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27 October 2011

David Lumsdaine's 'energetic gravity'

David Lumsdaine Image: David Lumsdaine  
© Tim Lumsdaine

'There are few composers whose music is as consistently weighty', writes Michael Hooper of David Lumsdaine. The UK-based Australian composer turns 80 on 31 October 2011.

David Lumsdaine was born in Sydney on 31 October 1931. Like many artists of his generation he was lured by London to continue his training, moving there in 1953. Since 1973, when he made his first return visit to Australia, he has lived and worked in both countries, and his music reflects this unity.

His first acknowledged piece, Annotations of Auschwitz, dates from 1964, and his last, A Little Cantata in memoriam Tracey Chadwell, was written in 1996. Later in 1996 Lumsdaine retired from composing. Like many retirees he has lapsed into work from time to time, producing a small handful of compositions, such as A Tree Dances for Orpheus in 2005 - he has also collaborated with others in the production of new soundscapes, such as Dark Chorus, performed earlier this year as part of the Australian-themed City of London Festival.

It is unusual to be able to write a celebratory article for a composer's birthday and to have a view of a life's musical work, but such is possible for David Lumsdaine, who turns 80 this year. Articles written for a composer's birthday customarily focus on matters of biography, but this article forgoes descriptions of his many achievements to focus on his music, and more specifically on some of the connections that exist between different works. The connections that I discuss are only a glance at some of my favourite works, to give a glimpse of the detailed, reference-rich music that he has composed.

David LumsdaineLumsdaine's music is above all energetic. Even those musical passages that have few notes sustain their forms through careful balance: energetic gravity. His music's difficulties - of which there are many, and of which the many are considerable - are never greater than the concepts that the music performs. Those concepts are diverse, complex, multilayered and constantly shifting, set through music that is technically virtuosic and surprisingly direct. The music's challenges extend to its scale, and there are few composers whose works are as consistently lengthy. But, then, there are few composers whose music is as consistently weighty.

His music is also varied. Following Annotations of Auschwitz, for soprano and ensemble, is an unaccompanied work Dum medium silentium, and then another work for soprano and ensemble, Easter Fresco. Kelly Ground, the first of his works for solo piano, was composed in 1966, immediately prior to Flights, for two pianos. His other solo piano works are Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh' (1974), Cambewarra (1980) and Six Postcard Pieces (1994). He has also written solo works for soprano, cello and shakuhachi, which is a short list compared to his entire output.

Most of his works bring together different performers, either in chamber groups of a handful of players, or in several large orchestral works. The first of these, Episodes (1968-9) was for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sunflower (1974), for chamber orchestra, is from one of his most prolific years, which immediately followed his visit to Australia after twenty years away. Soon after, he composed Hagoromo (1976-7). Shoalhaven (1982) is his most accessible orchestral work, and the first written for an Australian orchestra (the Shoalhaven Philharmonic Orchestra). Further works for Australian orchestras are Mandala 5 (1988) for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, The Arc of Stars (1990) for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and A Garden of Earthly Delights (1992), a cello concerto written for David Pereira and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Alongside these instrumental and vocal works are his electronic works: Nursery Rhymes (1969) for stereophonic tape; Looking Glass Music (1970) for brass quintet and tape; Aria for Edward John Eyre (1972), which includes tapes and live electronics; Big Meeting (1971-8) for tape, which was recently issued for the first time on CD; Tides (1979), a radiophonic work written for the Song Company; A Wild Ride to Heaven (1980), composed with Nicola LeFanu, and which they describe as a 'radiophonic adventure playground for the ear'. A decade later, Lumsdaine released of a series of soundscapes focussing on birdsong that were recorded in various parts of Australia, the first four of which were commissioned by the ABC and broadcast in 1990.

Such variety brings too rich a collection of music to write about comprehensively, and the remainder of this article follows only a few of the connections between A Tree Telling of Orpheus (1990) and some of Lumsdaine's other music. Although the connections explored here are only some of many that the work has to other music that he has composed, they raise some of the enduring ideas that his music has presented vividly.

A Tree Telling of Orpheus (which lasts approximately 24 minutes) was first performed as part of Lumsdaine's 60th birthday celebrations at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Its mixed ensemble (soprano, flute, violin, clarinet, violin, viola and cello) reflects the line-up of Gemini, a group directed by the clarinettist Ian Mitchell, with which Lumsdaine has had a long collaboration and that has championed his music in the UK.

A Tree Telling of Orpheus is one of Lumsdaine's most exuberant pieces. It sets a poem by Denise Levertov in which a tree tells of its encounter with Orpheus. The poem begins with simply: 'White dawn. Stillness. __'

Given that this story of Orpheus derives from Ovid's rhythmic Metamorphosis, Levertov's opening spondee is perhaps surprising, if only in retrospect - but then this is a work that recollects earlier events to make them present. In any case, the poem's opening image of 'white dawn' is self-sufficient. And then 'stillness' is added. And then nothing. The final blank erases any sense of metre and returns to the opening 'white', as if that's enough text, really, and everything else is indulgent, baroque reminiscence of retelling a moving encounter which, literally for the tree who is doing the telling, lifted it to dance: 'We learned to dance, | for he would stop, where the ground was flat, | and words he said | taught us to leap and to wind in and out | around one another in figures the lyre's measure designed.'

The measure with which Lumsdaine's music begins is of antique, chorale-like music: a C drone played by the cello and viola to which is added an A, and then a viola harmonic E. As in the poem, the metre (3/1) and rhythm of the music is important; nevertheless, the opening bar is complete in its stillness, and nearly completely still. The harmony's low C secures its base and the added notes are (if reduced to intervals within an octave) a warm major sixth, a bright major third and a hazy fifth. Having the cello and viola in octaves ensures that this bar doesn't sound discursive, since it suggests a harmonic spectrum rather than directed harmonic tension.

Elsewhere in Lumsdaine's work, slow, evenly spaced events at the opening of a piece generate momentum. At the start of his orchestral work Hagoromo, commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a Prom, and premiered by Boulez in Paris in 1977 (later recorded by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra), the opening progresses from silence, to a unison G, to a three-note chord, to a more complex chord. Hagoromo's opening generates the beginning of harmonic material and melodic line. Throughout the piece, sections of the orchestra are used as groups, playing homorhythmic blocks of material that function as 'chorales,' in the sense that they combine individual lines in a harmonic matrix. And the performers are also used as a collective of soloists, who shape their material in response to each other: the ever-changing, playful recombining of the soloists' cellular music relates in its manner of operation the birdsong of which Lumsdaine is so fond.

Hagoromo has a text of sorts, and the score's preface quotes from Zeami's Noh play of the same name, which includes the lines: 'Sky-cloak of feathers fluttering, fluttering'. There's also a more concrete connection to birdsong, given that the piece's outer movements - in which individual lines are brought together into chorales - were written when he was based at Pittwater, an area on Sydney's Northern outskirts that is rich in birdlife. The tension between an individual voice and its combination with others, gives the piece its energy and also its elegance, since it's the tension itself, as much as its need for resolution, that is so beguiling.

More immediately related to A Tree Telling of Orpheus, in the sense that it's also a work for soprano and ensemble, is Aria for Edward John Eyre, which sets Eyre's diary written on his journey of exploration. This work was composed in 1972 for Jane Manning and the London Sinfonietta. It too opens with a drone that combines double bass (playing a harmonic) and soprano in a unison D. The soprano then moves to F# and then A, to produce a similarly bright haziness to A Tree Telling of Orpheus. The works diverge in the subsequent soprano material, which in Aria for Edward John Eyre descends to Bb (before pursuing a serial melodic line), the darkness of which introduces a more introspective, portentous and less radiant feel. This thread (as it becomes as the piece progresses) partially separates the soprano from the ensemble, much as Laura Trevelyan is separated from Voss in Patrick White's novel that was the impetus for the piece.

More similar in character to A Tree Telling of Orpheus is one of Lumsdaine's last works, Kali Dances, composed in 1994. Kali Dances was commissioned by the chamber ensemble Sydney Alpha, but ought to be considered as one of Australia's great piano concertos. Its piano part enters at bar 15, beginning a section marked 'Chorus 1', which is more solid than the start of A Tree Telling of Orpheus, with block chords in the piano and a homorhythmic chorale in the flute, oboe and clarinet. Nevertheless, it is the juxtaposition of this expansive material with Kali Dances' alternating sections - called 'Hockets' - that draws the pieces together.

Like A Tree Telling of Orpheus, Kali Dances also begins on a C, but played by brass and low wind instruments a semiquaver later, the other instruments begin streams of constant semiquavers with the two parts of the ensemble entering a rhythmically unstable hocket, dancing with additive rhythms. Subsequent 'Hocket' sections further divide the ensemble to create more complexly interlocking counterpoint.
(In Hagoromo's first movement is a series of dances, with rhythmic material that A Tree Telling of Orpheus recalls. In the Noh play, the dances are a moment of nirvana that comes when the fishermen give the angel back her robe: 'I have heard tell of the dances that are danced in heaven. Dance for me now, and I will give back your robe'.)

A Tree Telling of Orpheus is driven through its rhythmic dance. After its calm opening, Lumsdaine picks up the additive rhythms of Levertov's text. If the poem's opening is hexametric, the next sentence is energised by the unevenness of its syllable count: 'When the rippling began | I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumours | of salt, of treeless horizons'. Lumsdaine hockets the text's rhythms with his own setting's rhythms (see the first page of the score). The violin interjects pizzicato notes here and there, expanding the soprano's line; both performers are challenged to maintain the continuity of their parts, dancing along independently, each with steps that effortlessly fit the other.

In Kali Dances, clearly defined sections juxtapose each other, generating structures that are discontinuous. The relationships between piano and ensemble, and between members of the ensemble, are constantly being negotiated. The sections in which these relationships are most precarious are the 'Antiphons' titled 'Aubade', and which come, predictably enough, after a 'Nocturne'. These sections do not mimic the sound of birdsong, but they are drawn from Lumsdaine's extensive experience of recording birdsong (of which several are available on Tall Poppies - see: Australian soundscapes vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3) and they do relate to the way in which birds call to establish their territories.

Lumsdaine's love of birds predates his earliest surviving work, Kelly Ground (1966), which also contains a section called 'A Clamorous Aubade'. This, the fourth strophe of the piece, combines sustained chords with quick, unpredictable staccato notes. As the strophe progresses the chords are overwhelmed by the activity of an increasing number of grace-notes, some of which are repeated to form isolated cells of material. These cells of quickly moving, birdsong-like music contrast the powerful chords of the opening - when Ned Kelly awakes in his cell on the morning of his execution - and also relate to the repeated chords of the final section that is entitled 'The Hanging'.

In the same way that Lumsdaine positions Kelly in his holding cell, which in turn is brought into contact with the prison's surroundings through birdsong, so too Lumsdaine, recording in the field, captures the sounds of birdsong, observing their calls and mapping the sounds of their territories. The figurative distances between Lumsdaine and the birds, the recordist and the field, and art and nature are always at play in his music.

Kali Dances' 'Aubade' omits the piano and begins with two groups of instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet and vibraphone, in contrast to violin, viola, cello, double bass and tuba. In the work's program note, Lumsdaine writes that these are the 'songs of Kali's birds'. The winds and vibraphone play music that is swift, melodically disjunct, detailed and varied in dynamics and articulation. The strings and tuba play slowly, in minims and crotchets. Where the former instruments relate to each other through imitation and variation, the latter instruments move together, homorhythmically. There are, therefore, two choruses: one of the instruments 'singing' together, the other of a dawn chorus of birdsong suggested through the relationships between instruments.

A Tree Telling of Orpheus is more integrated, and less fragmented than Kali Dances, a difference that reflects their respective subject matters. Where Kali Dances contains the inbuilt tension between creation and destruction, A Tree Telling of Orpheus emphasises the memory of an ecstatic state achieved through music. Mythical, classical narratives are one of Lumsdaine's tropes, and they are brought into the present through contemporary remembering, retelling and adapting. Orpheus, through Levertov, is revitalised in Lumsdaine's musical setting, performed by the soprano as a virtuosic story-teller whose vocal acrobatics repeat again and again the dance of the music.

Similar vocal virtuosity is required of Aria for Edward John Eyre's soprano. Aria for Edward John Eyre also explores mythical ideas, which are presented through various tensions between presence and absence (again Lumsdaine is working through distance). Lumsdaine outlines some of these myths in his text 'This is my myth of the making of Aria'. In it are myths of nation-building, myths recalled from his childhood lessons on great journeys of discovery, myths of colonialism and colonisation, and also the classical myth of Homer's Ulysses.

Aria for Edward John Eyre is a complicated composition that offers much to its audience (which is why it is so rewarding). The complications of this piece have much to do with its structure, and of exploration more generally, which challenges a listener to find their own way through the piece. Labyrinths are not necessarily difficult to navigate, and the unicursal curve that Eyre followed was from Adelaide to Albany (a 'd' to 'l' traverse of only an octave of letters) is more or less direct, Eyre having abandoned the more difficult task of reaching the centre of Australia (which was a more maze-like journey).

The trajectory that A Tree Telling of Orpheus follows reaches its climax with the tree's recollection of 'the way we danced', where the soprano and instrument skip through coiled convolutions, the voice reaching a high D. The dénouement that follows is brief. It begins like the opening, in threes - cello, viola, violin - but without the knotted complications of the interlocking instruments and voice. The mystery is not completely dispelled, however, and the ties that join the notes in the score point to the smooth continuity of the sound, setting 'The music!'

There is something paradoxical about the ending. It's faintly there in the poem, the music of which is latent, and more strongly so in Lumsdaine's setting, which is richly musical but dances only figuratively. And it's most clear to me in the relationship between a composer, whose canon of works is finite, and an audience, which can continue to dance to the music again and again.

AMC resources

David Lumsdaine - AMC profile
Works by David Lumsdaine (AMC online catalogue)
'Lumsdaine, Durham and the 1970s' - article on Resonate by Michael Hooper (28 February 2008)
'I would love to know how it all goes together' - article on Resonate by Michael Hooper (28 February 2008)

Lumsdaine MP3s and CDs (AMC Shop)

Complete music for solo piano by David Lumsdaine (Tall Poppies CD/MP3)
An Aria for Edward John Eyre (Vox Australis CD)
A Garden of Earthly Delights
(Tall Poppies CD/MP3)
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh' (Tall Poppies CD/MP3 - on Voices, Roger Smalley, piano)
Australian Soundscapes (Tall Poppies CD/MP3): volume 1 (Cambewarra Mountain), volume 2 (Mutawinji) & volume 3 (Lake Emu)
Six postcard pieces
(Tall Poppies CD/MP3 - on Mere bagatelles, Ian Munro, piano)
Blue upon Blue
(Tall Poppies CD/MP3 - on Cello Dreaming, David Pereira, cello)
Bagatelles (Tall Poppies CD/MP3 - on Red Earth)

Further links

'Musical Landscapes of David Lumsdaine' - ABC Classic FM's New Music Up Late, 5 November 2011 at 10:30pm
'David Lumsdaine's "White Dawn" and "Big Meeting' - article on The Monthly magazine by Andrew Ford (July 2011)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Dr Michael Hooper's book on the music of David Lumsdaine will be published by Ashgate in early 2012. He is currently based in London, where he is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music.


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