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Herring Island Piano Sonata (solo piano)

by Linda Kouvaras (2022)

Work Overview

Herring Island Piano Sonata was written at the invitation from curator/concert pianist Coady Green, with generous support from APRA-AMCOS; Australia Council for the Arts; City of Melbourne; Creative Victoria; and a Faculty Research Grant from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne.

Herring Island Piano Sonata is dedicated to a collection of "lost" and "contemporary" landmarks and histories surrounding Herring Island, the humanmade islet situated in Melbourne's Yarra River. Drawing a 5km radius from Herring Island as a reflection of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions around the time of pre-composition conceptualising, the work includes evocations of major landmarks and Indigenous sites. It is underpinned by concern for the threat of human desecration, particularly environmental threats caused by human behaviour represented by intertwining movements representing endangered wildlife in the area.

The work exists in two versions: a standalone solo piano concert version; and a "theatrical version" using sound designer Roger Alsop's soundscape, recorded from the region, and live narration interwoven through the music.

Text for the latter version is provided by N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM, the Boon Warrung senior elder and founder of the Boon Warrung Foundation, who has written evocatively and with deep cultural knowledge on these locations. Composition of this work was inconceivable without Indigenous consultation also from Yorta Yorta man Tiriki Onus, head of the Willin Centre, who is the narrator of N'arweet Carolyn Briggs' text.

A 3km distance from the CBD, Herring Island shoulders the City of Yarra, the Parish of Jika Jika and the suburbs of Toorak and Prahran. Named after Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Francis Herring, Victoria's longest serving Chief Justice and Lieutenant Governor, the islet evokes both interwar and post-war Victorian experience. Its location has a deeper Indigenous history as a fluid boundary contiguous to the Wurudjeri people of the north and the Boonwurrung people to the South. The texts are "Long Island", "Ngargee Tree" and "Waterways."

Movements for the solo work are called I: "Introit" [6:00]; II: "Spiritus" [4:00]; III: "Heartbeat" [5']; IV: "Life Force" [5']; they can be performed as stand-alone movements.

The choice of the piano comes with deliberation. The instrument, a 19th-century European cultural icon and talisman of the past Invasion/Settler society, is accompanied by mythologies which highlight the cultural importance that society placed on this object, with claims of more pianos per capita than existed in England coming to Australia from abroad at the time of colonisation: such claims endure in the national Settler psyche.

There is a conscious reckoning and view towards reconciliation inherent in my use of the piano in Herring Island Piano Sonata, a desire for a healing confrontation with the place from where this sonata draws its ideas, the music resonating with the species, entities, locales and histories of this small but richly historic area in Melbourne. My compositional approach here is predicated on an abstracted, personal "response" to the dynamic of the project as a whole, from what I would call a "respectful distance." By this I mean I did not seek to appropriate any sonic representations of the subject matter in the piano writing.

The first two movements, I: "Introit" and II: "Spiritus," represent a space beyond-the-human, a cosmos always-already-there, while III: "Heartbeat" presents the concept that the First Nations inhabitants gave the place its living pulse, and IV: "Life Force" acknowledges the enduring strength of our First Peoples and of the land.

The full ensemble version of this work is being recorded for CD through Toccata Classics (London), Tiriki Onus (narrator); Roger Alsop (soundscape); Coady Green (piano), and is due to be released late-2023/early-2024.

— © Linda Kouvaras 2022/2023

Work Details

Year: 2022

Instrumentation: Piano.

Duration: 20 min.

Difficulty: Advanced — Movements II & III are less difficult than I & IV; suitable for HSC/VCE as stand-alone movements

Contents note: I: Introit [6:00] -- II: Spiritus [4:00] -- III: Heartbeat [5:00] -- IV: Life Force [5:00]. Can be performed as stand-alone movements.

Dedication note: Dedicated to Coady Green

Commission note: Commissioned with funds provided by Creative Victoria, University of Melbourne, City of Melbourne, Australia Council, APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund.

The composer notes the following styles, genres, influences, etc. of this work:
Neo-tonal, modal; postmodern


Performances of this work

4 Jun 2023: at Of Birds and Monuments (The Memo (Healesville)). Featuring Duo Eclettico, Tiriki Onus.

Sep 22: Hanson-Dyer Hall, Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne VIC. Featuring Tiriki Onus, Coady Green, Roger Alsop.

Sep 22: Hanson-Dyer Hall, Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne VIC. Featuring Coady Green, Tiriki Onus, Roger Alsop.

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