22 April 2011
Moon, Tides & Shoreline - extract from the new Whitehead biography
In the mid-1970s, the New Zealand-born composer Gillian Whitehead worked in Europe, dividing her time between London and Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands, a full 24-hour trip away.
'It was [in Orkney] that my harmonic language first began to soften,' Whitehead later wrote. 'I began to eliminate strident or urban sounds from my vocabulary. Sometimes you write to put up a wall between yourself and other sounds, and, at other times, your ears are wide open to stretch to the horizon, which can totally change your aural perspective.'
Whitehead's time in Orkney is the topic of an atmospheric chapter in a new Whitehead biography, Moon, Tides and Shoreline, written by Noel Sanders and out just in time for Whitehead's 70th birthday on 23 April 2011. The following extract of the book is published here by the kind permission from the publisher Steele Roberts (NZ). For more information about the book, see the AMC Shop.
Chapter VI - Tristan and Iseult
Early in 1975 Gillian had a call from John Andrewes, director of the Finchley Children's Choir and an editor at Boosey & Hawkes. Two budding librettists, along with the mime, Mark Furneaux, had approached him with the idea of adapting the story of Tristan and Isolde for a music-theatre piece. Michael Hill and Malcolm Crowthers were both classics scholars with an interest in the way myth and legend migrated through specific narrative realisations of an epic romance such as the Tristan tale, while Furneaux was part of a radical stage culture that also included the mime, Lindsay Kemp. It was a proposition that Gillian, with some misgivings about the wordiness of the Hill-Crowthers libretto, when she saw it, accepted. Rewriting some of it and cutting back on a lot of it, with the librettists' help and approval, the text became the basis for a tight 63-minute 'chamber opera' as opposed to what might have demanded an impossible four-hour outcome.
Immediately to be confronted was the spectre of Wagner. When Malcolm Crowthers came to Auckland for the première of the opera in 1978 he wrote in an article for the London Daily Telegraph that his and Hill's libretto had returned to 'medieval sources other than Wagner's'. On the same occasion, Gillian, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald's Vincent Plush, expressed the view that, likewise:
My piece is not a challenge to Wagner's Tristan, which I admire and respect. It is more a re-interpretation of a great medieval legend in terms of a twentieth century chamber opera.
The most clearly un-Wagnerian aspect of the Whitehead Tristan is brevity of scenes. Wagner's version centres on only three episodes in the Tristan story, while Hill and Crowthers had their Tristan laid out in 13 scenes, some of them purely instrumental. The result was rapid pacing and a sense of forward movement through a series of suggested places and spaces in a manner similar to the pacing of action in the church parables of Britten. Of those works, Robin Holloway has written that, 'sense of place is set with a minimum of notes'. But there was a further dividend from the rapid montage of scenes in 'that they reproduced the speed of movement and apparent illogicality of the late medieval versions of the legend', as Roger Covell wrote of Tristan for a programme note on the occasion of a performance in Sydney in 1980.
The libretto for Tristan was, in the end, the work of many hands. Its basis was the Roman de Tristan et Iseult written by a 19th and early 20th-century French writer and scholar Joseph Bédier, who in turn drew on 12th-century sources which he collated and turned into a gothic French narrative. Replacing text with music and action cut back the length to a point where Tristan might fit on a double bill (as it did for its April 1978 première in Auckland, paired with Mozart's The Impresario) or on a triple bill (as in Sydney when it shared the programme with music theatre by the 13th-century Adam de la Halle and Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda). But, further from this, the strategy gave the stage-work a visual dimension that broke the action into a series of tableaux giving the mimes, puppets by Robert Jahnke and sets a role beyond decoration.
In the Auckland production, the succession of dramatic tableaux was backed by a semi-circle of eight panels painted by Gretchen Albrecht, which hung from floor to ceiling. Each had its own colour and variation of colour, linking it symbolically to parts of the opera. "I've tried to do this with colours that the opera presents to me," the artist said in a programme note. 'Landscape' was soft tones of green and blue, 'Seascape' in blue and purple represented the voyages, 'Passion' was pink and silver "and voluptuous in design". The centre panel had sombre tones of black, silver and grey, for sobriety; next was the 'Royal panel' in rich golds and reds; then 'Punishment'; and lastly the panel of peace: "I've used a soft dove grey, for this is a very peaceful period when the two escape to Brittany for a time and are able to walk in the calm of the forest." Albrecht kept the entire set very simple, "because that's what the opera requires."
For Vincent Plush, the libretto in its final form revealed the 'influence of medieval paintings, stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations, collated as a sort of court masque'. When singers and mimes returned to 'tableaux which recall various stages of the drama that has been unfurled before us', Plush wrote, '[it is] as if [they were] stepping back on to the pages of illuminated manuscripts, frozen in history for all time'. Roger Covell's notes for the Sydney première drew a similar analogy: Tristan's 'approach to costume, mime and props [is] comparable with that of the inset pictures or illumination of late medieval manuscripts'.
The synopsis of Tristan and Iseult gives some idea of the concentration of its dramatic means:
Opening Ballad: The narrators introduce the story of Tristan and Iseult, who died for love of each other.
Scene 1 - The Morholt
King Mark's court in Cornwall is threatened by the Irish Morholt. Tristan, Mark's nephew, volunteers to fight the Morholt, kills him, but is wounded with a poisoned sword.
Scene 2 - The Cursing of Tristan
Tristan drifts in a boat to Ireland, where Iseult heals him helped by Brangane, her handmaiden. Back at Cornwall, King Mark plans to make Tristan his heir. The barons at court, envious of Tristan, are persuading Mark to marry. Two swallows bring a hair of gold. Mark will marry only the owner of the hair and Tristan volunteers to search for the lady.
Scene 3 - The Dragon
Tristan kills a dragon ravaging Ireland, and claims Iseult from her father the king, for Mark, not himself.
Scene 4 - The Philtre
On the boat between Ireland and Cornwall, they are becalmed. Thirsting, Tristan and Iseult discover a love-philtre, meant for Iseult and Mark on their wedding night. Unknowingly they drink and succumb.
Scene 5 - The Court of King Mark
Mark and Iseult are king and queen. Clandestine meetings of Tristan and Iseult are reported and exaggerated to Mark by the barons, who have no love of Tristan. Mark asks Tristan to leave the court.
Scene 6 - The Secret Meeting
Tristan and Iseult have contrived to meet in an orchard at night. Mark hides to overhear their meeting. Aware of his presence, they improvise a conversation, as a result of which Tristan is accepted back at court.
Scene 7 - Discovery and Condemnation
The king is away hunting. Tristan and Iseult arrange to meet, unaware that a trap has been set. Blood from a hunting wound falls on the flour scattered to show his footprints near Iseult's bed.
Scene 8 - Escape
The lovers are under sentence of death. Tristan asks to pray in the chapel and eludes his captors by leaping to safety. Enraged King Mark orders a living death for Iseult by giving her to the lepers. Tristan saves her.
Scene 9 - The Forest of Morois
Two years later, wandering in the forest, Tristan and Iseult meet a hermit. He begs them to give themselves up and return to court, but they refuse. They go to their shelter and prepare to sleep. Mark is hunting in the forest and discovers them sleeping. Rather than kill them, he exchanges his sword and ring with theirs.
Scene 10 - The return to court
As a result of Mark's action, Tristan and Iseult return to court. Mark takes Iseult back, but banishes Tristan.
Scene 11 - Ballad - the Adventures of Tristan
Tristan wanders in Wales and France, his fearless gallantry ridding the lands of many perils. In Brittany, still distraught for love of Queen Iseult, he marries the Lady Iseult of the White Hands, because of her name.
Scene 12 - The Madness of Tristan
Tristan's mind is still in Cornwall with Queen Iseult and he feels trapped in his marriage with Iseult of the White Hands. In his madness he visits the Cornish Court disguised as a fool. He is mercilessly taunted as he tries to communicate with Iseult, who doesn't recognise him.
Scene 13 - Iseult tells the end of the story
Tristan is dying in Brittany, attended by Iseult of the White Hands. Queen Iseult is to visit him before he dies. The ship is to bear a white sail if she is coming. Iseult of the White Hands, jealous in her unconsummated marriage, falsely states that the sail is black. In despair Tristan dies. Queen Iseult arrives too late and dies of grief.
Carrying the action forward was topmost in the final version of the libretto after the composer's own work on it. The results, when its composition and scoring were integrated with the interventions of mimes and puppets, were summed up in a programme note Gillian wrote for the work, which premièred in 1978:
[The work was conceived] as a sort of court masque, introduced by the troubadours, who tell the story, but [who] are gradually absorbed into it as its momentum grows preparing for a further transformation into the madness scene, where various events of the story are telescoped so that it becomes uncertain whether the events are real, or occur only in the imagination of the separated lovers.
Conflicts between passion and duty, the supposedly rational workings of state and society as opposed to the necessities of desire that are irreducible to any individual want or need, and struggles between the body and soul, are customarily invoked to explain the fascination of the Tristan and Iseult story. But what the Whitehead Tristan highlights is the impossibility of maintaining these dichotomies at arm's length from each other. In the heat of complexity everything becomes simple - a simplicity in which the power of imagination, to the point of hallucination, becomes possible; provided that - until the point of madness - the whole landscape, emotional, historical and topographical, can be kept in view.
Musically, the problems contained within the libretto that related to the actual tensions relayed through every previous version of the Tristan story were resolved by the interpolation of 'two early source elements', as the composer wrote in her 1978 note, in the score:
One is the fourteenth century Italian dance Lamento di Tristan, an estampie and its rhythmic variant, the rotta. This is the instrumental melody which opens the opera, and which occurs many times through the piece, often in an altered form, and usually in reference to Mark's court. Belle Douette, mentioned in one of the early sources as a song sung by Iseult as she sits spinning, pining for Tristan, appears first on the oboe as a transition between scenes five and six, and forms the basis for the oboe variations following its further appearance, sung in French, at the beginning of the twelfth scene. A secondary level is the quasi-plainsong music of the narrators, a third [is] the ballad-like style describing Tristan's heroic, or notso- heroic, adventures, where puppet action predominates, and the fourth [which is] related to my more usual style of writing, which prevails in the scenes in which the action between the main protagonists takes place.
Vincent Plush's take on his hearing of Tristan in Auckland in 1978 reflected these remarks, bouncing his thoughts off his knowledge of the long-term (by now) relationship with Peter Maxwell Davies:
In the scenes which trace the love and eventual disintegration of the two protagonists themselves, it is the composer's own musical style which predominates. This style, much more softedged and luminous than I had expected, seems to have filtered out the influence of Maxwell Davies, conveying an attitude of retrospection and quiet but determined conviction on the part of the creators of this work. The effect is occasionally disorientating, but, in the end, quite fulfilling, even engaging; in particular, the impact of the closing death scene dispels any reservations harboured on the grounds of stylistic eclecticism.
The fact was that Max's own work was gaining a luminosity - sometimes now explicit in pieces like The Seven Brightnesses for solo clarinet and The Kestrel Paced Around the Sun, both written, as was Tristan, in 1975, or A Mirror of Whitening Light, written over the next two years. For both composers, the change came after Max purchased his stone croft in the Orkney Island of Hoy, to which Gillian became a regular visitor over the next three years as she escaped from the noise of London to house-sit while Max and the Fires of London were touring overseas. Tristan was written between April and September of 1975 as its composer moved between London and Orkney in her first encounters with the place, which she recalled in an interview with Helen Lewis (by then her Sydney agent) in the 1980s:
At [the time Tristan was being written] I moved out of cities … In Orkney and later in a cottage in Northumberland [as composer-in-residence with Northern Arts] … the silence began to affect the way I was writing. You were so much aware of natural sounds, birds, the sound of wind from nothing, the sound of rain and the great sense of space and the changing of the light.
In 2004 Gillian further distilled her sense of the way that Orkney entered her sound-world and influenced the change in stylistic means deployed in Tristan and the work she produced for the rest of the decade:
It was [in Orkney] that my harmonic language first began to soften; I began to eliminate strident or urban sounds from my vocabulary. Sometimes you write to put up a wall between yourself and other sounds, and, at other times, your ears are wide open to stretch to the horizon, which can totally change your aural perspective.
[Image left: view from Bunertoon, Orkney, circa 1976] There was a further dimension to the first of many visits to Orkney that began during the writing of Tristan, and one that would become a regular theme of subsequent compositions ranging from Wulf, written in 1976, through to the opera, two decades later, finally titled The Bride of Fortune and running all the way to the monodrama for mezzo and orchestra Alice, first performed in 2003 - namely, the projection of desire and anxiety across water. The first of Britten's church parables, an influence on Tristan that most of its reviewers in the five years after its composition referred to, derived much of its drama from the anxieties of a safe crossing. In Britten's Curlew River, written in 1964, the figure of the Ferryman, accompanied, in Robin Holloway's words, by 'his sturdily agile [French] horn' is the key to understanding the introduction to the work's concerns which the anxiety induced by fears of drowning, even as the desire to 'cross' escalates. For Holloway, the theme of 'crossing' and the anxiety of waiting at the place of transit gave him a metaphor for the combination of styles he discerned in Curlew River no less than others have seen in the interweaving of contemporary styles with medieval songs and dance tunes in Tristan:
The importance of Curlew River as a crossing-place and synthesis can hardly be overstated. In some dream-conflation of harsh East Coast Anglia and milkand- honey West Coast America, middle-aged Christian culture lies down with ageless Japan and Bali, and native Englishery (folk song, Elizabethans and Purcell, Vaughan Williams and Holst, the earlier Britten himself ) nuzzles the European avant-garde.
The places evoked in Tristan - 'Cornwall, Ireland, the Irish Sea, Tintagel Castle, an orchard, the Forest of Morois, Brittany', as the synopsis for the 1980 performance had it - are part and parcel of every rendition of the legend's telling over the centuries and in whatever hands. In the words of Margaret McCroskery, in her Tristan and Isolde: four dimensions of a tale of passion:
Just as passion defies civilisation's repressive stability, the turbulent waters of the sea define the security of solid land … The many voyages taken in the Tristan fable are tightly woven into the narrative structure. Since the setting involves two island countries and one continent, people must be transported back and forth for the action to take place … Ostensibly this could be accomplished with land travel and without separating bodies of water. No doubt the basic theme of the tale would survive this change, but it would lose a large portion of the harmony of theme and all the symbolic implications of the sea-land imagery.
Though the Whitehead Tristan keys some geographically specific spaces into its scenario - a court, a forest, a return to the court - it is transit, flight and return that dominate its migratory imagination.
Peter Maxwell Davies' first visit to the Orkney islands in 1970, as he was writing a score for Ken Russell's film The Devils, left him with an indelible impression of them. As he wrote, in an article titled 'Pax Orcadiensis' for the music magazine Tempo in 1976: 'There is no escape from yourself here; you just have to realise what you are through your music, with much more intensity than in urban surroundings'. To reach the 'peace', however, required a negotiation involving time, the vicissitudes of weather and human co-operation. The trouble of crossing was uppermost in the opening paragraph of the Orkneys' paramount contemporary bard, George Mackay Brown, when he began his 1969 work, An Orkney Tapestry, with an extended reflection on the difficulties and joys of crossing to the islands from topmost Scotland:
There is the Pentland Firth to cross, first of all. This is looked on as a fearsome experience by some people who are visiting Orkney for the first time. In Scrabster they sip brandy or swallow sea-sick tablets. The crossing can be rough enough - the Atlantic and the North Sea invading one another's domain twice a day, raging back and forth through the narrow channels and sounds, an eternal wrestle; and the fickle wind can be foe or ally. But as often as not the Firth is calm; the St Ola dips through a gentle swell between Scrabster and Stromness.
It was a passage that closely paralleled the sea-crossing underpinning the Tristan story as Gillian built it into Tristan and Iseult. In medieval times, the concept of the amor de lonh, 'love from afar' provided the basis for the idea of 'courtly love' - a geographical elongation across landscape of the heated circumstances of kinship systems that matched people with others who did not necessarily equate with contemporary cultural expectations (and, hence, the Tristan stories arose).
From London, when Gillian first began to visit Max's croft - in the winter of 1974 - the journey was epic, if finally rewarding:
The trip to Orkney took around 24 hours from London - [a] train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, where I'd often break the journey for a day or a week, to visit friends or explore Scotland, then take the night train to Inverness (four pounds extra for a sleeping berth), change around 6am for the all-stops train from Inverness to Thurso, which connected by bus to the pier at Scrabster. The ferry St Ola, which left around midday, sailed to Stromness, travelling west past the Old Man of Hoy if the weather was fair, and east through the shelter of Scapa Flow if there were gales. In Orkney, I'd do a week's shopping, stocking up on food and candles, stay at [friends Archie and Elizabeth] Bevans' for at least one night, then travel on Stevie's ferry to Hoy, where Jack Rendall [the local farmer] would meet the boat, and drive me round to Rackwick. Once a week I'd travel with Jack to the shop at Lyness and stock up on food and candles (in winter I got through a packet a night), and every three weeks or so I'd head for the Bevans' in Stromness, where there were the wonders of electricity and fridges and television and instant hot water.
Rackwick, above which Max's croft stood, was a remote haven, its isolation the reason for the practical and convivial sorties from it. George Mackay Brown described it in An Orkney Tapestry:
The island of Hoy (Haey, 'the high island', to the first Norse settlers) is heaped up massively at its northern and central parts with dark rounded hills. To the south there is a fine harbour and prosperous farms. Facing Scapa Flow is Lyness, like a Yukon shanty town abandoned after a gold rush … There is a fringe of tilth and pasture in the north of Hoy, along the shore: the road goes this far … Another road branches westward between the hills, into utter desolation, a place of kestrels and peatbogs. One thinks of the psalmist and his vale of death. After five miles the road ends abruptly and at the farm of Glen. The dark hills are still all round, but they hold in their scarred hands a green valley. This is Rackwick. The bowl is tilted seawards - its lip is a curving bay, half huge round sea-sculpted boulders, half sand…
Gillian described the place as she found it six years after Mackay Brown's account:
Rackwick, which means, like Rekyavik, 'bay of wrecks', is a haunting, haunted place, where the burn runs out to the sea, surrounded by high hills and cliffs, where the only sounds are the sea, birds, and wind. The ruined crofts speak of the community of fishers and crofters who lived there; only three places were inhabited in the 1970s, although some people from Stromness had weekend cribs there. Jack Rendall's farm had been farmed continuously; the Clarks had just moved into the valley and were farming there (she was a New Zealander, and I would buy eggs from her) and Max had [recently] renovated Bunertoon (above the town), which, three hundred feet above sea level, looked out at the red cliffs on the east side of the valley and, looking south, you could see, on a clear day before rain, the distant Scottish mountains - and the Dounreay fast-breeder reactor.
A letter home to her parents (now living at the beach at Ruakākā, south of Whangarei) near the end of 1976 gives an impression of conditions and experiences on Hoy at its most imposing:
This is to wish you a very happy, warm Christmas and New Year; with any luck you'll get [the letter] before Christmas, as I've a special envoy bearing mails to Stromness, which will speed things by four days, at least! Today, the valley's been covered in snow [and] the sea's metallic, dark behind the snow. It's quite cold, but not too cold, though the fire's a bit sluggish because there's no wind, although there was a minor blizzard just before dawn. There are robins in the garden and it should all be very seasonal … This is winter with a vengeance [and] so far I'm enjoying it.
Bunertoon, Peter Maxwell Davies' croft, was reconstructed in the traditional style. Built from stone, it had two rooms ('but and ben') and two tiny, south-facing windows whose purpose was to minimize the cold:
One room had a range [and] a gas burner, while the other had a box-bed (a traditional large bed built with walls on three sides to keep a family warm and away from draughts), a living space filled with books and writing table, and a fireplace. It was beautifully appointed inside, and was a wonderful space to work in. There was no electricity at that time - although a few years later the oil people on Flotta gave electricity to Hoy - and no water, though there was a burn on the hillside about 100 yards from the house.
Seasonality brought with it different needs and work-patterns. Long summer days allowed 'plenty of time to walk on the hills, or visit the people from Stromness spending the holidays in their crofts'. But the physical work needed to sustain compositional work in summer was as arduous as the fuel-gathering activities of a harsh Hoy winter; in summers at Rackwick, 'the burn often dried up, and then water had to be carried from a spring near sea-level'. A winter at Bunertoon exacted its own regimens:
The sun rose at ten, rolled along the horizon and set at three. My schedule was to get up around nine, make some porridge (traditionally with a little butter and no milk), do chores by daylight, look for wood on the beach, [and] pick up mail and fuel from the farm. If I didn't appear in the valley at some stage during the day, someone would find a reason to drop by. Then, when darkness fell, I'd put a stew on the range, light three candles and work until two sets of candles had burnt through, by which time it was about nine at night, when I'd boil water for three hot-water-bottles, throw them into the box-bed, climb in after them and invariably dream of swimming in the sea at Ruakākā.
Early spring, in late August 1975, brought new discoveries:
It's been so peaceful here these last weeks, hearing only the sea, or the sea and the wind, or the wind only, or bursts of rain on the roof, and the crying of sea-birds, the beating of their wings over the water. Earlier, you could hear children calling sometimes in the distance, but they've all gone back to school now. And there's the sound of flies, which settle on the warm outside of the house; the sheep when they come up in the evening converse [and] sometimes there's the sound of midges when they fly into your ear; something rustling under the floorboards, and sometimes, as now, a distant fishing boat purring along looking for lobsters. Today is warm enough to sit outside - I shall probably later do some gardening, to bring the grass down to a reasonable height and the weeds up and out. And I'll go down the valley and check the mail and bring up more coal, and leave this letter to the mercies of boat, air and whatever meets it at the other end … You listen and watch here all the time. I've never been so weather-conscious. Can you see the mainland? Can you see the mountains far down the mainland? Is the sky clear or are there clouds of fog over the mainland? Or clouds and fog coming up through the valley? One day the cliffs opposite were clothed in fog which drew up from the sea, very close to the cliffs and outlining them; beyond, a clear cirrus sky, and it could have been Antarctica.
Thoughts had gone south by now - though not as far as the polar lands - as Gillian began to contemplate her first visit to New Zealand since 1967. Though the annual summer Cambridge Music School had a tradition of appointing just one tutor for each of its sections - choir, orchestra and composition - Gillian was to share its compositional direction with John Rimmer over the summer break of 1976. Established by the Adult Education Centre of the Auckland University College in 1946, 'Cambridge' was both a geographical and cultural entity. As Dorothea Turner described it for the magazine Landfall in 1947:
The town of Cambridge is separated from Auckland by a hundred miles or so of good main highway but something else less tangible. The dividing line lies only a little to the north of Cambridge - until that point almost every mile of the journey southward obtrudes some sign of pioneering, of increasing numbers of people settling in.
Culturally, 'Cambridge', twenty years after its institution, was a by-word for an annual crucible of instrumental, choral and compositional activity. From Rackwick, at the end of August 1975, Gillian wrote to Ruakākā that she would soon cross to Stromness and, after visiting the Bevans and George Mackay Brown (by now a friend) be in New Zealand 'in ten or twelve weeks'. Traditionally, the Cambridge Summer School was held in the last week, or, if extended, the last ten or eleven days of the New Zealand summer holidays. Upon the completion of her tutorship there, Gillian made her way north to Ruakākā. A letter, dated 3 February 1976, awaited her there. On a letterhead from the RVW Trust - a 'musicians' benevolent fund' set up in memory of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams after his death in 1957 - it read:
With reference to your application for assistance from the RVW Trust, I am glad to be able to tell you that at the last meeting the Committee decided to make you a grant of £600 towards maintenance for six months so that you may be free to write pieces for the Glasgow University Orchestra and Miss Tessa Birnie.
This was important news as the now-annual ordeal of work-permit renewal loomed. When added to commissions steadily coming in, 1976 looked financially viable.
The first composition of the New Zealand 'holiday' came from the Association of Registered Music Teachers. This resulted in a suite of six pieces for piano, named Voices of Tāne, written to celebrate the birth of Gillian's godson, Kit Boyes, the son of Val McGregor who had been in Tremain's 1962 composition class. In a way, the pieces were a response to the sounds of the Northland forests, particularly the birds. Tāne, it will be recalled, was the son of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. Tāne, the story went, pushed sky and earth apart and gave us the world as we know it. Tāne, moreover, and unlike his siblings, took human form. But there are connections to natural forms, such as trees and birds, of which Tāne is the ancestor. Birds of the dawn chorus are Tāne's voice.
Though designed primarily for teaching purposes, Voices of Tāne requires - or encourages players to acquire - both dexterity and power in execution. A performer is asked to carry off several feats: cantabile renditions of widely spaced melodic fragments, octave displacements played legato, exercises in 'touch' (the 'bird-song' in the third piece) and some scalar scurrying (in the fifth piece) reminiscent of La Cadenza. The suite was completed at Ruakākā in December 1975 and Joyce Whitehead premièred the work at the music teachers' event for which it had been written - a conference at which Gillian was also keynote speaker.
From the Dorian Choir in Auckland a request for an unaccompanied vocal work that became Laude Spirituale: Five Songs of Hildegard von Bingen. This had performances in Sydney by the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, and in London by the BBC singers. Meantime, Gillian had met Philip and Ros Clark at Cambridge, where they were accommodated in a flat next door to Gillian at St Peter's during the summer school. Philip was an English viola player active then in Auckland; Ros a theatre producer and director, founder of the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh and director, in Auckland, of Auckland University's Maidment Theatre. (Ros Clark would direct the première of Tristan and Iseult there in 1978.) Philip Clark proved an enthusiastic and capable supporter of new music. Gillian's Moonstone had recently been commissioned by Auckland violist, Glynne Adams, and pianist Janetta McStay, with funds from the Australasian Performing Right Association. It was possibly given its first performance, however, by the violist Stephen Wilkinson, in Adelaide in September 1979. Another work, this time for viola on its own, came out of the composer's association with Philip Clark. The Ricercare, begun in New Zealand and completed in London at the end of May 1976, was given its first hearing by Philip Clark in September at the Maidment in a programme in which the violist was also accompanied by Ingrid Wahlberg on piano. The redoubtable Auckland Star music reviewer Des Mahoney was there for the occasion and, though he thought Ricercare 'of limited appeal', provided the insight that the piece was 'questioning and hesitant on the one hand [and] brisk and direct on the other'. Mahoney said of the work that it was, despite its being for the solo instrument, a 'dialogue'. There is something in this: the work's initial tonal statement involves pitches set apart (an F that goes to a fourth below - a C, thence to a fourth below that, on G) and ends on a minor third sequence that begins on G, then goes to EL before finding its final note - the middle one of the initial three-note motif - namely, C. In generic terms, a 'ricercare' is an exercise in the 'disguising of a theme by means of alterations'. This is an Oxford English Dictionary meaning which is complemented by the word's etymology: the 're-' prefix means 'once again' and the rest of the word, in Italian, whence Latin, has to do with a 'search'. Searcher and the searched are at one in the Ricercare. It is as if, during the body of the work, an interrogation is going on as to how you get from one place - the initial intervallic outline - to the place of arrival (which remembers the point of departure in differently ordered terms) by complex and sometimes improvisatory means. At least, Ricercare, like all solo works, and in all cultures, recognizes the role of the search - as opposed to the expedition - as one of music's main goals, and something, in terms of the Whitehead oeuvre, that was initiated in the Fantasia on Three Notes, developed in La Cadenza Sia Corta, and refined in the Ricercare.
In interview with the Listener's Katherine Findlay before setting out for London and Orkney in late May 1976, Gillian explained the reasons for her return to the northern hemisphere:
I think there is a lot of potential here, but the geography of the country hampers things a bit. There are a lot of people doing interesting things in all the main centres, but they work rather in isolation, which is a shame. I find when I'm back here the horizons close in on me and I can't see anything outside them.
Wulf, the piece Gillian wrote next, reflects these anxieties on at least one of its levels. 'I am on one island and Wulf is on another', the narrator of the work declaims in the setting of a poem by Bill Manhire based on the Old English text 'Wulf and Eadwacer'. In a programme note for Wulf, which premièred at the short-lived Auckland Music Rostrum on 24 April 1977, Manhire wrote that Wulf 's Old English meaning:
… has always puzzled scholars - to the extent that it was at one time thought to be a riddle. The poem is now generally assumed to be the lament of a woman separated from her lover, Wulf. Even so, the details of the poem remain cryptic. Who Wulf is, or was, remains obscure: there is no agreement as to the situation from which the woman speaks. Wulf is a fairly free version of the Old English poem. I have not intended to 'solve' any of the problems of the earlier poem - but I hope that Wulf maintains, as it were, the emotion of the original, and that its voice is suggestive. What is taken from the speaker, for instance, may be a child, born or unborn - 'the spine of a feather, a cloud in the body'. Or it may be, simply, 'the possibility of love'.
Thematically, Wulf revisits the motif of love sundered by water, the traumatic version of 'courtly love' that occupies the final four scenes of Tristan and Iseult, beginning with Tristan's banishment from the court of King Mark, his wanderings and fateful landfall in Brittany, Iseult's crossing of the sea to find her lover dead, and the death of Iseult herself, alone and in a far distant land.
Wulf brought Gillian into a working relationship once again with Philip and Ros Clark, he playing viola and she in the role of the speaker. The balance of the ensemble - flute, clarinet, cello and a large percussion section - featured, respectively Douglas Mackie, Dale Hunter, Virginia Hopkins and Wayne Laird. Collectively, the group called itself Themus and as such were the commissioners of Wulf, with funding from the New Zealand Chamber Music Federation, which intended including the piece in a touring programme featuring Themus. The Auckland première kept state-of-the-art company, preceded as it was by Peter Maxwell Davies' Ave Maris Stella and Berio's Sequenza VI, for solo viola. The presence of the Davies piece (written in 1975 and hence an almost exact contemporary of Wulf ), gave the Auckland Star's Roger Harris his cue for a comparison:
Much of [Gillian Whitehead's] writing recalls the manner and mood of Peter Maxwell Davies - with whom she has worked closely in London - even to the point of its occasionally turgid textures. But Miss Whitehead illustrates the heartfelt emotions of the poem with considerable intensity - her use of instrumental timbres in particular has a direct expressive power, mostly (in this piece) of a solemn, mournful character.
Harris took the opportunity to praise the 'proficiency and commitment' of the Themus group. Subsequently, the ensemble became the basis of the Auckland University-based Karlheinz Company, still extant thirty years later.
Like Tristan and Iseult, Wulf was written between London and Rackwick, appropriately for its theme of divided, water-separated love. Gillian would continue her migrations to and from Orkney for two more years, calculating that, from her first visit in 1975 until a move to Northumberland in 1978, she was probably, over some fifteen working sessions at the croft, 'there for eighteen months over three years, at all seasons'.
Gillian Whitehead - AMC profile
Gillian Whitehead - SOUNZ Centre for New Zealand Music
Moon, Tides & Shoreline - Gillian Karawe Whitehead, a Life in Music (Steele Roberts, NZ)
Moon, Tides & Shoreline - Gillian Karawe Whitehead, a Life in Music (AMC Shop)
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