Book cover—left back, right front

Published by Pfau Verlag

Review of Quite by Chance by Rod Biss

Kit Powell: Quite by Chance

New Zealand born Kit Powell, who is now torn between both New Zealand and Switzerland by interests and marriage, is a composer and teacher with a restless, searching, philosophical turn of mind. His ideas may often be provocative but they are also reassuring; performers, fellow creators and listeners are all made welcome in his music.

His fascinating book Quite by Chance is an introduction to his musical thinking and much more. At times it is a virtual autobiography as he takes us through his compositions explaining the circumstances of their creation, who they were written for or how they came into existence. It is also a guide to the music and an explanation of it. Both teachers and composers will find that it is packed with creative ideas that might often spark their own imaginations.

He believes that what happens by chance is significant, and yet he is not content to leave chance to work entirely on its own. “To this end,” he tells us that in his music (and I suspect in his life as well), “I invented systems in which it [chance] would be forced to respond, and, if the system was well made the results were always positive”. But it’s not magic, he warns, “the art is in being able to invent a system that is complex enough to sound interesting and personal enough to express what I wish it to say”.

He finds music in every sound that he hears; paper crumpling, household sounds, bird and animal sounds, weather sounds and so on, and he points out that children are often the most alert to these sounds and their possibilities. This is just part of Powell’s raw material—how he shapes it into music, or theatre, and into performance – is what the book reveals. We are, it seems, privileged observers being led into his workshop where we witness how his compositions are created.

He studied science first at Victoria University Wellington but then moved to Christchurch, graduating with both science and music degrees. He went on to Christchurch Teacher’s College and for a while taught both maths and music at Linwood High School. It is from these early years that the first compositions come, total theatre and creative music with children—the book includes fascinating photographs and drawings. Then there is Music with Found Objects, and he tells how when he was working with primary school children they made instruments from stones, metal, wood, glass etc and he says that this had an effect on his own work. There is a chapter on music with just a few notes and then we reach the crucial chapter on chance in music. “Why chance?” he asks, answering “because it fascinates me”. He arrived at it “as with almost every other experimental idea, through working with children”, and he supplies many examples of his ‘chance’ compositions and shows how they work.

The book is a full record of Powell’s compositions and one can only wonder why more of them are not heard in the mainstream concert halls. His Rothko Variations of 2004 can be heard in a ‘rehearsed reading’ performance by the NZSO conducted by Hamish McKeich on the SOUNZ website. The glowing sounds of his orchestration can only whet the appetite to hear his most recent large work, the Missa Profana of 2010 which looks like a work that would make a thrilling centrepiece for the New Zealand Festival. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part that it is already being talked about?

Rod Biss

German language review here.