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25 February 2015

Nigel Butterley's music, decade by decade

Nigel Butterley Image: Nigel Butterley  

Elliott Gyger writes about curating a concert of Nigel Butterley's works for the ANAM's 'Australian Voices' series on Wednesday 18 March at the Melbourne Recital Centre, to celebrate the composer's eightieth birthday in May. Other forthcoming concerts featuring Butterley's music include the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's program on 18 & 20-21 March, as well as several concerts at the Canberra International Music Festival and the Australia Ensemble event in Sydney on 23 May.

Given his widely acknowledged status as one of Australia's leading composers, performances of Nigel Butterley's music are not as frequent as they could be. However, it is heartening to see a number of events celebrating his eightieth birthday this year.

It is my privilege to be curating an all-Butterley concert for the Australian National Academy of Music's Australian Voices series in March, at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The five solo and chamber works on the program represent each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s, spanning most of Butterley's career and bearing witness to the gradual evolution of his language.

The piano solo Grevillea is one of only two works Butterley completed during his year of study with Priaulx Rainier in London (1961-2). It moves decisively away from the modal harmonies of his earlier music, and is the composer's first systematic foray into twelve-tone techniques, although his approach is quite idiosyncratic: the row is never subjected to the standard procedures of inversion or transposition, but loops erratically in its original form, albeit disguised by considerable variety of rhythm and gesture. It foreshadows the wiry energy of the composer's modernist phase, which was initiated the following year with his breakthrough work Laudes.

The second work is a real rarity: the String Quartet No. 2 of 1974. All four of Butterley's quartets merit closer attention. It is wonderful to see the first on the Kreutzer Quartet's recent release Unfold, and I look forward to some quartet tackling the challenge of a complete Butterley cycle, which would make for a richly rewarding experience. The String Quartet No. 2 combines seemingly incompatible materials - Lutoslawskian aleatory counterpoint, rhythmic energy reminiscent of Messiaen, luminous Tippett-like harmonies, even a passage from a Chopin nocturne - in a powerful and atypically exuberant whole. The last product of Butterley's modernist period, it also connects to the aesthetic direction his music would take subsequently, through its epigraph from Walt Whitman:

O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all untied and illumin'd!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!

Also Whitman-inspired, the 1981 piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves is a serious contender for the title of the quintessential Butterley work - a quicksilver distillation of the composer's mature style, posing considerable technical and expressive challenges for the player, as befits its origins as a test piece for the Sydney International Piano Competition. Perhaps its most remarkable aspect is its structure, in which brief musical fragments (all traceable to the opening bars) appear, reappear and evolve in an intricate network of relationships.

The crucial role of the Whitman element in Butterley's music of the late 1970s and early 1980s has been matched and exceeded by his interest in the English poet Kathleen Raine, whose words have inspired eight instrumental and vocal works over the last 25 years. The wind stirs gently is a serene duo for flute and cello, an introspectively lyrical meditation on age and experience. Its calm spaciousness resembles that of the chorale-like refrain of Uttering Joyous Leaves, here explored on its own terms rather than in contrast to more active material.

The program concludes with Spindles of the Stars, a 2005 quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, written for Alan Holley and the Gallery Players. Raine's 'spindles of the stars' constitute a metaphor for the hidden but instinctively felt order underlying the apparent chaos of daily human experience - an idea pertinent to each of the pieces on the program, in different ways. Spindles of the Stars pursues a trajectory of convergence, beginning in fragmentary fashion but eventually finding unity in its radiantly transcendent close.

AMC resources

Nigel Butterley - AMC profile (biography, works, events, recordings, articles
'Nigel Butterley and the Proglem that Wasn't' - an article by Elliott Gyger on Resonate (28 February 2008)
'Australian Voices: Nigel Butterley' on 18 March 2015 at the Melbourne Recital Centre - concert details in the AMC Calendar
Unfold by Kreutzer Quartet (Butterley, Banks, Meale, Werder) - view CD details and purchase the recording from the AMC Shop

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