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Program note: David Chesworth's "Panopticon"

  • program note by the composer

The title of this work refers to a system of observation designed by Jeremy Benthem in 1785. Devised for use in prisons, it allowed the observer to observe all inmates without any prisoner being able to tell if they are being watched. This early form of surveillance was meant to improve the mind of the prisoner as each would think their behavior was permanently being observed by outside forces.

The title also relates to the structure of the music which is built around several pitch sets which combine in different ways, exposing different facets of the structure.

The first recording of the work appears on the 2005 CD ‘Music To See Through’ by the David Chesworth Ensemble.

Panopticon was sketched out in my final year of undergraduate study at Latrobe University in 1979. Up to that point I had been exposed to a lot of music by experimental composers and the American minimalists but was now getting a sobering dose of late modernism via the European serialists. We had been studying Allen Forte’s set theory in class which provided a way of analyzing non-tonal music by grouping notes which shared certain relationships into pitch class sets. I decided to apply his analytical ideas to the creation of a piece of music. When I’d sketched the piece out, I discovered that I had written music that made great use of fourths, fifths and octaves. This was quite different to the musical language we were studying at the time, which avoided consonant intervals like the plague and instead made great use of the more dissonant tritone and minor ninth intervals.

The set theory approach resulted in some of the abrupt chord changes that can be heard in Panopticon. The piece displays tonal qualities but does not follow tonal rules.

I deliberately wrote a work that was simple to perform. I wanted to music accessible to a wide range of performers. Also my own performance skills and those of my fellow students were not great and we could play it. The work was performed a few times within the university and once at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre. However, seIf-consciously I  thought the music sounded too simplistic to be considered a serious work given the heavy atonal and serialist climate of the late 70’s so I filled it away and forgot about it.

Panopticon lay dormant for many years and it wasn’t until the mid 90’s when I’d formed the David Chesworth Ensemble that I rediscovered the score and gave it to my players. The lineup of my group is violin, cello, vibes, marimba, trombone and piano, bass and electronics, so it was an easy match.

I gave the written parts to the marimba, vibes, piano and bass players as per the score. The violin, cello and trombone players were also given either the vibes or piano part and these would function as pitch maps on which they could base their improvisations.

My ensemble included the work in its repertoire from time to time, usually at the beginning of the set as the audience was settling. It took me a few years to feel confident about its simplicity. I eventually recorded and released Panopticon on our third CD, Music To See Through in 2005. Through its release on CD Panopticon found a much wider and receptive audience than in 1979. In 2006 Panopticon was awarded Instrumental Work of the Year at the APRA/Sounds Australia, Classical Music Awards


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