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In the time of Sakura
The piano music of Mike Nock

By Phil Sandford
3 May 2007

New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka was the magnificent setting for the premiere of composer and pianist Mike Nock’s first collection of written piano music.

The second Festival of Colour featured Nock and Michael Houston, NZ’s leading classical pianist, playing some of Nock’s pieces before a sell-out audience.

A total of 27 Nock compositions have just been recorded in a memorable version by Australian pianist Michael Kieran Harvey on Move Records as ‘In the time of Sakura: The piano music of Mike Nock’.

NZ-born Nock moved to Australia in 1959 at the age of 18 to form the famous Three Out Trio. He recorded two albums before spending 25 years in the United States playing with some of the top jazz players, including the late Michael Brecker. His numerous jazz compositions include the classic ‘Hadrian’s wall’.

He has increasingly involved himself in classical music, writing for ensembles such as the New Zealand Piano Quartet, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Synergy. However, although he has recorded four albums of solo piano music, this is the first time he has fully written out piano compositions for concert performance.

The unique collaboration between Nock and Houston at the Festival of Colour was preceded by three related events: a discussion between the two pianists about the relation between jazz and classical music and individual concerts by each pianist. In the discussion one point they both agreed on was the need for the listener to approach a musical performance with an open mind and without any preconceptions, excellent advice for the forthcoming concerts.

In his solo concert Houston gave a breathtaking performance of two of Beethoven’s late sonatas, Opus 109 (1820) and Opus 110 (1821), and four Bagatelles. The sonatas were written around the time Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis and the 9th Symphony.

In the discussion Houston had noted that Beethoven, like Mozart, was a great improviser, a point that is brought out in the six variations that comprise the third movement of Opus 109. Houston has recorded the 32 Beethoven sonatas on Trust Records.

In his concert Nock played a set of standards, concluding with extended versions of Dave Brubeck’s ‘In your own sweet way’ and ‘Nikosa sikelela Afrika’. As ever, Nock’s solos were melodic, inventive, thoughtful and full of rich harmonies.

The stage was now set for the stunning premiere. Houston gave a majestic performance, opening with ‘Presence’, an elegy to departed musician friends, and closing with ‘Serenity’, a meditation on stillness. In between he ranged across the emotions with driving, technically demanding pieces like ‘Cartwheels’, impressionist sketches and beautiful love songs.

Clearly moved by Houston’s interpretations, Nock then played extended versions of four of his pieces, including ‘Sunrise’ and the rousing ‘Celebration’ from the CD, and concluding with a new composition, the deeply moving ‘For the children of Darfur’.

Jazz and classical music have influenced each other in a variety of ways, not always positively, and there have been a number of attempts to fuse the two, many unsuccessful.

While improvisation has had a long history in classical music, even if largely lost for many years, there is nothing comparable in classical music to the rhythmic pulse of swing in jazz, classical ensembles typically sounding stiff and stilted if they are asked to emulate this. Perhaps this is one reason why what was called Third Stream music was by and large less than successful.

The Sauter-Finegan collaboration with tenor player Stan Getz (‘Focus’) and the reworking of material by Spanish composers in the Gil Evans-Miles Davis ‘Sketches of Spain’ give glimpses of a more fruitful interchange, but these are exceptions.

If we want to look for pianistic precedents for what Nock has done we could perhaps find them in Chick Corea’s ‘Childrens pieces’, Bill Dobbins ‘Preludes’ or, to a lesser extent Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s recording of Bill Evans transcriptions. But Nock’s music stands in its own right as original, powerful and inventive.

We find it convenient to label and categorise works of art, to put them in tidy boxes, but this can be very misleading and cuts us off from the richness that comes from dealing with things simply as they are. In an interview on NZ radio Nock avoided the label of jazz musician, describing himself only as a musician.

As Nock writes: ‘The pieces themselves are quite eclectic, the main unifying elements being they are all written for the piano and are a sonic diary of my life over the past several years.’

There are a range of musical influences on the compositions, among them Bach, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Bill Evans and the jazz tradition, and there are visual references in a number of pieces – clouds, sunrise, cherry blossoms in Japan, rain and birds. The cascading arpeggios in several pieces bring to mind the influence of water and the sea on some of Nock’s work. His 1978 recording on ECM was called ‘Ondas’ (waves) and features a cover photo of waves breaking on the beach.

Perhaps this is why the gently rippling waters of Lake Wanaka and the falling poplar leaves made the location so appropriate for the premiere of this work.

In the discussion session Nock described himself as a composer driven by emotion. But he added that the intellectual task of fully notating his music had been a humbling experience which made him appreciate even more the contribution made by the great classical composers.

‘In the time of Sakura’ shows that Nock has seamlessly integrated his many musical influences and has achieved a powerful integration of emotion and intellect.

It is a fitting tribute to his contribution to music that these piano pieces have been performed by two such wonderful pianists as Michael Houston and Michael Kieran Harvey.

Houston summed this up when he told a story about the Russian composer Prokofiev who gave one of his pieces to Richter to play. After hearing it Prokofiev commented: ‘I didn’t know I had written something that good.’ Nock might well say the same of these glowing performances of his carefully crafted gems.

Michael Kieran Harvey Collection
‘In the time of Sakura: The piano music of Mike Nock’
Move Records: http://www.move.com.au

Mike Nock: http://www.mikenock.com
Trust Records: http://www.trustcds.com
Michael Houstoun: http://www.maximaltd.com/michaelhoustoun

Phil Sandford 1 May 2007