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)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Three Scenes From Suburbia, Mvt. II - Analysis

Commissioned by Richard Gill with the support of Ars Musica Australis, the orchestral work, Three Scenes From Suburbia, was premiered by Sydney Sinfonia, as part of the Sydney Symphony’s 2008 Discovery Series (Angel Place; II. - 6th May, I. in part - 10th Jun, III. - 28th Oct). The second part was subsequently broadcast on Jan 3rd of this year on ABC Radio National.


Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Consequently, we are all intimately familiar with the concept, if not the reality of suburbia. Whether we live in one, grew up in one or daily consume a televisual representation of one, the suburb is an indisputable part of our cultural lexicon.

Sadly, however, familiarity seems to have bred contempt. Suburbia is often portrayed as mind-numbing and soulless, populated by serial conformists frustrated by their own conformity, and powerless because of it. Three Scenes from Suburbia seeks to challenge that perspective by embracing, through vignettes from the suburban everyday, the wonder and excitement an outsider might have when observing without prejudice our way of life. These sentiments arise from a process of mythologisation, whereby ostensibly mundane scenes are given both literary and metaphysical significance, by way of the Western cultural canon which so underpins our understanding of the world.

Part 1 is prefaced by this quote from the poem, ‘The Daisy’, by William Wordsworth:

…A little Cyclops, with one eye
Staring to threaten and defy…

The music, nevertheless, makes no attempt to represent a daisy, or indeed any other flower. Rather, it draws upon Wordsworth’s depiction of an object generally considered unassuming as pointedly sinister and confrontational. This device is recast here with the lowly traffic light as protagonist, its cycloptic tyranny pitted against the larrikin tendencies of a joy-rider.

The second movement concerns itself with the characteristic ‘greenness’ of our avenues and gardens, by way of these lines from Abraham Cowley’s ‘The Spring’:

…Where ere you walk’d trees were as reverend made,
As when of old Gods dwelt in every shade…

This fragment from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’ precedes Part III.

…O divine
And beauteous island! thou hast been my sole
And most magnificent temple, in the which
I walk with awe, and sing my stately songs…

Its religious overtones are employed here to celebrate the colours, shapes and sounds of the ubiquitous suburban shopping centre. The movement culminates in a “consumer siren song” (one of the stately songs of the text), which melds together several different markers of prestige, notably Elizabethan court dances and indie pop music.


1. The Ground Bass

This work is modelled on the Baroque forms of passacaglia and chaconne, where a ground bass (a defined bass line that is repeated over and over again) and/or a continuously cycling harmonic progression serves as the foundation for a set of continuous variations. This may seem to be an anachronistic, out-of-date approach to writing music today, however, it should be noted that these forms have a compositional pedigree well beyond their original cultural context: take, for example, the final movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony or the passacaglia from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Furthermore, passacaglia- and chaconne-like ideas are employed in alot of popular music, though of course in ways which are less likely to be historically informed.

The ground bass/ harmonic progression I have constructed here is somewhat more elaborate than most previous incarnations. A six-chord sequence with some internal repetition is the basic unit; it initially undergoes three symmetrically spaced transpositions (moving down in minor thirds), which though equivalent in relative pitch content, often differ in inversion. The immediate continuation of this transpositional track finds the unit back with its original pitches but in a different inversion. If this process is allowed to play out to a point just before exact replication begins to occur, the following can be observed: a unit is repeated only once at the same pitch in a particular inversion, four times at equivalent transposed pitch in a particular inversion, three times at absolute pitch regardless of inversion, and twelve times irrespective of transposition or inversion. The piece ends with the completion of the cycle and the second iteration of the first chord of the first unit: the ground bass as a whole thus only occurs once, though the properties described above inform its macro-character in such a way as to give the impression of multiple repetitions. All of this information is summarised in Figure 1.

Rhythmically, this cycle is divided into five sections of roughly equivalent duration but of differing harmonic tempo. The first is based on a 5:4 ratio (that is, each chordal articulation lasts either four or five crotchets), the second on a 4:3 ratio, the third on 3:2, the fourth again on 5:4, and the fifth on lengthy, broadening fluctuations (see Figure 1.). The consequence of this is that each section has a different number of repetitions of the basic unit of the ground bass: the first has two, the second three, the third four, the fourth two and the fifth one.

The harmonic and rhythmic character of the ground bass is one of slow, incremental change and the way it is set reflects this. It’s consistently orchestrated for muted strings and vibraphone, and only ornamented by glissandi, which act as appoggiaturas to each chordal change and are occasionally reinforced by the trombones. Furthermore, when there are notes in common between one chord and the next, they are not newly articulated, but rather held on, thus contributing greatly to the glacial effect. It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘bass’ is used here in its formal rather than literal sense, as it is not always the lowest sounding element (see The Musical Narrative).

2. The Variations

The ground bass has in counterpoint to it two other textures, which are essentially two separate sets of variations (referred to here as set 1 and set 2), with their own musical and dramatic characteristics, running in parallel. These variations have harmonic cycles whose pitch content is independent, but whose pacing is nevertheless entirely contingent on the other textural components (see Figure 1. for further elucidation). They are not really variations in the traditional sense- that is, based on a particular theme- but rather constant and varied development of a discreet group of gestures, which forms an ever-fluctuating yet consistently integrated fabric around the thematically static ground bass.

Set 1 consists of two parts whose interaction is part contrapuntal and part heterophonic. The pitches employed at any given point have some commonality with the diatonicism of the corresponding bass harmony (see Figure 1. once again). Only one semitone can be formed harmonically from each sonority in the cycle; it acts as a springboard for each phrase, while the adjacent minor or major third to it serves as a cadential device. The set’s general profile is one of long, drawn-out, lyrical lines with expansive registral leaps and alternations between gradual crescendi and sudden quietness (see Figure 2a. and 2b. for an outline of rhythmic development). Set 1 is articulated exclusively by non-muted strings and two solo horns.

The pitch material of set 2 is remote from both the diatonic implications and the actual notes of the bass, but is relatively closely related to that of set 1. These pitches occur either in close, two-part harmony- rhythmic unisons ranging from a minor second to a major third- or in isolation. Set 2 is thus essentially homophonic, though some heterophonic decoration occurs in the third and fourth sections of the piece. Its rhythmic character is typified by staccato outbursts, whose density periodically waxes and wanes (see Figure 3a. and 3b.). These run very much against the metric grain of the ground bass, and to a lesser extent, of set 1, giving rise on occasion to the feeling of two metres occurring simultaneously. Similarly, fluctuations in dynamic range occur more often and more suddenly here than in the other textures. All of the brass and woodwind- along with the timpani and xylophone- are involved in the realisation of set 2, though the flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and muted trumpets carry much of the thematic weight (they are assigned the tuplet material seen in Figure 3a.)

3. The Musical Narrative

As evident from Figure 1., the overall trajectory of the ground bass is a slow but inevitable climb upwards. This structural attribute, by its very nature, gives the piece a sense of direction, a feeling of purpose. A perhaps overly generic narrative structure, it is made more nuanced and idiosyncratic by causing the rate of change, which is represented in the theoretical model of Figure 1. as entirely even, to be quite irregular. Given that the five sections of the work have roughly the same duration, a marked acceleration in the speed at which chords are outlaid can be witnessed through the first three: twelve sonorities are sounded in the first, eighteen in the second and twenty-four in the third. With the beginning of the fourth, however, we see a return to a rate of twelve per section, which is reduced in the fifth to six. The end of broad structural acceleration, which also happens to be the beginning of deceleration, is marked by the major climax of the work, which crosses the seam between the third and fourth sections. Before this point, there is a feeling of eager anticipation; after, a sense of gradual settling into peaceful contemplation. Thus the underlying psychology of the work can be articulated through purely musical parameters.

The two sets of variations are to a large extent at the mercy of the ground bass and its behavioural patterns. The way in which set 1 and set 2 intensify and dilute, which can be seen in Figure 2. and 3. respectively, are directly analogous to, and synchronous with the acceleration and deceleration of the bass. That is to say, a change of section indicates immediate and interconnected development in all three textures. The only exception to this trend is the periodic eruption in section four from both sets of variations of material characteristic of earlier temporal spaces. These anomalous occurrences are even reflected on the surface of the ground bass, however the steady march of its harmony remains unaffected by such bursts of activity, making this challenge to the slow drift into stasis a vain one. The overall narrative is nevertheless clearly enriched by these moments of dissent.

The manner in which this piece is orchestrated serves to accentuate the unfolding of events through time as described in the above paragraphs. The instrumentation of the ground bass is constant, apart from the odd highlighting of harmonic change in section three and four by the trombones. This approach reinforces the inevitability of the bass’s broad agenda. The two sets of variations, on the other hand, are somewhat more malleable. Set 1 has the following designation of instruments:

Similarly, Set 2 has this configuration:

The orchestration of the bass emphasises the backbone of the narrative, while the colouration of the variations is much more concerned with its internal thematic and harmonic flux, as a conflation of Figure 4. and 5. will show. Acceleration and growing density are seen in the increasing registral and timbral range from section 1 through 3; deceleration and dilution are traced by their decreasing in section 4 through 5, with the incidental throw-backs of four shown in its continued instrumental voluminousness. A closer reading of the score will confirm what these tables further imply, that the two sets of variations switch registral territory though the pivot of section 3.

Economy of Wax - Analysis

These notes refer to a recent work of mine for soprano, flute/piccolo, viola and harp, Economy of Wax.

* * * * *

Last year, in celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his Origin of Species, soprano Jane Sheldon and biologist Peter Godfrey-Smith commissioned a number of Australian composers to set extracts from this landmark work for soprano and chamber ensemble. These pieces, known collectively as The Origin Cycle, were premiered on Apr 28th in the Harvard Museum of Natural History by Firebird Ensemble, and will receive further performances in Halifax, Canada and Sydney (Nov 19th, Australian Museum). My contribution (Economy of Wax) centres round Darwin’s meticulous descriptions of how bees construct honeycomb. The music reflects this structure’s intricate mathematics, the intense activity of the bees themselves and Darwin’s keen, and on occasion, ecstatic observations.

* * * * *

“ We hear from mathematicians that bees have... solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of... wax in their construction.

[A] score of individuals work even at the commencement of the first cell. I was able ... to show this fact, by covering the edges of ... the extreme margin of the circumferential rim of a growing comb, with an extremely thin layer of melted vermilion wax;

[T]he colour was most delicately diffused by the bees as delicately as a painter could have done with his brush by atoms of the coloured wax ... worked into the growing edges of the cells all round. The work of construction ... a ... balance struck between many bees,... all trying to sweep equal spheres, and then building up, or leaving ungnawed, the planes of intersection between these spheres.

The bees, of course, no more knowing that they swept their spheres at one particular distance from each other, than they know what are the several angles of the hexagonal prisms and of the basal rhombic plates. The motive power of the process of natural selection having been economy of wax... "

From The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

The musical materials and structure of Economy of Wax are substantially derived from the set text’s description of, and allusion to honeycomb construction (see above). To begin with, the honeycomb itself:

The geometry of the standard two-layer lattice shown here has some distinct properties. They include:

- A lining-up of points vertically between cells, due to the nature of interlocking hexagonal prisms arranged in two displaced layers (1).

- A base for each cell with three interlocking “rhombic plates”, each of which in turn has four sides (2). This comes out of (1), using the point of intersection of the three prisms in the opposing layer.

There is also a narrative inherent to the text, aspects of which are worth pointing out.

- A honeycomb being built up from scratch (3).

- The actions of bees within the process of construction, most notably their incredible number and freneticism, and their spherical movements in distributing wax (4).

The piece as a whole has a particular discrete, harmonic event of two seconds duration every twelve seconds. The outlaying of this gesture is designed to reflect aurally the visual qualities of the honeycomb, especially its internal repetitions and geometrical consistency. In effect, these events are a series of harmonies whose character is based on (1) and (3); that is, chords that expand and contract simultaneously up and down through register vis à vis the honeycomb shape, and also slowly build up through time in the same manner, in keeping with the text’s temporality. This bumpy harmonic ‘crescendo’ happens four times, in direct relationship to the four divisions of the text, and also once in an overlaid, overarching fashion through the whole work. The four sub-‘crescendi’ are themselves arranged as a harmonic ‘crescendo’. Here is a comprehensive visual representation of all that:

The sub-‘crescendi’ also act as skeletons for the four continuous, middleground sections which contiguously make up the piece. These sections correspond directly to the divisions in the text, are pervasively (4), and are predicated on a sort of gross word-painting, where textual meaning is articulated in a general manner through textural character.

A – General excitement over the mathematics of the honeycomb.
~ Hocketed ‘moto perpetuo’ reflects the frenetic and constant nature of this attachment.
~ ‘Event montage’ canon represents simultaneous zoomings-in on “construction” of particular cells.
~ Liberamente textures indicate formidable (if not excessive) “consumption”.

B – A celebration of experimental procedure
~ Waxing and waning tremolo and trills mimic “a score of individuals work”
~ Mix between measured and liberamente cycles represents “covering the edges”
~ ‘Dance’ with extreme registers, frenzied punctuations and circular melodic lines reflects “covering…the extreme margin…with…vermillion wax”

C – An up-close, voyeuristic look at construction itself.
~ Sporadic, registrally expanding chordal enunciation, very similar to overall work’s structure and consequently to (1) and (3). Two ‘crescendi’, one reflecting the delicate diffusion of wax, the other the “building up”of cells. Registrally contained lines “sweep equal spheres” and periodically bump into each other on “planes of intersection”.
~ Short episodes of liberamente, allusive to B, imply refocusing.

D – General excitement over the mathematics of the honeycomb.
~ Hocketed ‘moto perpetuo’, allusive to A, reflects the frenetic and constant nature of this attachment.
~ Mix between measured and liberamente cycles, allusive to B and C, represents experimental procedure
~ Final ecstatic heraldry for the textual and scientific conclusion, “The motive power of the process of natural selection having been economy of wax…”

Other aspects worth noting:

~ All pitch material comes from the serial manipulation of a melodic line whose shape mirrors the harmonic ‘cresecendo’ discussed above; that is, embodies (1) and (3).

- The constant metric interchange between x/4 and x/6 is a direct result of (2), a geometry with significant interplay between 2, 3 and their immediate multiples.

Australian Music As a Catalyst for Change

This article was published in the Australian Music Centre's online journal, Resonate, on March 1st, 2008.

Growing up in the late 70s and 80s in Sydney, I had no real concept of "Australian" music. Sure, there were the iconic folksongs we had to learn at primary school, collections of a more obscure kind that lay unobtrusively on the family piano, the music of local pop and country stars which through the collusion of supermarkets and the playground eventually made some vague impression on a young mind. But none of this seemed to be given any real social weight, particularly when compared with the pressure to adopt, say, this or that local sports team. Even home-grown musicians, some of them household names, were made to look like sad replicas of imported fare through their appropriated genres and genealogies.

Music of any kind, in fact, was allowed to play very little part in how we constructed ourselves as a community. True, there was in the public arena ready acknowledgment of the societal trend this reflected, the phenomenon of cultural cringe (a term which has now fallen ominously out of use). No comprehensive plan to address the situation, however, was ever forthcoming; it was as if the body politic believed itself unworthy of treatment, despite the serious and diagnosable nature of its condition. As youngsters, I think we consciously or unconsciously picked up on this, either bearing this communal affliction with mild disinterest or ignoring it entirely. Interested in art, literature, theatre or music? Feel free to explore the global marketplace for whatever tickles your fancy. If not, hey, no worries. Australian music was thus an ornament for an ornament, a curiosity buried more often than not under the cultural treasures of an increasingly diverse and permeable society.

In the early 90s, however, the lay of the land changed profoundly, at least for me if not for the rest of the country. Not that there were any glorious moments of cinematic clarity; indeed, I hardly realised what was going on at the time, epiphany being the familiar herald for such things in earlier years. For instance, I have a vivid memory of when I was about 9 or 10, coming across a recording of a particularly cheap and overplayed piano concerto and thinking it the most exciting, incendiary cultural experience of my short life. The burgeoning snobbery of my pre-teen years latched thereafter onto the Western classical canon as a vehicle for self-articulation and self-affirmation as well as artistic fulfilment. This led to all sorts of minor revelations: Mahler, Ives and later, Lutoslawski, to name a few. But as wondrous and fruitful as these discoveries turned out to be, they were merely an expression of that communal malaise known as cultural cringe. I was merely making one of the two acceptable choices, active interest in "real", imported artistry, as opposed to the only viable alternative, complete indifference.

What challenged this black-and-white mindset, of all things, was the Australian portion of my high school music syllabus. Now of course, Australian stuff, or at least stuff produced by Australians, was a mandatory part of discourse for most subjects, and a very good thing that was too. Truth be told though, it tended to be fairly lightweight, or perhaps more accurately, we were taught to think of it as lightweight. Either way, Australian content was marginalised as a necessary evil, a frivolous diversion which could be omitted when the eyes of political correctness were turned elsewhere. And naturally at some level, we all bought into this.

So how then did music alone transcend this laissez-faire attitude, entrenched as it was throughout secondary school curricula? Well, for the most part, it did not. As was the case with many homegrown novels, histories and plays we were required to ingest, a good deal of Australian music didn't really speak to me. Perhaps I was just incapable of understanding what was being articulated, or maybe nothing substantial was being said in the first place. But in any case, there was in our whirlwind tour of Australiana a handful of pieces, predominately from the 60s, which did leave their mark. At first, I don't know that I really liked what I heard; there was something discomforting, even grating about their bare, brittle aesthetic. To be fair though, I wasn't supposed to enjoy the experience, just endure it. And so endure it I did; no point in getting agitated over something so transitory anyway. But this music did not fade into the ether as the accepted narrative assured me it would. Instead, it hung around the ruminating parts of my brain, making snide comments about all the composers I had hitherto embraced as champions of my musical identity. And what's more, it appeared to be saying something important, something that despite my fear and resentment, I needed to hear.

The question then was: what was this fractious music trying to communicate? On the surface, Australian music of the 60s and early 70s would seem to conform quite well to the tenets of the cultural cringe credo. For one, the liberal appropriation of material from other cultures and traditions was clearly a mainstay, even if I didn't then have the knowledge to pinpoint exactly where it was all coming from. Peter Sculthorpe's Sun Musics I-IV ('65, '69, '67, '67), for example, makes use of Webern-like pointillism, Balinese melodies and textures, and the non-pitched arsenal of Europe's avant-garde. Or take Very High Kings ('68) by Richard Meale, which owes much to a kind of softened modernism indigenous to the UK and typified by Maxwell Davies' work of that period. How therefore was this music any different from the usual Australian offerings? How did these composers escape the long-standing heritage of verbatim appropriation, if at all? Their approach was not to avoid the bricks and mortar of cultural cringe but rather to come at it from a fresh, alternative perspective. Compositional focus thus shifted away from the found objects themselves, with all the undigested allusions they brought with them, onto their reshaping, reforming and reinterpreting. However much the original context of borrowed material may have contributing to the appeal of these works, they nevertheless expressed something new, relevant, idiosyncratic, and yes, maybe even tacitly critical of contemporaneous Australia.

The Sun Musics epitomise this particular ideal in a number of striking ways, largely centred around Sculthorpe's use of moderate to extreme stylistic and/or kinetic contrasts within a single context. The 60s were characterised by a marked division between a newly energised avant-garde and those who overtly continued the Western tradition either as modernists or conservative reactionaries. With few exceptions, composers did not have feet in multiple camps. In these pieces, however, Sculthorpe shows his simultaneous affinity with the new non-pitched sound world of Continental experimentalists, the rhetoric of the Second Viennese School and certain Anglophonic nationalist movements, and various traditional Asian musics. Furthermore, and even more significantly, he uses these disparate influences both to colour local events and to delineate middle- and back-ground structure in bold, audibly meaningful ways. This is most apparent in Sun Music III, where sections of dissonant and non-pitched textures alternate with a sometimes quirky, sometimes melancholic modality inspired by Balinese gamelan music and periodically punctuated by bird sounds and trombone question marks. To a lesser degree, there is also a contrast in rhythmic character: mostly moderately slow and regular for the latter material, and either static or fast and regular for the former. This particular quality is used more extensively in II, where the pitch language, being largely unspecified or suspended throughout, makes no obvious formal contribution. Clear, ostentatiously metric percussion music with more or less traditional syntax takes turns with thick, static string textures whose only method of release is pseudo-Romantic climaxes. I and IV, in contrast, play down broad differences in tempo and rhythmic character, relying more on the novelty and starkness of their structural demarkations. Along with familiar swells and fades, discrete vignette-like units, loosely based on Webern's formal pointillism and clearly related to Stockhausen's moment form, are employed to create a kind of middleground grammar around which more plastic local events are molded. The use of silence to this end in IV is particularly striking.

Sculthorpe's methodology in these pieces was unique, intertwining cultural plurality with consistently bold gesture and form. Rather than falling into the trap of pastiche or hegemony-worship, he kept his eclecticism free from the clutches of cultural cringe, forging instead a music that reflected his own reality. This was dominated in large part by his notion of what it was to be Australian, a preoccupation with which he was more overtly associated than any of his peers. Nevertheless, several Australian composers active in the late 60s, early 70s-Meale, Butterley, Lumsdaine- were essentially treading the same path, albeit with their own personal colourations and self-realisations.

As a novice composer in my teens, I was puzzled as to the source of this fraternal independence. Was it the 60s? Australia in the 60s? The individuals themselves? Who knew. What I was certain of, however, was that despite, or perhaps because of the nonchalance with which their music was couched, their example was quietly terrifying . Where did it come from, this confidence to shirk off colonial chains, to shed the comfortable shackles of suburbia? I could ignore these confronting questions initially by assuring myself that the value system on which my musical judgments were based was itself predicated on real, concrete markers of quality. But of course it became patently clear by the time I entered university that these aesthetic cornerstones were stale, decaying, and more pertinently, mine only through inheritance. Furthermore, I realised nearly all the composers I admired from ages long past, and indeed the ones closest to my heart, had played out similar acts of defiance, just within contexts for which I had nothing more than a passing affinity . The music of these Australians, on the other hand, was too close to home, too relevant, reality's first glimmer in the dark, cosy fantasy world of childhood. Today I feel liberated by their legacy; the casual way in which preexisting hierarchies and boundaries are sidestepped or discarded; the easy tendency towards clarity without reduction; the gentle balance of light and shade, seriousness and levity, tradition and innovation. But then it was for me a first and keenly unsortafter shove onto the road towards maturity, not just as a composer but as a human being as well.

The significance of this music is not merely limited, however, to an objectivist construct of newness or Romantic ideal of self-growth. Just as this music challenged me to question the make-up of my adolescent identity, so to did it rattle the cloistered middle class of 60s, 70s Australia, obliging it to acknowledge Asia and the world at large in addition to its Eurocentric heritage. The Sun Musics alone must have introduced several regional cultures that if not entirely unknown were at the very least not well understood. It could even be argued that appropriating from these new sources, however much that might have smacked of old colonial practices, was actually a great show of respect. Not that it would be construed as such in the present political climate, of course, but at the time, such gestures were a remarkable display of openness and liberalism. Either way, the nature of these new cultural experiences, the manner in which they were dissected and reforged, and the very fact they were introduced to the Australian population in the first place stimulated the kind of pluralist outlook we take for granted today.

But this is not to imply that concerns regarding the place of creative endeavour in Australian society are now somehow redundant. It's true that in more recent years, the Herculean efforts of certain institutions- MLC Burwood and the AMC spring most readily to mind- have addressed the issue of relevance in quite a dramatic and unprecedented way, at least as far as non-commercial musical genres are concerned. But the price of this success is a continued and perhaps even blinder devotion to certain aspects of cultural cringe. Greatly reduced is the notion we need look beyond ourselves for artistic sustenance, that what is produced here and by us has little or no validity. What remains, however, is the insidious root of that thinking, that cultural pursuits are inherently wasteful, trivial, ornamental. The fact that more local material is being produced and disseminated than ever before effectively masks this unaltered and unquestioned raison d'étre. What's more, advances in technology have exacerbated things through the so called "democratisation" of culture. While the opportunity for anyone to express themselves openly and at great length to a virtual audience of millions may be an admirable democratic end, an individual's ability to pop out a perfectly convincing, if utterly impersonal piece of artistic product by pressing a couple of buttons on a prefabricated module is fraught with aesthetic and even ethical difficulties. With the training, the hard work, indeed the mystery now gone from the creative process, what real value can be placed on the final product? And if the result is valueless, why treat art as anything beyond an amusing and largely onanistic pastime?

Of course, I realise this kind of rhetoric leaves me open to charges of "elitism". This quaint little construct has in more recent times come to replace cultural cringe as the in-vogue social preoccupation of popular discourse. It is indeed strange that a conservative ideology perpetrated by the economic and political elite would be so averse to seeing their principles realised aesthetically, though I guess no more so than a progressive one worrying about cultural inferiority… In any case, the two concepts are as dangerous and incapacitating as each other. Where cultural cringe caused a kind of paralysis stemming from feelings of inadequacy, accusations of elitism have given perpetrators and victims alike carte blanche to lie inertly in their own mediocrity. And with such similar effect, it's not much of a stretch to suggest they are manifestations of the same social phenomenon, that of calculated cultural indifference.

Many reasons have been given for Australia's active disinterest in the arts: population size, socioeconomic stability, the weather. In my mind, however, this state of affairs finds its origins squarely in a mid-19th century mercantile class, which having established itself as Australia's elite, became the foundation of our modern nation. These people, who unsure of the validity of their newly acquired wealth and status, gripped to the tactile virtues of manufacturing and merchandising, are the selfsame people who denounced the poet Matthew Arnold, with his assertion that art should be a criticism of life, as a dilettante and a flaneur; are the selfsame people who on arrival in Australia petrified- as immigrant groups are want to do- remaining in a state of self-enforced communal adolescence long after their British counterparts had done away with analogous insecurities; are the selfsame people who today would rather use that monument to Australia's short-lived ambition in the early 70s, the Sydney Opera House, as a backdrop for celebrity weddings than a catalyst for lasting cultural achievement; are the selfsame people against whom prominent Australian composers of the 60s and 70s had to define themselves; and are the selfsame people with whom emerging voices of the present must also contend. Small wonder then, with the purse strings held in such hands, that Australia has such a dearth of creative vigour.

But lack of sophistication aside, is the status quo really all that bad? Isn't it worth putting up with a certain amount of aesthetic pubescence for our current material advantages? Perhaps. There are certainly occasions, however- and I would argue now is one of them- where artistic adulthood is urgently needed as a salve for political wounds. Australia's mainstream, with its over-developed sense of entitlement, has been running rampant for what seems like an age. Sure, no one is denying its right to protect what it perceives to be its own identity , even if that entails rather ironic finger-pointing at so-called elitists who dare to criticise its inherent power. And of course it is entitled to forego a rich, textured cultural heritage for the eternal gifts of empty self-congratulation and blanket hedonism. But when it seeks to quash dissent entirely, to iron out eccentricity and difference with shopping and "common sense", to make that most valuable and longstanding tenet of modern Australia, egalitarianism, into a meaningless, misapplied platitude, then it really is vital we revisit the iconoclastic music of our past and finally realise its aspirations for societal maturation, before our growth as a nation is forever stunted. Let us hope, in this new political era, we do.