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Accord for two pianists
During my first visit to Australia in early 1974, as Composer-in-Residence at The University of Western Australia in Perth, I had the opportunity of playing a great deal of music for piano duet and two pianos with Anne Hanrahan, to whom the present work is dedicated. This experience made me reconsider a project which had been in my mind for over ten years (ever since I used to play Busoni's Fantasia Contrapuntistica with John White, my composition teacher at the Royal College of Music), that of writing a large-scale work for two pianos. I actually began to compose Accord in June 1974 after returning to England, and the piece was finished by March 1975. It was commissioned by the Park Lane Group with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The first performance - by the composer and Stephen Savage - was given in a Park Lane Group Concert at the Purcell Room, London, on 13 December 1975.
Accord plays continuously for 43 minutes. It falls into five large sections (I-V) each of which is subdivided into two unequal parts (a/b). The limits of these sections are generally blurred, so that they flow imperceptibly into one another, and each section illuminates different aspects of the same basic material.
The work opens with a gesture (which I thought of as the equivalent of the curtain going up in a theatre) in which the pianists slowly unfold two versions of the chord (both containing all the eleven intervals possible within an octave) on which the entire piece is based (A-chord - in German, Akkord). During the remainder of section Ia various segments of these chords are exposed in a variety of generally slow, quiet and static figurations. A short-lived fortissimo outburst shooting to both extremes of the range begins Ib, in which the same material is repeated in a varied form, this time flowing in and out of a series of 'duets', each of which focusses on one particular pair of intervals from the basic chord (minor 2nd + major 7th, major 2nd + minor 7th etc.). This is rather like the cinematic effect of first seeing a vast landscape and then focussing on one particular feature of it (for example the series of zooms into the hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, which opens Hitchcock's Psycho ). I think these ideas also relate to my impressions of Perth where the piece was conceived. Perth is a large town, but seen from the sea or from the park overlooking the city it becomes merely a small fragment of a much larger landscape taking in the huge Swan river estuary, the Indian Ocean and the endless bush.
IIa begins with long and loud single notes overlapping contrapuntally in the bass and very gradually rises and accelerates until suddenly broken off at the point of maximum speed (the first 'dramatic' silence in the piece). IIb then takes place (with the exception of a few deep bass notes) entirely in the top two octaves of the pianos, reaching a furious climax before dying away to a scarcely audible trilling. Throughout IIIa these high figurations slowly descend, incorporating several 'duets' on the way, until they come to rest on a held cluster just below middle C. A brief but concentrated funeral march disturbs this restful moment only to sink down exhausted to the beginning of IIIb, the 'still centre' of the work (very slow, long silences, brief dabs of sound in the extreme bass).
From this point the work begins to retrace its steps in a considerably modified reversal of the events of the first half. The music climbs gradually upwards once more, this time in a predominantly chordal texture, to IVa. This is the antithesis of IIa, beginning very slowly in the treble (cluster-like chords and carillon effects) and descending, disintegrating and accelerating until it becomes a furious toccata-like passage in the bass. This forms IVb which, being the registral opposite of IIb, takes place (at first) entirely in the bottom two octaves of the pianos. However, the passages of violent chords thrown between the two pianos gradually expand to cover the entire range and lead to the main climax of the work - huge chords slowing down and accelerating, whirling arpeggios expanding and contracting until finally dying away in the middle range. Va returns to the mood and (similar) materials of Ib. As the work draws to a close (Vb) the distinctions between the two pianos become blurred in a long chain of trills which finally resolve at the first and only moment in the entire piece when the two pianists play exactly the same sound simultaneously. (RS 1975 rev. 1982)
I was a member of the panel which voted on the Sounds Australian Composers' Awards in 1990. Dick Letts suggested that it would be a nice gesture if each of us were to compose a 1-page piece for one of the winners, and I opted to write a piece for Andrew Ford, who won an award for his excellent journalism.
The resulting short piece was the third in what appears to be a continuing series of homages to the late nineteenth century. It therefore seemed natural to call it Albumblatt (Albumleaf), the title many nineteenth century composers (even Wagner & Berlioz!) gave to brief piano pieces originally written in an autograph album (Beethoven's Für Elise is the most famous example).
My Barcarolle was written for John White, one of my composition teachers at the Royal College of Music, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. It is a transcription of an interlude from my music theatre piece William Derrincourt (1978), originally scored for two pianos, two percussion, male chorus and soprano saxophone. John White introduced me to the works of many late-Romantic composers (Faure, Alkan and Busoni - all of whom wrote Barcarolles - amongst others) and it thus seemed appropriate to allude to their often ambivalent, and slightly sinister, melos and characteristic keyboard textures.
for orchestra with electric instruments (1970-71)
Beat Music was composed between December 1970 and July 1971. 55 players are divided into three groups, situated on the left, centre and right of the platform. The constitution of each group is as follows:
Group 1 (audience left): Bass register instruments (predominantly brass, cellos and double basses).
Group 2 (centre): Middle register instruments (brass and woodwinds mixed, violas and cellos).
Group 3 (right): High register instruments (predominantly woodwinds and violins).
In addition each group has a percussionist and one electrically amplified instrument (Group 1 electric bass guitar, Group 2 electric piano, Group 3 electric harpsichord). Each group is led by a solo instrument, electronically modulated with low frequencies (1-12 cycles per second) which produce the 'beats' of the title (Group 1 synthesizer, Group 2 viola, Group 3 soprano saxophone doubling bassoon). The violist uses an electronic device called an octave divider which extends the lower range of his instrument down to the bottom C of the cello.
There is a fourth soloist, a percussion player, who sits in the centre, isolated from the three groups, and whose part articulates the entire rhythmic structure of the work.
Beat Music is a single movement lasting about sixteen minutes. During this time a single musical process is enacted, exploring the closest possible association between rhythm, pitch, duration and proportion. There are no secondary ideas, episodes or diversions.
The title implies three references - to the 'beats' produced by electronic modulation, to the fact that the whole piece (except for the introduction) has a regular beat of a crotchet = 1 second, and to the association Beat Music = Rock Music. Some aspects of the instrumentation, character and form of the work were suggested to me by certain pieces of Rock music, notably Viola Lee Blues (Grateful Dead) and Sister Ray (Velvet Underground) although Beat Music is emphatically not an attempt to recreate Rock on the concert platform, but rather an abstraction of those aspects of Rock music which interest me, synthsised in a musical process of a rigour which is quite foreign to Rock.
Introducing a new work in a brief programme note, I prefer to avoid all technical discussion and leave the music to make its effect unhindered (or unaided, depending on which way you look at it). As a means of orientation here is an outline of the form (with timings) which is easy to follow and which bears some relationship to the form of an extended 'set' in Rock music.
Chorus 1 (overlap) 4'24"
Solo 1 (Sop. Sax) 1'13"
Chorus 2 1'48"
Solo 2 (Viola + Bassoon) 1'48"
Chorus 3 1'13"
Solo 3 (Sop. Sax, Viola, Organ) 3'36"
Coda (overlap) 1'12"
The single movement of Ceremony II falls into three clearly contrasted sections. Section One consists of a series of six melodies (all in different tempi) which are first played solo and then combined in duos and trios. The instruments enter in two groups of three - piccolo, violin and E flat clarinet followed by cello, bass clarinet and alto flute. Each section of the form is delineated by a ritornello of loud bell-like chords on piano and vibraphone/marimbaphone.
Section Two is slow and meditative in character. The instruments are paired to form three duos - piano and vibraphone, flute and violin, cello and bass clarinet - which play in different tempi, giving rise to wave-like overlappings.
Section Three, marked by the entry of the tuned drums, is a vigorous rondo-like coda in which, for the first time, everyone plays the same tempo.
Ceremony II was commissioned by The Seymour Group, with financial assistance from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council, and was premiered in Sydney in November 1989.
Ceremony III was commissioned by The West Australian Flute Society as an obligatory work to be played by all contestants reaching the Grand Final of the Sixth Australian Solo Flute competition which was held in Perth in March 1991.
My aim was to write a piece which would first and foremost require interpretative skills rather than merely being difficult to play (although it is that, too). As a result the work has a rather complex structure consisting of 36 short sections arranged mosiac-fashion [??mosaic?].
During the first third of the piece a slow melody gradually emerges from a series of lively dance-like episodes. In the central section this melody becomes the subject of six canonic variations, separated by tiny interludes. During the final third the melody becomes progressively absorbed and overtaken by the dance-like episodes, which return in reverse order.
for 4-channel tape (1974)
Didgeridoo was composed during the months of February - April 1974, whilst I was Composer-in-Residence at The University of Western Australia. It was realized in a very warm electronic studio, with the invaluable advice and assistance of John Exton, the designer of the studio.
Before coming to Australia I had never heard any didgeridoo playing. When I did I was struck by its extraordinary rhythmic complexity and by several similarities to electronic techniques (eg the filtering of an overtone spectrum, modulation of the tone by the player's voice) and I decided to use it as the basis of an electronic piece. The recording which I chose to work with comes from Mornington Island and is called "The hunter hears the call of the brolga, wild-duck and owl and goes down to the sea".
Didgeridoo is 10 1/2 minutes long and falls into 3 sections lasting 3, 3 and 4 1/2 minutes respectively. In tempo these sections are slow-fast-slow. The entire piece gradually ascends 4 1/2 octaves from the fundamental of the recorded didgeridoo to a pierceing high G at the end.
The original recording is used in two main ways. Section 1 uses almost entirely the natural sound of the didgeridoo, filtered so that different areas of its overtone spectrum are brought into prominence. In Section 2 the original recording is not heard as such but is used (through a pitch-to-voltage convertor) to control purely electronically generated material. The final section combines both instrumental and electronic sounds.
The basic material was laid down on an 8-track Ampex tape recorder and the final mix was made onto a 4-track Sony tape recorder. There is not a single tape-splice in the entire piece; all the individual layers were made in real-time and the final mix was "performed" - again in real-time - by myself and several assistants following a written score.
Diptych (Homage to Brian Blanchflower)
II Particle Madness
The British-born artist Brian Blanchflower came to live in Perth, as I did, in the mid-70s and the course of his artistic development has, like my own, been deeply affected by this move. I have always been attracted to his work, with its combination of deep structure and surface allure, and he, in his turn, has been significantly influenced by the work of several contemporary composers (notably Varese, Ligeti and Xenakis). It was seeing a large quantity of his output at one time (in the retrospective exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia during the 1990 Festival of Perth) which gave me the idea of composing a piece of music based on certain aspects of his work. I was particularly struck by the contrast between the extremely sombre series of paintings generically entitled Nocturne and the sculptural installation Tursiops (both dating from the early 80s) and the brilliant explosions of colour in his more recent work, typified by the painting Glimpses (An Earth History) of 1986-7. I envisaged a pair of orchestral pieces which would similarly embody this contrast between dark and light - contrasts which could be further extended in the musical domain to encompass polarities such as low/high, soft/loud, slow/fast, and statis/motion. It seemed obvious to give such a work the painterly title of Diptych.
The first panel of this musical Diptych is based rather closely on a large-scale sculptural installation called Tursiops (the Latin name for dolphin), which remembers the discovery and ritual burial of a dolphin on Cheyne Beach on the south coast of Western Australia. The installation consists of seven black objects incised with white marks (in multiples of seven) and arranged from left to right as follows:
1) a square canvas on the wall
2) 14 small baskets filled with sand plus a dolphin's skull arranged
in a line on the floor
3) a thin pole leaning against the wall
4) an inverted triangular canvas on the wall
5) a military stretcher, without its canvas, leaning against the wall
6) a string running down the wall from a small cross and sprouting
seven cross-strings on the floor, leading to
7) a looming shape reminiscent of a ship's keel, also on the floor
My piece attempts to translate these visual forms into musical ones. Accordingly it is in seven sections whose different lengths roughly correspond to the proportions of the installation. These seven elemental musical gestures are filled with a teeming profusion of detail which mirrors the complex granular surface of the two canvasses in the installation. The white marks are represented by a series of sharp chords which stand out in relief against these textural backgrounds. They are first heard on the brass at the beginning of Section 2 and then on piano in Section 3.
Just as important as these structural parallels are my emotional responses to the installation. These have resulted in a piece which is stark and monumental in character, predominantly slow in tempo and low in tessitura. It depicts the dark night in which 'fear eats the soul' and is pervaded by the mysterious and threatening sounds of the nocturnal sea.
The second part of Diptych is based more generally on the painting Glimpses (An Earth History). This vast work (over six metres long and two metres high) has a richly-textured surface built up from the superimposition of many layers of brightly coloured marks until it resembles a photograph of a galaxy. I began with the thought that the light from distant galaxies gradually increases in intensity as it streams across interstellar space towards our vantage-point on earth. The piece is therefore a sustained crescendo of volume and rhythmic activity from a static beginning to a turbulent end. As the piece progresses more and more layers of material are superimposed until they finally coalesce in a wild dance. This last section arose from an alternative view of the painting in which it could be seen (through the wrong end of a telescope, as it were) as a picture of atomic particles in motion. For this reason I decided not to use the title of the painting itself (which has strong visual connotations) but chose that of a small (but related) print called Particle Madness.
Diptych was commissioned by the ABC with financial assistance from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. It is dedicated to Brian and Colleen Blanchflower. (RS 1991)
for trumpet with stereo tape-delay [digital delay] system (1978)
Echo III was written for Gordon Webb, who gave the first performance on 28th July 1978 whilst visiting The University of Western Australia as Artist-in-Residence.
The trumpeter stands centre-stage. Everything which he/she plays is recorded and played back twice, at intervals of 5 seconds (from the left speaker) and 10 seconds (from the right loudspeaker). When the piece was composed a stereo tape-delay system was used to achieve this result; nowadays it is more convenient to use a pair of digital delays.
In musical terms this technical set-up gives rise to a continuous 3-part canon, which may be more or less obvious according to the nature of the musical material. The canonic effect is quite clear during the opening evolution of a staccato chromatic scale: much less so during the sustained note which follows it. Here the canonic overlappings focus the ear on gradual changes of timbre, and the movement of sound between the threee sound-sources.
Formally the piece may be likened to a set of double variations, in which the two opening ideas (staccato scale and held note) are varied in alternation. With every variation each idea takes on a little more of the character of its opposite - longer notes gradually infiltrate the staccato attacks whilst the long notes become shorter and more active.
These two interlocking strands of development unite at the centre of the piece, in a brilliant fanfare-like passage which has an equal distribution of short and long notes. From this point the two strands unwind until they regain their original (but much more highly developed) character in the final two sections of the piece - a slow chorale-like passage followed by a coda of extremely rapid movement, which gradually transforms into the sound of toneless blowing through the instrument.
Landscape with Figures
for solo Bassoon (1992)
This piece was inspired by my memory of a scene in Antonioni's film Blow-Up. The main protagonist (a fashion photographer played by David Hemmings) enters a London park at dusk and strolls between an avenue of trees, observing and photographing the various everyday events which take place around him.
The piece begins with, and constantly returns to, a refrain of isolated staccato notes, which, like the line of trees they represent, are nearly but not quite the same height (=pitch level) and distance apart. Just as the photographer's attention is captured by the different events happening around him so this refrain is interrupted by a sequence of tiny musical "scenes" - first a brief rapid outburst, then a sustained legato melody, a scalic scurrying section and a lilting waltz.
Towards the middle of the piece these excursions become more prolonged, culminating in a passage marked "lamentoso" in the highest register of the bassoon which features descending quarter-tones. Following this climax the earlier material begins to return, in varied forms. As the little "scenes" become shorter the refrain begins to dominate, as it did at the beginning, and the music eventually comes to a complete halt.
Here I imagined the photographer still in the park; night has fallen and he reflects on the events which he has seen. Musically this process of sythesis is suggested by an extended coda headed "The Poet Speaks" (a deliberate reference to the similarly titled final piece of Schumann's Kinderscenen). The basic intervals which have generated the entire work are here transmuted into a lyrical melody which cadences in an unclouded E major.
Landscape with Figures was commissioned by the Australian Music Centre as part of a project to increase the amount of Australian repertoire for neglected instruments.
for sixteen solo voices
The composition of my Missa brevis was begun on 30 March, 1966 and the final version, for sixteen solo voices, was completed in June 1967. The material of the work is based on the keyboard piece 'Gloria Tibi Trinitas' IV (Mullinar Book, No. 96) by the early Tudor composer William Blitheman (d.1591). A transcription of this piece, for two trumpets and two trombones, will be played before the Mass. Its motivic, durational and tonal characteristics are the source of all the music which follows, although during the course of each movement the initial derivations from the Blitheman take on a life of their own and develop far away from the model. Probably the most obvious recurring motive is one of three notes rising and falling a semitone (usually A-Bb-A) which is heard in the first two bars of the Blitheman and begins all movements except the Sanctus.
The sixteen voices are divided into two groups of eight, antiphonally separated to the left and right of the conductor, and much use is made of the opposition and interchange of musical material between the two groups.
Kyrie. The shortest movement. Held chords in one choir are counterpointed with a rapid quintuplet figure in the other.
Gloria. The longest movement. This divides into four large parts. The first part is subdivided into four sections, A-B-A-B. In the A sections a cantus firmus on the sopranos is decorated by melismas, unpitched shouts and whispers. The B sections are a series of interlocking duets which cross from one choir to the other. The second part, at the words 'Domine Dues, Rex coelestis' is a gradually accelerating build up to four other outbursts on the words 'Jesu Christe', 'Domine Deus', 'Agnus Dei', 'Filius Patris'. Three short alto solos, separated by whispers of 'miserere nobis', present the material on which the third part is based. This begins at the words 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' and is a long and slow crescendo which releases into the fourth and final part, a varied recapitulation of the A sections from the beginning of the movement.
Sanctus. In three parts. It opens 'very fast and gay' on female voices, twice interrupted by slow quiet interjections from the basses on the word 'Dominus'. The second part, 'Pleni sunt coeli', is a mass build-up of all the voices, who repeated their phrases independently of each other. The third section is the 'Osanna', in which a cantus firmus in one choir, increasing from one to six parts, is decorated by fast melismas on the other.
Benedictus. A duet for two sopranos. It opens with the A-Bb-A motive expanded to a ninth.
Agnus Dei. This begins on male voices alone, each sforzando attack being sustained very quietly by another voice. The attacks get closer and closer together a the female voices enter and lead up to the climax with sustained melodic lines. As the female voices die away and their chords increase in length, a single bass voice sings the attacks of the first part in reverse order, which therefore increase in speed.
for piano with live electronic modulation (1971-72)
Monody was composed between October 1971 and February 1972. It is the first piece in which the technique of ring-modulation plays a structural, as opposed to colouristic and decorative, role. This is achieved by restricting the piano part to a single monodic line throughout. Thus only one set of addition and difference tones is produced and their frequencies can be exactly predicted. The pianist controls the frequency of the sine-wave generator by means of a small keyboard which he plays with his left hand. In addition, two drums and four triangles are used to reinforce the lowest and highest difference tones.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1983)
When I first read the Penguin Classics translation of Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North some twenty years ago, I had an intuition that one day I would set at least part of it to music. It was not until 1979, however, that I actually began to make musical sketches, initially conceiving the work as a song-cycle for baritone and prepared piano. Early in 1980 The Fires of London opened their Australian tour at the Perth International Festival and, there, Peter Maxwell Davies suggested that I might like to write a work for the group. Almost immediately I saw how the very piece I had just begun could be more successfully realised using the extended instrumentation of the Fires. Composition started in earnest in November, 1982 and was finished in October, 1983.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94), one of the greatest masters of the Japanese verse form known as haiku, and a practising Zen Buddhist, set out from his home in Edo in the spring of 1689, spending more than two and a half years on the road. The first part of this journey, as described in his travel diary 'The Narrow Road', lasted only six months. Emboldened, however, by the translator's demonstration of the cyclic structure of the diary and by his observation that Basho actually changed the sequence of events and even invented fictitious ones, I took further liberties in my own selection and re-ordering of the texts to give the impression that the journey encompasses an entire year, from Spring through to Winter.
Formally the diary consists of an interweaving of prose passages with subtly related haiku. My own work preserves this distinction, with twelve haiku settings (one for each month) separated by ten prose passages (called 'travelling music' in the score). The haiku are sung, and accompanied mainly by the four melody instruments (flute, clarinet, violin and cello) while the prose passages are spoken, and accompanied by the piano and percussion ( in this role limited to the lowest octave of a marimba). Each of the melody instruments is associated with one of the four seasons (Spring-cello, Summer-flute, Autumn-violin, Winter-clarinet). In a visual representation of this plan these instruments are positioned far apart on the stage, at the points of the compass, with the piano and percussion together as a group in the middle of them. During the course of the work the singer gradually moves around this circle, ending at the point where he began, preparing to embark on his next journey.
The work is framed by a motto and as envoi and the four seasons are separated by three instrumental interludes, the first principally for cell, the second a virtuoso outburst for the entire ensemble, and the third a heterophonic monody led by the violin. The Narrow Road to the Deep North plays continuously for its duration. I have dedicated it to Peter Maxwell Davies, not only because it was his suggestion that finally called the work into being, but also because the image of the solitary creator seems particularly apposite.
Piano Pieces I - V
These five pieces were written at various times between 1962 and 1965. The first two were originally entitled Bells and formed part of a work (now withdrawn) based on Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo". The first piece is obviously "golden" and the second "leaden". The third piece is a miniature rondo (form: ABACA Coda) and the fourth is written in a proportional notation which allows the performer considerable flexiblility of rhythmic interpretation. The most highly developed piece is the fifth, consisting of three canons which gradually descend from the highest to the lowest register of the piano.
Pulses was composed in 1969 and reflects many of my preoccupations at that time - variable Moment-Form, live electronics, improvisation and the use of space. It was commissioned and first performed by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Atherton, in June 1969.
As the title indicates, there are five groups of four players: 3 trumpets + 1 percussion: 3 horns + 1 percussion (x2): 3 trombones + 1 percussion (x2). The percussionists play only drums, ranging in size from the smallest bongo to the largest bass drum. These five groups may be placed anywhere in the concert-hall, preferably around the audience.
The brass instruments are picked up by microphones and can therefore be amplified and/or modulated (by combination of the instrumental sounds with sine-tones in a ring modulator). The electronic equipment is operated by two performers whose parts are precisely notated in the score. The ampified sounds are heard over five loudspeakers, each one situated diagonally opposite the relevant group, so that the sounds appear to move in space.
The score of Pulses consists of 26 Moments - five for each group of players plus one Tutti Moment. These can be arranged in a variety of orders according to a Form-Plan. This groups the Moments into five large sections of five Moments each, plus the Tutti Moment.
The Moments follow one another in unbroken sequence; however, after each group has played the notated Moment they are generally required to continue playing by improvising, according to specific instructions, on the material which they have just played. The work is thus a combination of notated and partially improvised material.
Pulses is dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mary Bauermeister.
The Song of the Highest Tower
This work was begun in December 1967 and finished in June 1968. It consists of a number of self-contained units (14 in this performance) called Moments. These Moments are divided into groups according to the predominant instrument(s) - choir, solo voices, strings, brass, percussion: The two main Moment-groups are those featuring the choir and the solo voices. The Moments belonging to either one of these groups can be placed at the beginning, the middle and the end of the total form. The Moments of the other group are then inserted between these, and the remaining Moments, according to specific rules, are slotted into the remaining gaps. The choir and solo Moment-groups are developmental and must always appear in the order 1.2.3....etc; the other moments are either static or transitional between one texture/instrumental group and another. There is no specific musical material which is stated, developed and repeated. Instead there are a number of scales such as phonetics/words/phrases/ lines (of text), statistical/proportional/normal (notation) which determine the content of each Moment, but which are independent of thematic material. Great importance is also laid on the rotation of material round the 12 instrumental groups which are, reading from the left of the audience:
on the usual playing area
in the gallery to the right of the audience
in the gallery behind the audience
The Southland (1986-88)
for chorus, didgeridoo, gamelan ensemble, folk group and large orchestra.
Australian composers (perhaps even particularly those born elsewhere) soon learn to anticipate the inevitable interview question - do you consider your music to be distinctively Australian? One possible reply is to paraphrase the American composer Virgil Thomson and assert that one's music will automatically be Australian simply because it has been composed by an - in this case, adopted - Australian. I could say this about many of my own works. Whatever listeners might hear in them I certainly did not consciously put any 'local colour' into pieces such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Impulses or Strung Out. But there are other works (including the tape piece Didgeridoo, a String Quartet and Ceremony I for percussion quartet) in which I have tried to integrate various aspects of the Australian (and Asian) soundscape - Aboriginal songs, clap sticks and didgeridoo playing, bird and animal sounds and various aspects of South East Asian music. These have been but limited forays, and I have increasingly felt the desire, over recent years, to write something which would tackle our initial question head-on by allotting to such indigenous or 'traditional' materials a role of central importance.
The Bicentennial seemed a symbolically appropriate moment to do so. The Southland is the result. It was commissioned by the Western Australian Youth Orchestra Association with funds provided by the Australian Bicentennial Authority. I have dedicated it to Sir Frank Callaway and Peter Sculthorpe, pioneers of Australian music.
In late 1985, I conceived the idea of a large-scale in 5 parts. A plan which remained unchanged during the actual process of composition (June 1986 to April 1988). My basic idea was not to try and tell a story, as in the traditional oratorio, but to set several different texts, each dealing with one key aspect of the Australian experience. These would be, in shortened form:-
3. The British invasion of 1788 and its aftermath
4. An orchestral interlude bringing us up to the present time, and
5. A final section looking towards the future
Having decided on the general subject matter of each part, I then had to search for particular texts to illustrate them and I was extremely lucky, at each stage, to find something that exactly suited both my musical and expressive needs.
The five parts of The Southland are not separate movements but are joined together by elaborate transitions which can be likened to slow cross-fades between scenes of a film. This is an attempt to create a feeling of seamless continuity of historical time and the relatedness of all events which occur during it. This historical evolution is paralleled by another, purely musical one in which, from simple beginnings, the very musical language of the work continually grows in complexity.
Part I is a setting of a poem by the West Australian poet and playwright, Jack Davis. Underpinning the entire movement is the sound of a didgeridoo playing a low E flat. The didgeridoo can produce only a fundamental, and overblow the octave and twelfth; i.e. the first three notes of the natural harmonic series. Beginning on this same low E flat, the choir and the orchestra gradually extend this harmonic series further and further upwards, attaining a greater degree of intensity in each successive verse. Between the four verses are three short interludes for four horns (which are situated distantly from each other). These also use the only notes of the harmonic series.
At the end of the final verse, which is the point of greatest tension, the bass suddenly moves down a tone to D flat, and the gamelan (Indonesian orchestra) enters. Part III is a setting of a poem by the Indonesian poet, Taufiq Ismail, in an English translation by Harry Aveling. The music is lively and pentatonic (that is, it uses only five notes per octave and never modulates).
The movement proceeds by stating and then combining, in ever more complex combinations, a number of overlapping musical phrases which correspond to the increasing lengths of the lines and combinations of images in the poem. The refrain (with identical gamelan parts) occurs three times, the third time dying away in a prolonged ritardando characteristic of traditional gamelan playing.
As the gamelan fades into the distance, a chord of G major is revealed on muted strings, and with the sound of a guitar Part III begins. The music is now diatonic (our traditional tonal system based on seven notes per octave). A small group of folk instruments (flute, violin, accordian and guitar) support solo voices and sections of the chorus. The texts are of traditional songs: - the first two are by the songwriter and goldfields entertainer, Charles Thatcher (1831-1878); the remainder are folk songs. The original melodies are juxtaposed and superimposed in unusual ways. Everything is heard through a haze of held string chords, suggested to me by certain light-effects in the Australian landscape, especially as reflected in the work of the Heidelberg School of Painters. These chords very slowly modulate through all twelve keys (via a cycle of fifths) until the initial G major is reattained.
At this point the singing ceases and the folk group begins playing the Irish reel 'Ned Kelly's Farewell to Glenrowan'. On the night of June 27/8, 1880, the Kelly Gang were gathered at the Glenrowan Inn. The playing of this reel was interupted at 3 am when it was discovered that a trainload of armed police had surrounded the inn. As the higher instruments of the orchestra take over the reel, a much slower music begins in the cellos and basses, gradually rising until it overwhelms the folk group.
This is the beginning of of part IV, a large, purely orchestral movement during which all the material of the preceding three parts develops inexorably towards the biggest climax of the entire work. The musical language also expands, to include all twelve notes of the octave. Throughout this long development runs the thread of a continuous melodic line. Beginning slowly and tentatively on solo flute and clarinet, it moves to bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flutes, then through the entire string section from basses to violins and finally to trumpets. Around this ever-present, but ever-changing melody proliferates a great diversity of associated musical ideas. As the movement progresses, the sections of music become shorter and more concentrated, the texture more dense and more complex. I have called this part 'The Gyre of History'. The climax is marked by the re-entry of the chorus singing the word 'Aus-tra-li-a' to a reiterated rhythm. This climax does not die away gradually, but collapses rather suddenly, as if under its own weight. The repeating rhythm already set up continues throughout the whole of Part V, which I have subtitled 'Envoi'.
The words here (at first spoken and finally sung) are taken from a speech made in 1854 by the American Indian Chief Seattle, in reply to the American Government's request to buy his people's land. They seem to express some basic truths which are as applicable to Australia now (and in the future) as they were to North America then. The accompaniment passes from strings (reminiscent of Part III) to the gamelan (Part II) and finally the didgeridoo (Part I) reminding us that, in the words of the final line of the text, all things are connected.
for 15 Solo Strings (1970-1971)
Strata was composed between May 1970 and April 1971, in response to a commission from the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields (see note 1 below).1 Fifteen players (10 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 1 double bass) sit symmetrically in a semi-circle on the platform. Mainly they are subdivided into 3 quintets (5 violins on the left, 2 violas+ 2 cellos + double bass in the middle and 5 violins on the right), more rarely into two equal halves (with the double bass belonging to either half). There is only one tutti section in the entire work. All the instruments are slighly amplified in order to add presence to the generally quiet music and to make the subtle changes of tone-colour clearly audible.
Using 5 Form-Units and 32 Moments a form and its content are assembled for each performance. The sequence of events is fixed before rehearsals begin - this is in no sense improvised or "chance" music. The 32 Moments (short, highly differentiated fragments of music) must fit into an overall form which has only 25 sections. Consequently two or even three Moments may be heard simultaneously from different groups.
Strata does not require a conductor (see note 2 below). The individual groups play together as chamber music ensembles. The leader of the group which is playing cues the entry of the next group at a time which seems musically appropriate. The players are also required to improvise build-ups and fade-outs (anticipations and memories) on the basis of the fully-notated Moments.
A single chord, consisting of all eleven intervals from a major seventh to a minor second stacked upwards in decreasing size, unifies and makes possible the variable form of the work. The Tutti Moment and the 4 Moments for the left and right halves of the ensemble all use this fundamental chord. The Moments for the 3 quintets (9 for each) are based on single intervals from the fundamental chord, which are extended to form melodic/harmonic modes.
Brief quotations from works by some of my favourite composers are woven into the texture from time to time. These are always associated with the prevailing harmonic structure (for example a fragment of Debussy's Jeux appears during a Moment based on major seconds - ie a whole-tone scale). For those who wish to try and identify them the composers quoted are Debussy, Schoenberg, Boulez, Wagner, Ligeti, Stravinsky, Mahler, Webern, Stockhausen, William Blitheman and Beethoven.
1) In fact The Academy of St-Martins-in-the-Fields never performed Strata. In his review of the concert in which the first performance should have taken place (The Times, 24th June 1971) Alan Blyth reported Neville Marriner telling the audience that the work "had become something very different from what he had ordered, much longer and calling for spatial effects not exactly suited to a small, dignified, company hall in the city" [Stationer's Hall]. This is absolutely true (although I wonder about the "dignified").
The premiére was eventually given by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by myself (and not Pierre Boulez, as stated in the published score). I had already taken the first few rehearsals because Boulez was in New York. When he returned and realised the complexity of the score, plus the fact that I was already well-advanced in the preparation of it, he very prudenly suggested that I should carry on and do the actual performance myself.
2) This appears to contradict note 1. Strata was indeed conceived to be performed without a conductor. Nevertheless it does require someone to order the musical material and direct the rehearsals. To dispense entirely with a conductor would have required a larger number of rehearsals than were available at the time. Since much of the work cannot be conducted anyway (with 2 or 3 tempi going simultaneously) my role was more that of a general overseer and giver of cues for the entrances and exits of the various groups. Without doubt my preference is not to have a conductor, because I believe that only an ensemble group which knows the piece sufficiently well to do without one will be able to give a truly successful performance of it.
Strung Out (1987)
My first idea for this piece was a vision of the seating arrangement of the players - a symmetrical formation of four violins, viola, cello, double-bass, cello, viola and the remaining four violins, "strung out" across the stage in a straight line (rather than the usual semi-circle).
The entire structure of the work is a consequence of this layout - particularly the sub-division of the players into groups of two, three, four and six (with the double-bass occupying a pivotal position), and the movement of the sound across the stage.
The form consists of the alternation of two basic types of material - slow and static versus fast and active - which are boldly juxtaposed at the very beginning. This structure might be likened to a series of beads - of differing sizes, shapes and colours - "strung-out" on a thread at varying distances apart.
As the piece progresses each type of material gradually takes on the characteristics of its opposite. Halfway through, the two types have become identical; by the end they have completely changed places. This entire process takes about 14 minutes.
Strung Out was commissioned by the Music Department of The University of Western Australia as part of the University's 75th anniversary celebrations (in 1987). It was first performed by the Soloists of Australia during the 1987 Festival of Perth and is dedicated to David Blenkinsop, who has been a staunch supporter of my music during his years as Director of the Festival.
In February 1979, immediately after finishing my string quartet, I sketched the first part of this symphony. At that time it was not called 'symphony' and was simply an elaboration and extension of some ideas from my two-piano piece Accord (1974-76), which I had long thought suitable for orchestral treatment. Various other events intervened (principally the composition of Konzertstuck for violin and orchestra, commisioned for the 1980 Festival of Perth) and it was not until September 1980 that I resumed work on the piece, after it had been commissioned by the BBC for the 1982 season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.
During this period another significant event took place. Pauline Steele, a close friend, and companion of Gregory Baron - expatriate English cellist and founder of the Western Australian String Quartet, for whom my own quartet was written - had died of cancer at the age of 32. Since at the point I had broken off the orchestral work I was intending to write a funeral march, these two events came together in my mind and determined the subsequent course of the work, which became a memorial for Pauline and is dedicated to her memory.
The work subsequently acquired the title Symphony. Although several aspects of traditional symphonic form are suggested, the overall structure evolved quite intuitively during the course of composition, and not from any preconceived desire to imitate the classic models. What really persuaded me to use the word 'symphony' was twofold - the epic character of its form and the fact that the musical material is in a state of continuous development and evolution.
The long single movement divides into two parts. Part I consists of eight large-scale 'development sections', interupted after the fifth by a slow 'recitative' in which the fundamental harmonies are stated. Beginning very slowly on high strings and flutes the music gradually accelerates as it descends, reaching its point of greatest momentum in a low toccata-like passage for piano, electric organ, brass and drums. This spreads out over the entire orchestra until a sustained climax is reached, which culminates in a funeral march in the extreme bass register.
As the funeral march dies away a broad theme is announced on horns and violas in unison, and forms the basis of Part II. This theme evolves through twelve variations, subdivided into three sections containing four, five and three variations respectively. The first three are slow, whilst the next five form a scherzo with two trios. The first trio consists of violent staccato chords from all sections of the orchestra; the second is scored for muted string quartet and piano only. In the three scherzo sections a second theme is introduced (first heard on col legno and pizzicato strings). This comes from my music-theatre piece William Derrincourt, in which it is sung to the words of a nineteenth-century English ballad:
The best advice as I can give
Is moderation; let us live,
And we shall have no cause to grieve
For Mr Cholera Morbus.
These words set the tone for the whole scherzo, which is full of the bizarre juxtapositions and frenetic distortions of a Totentanz. A climactic restatement (in retrograde) of the funeral march leads to the final three variations, which are again slow and form a coda to the entire work. They lead towards a statement of a simpler version of the original variation theme which also comes from William Derrincourt, where it forms a setting of the epitaph he wrote for his own gravestone:
I lie on your right hand.
When roses grow they will shade you and me,
When decayed and forgot God will not forget you.
(In this context I have changed the final word from the original 'me'.) Here the theme is played on a solo cello, with which instrument the work subsequently ends.
The first performance was given in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 25th August 1972 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes. (RS 1982)
Three Poems of Walter de la Mare
- see 3 Poems of Walter de la Mare
for piano with live electronic modulation (2 performers) (1968-69 rev. 1971)
Transformation, begun in August 1968 and finished in March 1969, was commissioned by the City Music Society. It is the first work of mine to use live electronic modulation. There is no pre-recorded tape; sounds are picked up during the performance by two microphones situated above the piano strings and are transformed simultaneously by a ring modulator and a filter. They are then amplified through two loudspeakers, one at each side of the platform. One thus hears an alternation and superimposition of live and transformed piano sounds. The electronic apparatus is operated by a second player whose part (dynamics, frequency, rhythm etc.,) is precisely notated in the score.
The basic structural idea of Transformation derives from a technique I used in some of the Moments in The Song of the Highest Tower (1968). These Moments consist of two types of material, one on the upper half of the page, one on the lower half. When the sides of the page are parallel these two different types of material synchronize with each other. But the page can be cut across the centre and the two halves slid apart so that they gradually become non-synchronous.
In Transformation there are four layers of material, two for the piano (a fixed layer and one of superimposed material whose exact relationship to the other layer is indeterminate within strictly controlled limits) and two for the electronic modulation (one for amplification and one for transformation). The piece divides into 8 continuous sections:- A1 B1 C1 D1 : D2 C2 B2 A2. In the A sections all four layers are unsynchronous; in the D sction all four layers are synchronous. The B and C sections are intermediate stages. In this work, unlike The Song of the Highest Tower, all the positions are fully composed-out and are not left to the choice of the performer.
As far as the relationship of the layers is concerned the work is a palindrome. The pitch material, however, develops continuously from beginning to end. The rhythmic material is divided into two cycles; the first works with the layers, the second against them. We therefore have three different layers of transformation working simultaneously:-
Section 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Layers A1 B1 C1 D1 D2 C2 B2 A2
Pitches A B C D E F G H
Rhythms A1 B1 C1 D1 A2 B2 C2 D2
There is a gradual increase in complexity from the beginning to section 4. Section 5 is the simplest - a sort of "ghost" version of section 4 - and is the only one in which unmodulated piano sound is heard throughout. From this point there is another gradual increase of intensity to the end of the work.
for violin, cello and piano (1990-91)
My Piano Trio was commissioned as an obligatory work for all trios entering the 1991 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. For practical reasons it could not be too long (it plays, in fact, for about 13 minutes) but within this relatively limited duration I tried to create a wide variety of moods and textures.
The trio is in two parts, each of which consists of two linked movements - a short slow movement which acts as an introduction to a longer fast movement. Following my Variations on a Theme of Chopin for solo piano (1988-89) the Piano Trio is next in a continuing series of works based on material extracted from various Chopin Mazurkas. This Trio is based on an extremely chromatic 8-bar progression which occurs towards the end of the Mazurka in A flat Op 59 No 2.
The opening Prelude presents the whole of this progression, stretched out over the entire length of the meovement and embellished with sighing chromatic figures. This leads, via a prolonged dominant seventh chord, directly into the Scherzo, whose form could be represented as A B A C A D A - in other words it has three "trios" (B, C and D) but the second and third are joined, without the expected interpolation of A. The final return of A is truncated and the first part ends abruptly.
Part 2 opens with a slow Passacaglia during which the Chopin progression is unfolded (from the bass up) as four superimposed contrapuctal lines, rather than as a series of harmonies as in the Prelude. The 13 Variations which follow are generally based on one of these lines, or feature a common interval extracted from all four lines. The first 6 variations are fast and vigorous, leading to a climax in variation 7 - loud repeated chords in the bass of the piano out of which emerge quiet harmonics on the two strings. The final 5 variations are slow and in the form of a Chaconne. The music draws ever closer to the Chopin original, but the work ends ambivalently.
Variations on a theme of Chopin
The theme of my variations is the whole of the Mazurka in B flat minor Opus 24 No. 4, although only the first six bars are actually quoted at the beginning of the work. These bars form a series of progressively diminishing intervals from an octave down to a minor second. In each of the 12 short variations the theme is transformed through the prism of one of these intervals - for example the first variation is exclusively in octaves, the second uses major and minor seconds in the right hand, rhythmically displaced against the original left-hand part, and the third concentrates on major and minor sixths.
My variations attempt to mirror the structure of the original Mazurka, which changes markedly in character towards the end, introducing new material and slowly winding down in a long coda. The first 8 variations are extremely dynamic, but the 9th variation puts a brake on the music and the work ends with three much slower variations. The twelfth and final variation (an improvisatory melody over a shifting drone bass) is the most extended, drawing ever closer to the original, until the last two bars turn out to be the same as Chopin's. Chopin variations was commissioned by the Amolfini Arts Centre in Bristol and was first performed by Ian Munro in 1989.
an entertainment for baritone, male chorus and instrumental ensemble (1977-79, rev. 1984)
William Derrincourt was composed in 1977 and first performed in October of that year at the University of Western Australia in a production by the late John Culshaw. In 1984 I extensively revised the entire score for the present season of performances.
In 1832, as a young boy of 14, William Derrincourt was sentenced to ten years' transportation - initially to Port Arthur, Tasmania - for attempting to sell a stolen waistcoat. After many adventures, including a further period of seven years' imprisonment on Cockatoo Island for robbing a mail coach, he was finally released in 1863. Subsequently he became a wealthy and successful business man, discovering much gold whilst hiring and repairing mining equipment on the goldfields near Sofala. In the 1890's he wrote his auto biography, entitled 'Old Convict Days', which was first serialised in the pages of the Sydney Evening News and published in book form in 1899.
I drew my libretto from this book, selecting twelve key incidents from his life, arranged in chronological order from birth to death. These 12 scenes are grouped into three parts separated by two interludes. The titles of the scenes and the musical forms which they employ are given in the programme listing.
The main burden of the instrumental accompaniment falls on the pair of pianos and percussionists, who play throughout. Many of the scenes are characterised by the addition of one, two or three solo instruments which are integrated into the stage action.
Part I - Dark England
Scene 1 My early days [Fantasia I]
Scene 2 My apprenticeship [Funeral March] Bassoon
Scene 3 Animal Sports [Hunting Song] Horn, Trumpet, Trombone
Scene 4 I am unjustly charged [Narration and Trial]
Interlude I - Barcarolle - Soprano saxophone
Part II - The Land of the Lash
Scene 5 I arrive at the convict depot at Hobart Town [March Militaire] Horn, Trumpet, Trombone
Scene 6 Down the coal mines [Ostinato] Clarinet
Scene 7 An attempted escape [Nocturne]
Scene 8 The Governor's Visit [Introduction, Theme and 6 Variations] Horn, Trumpet, Trombone
Scene 9 The flogging ["100 Chords"] Cello
Interlude II - Elegy for cello and piano
Part III - A Free Man
Scene 10 My marriage [Waltz and Polka] - Flute, Violin
Scene 11 My later years [Fantasia II]
Scene 12 Epitaph
Zeitebenen (time-levels) is a large-scale work lasting 45 minutes. It was commissioned by the West German Radio (WDR) and the tape part was realised in the WLR electronic studio during the four months February - April and July 1973, with the technical assistance of Peter Eotvos and Luz-Estella Santos.
The first performance took place on November 6/7 1973 in Dusseldorf as part of the third series of Musik der Zeit concerts promoted by the WDR. The tape and instrumental parts were conceived and composed simultaneously and cannot be played independently of one another.
Zeitebenen was written between June 1972 and September 1973. Much of the preliminary planning was done on aeroplanes and in hotel rooms, especially during the long period occupied by the rehearsals, recording and European tour of Stockhausen's Momente, in which I played the Hammond organ. This period of comparative isolation gave me the opportunity of attempting, for the first time, to express in music - that is, to use creatively - ideas which had in fact caused me to compose only one short work during the previous year or so. Uppermost in my mind was ( and still is) the problem of the composer's responsibility to society at large. For me Zeitebenen contains elements both of a diary tracing the evolution of these ideas, and of a journey which, setting out from a known point, ends up at a place I didn't even know existed when I began.
Zeitebenen is made up of 21 Moments, varying in duration between 36" and ca. 3', which are played continuously in a fixed and unchangeable sequence. The work falls into three parts (A, B and C), each of which consists of 7 Moments and lasts about 15'. The whole of Part A is a celebration of an imagined 'natural' state of man. The music (developing from the 'known point' of his previous work Monody) has the feel of folk-music - gay, lively, rhythmic, with the players also humming, singing and shouting. All the musical materials are evolved from natural phenomena. The pitches are drawn from a seven-note mode which consists of the first seven different notes of the harmonic series (C - E - G - B flat - D - F sharp - G sharp): the rhythmic structure is based on the Fibonacci series (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 etc) which is also a 'law of nature' (it can be found in the structures of flowers, pine-cones, shells etc); the live-electronic technique of ring-modulation by which the instruments and voices are modified for most of this part also occurs naturally, but normally it can only be heard under exceptional conditions.
The central (ie 4th) section of each part is sharply differentiated from its surroundings. Here it consists of superimpositions ( on the tape) of a "song" composed by my (then) 3-year old son David - another example of spontaneous, natural creativity.
The tape is heard in only two sections of Part A; from the beginning of Part B it runs uninteruptedly to the end. Part B is basically a huge downwards glissando, divided into two halves by its central section, which anticipates Part C in its combination of a natural environment (seagulls on the tape, free improvisation by the saxophonist) with a man-made one (city-sounds on the tape, motor horns and police whistles). The glissando is perceived both in terms of pitch (the sustained notes glissando down over 6 octaves) and speed (the political speech on the tape begins as a high twittering 16 times normal speed, slows down until it is understandable at the midpoint and then continues to slow down until it reaches 1/6 of its normal speed). The part presents, in sharp opposition to the fantasy of Part A, the reality of our present position. It moves from a mood of violent exhuberance to one of black distruction and despair. The speech slows down until it becomes an inchoate gasping and shuddering, the pitch glissandi become so low that they turn into machine-gun-like pulses which fade out until only one remains, exploding irregularly like distant warfare. The real sounds of war - guns, bombs and aircraft - are also heard, finally giving way to an icy wind which whistles around the four loudspeakers.
Part C begins when all these sounds coalesce and merge imperceptibly into the swell of the sea, a (musically) very slow natural periodicity (here 12") and the wind. During the first half of Part C this periodicity, at first so slow that it seems only to be felt, not consciously perceived, becomes progressively more insistent with the entry of new sounds which gradually reduce the periodicity to 1". In Part C virtually all the sounds on the tape are 'concrete', with a minimum of modification, but placed in a structure and a context which are quite artificial. In the first half sounds associated with the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) form a background to the cries of animals and birds (fish-eagle, sea lion, seal, camel, kakelaar bird, hippopotamus, bears, wolf, elephants and crows). To begin with the performers breathe rhythmically and play gongs and bells, only gradually transferring to their instruments. In the later stages of this composed-out accellerando they join with the tape in a long sustained melody, made out of a chromatic scale rising 5 octaves. The whole represents the birth of consciousness and the tendency of both man and nature to rebel against the vision of Part B.
The concerted outcry of man (articulate melody) and animal (inarticulate cries) breaks off at its climax and after three faint memories of the past (the fourth and central section) the live instrumentalists engage in a furious struggle with the forces of represented on the tape by all twelve periodicities superimposed and articulated with the sounds of machines. But the players do not give up. One by one they move from instruments to drums, finally uniting with the tape in four hammer-blows of victory.
3 Poems of Walter de la Mare
for soprano and piano (1961 rev1970)
These are the earliest of of all my works which I still allow to be performed. They were written during my first year as a student at the Royal College of Music, and the first two were performed there at lunchtime concerts of the Contemporary Music Society which I helped to organise. In 1970 I revised them for the first complete performance which was given by Eiko Nakamura (accompanied by myself) at a Park Lane Group recital in January 1971. They are dedicated to Jane Manning, who writes about them in her book New Vocal Repertory (Macmillan, London, 1986).