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Diamond quills : a study of time, death and the harbour

by Kirsty Beilharz (2010)

Work Overview

This piece derives its title and the movement titles from Kenneth Slessor's (1901-1971) poem, 'Five Bells' (1939).

The entire poem occurs in the time-lapse memory "between five bells", that is the fragments of memory, reminiscence, nostalgia and atmospheric memento mori triggered by the sound of five nautical ship's bells tolling out the time. This composition is a study of time, death and the harbour (Sydney Harbour).

The narrator remembers the bobbing buoys and reflected lights coruscating on the nocturnal harbour, the sounds and images evoked by Sydney Harbour. He also describes the "diamond quills and mackerel-backs" of the glittering dancing waves. This image evokes the lively, fluid, ephemeral, translucent, brilliant and oblivious (to death) continuum of nature and the harbour, the constantly oscillating effervescent waves that is encapsulated in the elegant, filigree, flowing first movement.

The second movement conveys the rhythmic, meticulous, almost paranoid, precise yet idiosyncratic metronome of time that the drowned, lackadaisical subject of the poem refused to be entrapped and constrained by, juxtaposing the ethereal quality of memory, a warped time that transcends clocks, momentum, humdrum and decorum. The dancing piano counterpointing the mechanistic clockwork motifs and occasional lurching melodies of the bass clarinet seek to elude temporal shackles. One perceives the character's sardonic, skeptical condescension towards conventions of temporal organisation.

The third movement is a dark, sinister, intense and evocative ferocious fervour that is juxtaposed with wild and other-worldly cries and the distress of the drowning sinking man the poet imagines, switching over from the disarray and panic of the human experience into the "longer dream" and timeless, otherworldly fluidity of the sea as the narrator relives his drowning below its dark surface and permanent disconnection. It evokes a violent, turbulent struggle, floating off into the sublime eventually, concluding with the tolling of the five bells, closing the glimpse of the memory.

Death and the harbour featured significantly in my life at the end of 2009 when I was composing this piece.

Special thanks to Ros Dunlop and Charisma Ensemble for courageously undertaking to perform this piece before it was written and for the opportunity to write for three of my favourite instruments.

Work Details

Year: 2010

Instrumentation: Bass clarinet (in B-flat), cello, piano.

Duration: 9 min.

Difficulty: Advanced — Professional

Contents note: 1. Diamond quills -- 2. Fidget wheels -- 3. Black thumb-balls.

Dedication note: Dedicated to Charisma

Written for: Charisma

First performance: by Charisma at CHARISMA Concert (Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music) on 30 May 2010

The composer writes: This is the second time that I have visited this poem, with the previous chamber sextet, Between Five Bells written in 1996.


Performances of this work

1 Mar 2016: at Charisma in Concert (Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music). Featuring Charisma.

10 May 2012: at Charisma (Bon Marche Studio). Featuring Charisma.

18 Jun 2010: at New Interfaces for Musical Expression (Eugene Goossens Hall). Featuring Charisma, Kirsty Beilharz.

30 May 2010: at CHARISMA Concert (Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music). Featuring Charisma.

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