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28 February 2008

I Would Love To Know How It All Goes Together

David Lumsdaine Image: David Lumsdaine  
© Nicola LeFanu

It is an enduring trope to write about Australian composers as outsiders to other musical traditions. In discussing the composer David Lumsdaine, it is all too easy to emphasise his expatriation. Born in Sydney in 1931, he relocated to London in 1953 and did not return to Australia until 1973, by which time he had spent half his life outside Australia. Despite his continuing residence in the United Kingdom, Lumsdaine has remained steadfast in stating his national identity as Australian, and he visits often.

In the little published writing about his music, the differences between these countries, and, by projection, differences in the musics of composers resident in these countries, has been a theme too tempting for authors to ignore. When this is combined with his, as Nicola LeFanu puts it, ‘reclusive’ character, the result is a sentiment encapsulated concisely in the title of the only monograph on the composer, Michael Hall’s Between Two Worlds: The Music Of David Lumsdaine.

In Hall’s book, the distinction between music and biography is blurred, to generate a conception of Lumsdaine’s music (and Lumsdaine) as ‘outside’ British practices. In LeFanu’s article ‘Modalities of Metaphor’ (LeFanu 2004), she distinguishes between the person and the music, to call for a re-evaluation of the music away from some of the politics and ‘prejudices’ by which it has frequently been bound. I read her article’s optimistic commendation of Salvation Creek with Eagle (composed in 1974, immediately after Lumsdaine’s return from Australia to Durham) as an acknowledgment of some of the issues surrounding modernism, associations of music and landscape, and the nature of expatriation, as facets that need to be re-imagined from fresh perspectives.

This article has two purposes. Firstly, it seeks to shift the axis of argument of Lumsdaine-as-outsider away from a discussion of difference and towards something more inclusive. I want to emphasise the interconnected hybridity, born from familiarity, of some aspects of his early work. Secondly, this article reveals a vital aspect of my enthusiasm for his music: part of its appeal is because it sounds intensely composed, possessing a palpable sense of the presence of technique, which results from a close familiarity with those musics that interest and surround him.

The particular works of focus in this article are Kelly Ground and Flights. Composed in 1966 and 1967 respectively, they are some of Lumsdaine’s earliest music and established his reputation as a composer.

[David Lumsdaine and Pianist Mark Knoop]

By the time of Lumsdaine’s return to Australia, his centrality to British musical life was certain. Describing his position, in 1973 Richard Cooke wrote that:

In 1971, Lumsdaine had more first broadcast performances than any other UK composer. And over the past year or so it is probable that only [Harrison] Birtwistle and [Peter] Maxwell Davies had received more BBC Invitation Concerts. The indications are that it is now high time for a serious examination of both Lumsdaine and his music. (Cooke 1973 p.36)

Kelly Ground and Flights are valuable works for demonstrating those aspects of the music of this era with which he was engaged and to which he responded.

We know from Michael Hall (2003 p. 40) that Kelly Ground traces the hours surrounding Ned Kelly’s death. Each section of the piece carries an inscription, these being: ‘Kelly’s return to Consciousness on the morning of his Execution’, ‘His View along the Ground to the foothills of the Wombat Ranges’, ‘A Nocturne on the Plain’, ‘A Clamorous Aubade’, ‘An Aria for Kelly, focussing simultaneously on Inside and Outside the Cell’, and ‘The Hanging’. Whilst the order of events is loosely chronological, the events described are not intrinsic to the Kelly myth rendering this is an imagined morning rather than one based on documentary evidence.

The method that brought Kelly’s death is one which was the topic of much debate in England in the early 1960s:

The background of the work was the campaign to abolish capital punishment following the highly controversial hanging of James Hanratty in April 1962 for the A6 murder. After a heated debate in the House of Commons, the bill abolishing it was passed on a free vote in December 1964; after an equally heated debate in the House of Lords a year later, it became law. As part of the campaign, Peter Brook directed a mainly improvised play in London about the execution for spying of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1953. The event also created great controversy because it was felt they were victims of the anti-communist witch hunt which Joseph McCarthy had instigated. Since Lumsdaine had campaigned against Robert Menzies’s proposal to ban communism in 1951, which could have resulted in an Australian witch-hunt, he felt compelled to see Brook’s play. But it was a shattering experience… For the four minutes it had taken to kill the Rosenbergs the theatre was plunged into darkness and silence. It is for this reason that each of the five strophes, as well as the combined length of the second and third cycles in Kelly Ground, are timed to last four minutes. (Hall 2003 pp. 38–9)

At the time, improvisation in theatre was a radically new way of working, with Brook at the forefront of this approach. With a basic structure within which improvised material is presented, Lumsdaine uses Brook's play as a model for his piece. I will return to the question of improvisation and Kelly Ground later, but first it is necessary to establish the constitution of the materials for Lumsdaine’s composition.

Kelly Ground is Lumsdaine’s most carefully predetermined composition. The pitch material comes from a cyclic series of 20x12 matrices, which are followed precisely. To begin, the matrices are followed row-by-row. After the point in the piece that represents Kelly’s hanging, the first matrix is followed column-by-column. The rhythmic material is drawn from a series of interlocking pulses moving at rates determined by the ratio 4:5. The points at which different layers of pulse coincide are structurally significant: the more cycles that align, the deeper the implications. Points where these layers align also dictate dynamics and changes of texture.

The predetermined procedures are used throughout Kelly Ground, except for the section that Hall tells us is labelled ‘An Aria for Kelly, focussing simultaneously on Inside and Outside the Cell’. Here the pitch and rhythmic material is used freely, and the texture features repeated notes and chords: a device otherwise prohibited elsewhere in the piece. The breaking down of patterns is used by Lumsdaine to represent the dissolution of society inherent in the ritual killing of a member of society. At its heart, this composition is about an individual in society and, like much of Lumsdaine’s music, carries with it a significant political weight. Lumsdaine writes that:

Initially my interest was political, for Kelly’s exploits took place in a small and very typical Australian community and seemed to sum up the problems that occur in such places. The Kellys were poor Irish immigrants who had been allotted a plot of land by the government but could not take possession of it because, years earlier, it had been settled by squatters who had become politically very powerful. But Kelly, a young man in his early twenties, would not take oppression lying down. He was prepared to fight on behalf of the thousands of outsiders and underdogs in a similar position. (Lumsdaine, quoted in Hall 2003 p. 39)

Kelly Ground adopts a ritual structure to articulate Lumsdaine’s identification with Kelly the person. This allows Lumsdaine the space to re-imagine Kelly as a mythical character. The liminal phase necessary for this to be a functional ritual occurs when the procedures break apart in the section labelled ‘An Aria for Kelly’. Either side of this section are stable, predictable, known, structures that refer to the practices of modernism as represented by Pierre Boulez/György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. More specifically, they reference conceptions of temporality present in their writings as published in Die Reihe in the decade before Kelly Ground’s composition. For example, the work’s final section, which represents Kelly’s body swinging from the gibet, makes use of Stockhausen’s conceptions of timelessness:

Forms in which the concentration on the now – on each now – makes, as it were, vertical slices which cut across horizontal time experience into the timelessness I call eternity… I speak of musical forms in which nothing less is being attempted than to explode, yes, to overcome the concept of time or, more precisely, the concept of duration. (Stockhausen 1963 pp. 198–199 quoted in Hasty 1997 p. 297).

In realising this idea, Lumsdaine literally ‘slices’ his matrix in a vertical fashion, in contrast to the earlier move through its rows.

Lumsdaine, in the Britain of the 1960s, working as an editor for Universal Edition (which also published Die Reihe), took the most prominent ideas of the day and shaped them for his own expressive ends. This is not to say that Kelly Ground is a pastiche of European music, rather, that Lumsdaine’s close familiarity with contemporary practices is manifest in this piece as an expression of personal identity within a wider compositional society.

Part of that wider community includes composers resident in Britain. From the early 1960s, Lumsdaine was actively improvising with other musicians. For as long as Lumsdaine was a composer he was an improviser. He cites as composition2 his early experience of playing the piano by ear and adapting what he heard into new ideas. As an undergraduate he frequently, though informally, played jazz with fellow students. Although he improvised little in the years following his relocation to London in 1953, from the beginning of the 1960s when he and Don Banks came into contact, improvisation was more or less a ubiquitous part of his musical life. This tended towards jazz, though was increasingly (and particularly in the mid-early-1960s) ‘free’. Although not part of the improvisation ‘industry’ of Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury, Lumsdaine was an active member of their informal groups. So prevalent was improvisation in London at this time, that he describes it as ‘part of the texture of working’. When he, Anthony Gilbert and Don Banks founded the SPNM composer weekends in 1967 [Society for the Promotion of New Music], they always included free improvisation.

By the mid-1960s, Lumsdaine was equally familiar with the music of Morton Feldman, who was a frequent visitor to London, with John Cage’s ideas and music (principally through John Tilbury), as well as with La Mont Young and Terry Riley, who were brought to the UK by Don Banks. By the late 1960s, Stockhausen’s improvisations were also well known. The 1973 première of Lumsdaine’s Aria for Edward John Eyre was preceded by a performance of Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen.

What then, of Lumsdaine’s Kelly Ground, with its rigorously applied precompositional schemes? How does it connect with improvisation? At first glance improvisation appears as in opposition to Lumsdaine’s compositional practices, with its use of the techniques of modernism as an affirmation of Lumsdaine’s place within this tradition. Such a perspective is sustainable, with the piece following the principles surrounding the musics that Lumsdaine references: it privileges integration, architectonic self-similarity, pitch material derived from matrices and a rigorous application of interlocking layers.

However, the realisation of precompositional schemes requires a plethora of decisions. For example, although textures change at alignments of underlying pulses, the specific textures are not predetermined and follow no particular scheme. With Kelly Ground relying for its meaning on these materials and the associations they carry, a vital component of the piece is decided in the process of composition. It is this stage of the process that connects with improvisation. Lumsdaine’s experience improvising with others taught him a way of working in which ‘there were no mistakes’, but, rather, an ‘immediate counteraction’ of each event. These balances occur in Kelly Ground in the making of decisions outside the predetermined structures and draw directly on improvisatory practices. In this way it connects to Brook’s play with Lumsdaine’s improvisation occurring within a predefined structure.

Flights, for two pianos, was composed in the middle of 1967 and was first performed by Roger Smalley and Stephen Savage later that year. It was given its first Australian performance on 25 October 1973 by Nigel Butterley and Ransford Elsley in the Opera House’s music room, just days after its official opening. It was attended by the composer and was the first performance of one of his ‘major works’ in the city of his birth (Lumsdaine 1973 p. 89). In this piece the two pianists perform from unbound pages; normally, odd numbered pages are played by one pianist and even numbered pages by the other. Performers move through this music in the usual way reading from left to right and top to bottom and at two points in the performance a ‘flight’ may be initiated by either performer. This material is given on a separate sheet and can be moved through in any order. Throughout the piece, performers make decisions about rhythms, articulations, dynamics, and resonance. From the score, one might expect Flights to be Kelly Ground’s opposite, balancing precompositional schemes with the notation of indeterminacy.

Like so many of Lumsdaine’s later works, Flights responds to the natural world and it was conceived after Lumsdaine witnessed the flocking of birds of different species on an estuary. Initially, Flights was to be composed and notated in the same manner as Kelly Ground, with schemes governing most of the score’s elements. Indeed, it reached a stage where it could be performed. However, when Flights was being composed, Lumsdaine became increasingly aware of the arbitrariness of the balancing choices by which the composition is determined. Why one option and not another? He abandoned his earlier approach and recomposed the piece for two pianos, a decision that retains Lumsdaine’s familiarity with the instrument, and which automatically raises the possibility of interaction and collaboration between performers. In recomposing it, he aimed to provide a score in which ‘alternate worlds’ are equally available to performers and not removed through arbitrary choice in the composition process. Balance is just as important for Flights as it is for Kelly Ground.

In seeking to convey the ‘maximum information with the minimum restriction on the “worlds” of the piece’, the composition is not, as the score might initially suggest, indeterminate. Lumsdaine maintains that the notation for both Flights and Kelly Ground is ‘well defined’ in what it seeks to communicate. Kelly Ground’s specificity is detailed enough that choices made by performers impact little on most of the determinations made by the composer. In other words, although a listener might find the most important aspect of the piece to be differences from one performance to the next, these are not inbuilt into the notation as a major component. Flights affords the performer more decisions, but these decisions are made available to the performer by the notation of the piece: that is, they are determined by the composer. Even if the performer makes choices that Lumsdaine would never have conceived, that in itself is an active component of the composition.

For me, the most significant differences between these compositions lie in the following: ‘subject matter’ such as it exists in Kelly Ground is absent from Flights, and although some have read into Flights Lumsdaine’s interest in the patterns of birds flocking or the dances in Patrick White’s Solid Mandala, these are metaphors for ways of working rather than objects to be expressed. As such, the procedures by which Flights are composed form both the underlying subject matter and surface; that is, the distinction between the two is dissolved. Kelly Ground needs a performer (the ritual’s priest, as it were). Flights is a performance. Lumsdaine’s identifying with Kelly as a person means that it is appropriate for that piece to retain the aura of the composer. He invokes the tradition of the virtuoso composer/performer for this end. Also, Lumsdaine’s presence in relation to other composers is a significant statement that the piece makes. Flights questions the concept of authorial authority both in rejecting the earlier version and in notation which gives the pianists on stage the ability to make decisions about the placement of sounds.

In expressing the interaction of birds in flight, or dances over a mandala, Lumsdaine composes Flights in such a way as to highlight improvisation in the compositional, rehearsal and performance processes. Once a decision had been made not to notate Flights like Kelly Ground, Lumsdaine composed the score’s material by improvising paths through the matrix which he played into a tape recorder. The tape was then played, against which he improvised the second piano’s part. A dialogic process continued until the score was established. This is not to assert an additional step in the process of composer to performance, but a reminder that the patterns of performance (of Lumsdaine ‘composing’ at the piano, of the ‘performers’ ‘rehearsing’, of performers on stage) are complex, interrelated, flexible and reflexive. The composer, responding to stimuli (from nature, from other composers, from earlier versions of the piece) performs materials that are subsequently notated; the pianists engage in a similar process.

The blurring of notions of composition and improvisation exhibited in Kelly Ground and Flights is reminiscent of Cardew’s work from the same decade. Certainly Lumsdaine knew Cardew well. Lumsdaine was also familiar with the music of Stockhausen, Feldman, Cage and Boulez and his music from this period connects to other music in the way an improviser interacts with other players. Neither Kelly Ground nor Flights fit entirely within established expectations of modernist piano music, but they both engage with the ideas and techniques central to that tradition. On another level, both pieces respond to the music of others more customarily positioned as central to the history of modernism in the 1960s; they exist not as ‘mistakes’, as it were, but as ‘counteractions’ or ‘balances’ to those compositions that Lumsdaine found exciting, expressing Lumsdaine’s own identity within that society.

My enthusiasm for Lumsdaine’s composition derives from the music’s engagement with its surroundings to form complex, critical amalgams with clarity and directness. These pieces connect to the music of fellow composers with audible self-consciousness; Lumsdaine’s familiarity with other composers is a significant part of the meaning of his music. In Kelly Ground the tenants of modernism are used to convey the continuing importance of Kelly. In Flights the natural world and improvising performers serve as a model for composition. Although deriving much of its meaning from the practices of European and British composers, Kelly Ground maintains a critical distance from these practices. Similarly, Flights could only have been written by someone who was intimately familiar with indeterminacy, and yet the composition remains fully determined in what it seeks to express. Both compositions make the most of the positive aspects of a paradoxical weaving of improvisation and notation, held in careful balance. Both explore different ideas about the position of an individual in relation to those who form a community. Where Kelly Ground appears as a closed score, Flights, by its very nature as open, prompts the next ‘counteraction’ as the performers respond to Lumsdaine’s music.



Further Links

David Lumsdaine (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=271)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Hooper is a performer and musicologist. As a mandolinist, he specialises in the performance of the instrument’s recent repertoire and is active in commissioning new works. As a musicologist, his PhD at The University of York considered the music of Britain in the 1960s and '70s, and specifically the Australian-born, but long-time English resident, David Lumsdaine.


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