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The map maker's psalm : soprano with ensemble

by Joseph Twist (2010)

Work Overview

This work includes text by Janette Turner Hospital, from her "Litany for the Homeland" Janette's words seem to continually change focus between different worlds. Shifting from macrocosm to microcosm, she provides an intriguing juxtaposition of ideas which at first seem incommensurable; the cosmos and the Milky-Way, first-fleet map-makers and Aboriginal elders, her various personal experiences in Queensland and around the world, while also making reference to Christian Liturgy. Despite this, I was also fascinated by the way in which all these elements synthesise seamlessly, as significant episodes in her life are analogously connected to central ideas and messages of such broad scope and magnitude.
Due to these factors, I found it difficult to come up with the initial ideas for a piece of music based on "Litany." Ultimately I chose a section that discusses the beginnings of modern Australia, contrasting the dreams of European explorers with the First Australians, the Dreamtime and Aboriginal "Wandjina" spirits. Attention is drawn to the grand vision for the existence of "Terra Australis" or "The Great Unknown Southland" by European Settlers, conflicting with the already existing culture and history of the First Australians. The Europeans (and others since) are described as "Visitors" and, by making reference to Christian prayer ("have mercy upon us"), these "visitors" are described as "crude and arrogant guests". I felt that this portion of the text provided a lot of potential for a dramatic musical piece. Furthermore, due to the references made to Christian liturgy, as well as my own experience in church music, I decided to incorporate elements of Anglican Psalm into my work.
I have long been inspired by the innate drama of traditional Anglican psalm - the dramatic recitation of the choir as well as appropriate organ registration, which serves to heighten the dramatic sentiment of the liturgy. Therefore, in this "Map-Maker's Psalm", the soprano acts as a very dramatic cantor (in a secular context), and the instruments reflect on her recitation of the psalm accordingly. The work opens with a simple, psalm-like chorale below a continuous trill suspended above in the piano. From here, the soprano begins to recite (appropriately with "Once Upon a Time"), sometimes melodically, at other times intoning on a single pitch like psalm or plainchant. The piece becomes increasingly dramatic, reflecting on various elements of the opposing forces of European settlement and Aboriginal dreamtime discussed in the text. A musical reference is made to "God Save the Queen" almost humorously, reflecting the whimsical near-sightedness of the Europeans' grand vision. Incidentally, "God Save the Queen" is harmonised using the "So What" chords of Jazz pianist Bill Evans.
The melody of the "psalm-chorale" returns later, expressed very romantically, again suggesting the Europeans' vision and the mystery of the "Great Unknown Southland." Eventually this music is contrasted by a more brooding, sultry recitation of "Have mercy upon us, for we have been crude and arrogant guests, and have given much offence". Aside from the salient influence of psalm, other musical influences have been suffused into this piece to achieve the overall result, including the dramatic sacred music of Benjamin Britten, aleotoric writing in the music of Witold Lutoslawski, and the subtle influence of Jazz harmony, as already mentioned.

Work Details

Year: 2010

Instrumentation: Soprano soloist, oboe, clarinet in B flat, horn in F, bassoon, piano.

Duration: 9 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Dedication note: Dedicated to Southern Cross Soloists

Commission note: Commissioned by Australia Council.. Written for "Music and Words 3"


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