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28 April 2015

Insight: Fly Away Peter

Insight: Fly Away Peter

Elliott Gyger writes about his first opera Fly Away Peter, based on David Malouf's novel, with a libretto by Pierce Wilcox. Fly Away Peter will receive its world premiere at Sydney's Carriageworks on 2 May - further performances on: 4 May, 6 May, 8 May and 9 May. There is also a free event on 9 May with Gyger, Wilcox, David Malouf and director Imara Savage discussing the work.
> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

The initial seed for my opera Fly Away Peter was sown in early 2013, when my colleague Joel Brennan (Lecturer in Trumpet at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) suggested I write a companion piece to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, using the same instrumentation but Australian subject matter. I was immediately intrigued. I love Stravinsky's work, both theatrically and musically, and not least for the immensely resourceful treatment of its apparently ill-assorted septet - clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass. At the same time, the severe clarity of Stravinsky's textures is a long way from my own instrumental writing, with its preference for heterophony and timbral hybridisation. Using such an iconic and distinctive combination in a completely different way was an attractive challenge, and the ensemble also seemed well-suited to support singing voices in place of Stravinsky's spoken dialogue and narration.

Stravinsky's work dates from 1918, and is deeply affected by the cataclysm of the preceding four years. Its compact resources were devised in response to post-war austerity, while its apparently fanciful folk-tale plot deals with a returning soldier who is spectacularly unsuccessful at reintegrating into civilian life. For my new work, I decided to look for something thematically related but aesthetically complementary: wartime subject matter treated in a poetic rather than ironic way. I was drawn to David Malouf's Fly Away Peter not only by the richness and beauty of its prose, but also by its elements of the surreal - an essential prerequisite, in my view, to justify the wonderful absurdities of the operatic medium.

At this point I approached Sydney Chamber Opera, who were keen to collaborate on a new work. I wasn't yet sure what exact form the piece would take, or how to go about adapting it. The lack of dialogue in the novel led me initially to think of it as a monodrama for baritone representing the central character - Jim Saddler, a Queensland birdwatcher caught up in the mayhem of the Western Front. However, the musical possibilities of multiple voices soon steered me towards a cast of three, corresponding to the three point-of-view characters in the book. The libretto, as drafted by Sydney Chamber Opera's Pierce Wilcox, is laid out not as a play script, but with a separate column for each of the three voices, allowing for simultaneous or overlapping utterances as well as direct exchange.

I planned the composition of the work for the second half of 2014, as the major project for my six months of study leave from the University of Melbourne. The premiere was originally scheduled for late in 2015, with a score deadline of around 1 March, allowing several months for feedback and potential revision after submission.

Then, in mid-2014, SCO contacted me to request shifting the premiere substantially earlier in the year (so that it now falls exactly a week after the centenary of the Gallipoli landings). I was initially taken aback; my margin for error had effectively disappeared overnight. However, the result was a far more collaborative process than might otherwise have been the case. Cast and creative team were basically in place from the start. The shape and detail of the text was hammered out via email, between Pierce Wilcox as librettist, director Imara Savage, and myself; Imara's input was particularly valuable in identifying and eliminating potential staging problems as or before they arose. Final tweaks were often still taking place as I composed each scene, to send off to conductor Jack Symonds and the singers who were beginning the process of learning it. I even had the chance to hear baritone Mitchell Riley and tenor Brenton Spiteri sing through Scene 1 while I was still only halfway through Scene 2 - meaning that I had their voices in my ear as I completed the rest of the opera (and I was already quite familiar with the voice of the third singer, mezzo Jessica Aszodi).

The biggest practical challenge we needed to deal with was how to suggest the vast scale of one of history's most tumultuous phases with a cast of three - a clearly impossible task! The opera's fourth scene depicts Jim's experiences in the trenches as a nightmarish sequence of brief vignettes. The tenor plays eight of Jim's fellow soldiers, introduced in rapid succession in the preceding scene and dispatched equally rapidly in this one, while the mezzo becomes a disembodied choric voice commenting on the action as if from above. The libretto for this sequence went through many revisions, with its final form determined as much by considerations of musical structure as by the needs of the drama.

With almost every scene involving all three singers - albeit in changing configurations - the strategic deployment of instrumental resources became extremely important in shaping the musical flow. I added a few colours not present in Stravinsky's score: the mellow sound of the B flat cornet alternates with C trumpet, taken by the same player; the original unpitched percussion set-up is augmented by the addition of vibraphone, tam-tam and an officer's whistle; and in the later scenes the clarinettist also plays bass clarinet. The opening scene, showing Jim, Ashley and Imogen observing birds at home in southeast Queensland, begins with just violin and vibraphone, later adding clarinet and muted trumpet. The bass instruments play almost nothing until the beginning of the second scene, where the action shifts towards the war, and the whole ensemble is not heard together until the beginning of the war sequence of Scene 4.

Using a relatively small ensemble for a work lasting more than an hour also encouraged me to make the fullest possible use of each instrument's potential. In particular, I have a greatly renewed appreciation for the bassoon, an instrument I realised I had only ever written for in an orchestral context (where it often has difficulty cutting through); in a chamber setting its versatility and expressiveness become abundantly clear.

Like much of my music, the score for Fly Away Peter employs what my composition teacher Bernard Rands used to describe as 'preconditioning of material' - a background organisation of vocabulary which remains consistent across the work. This preconditioning is not a 'system' predetermining the musical surface. It acts rather as Bach might have used a pre-existing melody as the foundation for a chorale fantasia, or a jazz musician might use a chosen chord progression: that is, it lays down a framework within which to shape an expressive and apparently spontaneous musical narrative.

In keeping with the text's emphasis on sweeping visual images, the framework for Fly Away Peter is a landscape-like organisation of pitch. 21 five-note chords, covering the full range of the ensemble, are laid out in an inversionally symmetrical grid. The chords are sometimes used as harmonies, but more often linearly: melodic motion may occur within chords, or between pitches from adjacent chords in the grid. As a result, particular note successions, phrases and harmonies tend to recur, sometimes taking on motivic significance through association with particular words, ideas or characters. The inversional symmetry reflects the dichotomy between earth (the domain of man) and air (the domain of the birds) ubiquitous in the libretto.

While the framework provides room for contrast, the movement from peace to war demanded a more drastic reshaping: at the start of Scene 4 the musical landscape is virtually turned inside-out, as the same 21 chords are recast in a completely different arrangement and stacked on top of one another to build denser harmonies. The later scenes move between these two versions of the basic material at need, as the characters attempt to reclaim aspects of normal life amid the carnage. The balance is especially delicate in the opera's closing moments - drawn directly from the book - where the photographer Imogen Harcourt is torn between grief for the dead on the one hand, and the joy of a new artistic challenge calling her back to life on the other.

Within this background structure there is room for external materials, although most are heavily disguised: God Save the King and The Old Brigade in Scene 2, and Mendelssohn's O for the Wings of a Dove in the final scene. David Malouf's novel is steeped in appropriate musical references, and while I have not made any attempt to write music in keeping with that which would have been familiar to early 20th-century Australians, these points of contact seemed important to include.

While there are no quotations from The Soldier's Tale, there are two specific echoes of it in the instrumental writing. Stravinsky's concluding drum solo, as his soldier is led off to hell, is echoed in the introduction to Scene 4, as Jim enters the living hell of the trenches; and the violin, Stravinsky's symbol for the soldier's soul, has an intermittently soloistic role depicting the birds which are so central to Jim's sense of purpose and identity.

Given David Malouf's (and Pierce Wilcox's) exactitude with the names and attributes of specific bird species in the text, I felt obliged to take equal care with their music: the violin line draws heavily on actual birdsong, most of which I sourced via the amazing website www.xeno-canto.org - a repository of over 200,000 field recordings of birds worldwide, classified by species and location. My transcriptions are not at all systematic, but take the gestural and rhythmic qualities of particular calls as a starting point for instrumental gestures. One unexpected effect on the music of the whole opera is the introduction of glissandi and microtonal ornaments - elements not hitherto a significant part of my vocabulary, but which I have found a way to incorporate here in a more natural manner than previously seemed possible for me.

It's taken me until age 46 to write my first opera, but in many respects it feels like a homecoming: as the child of opera-mad parents, and a regular opera-goer throughout my childhood and teenage years, it was always going to catch up with me eventually … And the audience? Quite frankly, I don't know whether the public is interested in what I've got to say, although I am grateful that Sydney Chamber Opera is giving it the chance to find out. My job is to say it as powerfully and as distinctively as I can.

Further links

Elliott Gyger - AMC profile
World premiere of Fly Away Peter at Carriageworks on 2 May - event details in the AMC Calendar. Further performances: 4 May, 6 May, 8 May and 9 May.
Sydney Chamber Opera: Fly Away Peter - more details about the production. Read also Annarosa Berman's articles on the SCO website: 'The opera stripped bare' (Imara Savage on directing Fly Away Peter), 'Music is a different world' (Adapting Fly Away Peter to opera), and 'Fly Away Peter takes off'.

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