Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Haunting improvisations

Philip Dadson & Richard Nunns: Blood and Stone
Auckland Arts Festival (Red Square)
The Festival Club, Aotea Square
Thursday 5 March, 7.30 pm

Last evening, on the miserably wet, opening night of the Auckland Arts Festival, a small but appreciative audience was given a stunning set of extended improvisations – four delicately nuanced ‘conversations' - by Richard Nunns and his Maaori instruments, chiefly flutes, and Phil Dadson with his varied set of usually percussive and stringed devices.

The concert started with Nunns demonstrating the different acoustic properties and uses of nga taonga puoro, mainly the flutes, accompanied by Dadson delicately picking and bowing the strings of a grand piano. I am familiar with most of Dadson’s unusual instruments and methods, but Nunns’ playing and sonic repertoire was new. I was amazed how often the flutes (one incorporated a conch) sounded more like reed instruments with a fat, less hollow, woody sound. Less like say Herbie Mann and more like Coltrane – but just as haunting and stark.

The second piece was focused on percussion, the third on bowing, and the fourth on the use of holed river rocks as flutes or whistles – though putting it this way grossly over simplifies. Dadson’s strange looking, unusually named instruments (nummdrum, zitherum, gloopdrum etc.) intrigued visually as well as sounded fascinating. But it was his snappily percussive use of flat stones dipped in water that really penetrated your mind. They were caressed, tapped, scraped and rhythmically ground – like over-sexed, excitable crickets. They sounded like temple blocks, the orchestral percussive instrument, not like rocks at all.

Most of the time these ‘dialogues’ worked well. Now and then Nunns would inadvertently drown out Dadson’s restrained contributions with slightly shrill playing, but that was rare. He, like Dadson, is a wonderful listener as well as initiator. Usually his use of heaving breath and murmured humming in some of his flute playing provided much contrast to Dadson’s finely patterned, shimmering drones and staccato clicks. The whole event was beautifully understated. You really had to attend closely to detect the many barely perceptible, parallel textures and aural flourishes. Hopefully these two terrific players will do a new collaboration again, soon.

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