Funereal Rites* Vincent Plush (b. 1950)
Funereal Rites revolves around the peculiar customs of a group of senior
citizens in my hometown, Adelaide.
For some time I have wanted to write a work based on this improbable but utterly
factual yarn. lt would be something in the style of the "black comedy" of, say, Joe
Orton or Peter Carey. lt would unfurl slowly but surely, in the manner of the
chamber operas, say, of the young Hindemith or the David Byrne movie, True
Stories. lt would entail simple and economical scoring - six singers and a piano -
and could be staged simply and economically, without adornment.
The text is my own, based on my observation of the language of the generation of
Australians older than mine. lt is intended as an affectionate and in no way
irreverent tribute to the battlers who survived the War and who produced my
generation of baby-boomers.
The characters in our very quotidian non-drama are introduced progressively, an
elderly couple, husband and wife, are joined by a female neighbour. Together they
meet a third lady who joins them on their "outings". By implication, the band of
intrepid adventurers grows in numbers and organisational prowess, to the point
where something of a mini-industry is spawned. Only then does the work devolve
into caricature, surreal perhaps but never farcical. And only at the very end is the
object of the enterprise revealed, in a stroke of brazen homage to Mel Brooks'
lnterspersed throughout the succession of dramatic scenes are the movements of
the Latin Requiem Mass. For the most part, they are sung unaccompanied and, in
proud defiance of the "reforms" of Vatican ll, in Latin. (Roman purists will note the
re-ordering of some of the Latin movements; this is for base dramatic effect only.)
Formally, this process yields the following interlocking design:
I Introit II Scene One - Plain and Simple
III KYRIE IV Scene Two - These Days
VII Offertorium VI Scene Three - Just Say Hello
IX Sanctus - Benedictus VII Scene Four - Post-Mortem
XI Dies Irae X Scene Five - Got to Have a Plan
XIV Agnus Dei XII Scene Six - A Rough Life
With some minor modifications, the Latin movements can be sung separately.
Having thus dispensed with my Requiem - an inevitability that hangs like an anvil
over composers who share my religious upbringing - | can now proceed with my
Funereal Rites was composed in Folly Beach, South Carolina, USA, early in
1994. lt is dedicated to my onetime schoolfriend and now General Manager of The
Song Company, Eugene Ragghianti, and to my sister, Carmel Fishlock, who
provided me with copious material - much of it included in the score - from the
street maps, telephone directories and public transport timetables of our illustrious
and beloved hometown. I do hope to return there someday...
* World Première. Commissioned by The Song Company with financial assistance
from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council
There have been several curious symmetries in the recent life of Vincent Plush.
Vincent was born in Adelaide, the City of Churches, in 1950. He now lives in
Charleston, South Carolina. The locals call their 18th century colonial sanctuary
"The Holy City", due to its proud register oÍ 117 churches. But, unlike their Adealide
counterparts, not one has been converted into a restaurant.
Funereal Rites was composed at Vincent's seaside home outside Charleston in
early 1994. Charleston is the setting of George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and
Bess and in 1934 Gershwin spent several summer weeks on nearby Folly-island
observing and absorbing the local Gullah culture into his opera. Sixty years later,
while composing Funereal Rites, Vincent Plush only had to look up from his
composing desk to see where Gershwin had lived; several hurricanes later, that
house has been consigned to a watery grave,a mile into the Atlantic Ocean. Thus
the Gershwin references in Funereal Rites are probably not entirely unintentional.
Like many Australian children of his generation, Vincent was introduced to music
around the age of five, his first piano lessons were ar the local convent in the
working class Adelaide suburb of Hindmarsh. Television was not to make its
insidious appearance in the Plush household for another decade and Mass was still
mysterious, secure and steadfast in its muttered Latin. Around the age of
thirteen, turning his back on football and the cadets, Vincent began to play the pipe
organ and sing in the cathedral choir. At the cusp of Vatican II, Gregorian chant and
the a cappella masses of Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus and Byrd became part of his
musical constitution. Thirty years later, this background would be expanded by a
stint as organist and choirmaster in a predominantly black American Baptist church
in Hartford, Connecticut. The references in Funereal Rites to many different forms
of religious music of various hues, then, are probably not entirely
Vincent attended a Catholic boys high school in a middleclass Adelaide suburb.
There the only fellow thespian amongst his classmates was the redoubtable
Eugene Ragghianti whose contagious enthusiasm for the dramatic arts helped
draw Vincent towards opera, music theatre and the stage. And so Eugene shares
the dedication of Funereal Rites with Vincent's sister, Carmel Fishlock.
ln his final year at school, Benjamin Britten was a "set composer" and Vincent
made a special study of Britten's word setting and dramatic works. Encountering
Britten at the 1970 Adelaide Festival persuaded Plush to take another route. Once
unfashionable, this Britten influence - not just in word-setting but in the creation
of dramatic scenae and enthusiasm for historical subject matter - can now be
acknowledged with relative candour and safety.
Vincent moved to Sydney in late 1971. After two years working in the ABC's Music
Department, he joined the staff of the NSW Conservatorium,where he taught his
twin passions in music, 2Oth century music history and composition. Concentrated
exposure to the music and personality of Luciano Berio in Sydney in mid-1975
caused Vincent to consider the gestural dimensions in his own music; since that time,
nearly all Plush's music - consider: the stylised gestures of the flute solo,
Chu no mai (1974), inspired by Japanese Noh drama; the seminal theatre piece
Australian Folksongs (1977) and ensuing works inspired by Australian 19th
century history [the twin songcycles, The Plaint of Mary Gilmore (1984)
and The Warrant of Henry Lawson (1988), the trumpet concertino FireRaisers
(1984) and The Muse of Fire (1987) based on 19th century colonial oratorio
practices]; the "sea-motions" and chitarra playing of the orchestral strings in
Pacifica (1986); even the choral works Cartographies (1994) and St
Brendan's lsland (1995) - have incorporated some element of theatre, gesture,
mime or movement.
Vincent Plush's scores abound in directions to the performers, suggesting a
mannerism, an attitude, some hint inside the music. He acknowledges that he
visualises a performance of every new piece before he begins to create it;
it is as though the writing is a co-creation by several different dimensions of the
personality: the historical research/[con]texturalising, the music/auditory, the
production/visual. The score of Funereal Rites takes this a step further; it comes
with supporting documentation. Maps and timetables delineate the bus-routes of
the City of Churches, newspaper clippings relay some of the more bizarre incidents
of the piece. lt is the handiwork, by turns, of the composer, the producer and
educator in the personality of the creator.
For all its autobiographical and anecdotal dimensions, Funereal Rites is not
simply a penitential visit to the confessional. lt is a reflection of a newly liberated
imagination in music. lt springs from the enhanced maturity of age and technique
and from the exploration of unfamiliar musical territory, that of contemporary
Vincent Plush has lived in the USA, more or less continuously, since mid-1988,
when he flew to Colorado to participate in the Aspen Music Festival. From there, he
has moved around the USA; he lived, often as a Visiting Professor at various
liberal arts colleges, in Orlando, Colorado Springs, Atlanta and New England.
Since late 1993 he has lived in Charleston which he says will be his American
base for the foreseeable future. Over the coming year Plush will be working on
several commission projects - both musical and literary - and teaching music and
history courses at the College of Charleston. He has also recently been appointed
principal music critic of the local newspaper, a proposition he finds somewhat
intimidating, given Charleston's cultural eminence as host city of Spoleto Festival
Perhaps more than any other wild-card Australian composer since Percy Grainger,
with whom he has been compared with increasing frequency, Vincent Plush has
endeavoured to experience the diversity of American music to the full. lt should be
no surprise, then, that for all its superficially echt -background, Funereal Rites is
the product of an imagination and attitude more demonstrably American than
purely Australian. And probably not unintentionally so, at that.
Kelly Trench, Kalamazoo, Ml, July, 1995