Friday, July 3, 2009

Against the Dying of the Light - Notes

The following is a short note about Against the Dying of the Light for solo flute and chamber orchestra. Written for flautist Megan Hobbs and the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra, the work is also a musical memorial for Sir Peter Platt, a much-loved professor in Sydney Uni's now defunct Department of Music.

Against the Dying of the Light is above all things a tribute to the late Professor Sir Peter Platt. Prof Platt was a musicologist, composer, conductor and performer who had an enormous impact on the musical life of the University of Sydney, to say nothing of his national and international contributions. Both the form and content of this work reflect the tragic circumstances surrounding his death. The first movement is concerned with his own immense sense of frustration at leaving a life he felt was still wholly incomplete. The flute solo is often at loggerheads with the inevitable rigidity of the structure, a conflict which the orchestra emphatically and consistently addresses, much in the style of a Greek chorus. The second movement, an extended cadenza for the flute, is a transition from the deeply private, internal world of the opening to the more public, conventional expression of grief that is the third movement. Here, the style is at once removed- through its ritualistic temporality- and immediate- in its engaging, transparent rhetoric. This is in effect a memorial service for both Prof Platt and the department to which he devoted so much love and energy. The appropriation of ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto, and its employment as the emotional vector of the movement embodies this duality. On one hand, as a token of Prof Platt’s love and knowledge of Verdi, it provides a fitting tribute to his scholarly [ed] passion and dedication; on the other, it draws cathartic parallels between the loss of one kind of daughter and another.

Dolmen for New Albion - Notes/Seeds for a Rant on Identity?

This blurb was written as part of an (eventually unsuccessful) application for the ISCM World New Music Festival 2006. While tailored specifically as a frame for the work, Dolmen for New Albion, its sentiments have a broader resonance for me, and may inspire some sort of lengthy Rant...

I am a product of globalisation. My mother is Australian of Irish descent, my father South African of English descent. The first twenty-five years of my life were spent in Sydney, a city which through my lifetime, has become the most ‘international’ in Australia. I was steeped during childhood and adolescence in the artistic traditions of both the British Isles and continental Europe, to whose cultures I nevertheless have had little real access. My undergraduate training mitigated this Eurocentrism by introducing Asian and Aboriginal cultural identities as viable alternatives. I then studied [ed] at an institution which, despite the fact that its name is in many ways synonymous with American culture, draws much of its aesthetic impetus from the Old World.

The polyglot nature of my background and experiences raises some serious questions in regard to my creative output. Should what I produce be contextualised in terms of a globalised world, or a specific, discrete society? Is there actually an audience, one way or the other, for my music? Are my compositional endeavours still culturally relevant and/or worthwhile if there is not? Every time I begin work on a new composition, I am forced to grapple with these ‘Grenzenlos’ aspects of my artistic identity. There are of course as many ways to respond to this dilemma as there are pieces to write, but for me, approaches in this regard have generally fallen into two broad camps. On one hand, I have embraced the multiplicity of identity inherent to the globalised lifestyle; on the other, I have pushed aside this clutter of cultural paraphernalia to focus as consciously as possible on one single, homogenous aesthetic stance.

There has emerged increasingly of late, however, a third option, that is, the opportunity to reconcile these two opposing methodologies. One such consequence of this approach is the work, Dolmen for New Albion. Before beginning the compositional process for this piece, I constructed in my mind an alternative, purely speculative cultural trajectory for the city of Sydney. This was inspired by the settlement’s change of name from New Albion to the present designation, which occurred very early on in the history of the colony of New South Wales. I asked myself, what would have Sydney been like if it had kept its original name? What if the power of these words had driven the colony, then in a fragile state of external cultural dependence, along a different path? The consequent imaginary scenario is both a rejection and a validation of globalisation’s heterogeneity. Ostensibly, it concerns itself with one specific homogenous culture, in direct contradiction to the nature of globalisation. However, this particular society never existed: it is a figment of my imagination, has no strong grounding in any one specific reality and therefore in effect, is a conglomerate of all my diverse cultural influences.

Dolmen for New Albion is thus one creative solution to the paradoxes of identity we face in a globalised world. Its composition enabled me to grip firmly to the concepts of clarity and boundary- which after all underlie so much of human experience, and are therefore vital to both artistic and psychological well-being- while simultaneously accepting, and indeed rejoicing in contemporary society’s spirit of ‘Grenzenlos’.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Mysterious Demise of One Brody-Marie - Notes

The Mysterious Demise of One Brody-Marie: A Bellow-Drama in Seven Acts, for mezzo soprano, baritone, clarinet(s), percussion and pianoforte, has had many different incarnations, both for the concert hall and stage (though never a full, professional, theatrical production). The following by Andrew Robbie has acted as a programme note, but is as much an analysis of the work's psychological and moral intent.

'The mysteries of 'Brodie' are at every level concerned with demise. Most obviously, the characters are all constructed through their little deaths - petty realisations and transfigurations that are merely epi-epiphanal, reduced in the end to plot cues garbed in ridiculous aggrandisements. All the more painful through their familiarity; and there is no salvation, only exposure and an excussion of mediocrity through amorality.

Structurally, each scena progresses through one or a number of contracting cycles, accruing energy only to collapse in exhausted and protracted tumescense. But there is a mustness to the excess, a teleology based on the familiar rather than catharsis, furnishing a decadence to an already opulent surface. For every genre cue that requires a cadence, a glittering ejaculation mars its realisation.

There are deeper levels of decay. The Western canon is laid open as a corpse; from Purcell to Wagner and Holst's Mars the images are always of war and death, but are mocked, disfigured and made mute. Streams of popular culture from across the century are viscerally present, but serve either to inflate mundane cereals or emotionally legitimise beastiality. But also to leaven; patter-songs and bright metallic stars reek of false innocence, but entice all the same into wantonly guiltless pleasure. And there is a wantonness in the pleasure we are to find in such sensual banquets; to enjoy is to envy; to laugh express complicitness. Were it not for all our questionable allegiance to virtues in truth, honour and the time of the day, we would be forced to reject this piece as incoherent. But we can't - this is an amoral tale, and we are snared by its logic, and forced to enjoy.'

Dies Irae - Notes

Commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia, Dies Irae for chorus and orchestra was premiered in truncated form by the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers and Orchestra on March 22nd, 2008 in the Sydney Opera House. The commentary below, originally a rubric for the singers, ended up being the official programme note.

In one sense, this Dies Irae is a strange, fantastical ritual. The opening melody in the basses is an idiosyncratic paraphrase of the Roman liturgy's eponymous chant and sets the tone for all that is to come. What's more, its stylised, segmented nature provides a formal template for the rest of the piece, a kind of theme for a set of structural variations. The subsequent fragmentation at both a local and broad level is meant to invoke an imaginary procession, stopping and starting its way through a series of mysterious ceremonial rites.

To a large extent, this procession follows the psychological narrative of the Dies Irae text, tracing a path through fear, awe, desperation and hope. But much as the mediaeval Church forced Friar Thomas's poetry into liturgical garb, this work imposes its own, albeit fanciful, ritual order. For instance, hooked onto the end of the opening gambit is an unexpected rendition of the last verse of the poem. These two rhyming couplets are believed to be late additions to the text, conspicuous in their contrast to the other three-line verses and presumably tacked on to make the whole more doctrinally acceptable. In this piece, I have taken their aberrant nature one step further, employing the last verse as a recurring musical and psychological refrain. The idea is to spread both its evocative image of the Day of Judgment and intrinsic hope of redemption throughout the work, rather than confining it to a few isolated moments. This creates an overarching sentiment not indigenous to the poem's original structure but certainly more in keeping with the ritual character I wanted to put across in this setting.

The notion of ceremony infuses Dies Irae in many other ways. For example, the refrain is first presented within the confines of a triptych (three "panels"), a static, stylised device common to mediaeval religious iconography. This atemporal form effectively encapsulates a series of moods or morals without implying a narrative trajectory, and I make good use of it in this work. It manifests itself in a number of different guises- refrain/opening fanfare, refrain (variable focus), refrain/opening fanfare; refrain/opening fanfare, horror, refrain/judgment; contemplation, declamation, beseeching; beseeching, declamation, contemplation; judgment, ecstasy, declamation. Elements of the triptych's personality are also found in the two-part phrase structure of the opening plainsong, which is a mainstay for much of the work. Similarly, both the triptych and chant's ceremonial aspects are reflected in the overall form, which is loosely palindromic (self-mirroring). It's as if the procession files in, makes its way to the focal point of the ritual- in this case, a state of quiet contemplation- and then retreats out of the hallowed space along the same path, reversing the order of ceremony.

But Dies Irae is not just ritual; it is also a psychological exploration of the Day of Judgment, or more accurately, a day of judgment. For despite drawing from religious doctrine both musically and textually, the work is not necessarily religious in nature. Rather, it concerns itself with the persona of the Dies Irae text, whose own internal struggle with impending doom, compelling in its own right, is entirely independent of the liturgical function imposed upon it. This extraction of the individual from the dogmatic might sound quite contemporary, but in fact is not a new idea. John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), is perhaps the most striking literary example of this kind of reprioritisation. In it, the protagonist, Satan, tempts Adam and Eve away from grace and in consequence is himself cast down. But the focus is as much Satan's personal and political conflict with God, and the empathy we are expected to have for this otherwise maligned figure, as it is a retelling of Genesis. My use of an extract from this poem is meant to symbolise the threat to self experienced by both Friar Thomas and Milton's textual personae, and more pertinently for the unfolding of the piece, to reinforce the former's hopes and fears with the latter's.

Of course, the words of the Milton text are entirely lost, as their consistent, fragmentary role in liberamente textures- that is, organised chaos- means they are essentially garbled, albeit artfully. Their spirit, however, is played out time and time again in the drama of the music. For in the end, this Dies Irae celebrates an individual, not communal day of judgment, whose tenets are not imposed externally, but rather deliberately and emphatically chosen in the cause of personal, personalised salvation.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Three Scenes From Suburbia - Press

(See Three Scenes From Suburbia, Mvt. II - Analysis for description.)

Firestick - Press

Commissioned by Faber Music, through the patronage of Peter Sculthorpe, as part of their Millennium Series, this decade-old composition for modified chamber orchestra was finally premiered on June 15th by Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort in one of the featured concerts of New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. It seeks to outline a perceptual change towards bushfires in Australia, from anger and despair at their rampaging nature, to the realization that- through “firestick farming”- they are an integral part of Australian life.

The Origin Cycle - Press

(see Economy of Wax - Analysis for description)