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18 June 2018

Insight: The Art of Dissolving

- an exploration into the creative process of a new work for string quartet Lost Pages from the Book of Memory and Forgetting

Rosemary and Tim Dargaville in 2009. Image: Rosemary and Tim Dargaville in 2009.  

'Having strong, supportive relationships with friends and loved ones in times of grief creates a connecting web that is so important. The ground you are used to standing on no longer feels secure. Having a continuing creative practice can also provide an inner focus that is intuitively healing', writes Tim Dargaville about a time in his life when coming to terms with a personal loss first stalled his creative work, and then gave it a new, surprising direction.

> Tim Dargaville's new string quartet Lost Pages from the Book of Memory and Forgetting will be premiered at Sydney Conservatorium's Recital Hall East on 23 June. Another premiere will take place in a Syzygy Ensemble event in Melbourne on 10 July. Read also: more 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

A fascination with memory, forgetting, forming and dissolving have been central in the composition of my most recent string quartet. Drawing from diverse sources and experiences has long been an important part of my creative practice. In considering writing for string quartet, there was certainly an interest on my part in invoking the spirits of the Western classical and contemporary canon, as well as looking further back to earlier forms of chamber music prevalent in the baroque and Renaissance eras. This certainly fitted well with the Ironwood chamber ensemble, the group I intended to compose for.

I am also a composer equally fascinated with intercultural exploration beyond the Western classical tradition. Significant professional learnings have occurred on my travels as a musician through India and South East Asia, which have fuelled more recent creative work. A particular interest in mandala form and ethos, exploring the nexus between the states of creation and dissolution, has come strongly in focus as a result of creating recent compositions, most notably the Kolam series1.

Tim Dargaville (left) with members of Ironwood (Anna McMichael,
Rachael Beesley, Daniel Yeadon, Simon Oswell) at a recording
session at Melba Hall, University of Melbourne, March 2018.

So it is not surprising that these fascinations should interweave with each other in the creative process. What has been surprising, however, has been the way that the composition of this new string quartet has also allowed me the opportunity to reconcile a challenging personal experience much closer to home.


In 2009, I approached Ironwood about developing a collection of pieces exploring the expressive beauty of ephemera and states of decay. Originally titled The Book of Memory and Forgetting, and referencing the intimate 'table-books' of the 16th and 17th centuries - compilations of solos, duets, airs, fantasies and dance pieces - the collection would be interspersed with longer pieces drawing on the quartet tradition from the 19th-21st centuries with its great dramatic range and heightened personal expression. It was intended that these distinct sources would interweave with each other in unpredictable ways.

At the same time, my brother, sister and I were actively involved in caring for our mother, as she travelled through the strange landscape of dementia. Rosemary Dargaville (1934-2013) was feisty, loving and articulate. A formidable and endearing presence in the lives of many, she was noted for her lifetime commitment to social work and social justice issues. For Rosemary, language was a sophisticated tool for passionate expression of feelings and ideas.

With the onset of dementia in the last decade of her life, Rosemary gradually lost both her physical mobility and her mastery of words. Perceptions of past and present became increasingly intermingled and her language took strange and often beautiful forms, with sentences disappearing, or disparate thoughts connecting. In her last days, Rosemary's need to make contact was expressed through wordless singing, and through interacting with ever-present recorded music. Music was the most important solace for her and music for strings was a particular favourite.

Over time, these separate strands of my life gradually intertwined. Or unravelled, depending on how you look at it. Sketches for solo strings, or string quartet, or strings and keyboard, kept being filed away on my work bench unfinished - waiting for the 'right time' at some unknown point in the future. My mother's condition progressed to where she needed support at home, then consultations with specialists and aged care assessment teams, later family meetings making the difficult and painful decision to move her into a care facility. Watching her lose independence and the ability to move freely. Hearing her speak in jumbled fragments rather than intricate, extended paragraphs. The gradual dissolution of a much-loved person. Returning to breath.

Rosemary passed away in January 2013. At this point, The Book of Memory and Forgetting project remained in fragments, incomplete.

Having strong, supportive relationships with friends and loved ones in times of grief creates a connecting web that is so important. The ground you are used to standing on no longer feels secure. Having a continuing creative practice can also provide an inner focus that is intuitively healing.

At the time of Rosemary's passing, I was working on an ongoing exploration into the Tamil mandala making practice common in South India, resulting in works in the Kolam series. Mandala forms are renowned for being containers for the making of meaning. One of the founders of modern psychiatry, C.G. Jung, writes that the mandala is an expression of the totality of the self….representing the wholeness of the psychic ground2 Through the activities of ritual action and contemplation, the practice of mandala making in various contexts provides a container that helps make sense of the insensible.

Also embodied in the ethos of mandala is the symbolic acknowledgement of the reality of impermanence. The dissolution of these designs over time reminds us that what may be carefully crafted will soon disappear, necessitating a future recreation. An integration of the forces of creation and dissolution. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the making and dissolving of the great sand mandalas are ritualised in a range of ceremonial practices. Sacred designs depicting the Buddhist cosmos which have taken weeks to craft are then dissolved in a matter of minutes and dispersed, through the ritual of the dissolution ceremony. This particular ritual is a teaching tool, a formal reminder of the reality of impermanence.

Writing of impermanence, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron begins by saying -
People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it; in fact we despair of it. We regard it as pain. She then continues by clarifying from a Buddhist perspective - Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don't struggle against it we are in harmony with reality.3 This thought resonated strongly as I stood on the shifting ground of grief.

Whilst at work on the Kolam project, creating both an extended piano cycle and an orchestral work, in 2014 and 2015, my thoughts would often return to the incomplete sketches intended for The Book of Memory and Forgetting, looking for a way to complete the work. Family photos on my work bench, with my mother cheekily smiling, would loom large, prompting me to get to work and complete the collection.

I was seeking a container to gather these existing musical fragments into an expressive, coherent whole. A strong impulse emerged to find a solution. In retrospect I can now see that the in-depth investigation into the ethos of mandala, and the recent creative work that I had undertaken had led me to a state of readiness to do so. An understanding that the 'right time' had now arrived.

Lost Pages from the Book of Memory and Forgetting for string quartet

In 2017 I returned to the incomplete sketches which have since become this new string quartet. Of the existing unfinished miniatures, five were selected, each distinct in character - a plaintive prelude, a pavane-like processional, an unpredictable 'invisible' dance, a relentless sonic labyrinth, and a tender arioso. These movements are short, compressed and self-contained, resembling a collection of uncommon airs and fantasies. A significant feature that these short pieces share is an incompleteness - abrupt ends, disparate thoughts connecting, jumbled fragments, unexpected silences. It occurred to me that these musical features mirrored aspects of my mother's way of communicating in her last years.

In realising this, I made a key decision to keep this incompleteness intact. In that sense 'The Book' concept initially developed at the outset became a series of loose leaves - a collection of 'lost pages'. Another key decision was to shape the rest of the collection to be an expressive remembering for Rosemary, and in particular to seek to make sense of her last years. To create a dissolving mandala that would honour her memory.

The Art of Dissolving

Exploring the notion of dissolution is a real challenge. So much about it goes against the grain of the creative process that seeks to add more, do more, be more. To get started, I made a list of generic techniques to experiment with -

1. rub out, erase
2. leave out, absent
3. unravel, unwind
4. blur, smudge
5. fade out
6. float, unhook
7. distort
8. fragment
9. disconnect
10. leave incomplete, unfinished

I took these processes to the existing five string quartet movements with the deliberate intention of dissolving them, to see what might emerge. Initially sceptical, I was surprised and engaged by the results, quickly creating new iterations of these same five works in states of dissolution and disappearance, followed by a postlude that would eventually close the complete collection.

Whilst the initial movements are distinctly different to each other in character, their subsequent dissolutions bleed into each other - dissolving that which initially seems permanent. The quartet, too, dissolves, both in space and in sound. The strong group dynamic of the opening movements dissipates, with players exiting the ensemble to a more remote playing position at varying points in the latter part of the work. The music in this latter stage contains frequent individual moments, more silences, long artificial harmonics that gradually ascend and fade. Returning to breath.

A significant learning from composing this particular work has been to seek coherence in that which is fragmented. To accept that what seems permanent actually dissolves. In creating an expressive remembering for my mother Rosemary through the composition of this music, I have been able to accept my loss of her.

I would very much like to thank the members of Ironwood for the support they have given this project, and particularly acknowledge Anna McMichael, Rachael Beesley, Simon Oswell and Daniel Yeadon for the care they have taken in preparing this new work for its upcoming premiere at the Sydney Conservatorium on Saturday 23 June.


1. Dargaville, Tim (2016): 'Inside the labyrinth, on the threshold', Resonate 26 February 2016. https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/inside-the-labyrinth-on-the-threshold

2. Jung, C.G. (1983) Memories, Dreams and Reflections, London: Fontana, p. 367

3. Chodron, Pema (2002): When Things Fall Apart, Boston: Shambhala, p. 78

AMC resources

'Legends and Memories', Ironwood 23 June 2018 (event details in the AMC Calendar)

Tim Dargaville - AMC profile

Subjects discussed by this article:


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