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30 October 2009

The Origin Cycle

Soprano Jane Sheldon with Firebird Ensemble flautist Jessi Rosinski and violist Kate Vincent, Stanford University, October 8, 2009 Image: Soprano Jane Sheldon with Firebird Ensemble flautist Jessi Rosinski and violist Kate Vincent, Stanford University, October 8, 2009  

…If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. (Charles Darwin, Autobiography)

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is not only one of the most important scientific works of all time, but one of the most beautifully written. The Origin Cycle is a work in which eight Australian composers have set short fragments of Darwin's book to music, for performance by solo soprano and chamber ensemble. 2009 marks the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and 150 years since the first publication of the Origin of Species. The Cycle has been performed in the USA and Canada, and in November will come home to Australia with performances in Sydney and Canberra by Jane Sheldon (co-writer of this blog entry) and Ensemble Offspring, under the direction of Roland Peelman.

The idea for this commission came about when we were looking at the final passage of Darwin's Origin and were remarking on the striking poetry of his writing. We were swiftly convinced that it might be apt for setting to music, and found ourselves looking for other equally evocative fragments of text. The aim was to select passages that would combine to encompass the entire book, and we chose texts which, when taken together, summarise what Darwin called the 'one long argument' contained in the Origin.

The passages are very different in pace and tone, and composers were matched to each text according to their characteristic musical language, with the hope that the range of resulting music might be as great as the range of Darwin's own language. Some of the passages are intricately and obsessively detailed: in these Darwin's focus is often on the minutiae of some biological process or fascinating quirk spun out of evolution (e.g. the construction of honeycomb for Nicholas Vines; the intricacy of the human eye likened to that of an optical instrument for Barry Conyngham). Others, in which Darwin is expressing his awe at nature's grand beauty and its mysteries, are lyrical and majestic.

The Origin Cycle
The Face of Nature - Elliott Gyger
Hourly Scrutinising - Kate Neal
Tree of Life - Elena Kats-Chernin
Comparing the Eye to a Telescope - Barry Conyngham
Economy of Wax - Nicholas Vines
A History Imperfectly Kept - Dan Walker
Entangled Bank - Paul Stanhope
Floreana - Rosalind Page

None of the composers saw the other passages that were being set, and they did not know where their own piece fell within the overall structure of the Cycle. (The only exception was Rosalind Page, who knew she was writing the final piece.) Rather than writing as part of an overall plan, each composer was asked just to interpret a particular passage, a particular element of Darwin's thought. The works were then put together according to the order in which each passage appears in the Origin. This approach was appropriate given the nature of Darwin's theory. One of the main themes of Darwin's book is a particular way in which order and a kind of 'creativity' can arise, unplanned, from a collection of lower-level processes. So we hoped that the complete Cycle would have aesthetic features arising spontaneously from the ways in which the pieces would fit together into a single program, even though each was written entirely independently. At the time of the first performance, no one knew what the collection of works would sound like when performed together; what the series of different atmospheres in the pieces would evoke when combined as a whole.

The world premiere was held on April 28th 2009 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Jane performed the works with Boston's Firebird Ensemble, a new music ensemble directed by Australian violist Kate Vincent, under the direction of Jeffrey Means. The venue was the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a research museum that was established in 1859, the same year in which Darwin's book was first published. We approached Elisabeth Werby, the Executive Director of the Museum, and were delighted to hear that she had always hoped they would one day host musical performances. So the premiere took place among the museum's exhibits - specifically, in front of the skeleton of a Kronosaurus, a huge carnivorous aquatic dinosaur, which happened to have been excavated in Queensland. A preserved Coelacanth (the whole fish, not just the skeleton) had its case wrapped in blankets to make sure vibrations from the percussion did not shake loose any of its scales. All the exhibits emerged unscathed.

Since the premiere in April, the work has been performed at Stanford University, California, USA, also with Firebird Ensemble; and at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The latter was recorded for delayed broadcast by CBC radio.

For the Australian Museum performance in Sydney (19 November), the musicians will again share the stage with a huge skeleton, this time that of a Blue Whale, a creature that has so far prevailed against the challenges to its survival. Another performance of the Origin Cycle will take place in Canberra on 13 November (details below).

Event details

Ensemble Offspring
with Jane Sheldon, soprano & Roland Peelman, conductor

Friday 13 November 2009 at 7:30pm
Peter Karmel Building, Canberra School of Music, Canberra, ACT
Admission free
See also: details in the AMC Calendar

Thursday 19 November at 7pm
Australian Museum (enter off William St), Sydney, NSW
Presented by the New Music Network
Tickets: $20 full, $12 concession, bookings: (02) 8256 2222 or tickets available at the door.
See also: details in the AMC Calendar

Further details

Read The Origin Cycle texts and program notes (pdf)
Rosalind Page: Floreana (program note - pdf)
Nicholas Vines: Economy of Wax - analysis on Vines's blog


The Origin Cycle was commissioned by Jane Sheldon and Peter Godfrey-Smith. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. The performance at Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, MA, USA (28 April 2009) was supported by a grant from Harvard University's Office of the Dean for Arts and Humanities, and was presented in conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival. The performance at Stanford University, CA, USA (8 October 2009) was supported by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts. The performance the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, NS, Canada (17 October 2009) was presented as part of the Halifax Darwin Workshop, and was supported by the Province of Nova Scotia through the Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; and the Situating Science Cluster.

The performance at ANU School of Music, Canberra (13 November 2009) is supported by the Australian National University Research School of Social Sciences and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the event at Australian Museum, Sydney (19 November 2009) is presented by the New Music Network and the Australian Museum.

Peter Godfrey-Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, specialising in the philosophy of science.

Jane Sheldon is an Australian soprano; she specialises in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and recently composed works. 


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