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The southland : for chorus, didgeridoo, gamelan ensemble, folk group and large orchestra.

by Roger Smalley (1988)


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Work Overview

Australian composers (perhaps even particularly those born elsewhere) soon learn to anticipate the inevitable interview question - do you consider your music to be distinctively Australian? One possible reply is to paraphrase the American composer Virgil Thomson and assert that one's music will automatically be Australian simply because it has been composed by an - in this case, adopted - Australian. I could say this about many of my own works. Whatever listeners might hear in them I certainly did not consciously put any 'local colour' into pieces such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Impulses or Strung Out. But there are other works (including the tape piece Didgeridoo, a String Quartet and Ceremony I for percussion quartet) in which I have tried to integrate various aspects of the Australian (and Asian) soundscape - Aboriginal songs, clap sticks and didgeridoo playing, bird and animal sounds and various aspects of South East Asian music. These have been but limited forays, and I have increasingly felt the desire, over recent years, to write something which would tackle our initial question head-on by allotting to such indigenous or 'traditional' materials a role of central importance.

The Bicentennial seemed a symbolically appropriate moment to do so. The Southland is the result. It was commissioned by the Western Australian Youth Orchestra Association with funds provided by the Australian Bicentennial Authority. I have dedicated it to Sir Frank Callaway and Peter Sculthorpe, pioneers of Australian music.

In late 1985, I conceived the idea of a large-scale in 5 parts. A plan which remained unchanged during the actual process of composition (June 1986 to April 1988). My basic idea was not to try and tell a story, as in the traditional oratorio, but to set several different texts, each dealing with one key aspect of the Australian experience. These would be, in shortened form:-

1. Aborigines

2. Asia

3. The British invasion of 1788 and its aftermath

4. An orchestral interlude bringing us up to the present time, and

5. A final section looking towards the future

Having decided on the general subject matter of each part, I then had to search for particular texts to illustrate them and I was extremely lucky, at each stage, to find something that exactly suited both my musical and expressive needs.

The five parts of The Southland are not separate movements but are joined together by elaborate transitions which can be likened to slow cross-fades between scenes of a film. This is an attempt to create a feeling of seamless continuity of historical time and the relatedness of all events which occur during it. This historical evolution is paralleled by another, purely musical one in which, from simple beginnings, the very musical language of the work continually grows in complexity.

Work Details

Year: 1988

Instrumentation: Double choir (SATB), 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players), organ, strings (, didgeridoo, gamelan ensemble (10 players), folk group (flute, violin, accordian, guitar).

Duration: 55 min.

Dedication note: Dedicated to Peter Sculthorpe, Frank Callaway

Commission note: Commissioned by Western Australian Youth Orchestras Association with funds provided by Australian Bicentennial Authority.

Poems by Jack Davis, Taufiq Ismail, Charles Thatcher, traditional, Chief Seattle.


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