you spend together. Sometimes it's more intense than a marriage. We certainly see more of each other than we do of our partners," he laughed. "So it's all about that sense of respect," he declared, once more. "Of course there are always moments when it gets a bit intense and people are tired. Especially on tour when people haven't been sleeping so well, there are tensions that's for sure. There's no point in pretending there aren't, because it happens in any situation," he continued. "But, we get through it by coming back to that thing we believe in. We respect each others artistic integrity and trust that we're all walking in that direction and even if we get a little bit bogged down, and argy bargy or whatever, when your brain comes clear, you just remember that it's all good and you walk ahead," he honestly concluded.
Back to the more musical side of things, NZTrio have worked with copious amounts of composers over the last decade, and Brown went on to tell me what that experience has been like and how the relationships between one another work. "The cool thing about being in a little country and being into contemporary music, is that you can work alongside the composer," he exclaimed. "While you can't even call the German masters because they're all dead, we are definitely always in email contact with the guys who are composing a world away," he continued. "But when we commission a Kiwi composer and so far most of our commissions have been New Zealanders, I think there's only been 2 overseas commissions so far," he added. "That's mainly due to financial reasons but also because we love our NZ composers, we apply for funding from creative NZ and layout what we want and state how much money we need to fund it, to go to the composer for their time and we need this much money as well, for flights to Auckland or some sort of situation because several times throughout the creative process the composer will come and meet with us and hopefully they'll bring some sketches to us," he continued.
"In the first situation we might just be playing through the odd phrase and they're getting a sense of what that sounds like, or if they wrote it like this how would that sound. so there's this kind of little conversation that goes on, hopefully in the earlier parts of the compositional process. Then they go away and do whatever they want to do. Because I don't know anything about that whole creative process at all," Brown confessed. "My wife is a composer, but those skills are something I just don't understand," he laughed.
"So then at the end of that, we'll get a score which is not necessarily a finished thing, so then hopefully we'll get an opportunity to play through the piece such as it is at that point, to the composer and then they get an opportunity to do some tweaks or we might have some suggestions on how things could be notated differently. So there's definitely this kind of conversation that we're able to have with our composers which is just really important,' Brown confessed. "Our Kiwi composers are always at our premiere performance as well, so it's a really big moment for them. They come along and hear the first performance and it's always a completely different experience for them, for us and everybody," he proclaimed.
"We as a trio always say we've got no idea of what a piece is until we've played it in public. Because there's that whole sense of feeding off the audience's reaction. We could play it through and pretend that there's an audience there, but it's a whole different sensation when we're upstairs playing to an actual audience. So they come along to the world premiere and get a sense for the first time of what they've created. So it's kind of a fun and slightly scary experience to go through together," Brown admits. "Its scary for the composer to have an article which is deemed by the world to be the finished article. It's like visual art, it's up there on display, it's been sold, so that must be what he/she meant to do," he laughed. "We also feel a certain responsibility also, to the composer in that regard," he added.
"There's an interesting process that happens after that though. The premiere performance is always one that we approach as a trio leaning towards the composer- with what they are trying to communicate and how can we help that and basically not get in the way," he continued. "Then after that premiere performance we learn to live with the music and it becomes a bit more of our own. So we're still communicating with what the composer's intentions are, but it gets infused a little bit with our own experiences and stories that we have, and its not intentional, it just what happens when you live with something for a little while," Brown confessed. "So we've had composers that come hear their piece again that they wrote many many years before and they think- ‘wow, that's a completely different piece' and they love it. You can't help but enjoy that process, because you have no ownership over it at that point as a composer. It's an art piece that you've put out into the world, to be interpreted in different ways."
Having performed in some amazing countries over the past decade, Brown went on to share his most memorable tour moment with me. "Itwould have to be from the latest tour we did in May throughout Cambodia and China," he began. "The situation was, we had two composers from NZ and two from Cambodia. They all wrote music for the three of us and three traditional Cambodian musicians. So each of the four pieces that the composers wrote were their own personal stories about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pit time in Cambodia, so really significant and tragic, terrible history, but something that is kept so quiet," he exclaimed. So the show also had these video screens that translated the words, which were being sung or spoken in Cambodian, to English. "This history has kind of been forgotten about now, because the older generation in Cambodia don't like to talk about it at all, so to hear these really personal stories about one of the composers family members being taken away and never seen again, under particular circumstances, was really quite crazy and very powerful," he confessed.
‘Putting the show on in Auckland a year and a half ago now, there were a lot of people that were really moved by the story, and when we performed it in Wellington at the University, there were actually some Cambodian students who came along to the show that were profoundly moved, because they hadn't heard of this story which is their history from when they were growing up and of their whole parents generation, but considering the older generation don't talk about it at all, the younger generation in Cambodia just have no idea about this stuff. So it was kind of crazy to then go to Cambodia, which is always what we meant to do with this show, where the locals don't talk about this and it's just under the surface," Brown exclaimed. "They've wiped it clean from their history, so it felt like we were scratching at a raw scab, and the profound emotion that we saw come pouring out was just incredible."
"We only got to play the show in Phnom Penh, so now we have to go back and play in all the outlying villages, because it was made clear to us that it's a really important job for the state of the nation to work through the stuff that nobodies talking about," Brown proclaimed.
"Anyway, then we took the show to China where there was a lot of sensitivity, because this story we're telling of what happened in Cambodia all these years ago, is to a certain extent, what is going on in China right now," he exclaimed. "So first of all, we had a bunch of concerts in China all set up where we were then told, we weren't allowed to play it there, because they found out what the show was about. So we worked out that at public concerts, where the public have to buy a ticket to come and hear, the government are the ones who get a say in what is heard and what is not hear, and they don't want this story told. So there was no way we were going to perform this show at a public concert," he continued.
"The next day we had a concert at a university, so it was for the students only, meaning it was a closed show, not a public one. So we went in to set up the stage, and rehearse, and we didn't know at the time, but someone walked through the auditorium, while a particular slide was on, which they took offence to, and then rung the foreign affairs and president of the university and tried to shut the show down and this was half an hour before the show was supposed to start!" Brown explained. "With an armed guard at the door, we were all backstage wondering what was going on, because we still had six more shows in China to go, and we were wondering if there were all just going to get shut down. There was this real diplomatic incident going on with lots of phone calls, and in the end, we just had to remove all the Chinese translation from the slides. Which to us that wasn't a big problem at all. It was a very easy compromise to make because we were playing at a university, and all the Chinese students knew English anyway. So we kept the English translations there and they got the story," Brown went on.
"On several occasions we had students coming back and speaking in hushed tones to us backstage telling us that is what their life is like right now. So that was pretty shocking to us. For something that we thought was just us playing our music and doing the things that we normally do, to first of all having the government trying to shut it down and other people telling us how excited they are about the story we just told, was all so foreign to us. We had no idea about the censorship and lack of free speech there was there," he admits. "I mean when you think about it, it makes complete sense, but we just live day to day with such freedom of everything here, we just have no idea! So we suddenly felt very isolated and vulnerable in this big country. I spent a lot of time looking out windows wondering if the police were going to arrive and take us away," he concluded, laughing.
With the heavy stuff out of the way, we decided to move on to a much lighter topic, chatting about the trio's upcoming show this Sunday September 14th at Q Theatre.
"The show on Sunday is the second concert of our three part loft series, and the third one is in a couple of months," Brown exclaimed. "Each of them has got a similar kind of sense to it and has that mix of old and new," he continued. "Each of them has got a brand new piece from an Auckland composer, so that's John Elmsly this time, and it'll be Leonie Holmes next time. The each one also has a crazy contemporary piece from overseas, a really complex one and then a very early Beethoven piece. So each one follows a similar kind of map, which is quite fulfilling," he declared. "Last year we were doing just one hour, no interval shows, so we could get down to the car nice and early," he chuckled, "but these ones are really big, meaty, full seven course meal situations," he laughed again. "You certainly don't go away wanting more, which I guess is a bad thing in showbiz terms. You're supposed to send people away wanting more, but I think we send our audiences away fulfilled, and then they can come back in two months time and be fulfilled again!" he happily chimed.
"We experiment with different ways, sometimes further apart or closer together," Brown responded when asked if there was a particular reason each show was spread two months apart. "Next year we'll probably go closer together and we might do two of each concert as well," he admits. "So that people who get excited about the first show can go and tell their friends, who then might come along to the second show! But also, it takes a certain amount of time to learn all this new repertoire as well, and once we've learnt it we do like to take it on tour. So there is a little bit of touring that goes on in between those concerts. But I don't think we want them to be much further apart than two months though, we don't people to forget us!!" he laughed.
To finish off the interview, Brown filled me in on a little bit of interesting and intriguing information about each piece the trio will beperforming at their upcoming show, this weekend. "The show begins with a really early piece from Beethoven," he began. "It's called Opus 2, and it was one of the first pieces he ever published, so he was a really young guy when he wrote it, so it's still a bit Mozart-y," he explained. "He wrote this piece before he went totally mad as he did a bit later one, but at this point there is still a glimpse of his nuttiness, so it's going along in a traditional form, and you feel like you know what is happening and then we throw a little curve ball in there every now and then to keep everyone on their toes," he laughed. "But it's really delightful and very optimistic."
"Then we dive right into the John Elmsly piece, so kind of about as far as you can get in terms of history and style. His piece is still being written right now, but the form is very unusual. There are three sections to the piece. The outer, front and back are a little bit improv almost, they're very free and a bit swimmy. Then the middle chunk is this kind of crazy rhythmic thing which is really hard for us to achieve because it's really nutty, with counting that changes every moment," he explained. "We won't know the way it comes across until we play it, but I think it's a little bit jaunty and loping, so you're going to get the sense that you're getting the rhythm but then it gets thrown off into a completely different rhythm," he continued to explain.
"Then after half time, we get into this crazy piece by Chareno, this contemporary Italian composer who creates absolutely crazy complex music," Brown continued. "There's this whole world of music being written at the moment called ‘complexist, which is very complex and for listeners can sometimes be very complex also, but this isn't one of those," Brown admit. "This is one of those pieces that makes us work really hard, but to the audience just sounds pretty and sweet, or sometimes kind of angry as well," he added. "So there's really sweet little super high sounds, and often the violin and the cello are in unison, so you know that we're not just mucking around, we're actually following this really clever and special pattern, which yet sounds kind of easy and sweet. Then the piano just storms in with these crazy noises and gets more and more busy towards the end, so I think that's going to be a real jaw dropper. Well I hope and think it will be!" he enthusiastically chimed.
"Then last of all we can sit back and have another old music master, by Mendelssohn. It's a very romantic, lush and rich piece where the sound coming from the three instruments just fills the entire room, hopefully being a great way to end the night. Then we'll come down to the bar afterwards for a glass of wine, to meet and chat with everyone!" he concluded, with a big grin on his face.
NZTrio: Loft Series -plays
Loft #1 - Svelto - July 27th 2014, 5pm
Loft #2 - Ritual Triptych - September 14th 2014, 5pm
Loft #3 - Transfigured Night - November 2nd, 2014, 5pm
Tickets: Adult - $45 (single concert) Student - $20 (single concert)
(booking fees will apply)
Bookings through Q Theatre - www.qtheatre.co.nz or phone 09 309 9771