21 March 2014
Travelling the road between ancient and modern
Friday 14 March 2014. The last time I took this trip between Melbourne and Sydney, I took the train. Today I'm flying. My partner and I are headed to Sydney for Halcyon's first (of two) concerts to celebrate their 15th anniversary. Lately, I've been taking the train more, opting to fly only when I'm in a hurry or it's the only option to get where I am going. There is something sentimental about taking the train in this day and age. Even though the trains are new, it feels like I'm connecting with something from the past, something older than myself.
It was on my first train trip between the two cities when I first fell in love with Australia. I'd settled here only a couple of years earlier and took the train because I wanted to see the countryside. As it ambled by, I watched the sun set orange on rolling hills dotted with sheep and gum trees. I thought of Australia's singular juxtaposition of ancient and modern; of sharp, stylish cityscapes, the Twelve Apostles, and Uluru's profile; of the First Nations, the convicts, settlers and me; of nature and especially the universe, so ancient and yet so new to us as we make discovery after discovery.
In 2010, after delivering, with my partner James K.O. Chong-Gossard, a paper on the process of creating Mythweaver, a cycle of six songs based on the poetic fragments of Sappho, I was contacted by Jennifer Bowen from the ABC who asked if I would be willing to participate in a documentary titled Modern Muses she was doing for ABC Radio National's Into the Music. She was asking the question: Why do contemporary composers turn to ancient themes and texts? In the interview I'd commented that, for whatever reason, Ancient Greek, when translated into English, takes on a strikingly modern tone. (I suppose one might just as easily say that contemporary poetry has taken on a decidedly ancient tone.)
At the time it didn't occur to me that, for me, the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient went far beyond the translation of an Ancient Greek poem or a Sappho song cycle. It went all the way back to trains and to connections one makes between the old and the new and with the ancient beauty of nature, all as one watches the rolling hills roll by. It went all the way back to the first piece I wrote as a new Australian, the piano cycle Catalogue des papillons (2004) inspired by the timeless and sometimes offbeat beauty of butterflies and the primaeval forces of geology and nature that led to the spectacular collapse, in 2005, of one of the monolithic Apostles which inspired the orchestral work Falling Apostles (2007). It appeared in Kambarang, another orchestral work that celebrates one of the seasons of the Noongar nation of Australia's South West, and in Water Dreamers, a string quartet about an ancient and a modern Sydney Harbour which I wrote for Ironwood to premiere at Sydney's 7th Biennale.
It appeared again, later in 2010 and again in 2012, in my chamber opera Razing Hypatia, in which a modern woman sees herself as a tragic echo of the ancient Alexandrian mathematician Hypatia. It appeared in 2011 in Tango and Terror, which brings together Paganini, Piazzolla and vampires in a new virtuoso violin work written for Sarah Curro, and in Ouvre-moi la porte, a contemporary work for viola da gamba and harpsichord, premiered by Ironwood in 2013 in a concert aptly titled 'Galaxies - Ancient and Modern'.
Even today I am mindful of the fact that the connections between the ancient and modern, between the old and the new are still playing themselves out in the pieces I write and have performed. The piece I wrote for Halcyon's anniversary (and for which I'm currently in the air), Sea-blue Bird (2013), uses as its text a poem by Alcman, a poet from 7th century BCE Greece. Anniversaries are particularly well-suited for looking back and forward simultaneously, and the Alcman text, which describes the ancient legend of thecerylus (an old male kingfisher) being carried on the wings of the young female kingfishers, seemed especially appropriate for an homage to Halcyon's legacy of carrying 20th century and new music on their metaphorical wings.
The theme even shows up in my current project, a full-length opera, commissioned by Opéra de Montréal, based on the play Les feluettes by Michel Marc Bouchard. In Les feluettes a prisoner recreates a series of events that happened 40 years earlier, forcing a childhood friend to relive the past. Perhaps not a connecting of the ancient and the modern but certainly of 'yesterday' and 'today'.
What might be the most complete convergence of these themes yet will take place at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 9 April during the Metropolis New Music Festival. The concert titled 'Sappho's Butterflies' features Stefan Cassomenos performing Catalogue des papillons, my oldest Australian work, after which he will be joined by Judith Dodsworth for Mythweaver, a moon-drenched song-cycle based on the poetry of Sappho. Both performances will be premieres (an older piece being performed for the first time).
It's difficult to say how long the ancient and modern will remain dominant features of my work. I suppose they'll stay as long as they have something to say. In the meantime they're good companions to have beside you on long train trips between Sydney and Melbourne.
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