Composer-percussionist Gareth Farr turns his hand to opera

by Elizabeth Kerr / 20 March, 2017

Gareth Farr.

Gareth Farr has created most complex work yet, an opera stretching from the goldfields of colonial New Zealand to China.

When writer Renee Liang travelled to China with ­composer Gareth Farr, she discovered how percussionists go shopping. “We went to every music shop in Beijing, ­Guangzhou and Hong Kong,” says Farr, the composer, percussionist and Arts Laureate, “and I said, ‘Yep, I’ll have that cymbal and those two gongs and that woodblock …’” Liang’s extra baggage allowance came in handy for the flight home.

Liang, an Auckland paediatrician by day, a poet and playwright by night, and Farr have created a new opera, The Bone Feeder, which has its world premiere this month at the Auckland Arts Festival. Liang’s libretto tells a moving story with roots in our gold-mining past, ­following a young New Zealand Chinese man ­exploring his ancestral history.

Using English, Cantonese and Maori, Liang and Farr have kept faith, in ­language and instruments, with the ­southern ­Chinese village background of the miners.

“I’ve never done anything so ­complex in a musical sense,” says Farr. ­Setting the Cantonese sections, working from ­transcriptions of an intrinsically ­melodious language, was “50 times the amount of work to set English – but hugely ­rewarding”. Balancing Western instruments and Maori taonga puoro with the delicate sounds of Chinese dizi (flute) and erhu (two-string fiddle) was also challenging.

A humorous song features those ­Chinese instruments he bought. “It’s called Gong Hei, which is a Cantonese greeting, and some bored, naughty ghosts leap around being spooky and silly,” says Farr. “It’s nice that ‘gong’ is one of the words, because I’m using every gong, woodblock and drum you can imagine.”

When he was 16, Farr didn’t know that percussionist was a job. His life changed on meeting musician Don McGlashan in the mid-1980s. McGlashan had been part of the legendary Blam Blam Blam and was playing in percussion ensemble From Scratch. Farr was studying at the alternative Auckland Metropolitan College and when McGlashan arrived there to teach, things took off musically for the teenager. “I was unbelievably lucky,” he says. “Don encouraged us to do ­whatever we wanted, and worked with some of us on From Scratch ideas, rhythms of ­different lengths, getting out of phase. I was fascinated.”

McGlashan suggested the talented youngster study percussion at the University of Auckland. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Farr recalls saying. “I’ve only been doing this for nine months.” But, as McGlashan had predicted, the ­university ­auditioning panel heard potential and Farr was accepted into the School of Music, ­encouraged by composer-lecturer John Rimmer into courses in composition alongside percussion.

Before finishing his degree, Farr met another crucial mentor, Jack Body, whose interest in Asian cultures was already a major influence in New Zealand composition. Farr was in Hong Kong in 1988 for the performance of his music in the Asian Composers’ League Young Composers’ Competition and met the older composer.

Farr and Renee Liang at Sew Hoy graves in China.

An Auckland concert by Victoria University’s Javanese gamelan orchestra had already entranced Farr. “I thought, ‘I have to play that!’” Body tempted him to move south. “You’ll love it there,” he said, “we’ve got gamelan.” So Farr moved to Wellington to complete his degree “and basically that’s when everything changed. Everything I wrote for the next five years sounded like gamelan.”

Farr, who is exuberant in person, believes his performer and composer personalities are very different. “If I’m in one mode, I find it difficult to snap to the other. In composer mode, I don’t feel like doing performances – I don’t even answer the phone. I get very internal.”

During his three postgraduate years at the Eastman School of Music in ­Rochester, New York, performance mode took over and Farr’s alter ego, the flamboyant drag queen Lilith LaCroix, took the stage. “Drag was an avenue I ran down ­gleefully,” he says. “It wasn’t a particularly healthy environment, hanging out in nightclubs, partying and drinking, too many vices. But the minute I got back to New Zealand, the whole drag thing became part of my professional life.”

Farr is “enormously proud” of Drum Drag, a show he devised in the 1990s with percussionists Murray Hickman and Jeremy Fitzsimons. Lilith became a drumming drag queen. “We performed all over the country in arts festivals, and in Australia and Canada. It was a lot of fun. And it finished when it needed to.”

Lilith hung up her frocks and put away her drumsticks but still appears ­occasionally. Farr insists there’s a link between his composing and performance modes, including drag. “You can’t split them up. Different personalities, but all part of the same reason for wanting to be a creative artist.”

These days, Farr spends most of his time composing, for the concert stage, theatre, film and television. And 2017 is a year of premieres: the first, last month, was a warmly received Octet for the New Zealand and Australian Goldner String Quartets at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson. Farr couldn’t resist the percussive possibilities of strings, and Octet alternates between lyrical bowed ­counterpoint and the tapping, plucking, snapping potential of the eight-piece ensemble.

Looking back over almost three decades of composing, Farr says his ­favourite projects have been ­orchestral. In 1996, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra commissioned From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs for its 50th anniversary, and he played percussion. “I remember the feeling before all the percussionists entered with a massive cadenza – ­quivering with excitement, not nervousness. My composer brain was saying, ‘Okay, this is what this sounds like’, and the performer in me was saying, ‘You’re on in 10 seconds’, and it was one of the most exciting, visceral, whole-body, whole-universe moments.”

Farr is working on another NZSO ­commission, a substantial cello concerto, with a personal World War I connection. “All three of my great-grandmother’s elder brothers, beautiful young boys, were killed within a year in separate battles in ­northern France and Belgium.”

The concerto, Chemin des Dames, will premiere in New Zealand and France, ­recognising a shared wartime history. Farr will be in the audience this time, but is enjoying the collaborative process with French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud. “With his wonderful feedback, he’s almost teaching me how to play the cello. I love working with musicians – these days, rehearsals are my favourite thing.”

The Bone Feeder, Auckland Arts Festival March 23-26: Chemin des Dames, NZSO Aotearoa Plus, Wellington, May 5, Auckland May 6, Orchestre National de Lorraine, Laon Festival, France, September 12.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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