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White Flowers : after wood and garden

by Connor D'Netto (2023)

Work Overview

Having performed some of my chamber music in years past, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra reached out to commission a few new works for chamber music concerts in their 2023 concert season, including this song destined for a program titled "Watercolours", alongside works by Debussy and FaureĢ.

The first time I had a chance to sit (over Zoom) with Jessica Cottis, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the orchestra, she excitedly told me of the book that inspired and influenced much of her curation of season, 'Chroma', by artist, filmmaker and queer-activist Derek Jarman. The book, written in Jarman's final year of life before passing from HIV/AIDS, is a lyrical and personal collection of writings exploring the colours of the spectrum, fluidly shifting between prose and poetry, musing on the history of various pigments, recounting memories of childhood and his career that evoke certain colours, and reflecting on his rapidly deteriorating health.

Though both Jessica and I thought Jarman's text would be so perfectly suited to set to music, the limited time we had to complete the work meant the admin and bureaucracy of licensing copyright text was not an option. However, the book is strewn with quotes from other sources, many of which were public domain, from Greek philosophers grappling with the nature of colour, to Newton unravelling its physics, to Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari reflecting on his first impressions of the Mona Lisa and Da Vinci's use of rosy and pearly tints.

One such quote that grabbed me, found in Jarman's chapter on white 'White Lies', is an excerpt from "Wood and Garden" by Gertrude Jekyll, a British horticulturist, garden designer and writer of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. Published just before the turn of the century, her book compiles various articles written for The Guardian in the years prior with new material, a combination of personal musings and instructional journal, creating much like Jarman's reflections on the colours of the spectrum, an exploration of the seasons and different families of plants.

I found myself strangely drawn to this little passage, a tangent thought where she depicts how a flower cannot truly appear white - seemingly white leans either bluish, yellowish or the colour of chalk. In a like manner, the few musical gestures in this piece appear are seemingly static and similarly continuing, yet with slight and constant variation lean slightly in one way or another to delicate effect.

Work Details

Year: 2023

Instrumentation: Soprano voice, violin, piano.

Duration: 7 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Commission note: Commissioned by Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

First performance: by Chloe Lankshear, Kirsten Williams, Edward Neeman at CSO: Watercolours (Albert Hall, Canberra) on 5 Mar 2023

Performances of this work

5 Mar 2023: at CSO: Watercolours (Albert Hall, Canberra). Featuring Chloe Lankshear, Kirsten Williams, Edward Neeman.

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