Guy’s World: Gareth Farr’s Pickle’s And Ice-cream
Guy’s World: Gareth Farr’s Pickle’s And Ice-cream Recipe
Bringing together two completely unrelated cultural traditions to make a new work, without doing an enormous disservice to both traditions, is a tough ask. Some things just weren’t meant to go together, like pickles and ice-cream. But every so often, you get an artist like drummer- composer-drag artist-pop star Gareth Farr, who can make pickles and ice- cream work together.
On Friday, I saw a sneak preview of Gareth Farr’s new piece, Te Wairua O Te Whenua, which is set to premiere in Sydney as part of the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival. Te Wairua O Te Whenua combines kapahaka and waiata by Tainui performers with instrumentation by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Te Wairua O Te Whenua is part of Taaua, a joint venture between Tainui and the NZSO, and will be part of a national tour called Spirit of the Land in early October.
When orchestras get involved with grittier, rootsier forms of music like rock or indigenous music, they tend to swamp the original form’s vitality and passion. With some music, the attitude and delivery - the soul - is the essence of the music. A savagely intense rock or blues riff will usually sound banal played by an orchestra, because an orchestra doesn’t play it with the same timing, intent or tone.
It’s a tribute to Farr then, that Te Wairua O Te Whenua works as well as it does. The Tainui performances are intense, and undiluted by their unfamiliar accompaniment. The orchestration is surprising and inventive, bringing together Farr’s rhythmic impulses with gentle, impressionistic touches, like birdsong and forest noises. I got the feeling the orchestra appreciated having fresh and unusual material to work with, and the Tainui performers enjoyed playing in an unfamiliar context.
Te Wairua o te Whenua - Photo Essay Mark Graham
At times, Te Wairua O Te Whenua does seem a little forced or clunky, which can partly be attributed to the fact that when I saw the show they were still in rehearsals. But there were moments when Tainui and the NZSO really seemed to be on common ground: the drummers, led by Farr, punctuating the haka; the orchestra building strange new harmonies under the waiata. The combination of visual spectacle from the Tainui with the musical muscle of the orchestra is impressive.
Gareth Farr is an irreverent character, drumming away in his vinyl tuxedo. I think it is his irreverence that allows him to treat the orchestra in such a fresh way.
I love the way Farr embraces seemingly diametrical opposites. The last time I saw Farr was on TV, in his drag persona, Lilith, launching a new dance-pop single. It was tacky, ridiculous, and outrageously camp.
Gareth Farr is just as comfortable with oontsa oontsa rhythms and sing-song melodies as he is with the varied rhythmic textures and harmonies of his symphonic writing. Much like he’s just as happy being Lilith as Gareth.
I once played in a band with a drummer who was going through some identity/sexuality crises. He was having trouble reconciling playing rock music with his emerging gayness and cross-dressing tendencies, and eventually quit. He should have looked to Farr as a role model: He’s gay, but he bangs the drums - he’s “just a drummer,” but he’s emerging as one of the county’s most exciting composers- he’s a serious composer, but he still loves tacky pop anthems.
Gareth Farr has single-handedly done more to overthrow the fusty image of orchestral music in this country than any number of photo shoots with NZSO musicians in wacky poses with funny hair, and he’s done it by just being himself.
This guy can bring the synthetic aesthetic of the gay nightclub to the concert hall and get away with it. It’s no surprise then, that he can make this latest meeting of cultures work too.