Although intended originally for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Deep and dissolving verticals of light is very much a Sydney piece. For the first 27 years of my life, I lived beside Sydney Harbour, catching the ferry into town underneath the Bridge most days, and seldom out of earshot of the sounds of the water traffic, from speedboats to oil tankers. Like others before me, I was particularly fascinated with the visual and aural space of the Harbour by night, and in 1990 I made a musical exploration of the terrain through an a cappella choral setting of Kenneth Slessor’s landmark poem Five Bells — surely the definitive Sydney nocturne.
Needless to say, it is hardly possible to do full justice to Slessor’s masterpiece, by turns epic and impressionistic, within the confines of an eighteen-minute vocal work, and in the process of the piece’s subsequent performances and recording the further musical potential of the poem continued to engage my imagination. A performance of Elliott Carter’s turbulent Symphony of Three Orchestras at an SSO 20th-Century Orchestra concert in 1993 provided the stimulus for a focusing of my ideas. Carter’s work is his portrait of his native New York, in all its paradoxical beauty and teeming complexity, inspired directly by Hart Crane’s poem To Brooklyn Bridge.
Deep and dissolving verticals of light is conceived as a kind of negative image of Carter’s Symphony, with Brooklyn Bridge in the golden haze of dawn replaced by the Sydney Harbour Bridge at midnight. Rather than attempting to follow the whole of Slessor’s narrative, as my choral setting of Five Bells does, the present work focuses on the harbourscape of the poem’s opening and closing sections (while allowing the human drama of the text to haunt the background):
- Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
- Coldly rung out in a machine’s voice. Night and water
- Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
- In air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.
The piece’s subtitle, ‘nocturnal concerto for orchestra’, encapsulates the two opposing tendencies which shape the music: the creation of an immense sense of space; and the articulation of ever-proliferating detail, which threatens to overwhelm the second half of the piece.. The concerto aspect of the work also resides more particularly in the prominent role of six pairs of solo instruments, scattered across the stage, which act as kernels around which the rest of the orchestra is assembled. Underpinning the whole of the work’s fifteen-minute span is a ‘cantus firmus’ line, tracing out an arch from the lowest register to the highest (exactly halfway through) and back again.