The music of

David Lumsdaine

The music of David Lumsdaine

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Aria for Edward John Eyre

This is my myth of the making of Aria

Mr. Hobson’s Class, Tuesday afternoons, after playtime under the peppercorn trees: Australian Explorers wandered westwards across the large, yellowing, fly-spotted wall map in the stuffy classroom, died of hunger, thirst, exposure in its cracks, or were speared by Aborigines who ambushed them from behind the ink cupboard. Sometimes these incomprehensible men managed to return to triumph, respectability, and grants of land when they regained the dusty streets of the tiny nineteenth century cities, isolated as the moon, which were the hub of their precarious civilization.

Whether they died or lived, they became rooted in Imperial History along with the sun-bleached flags, Gallipoli photographs and other trophies of Colonial Glory. Our icons: the Explorers, the Pioneers, the Anzacs, ADVANCE AUSTRALIA FAIR.

But out there - crossing endless plains, the beds of dried-up rivers, taunted by screeching Corellas as they lay exhausted in the thin shade of a Callitris pine – what were they really doing? What, if anything, were they trying to achieve? Given the fearful fascination this little boy found in their stories, what were they saying to me?

With the passing of time, the explorers became relegated to the lumber room of my early school-days – apart from isolated moments when the country I would be crossing reminded me of images from the diaries, or the stabs of even mild dehydration on a long bush-walk gave me an insight into their perennial agony; – until I first read Patrick White’s Voss.

Voss is an explorer before he has set foot outside the town. He is an explorer as other people are soldiers or poets. He is obsessive and impractical to an extraordinary degree, yet he imposes his will on so many practical citizens (as they see themselves) of the apparently utilitarian and unimaginative colony in order to get money, men and supplies to fuel his fantasy of exploration. The citizens need to be taken in by him; the colony itself is a fantasy which they are living out – they need a mythology of themselves in order to sustain the fantasy, and Voss will do as well as any to act an essential role within their story. White’s fictional explorer was created out of many historical characters, and in particular, Edward John Eyre and Ludwig Leichardt. For as many historical explorations which achieved an ‘opening up of the country’ (and the phrase itself was/is part of the colonial mythology) there were as many which achieved nothing more than a map, or a journal (more colonial mythology), and a story of survival. Ultimately, the myth of survival was an essential need of the colony.

I found White’s novel both a remarkable work of art and an extraordinary adult articulation of my own childhood preoccupation with the explorers and their predicaments. The novel also started echoes which only music could articulate. I couldn’t imagine composing an opera from the novel, as another composer has; my concern was to realise, not a narrative, nor even a character, but a landscape of the mind, a focus at that point where the fantasy of will, ambition, imagination steps into the fantasy of rock-knotted earth, midday sun, spilt water bottle; to explore myself, the composer, in that strange world where sounds inside the head are as solid as tree trunks, lights are as brilliant as sun reflected on the water, texture as grainy as sand underfoot. The music would not be about a journey – it would itself be the journey.

After reading some of the original journals it became clear to me that Eyre’s crossing of the Nullarbor was the quintessential text for me to follow, for these reasons:

The journey was unintended. Eyre’s backers had wanted him to open up the North-South route across the continent, but he was turned back by the unusually wet conditions which created his “impassable lake" (Lake Eyre).

The journey was also intended. This was the exploration which Eyre had originally dreamed of making but which was deemed unnecessary by his backers in Adelaide.

Its beginning was patently wasteful and extravagant. The expedition set out with a large complement of men and supplies, but eventually the main body of men had to be sent back to Adelaide and supplies buried well before the actual crossing began. So the journey was actually accomplished with an extreme of economy.

Its beginning is an unconcealed record of sloth and indecision; after he’d sent back the main body of the expedition to Adelaide, it took Eyre three months before he could bring himself to move from the base camp and begin the crossing. But once the crossing began, in effect, Eyre allowed the journey to make its own decisions without interference.

The journey contained all the agony of extreme hardship, physical and psychic, and the mystical initiation which came with survival.

The journey contained the colonial subtext of the Blacks who ‘murdered’ Eyre’s faithful (white) overseer, and the good, faithful Black (boy), Wylie, who took his place.

Moreover, it contains an extreme example of the surrealism at the core of myths of isolation and contact. During the worst part of the journey along the Great Australian Bight, Eyre and Wylie sight an anchored ship. They attract its attention, and are rowed out to the French (enemy) ship, to be welcomed and entertained by its English captain (a traitor) who offers to deliver them safely back to civilization. But after a few days of rest and entertainment in comparative luxury, they return to land to resume their journey. (This marvellous episode had to be omitted from Aria for reasons of musical economy.)

After the event, Eyre wrote up his journal with a real appreciation of the heroic drama involved. Its style can shift from the best Victorian rhetoric of melodrama to an equally extraordinary – but still heroic – understatement.

In the end, the expedition was of no practical value whatsoever, yet furnished one of the best known stories in Australian history, and Eyre and Wylie became two of Australia’s heroes.

Finally, (though of course we weren’t taught this in Australian History and 1 knew nothing of it till the period I was researching Eyre) our young Australian hero, our humane ‘Protector of Aborigines’, became in middle life the governor of Jamaica responsible for the brutal suppression of the slaves’ rebellion. So he figures in another set of myths in the role of tyrant and monster.

Why should a ‘landscape of the mind’ need a text at all? Presumably for the same reason that all of those works in which I have followed an image, or a metaphor to the roots of my mind have required the greatest array of pre-compositional disciplines in order to free my imagination, invention or whatever one might call it to concentrate wholly on the matter to hand. And the original choice of text and techniques is made by the intuition at the most fundamental level of invention. Like the ‘impassable lake’ which forced Eyre to make the journey he needed to make, the cheeks of text and technique keep the imagination on course. The music is enabled to make its own proper decisions, while my day to day invention is wholly employed in keeping up with it. But the music is still to come; having decided on the text, how to use it?

Coming to terms with the necessity to use a sequential text within a non-sequential structure took several years, during which I chose excerpts from Eyre’s journal, cut and pruned and pruned again, wondering what shape its final articulation would be. I was concerned to respect the essentials of Eyre’s style while not allowing his occasional prolixity to interfere with a musical and poetic precision. Towards the end of 1971 I spoke of the work to Michael Hall, then a producer at the BBC, who had already commissioned Looking Glass Music and produced a number of concerts containing my music. He became encouragingly enthusiastic about the idea of Aria, and initiated arrangements to commission it for a BBC Invitation Concert the following season. During the next seven months, however, the work still refused to gel into any of the nice shapes I prepared for it. (This is the aspect of composition which can not be taught - neither can it be learnt!) It was only the imminent approach of the performance deadline which revealed the final line of the march:

1) Labyrinth: The sequential text of the journal would be spoken, and would unwind from the ‘homecoming’ (which was also Eyre’s realisation of his essential solitude) like the string within the Labyrinth. Never mind that throughout the first part of the work the listener would hear the text in chronological order - at the point where the music began to accelerate to the point of greatest energy (the night of ‘my overseer’s death’), the journal would begin to fugue with itself, to dissolve its own semantic and time structures into a mobile of spinning images.

2) Reflection, mirror: The selection from Eyre’s journal would give rise to three layers of text: the foreground journal entries spoken by a male voice, a shortened background echo, also spoken by a male voice which would fuse with the first during the fugue, and share the foreground text for the last part of the journey. The third would be a highly condensed selection of words and images which would be drawn out into

3) the line of the aria itself, sung by a woman: Transformation.

Where did she come from? It’s as though Voss were stood on its head and the book entitled Laura Trevelyan. So far, my telling of my myth has been pointing to a meaning rather than giving a meaning to Aria, and that’s the way I meant to continue. With the entry of the female voice in Aria its magic begins, and that magic can only work for you if you are free to discover its essential meaning for yourself. I’ll confine myself to a few more pointers.

Colonial History has little place for women outside their occasional mention as Brave Wives and Mothers, Heroes of a Bushfire (or a drought), or Saviours of the Homestead when the Man - normally a central figure - is dead (or disabled). Of course the women retire to a decent and honourable position of obscurity when the crisis is past.

But this is only half the story. To what extent does Voss exist outside Laura’s mind? Where would Ulysses be if Penelope forgot him? A Labyrinth is conceivable without an Ariadne, but could it structure a myth?

Labyrinth, reflection, transformation: three structural metaphors which had been emerging as basic to my composition during the latter part of the sixties, during the period Aria was shaping in my mind. The connections between Aria and Kelly Ground, Episodes and Mandala 2 are fairly obvious; less obvious but no less vital are its relations with Caliban Impromptu and Looking Glass Music. The latter takes its name in the first place from Lewis Carroll (cf. ‘Looking Glass Poetry’, ‘Looking Glass Insects’), but it also refers to the structure of the work at every level (not to mention the relationship between the composition and the composer!). In the music of Aria all these metaphors are present and, through the medium of canons, work on a number of structural levels at the same time.

The basic structure – not to be confused with form – is an enormous isorhythmic canon from which every area of the work receives its identity and its relation to the whole. This is the ground of the piece. It emerges at the surface of the music just after the half-way point, and continues to the climax – the point where the isorhythms coincide. As they move out of synchronization, so the canon drops from sight again. (cf. Mandala 2) More obviously, canons by inversion, augmentation and diminution create the foreground texture of most of the music, particularly striking being the canons created by overlays of soprano lines on the recorded tapes. There is a literal connection between these textures and Eyre’s references to refraction and mirage in the landscape, but their picturesque aspect is less important than their ability to warp our experience of linear time.

Perhaps my use of the word ‘labyrinth’ needs some explanation. I first borrowed it to describe a tape feedback complex which I evolved in the late 60s to create a work called Bourdon with a Bell (not, itself, a survivor). The tape of a live recording is passed through two or three additional tape recorders which return the signals through filters to be re-mixed with the original signal. The direction, level, duration and rhythmic phase of the echoes are controlled via the faders of the mixer, the harmonic colour via the filters. Using a clear simple signal, such as the bell in Bourdon, it produced a most beautiful mobile sound.

The process provides the basic sound processing technique of the performance tapes in Aria. Elements of passing sounds (which are probably parts of one canon growing from another) are caught to grow into clouds of spinning lights, only to dissolve as another cloud grows. So the word, labyrinth, which was originally used to describe the signal path, became used to describe the transformation of any fragmentary canon into a spiralling mobile. The word stuck because of some poetic aptness beyond the technical metaphor. It catches the flavour of all the processes, hidden below the surface, which generate the Aria we hear.

The score was composed during the Michaelmas term, 1972, in my room at the top of the Music School at Durham. (Far from interrupting me, I think my colleagues and composition students protected me - most of my students would be equally absorbed in their own work in the Lighthouse of the Library which adjoined my room, too busy to require any ‘teaching’.) As with most of the works of that period, I heard the music of Aria through the music of the Cathedral Bells, directly opposite my windows. Composing walks were down to the river, round the peninsula, returning through the Close and – in the hours it was open – through the Cathedral itself. I loved that building and never ceased to discover a thrill in its sounds and lights and spaces. And during the composing of Aria there was often another excitement which became palpable within its walls: the presence of that landscape of the mind, its images and creatures, so familiar to me, so strange and foreign to the makers of this most beautiful building and to its present inhabitants. In love, I never felt so close to the European tradition: in my roots 1 was discovering just how far I was outside it.

But no music is created in isolation. At the end of the year 1 was ready to go over the score with Gary Howarth who, with enormous patience and faith, had to prepare himself for conducting an hour long work, only half of which he would ever see in score, or be able to control in performance. It probably needs to be said that there was no precedent for a work with such an unpredictable combination of tapes, live electronics, improvisation and strictly notated music. Alan Boustead, the prince of copyists, had parts ready for the London Sinfonietta and Gary Howarth to record the instrumental material needed for the performance tapes in the BBC studios at Maida Vale at the beginning of January.

After working at Dulwich with Barry Guy, preparing with him the improvisation material we would use in the double bass part (we had already spent long sessions together at Cardiff the preceding Summer preparing our methodology), I returned to the Electronic Music Studio at Durham with Jane Manning, for her to record, tirelessly and effortlessly, the material for the vocal tracks. Peter Manning, then my post-graduate student and assistant, later to become director of the studio himself, worked all the hours there were to help me prepare the tapes. (Peter became a virtuoso of the Labyrinth - what’s to become of his skills at the mixer, his ability to tweak a filter in these days of digital synthesis?)

It was only at the last rehearsal on the day of the first performance that everybody finally came together according to Michael Hall’s orchestration: the narrators and musicians up on the stage, the team of sound engineers with microphones and amplifiers, Peter Manning and Peter Wiegold controlling the tapes, Campbell Hughes of the BBC beside me at the mixer, recording engineers in their truck outside the Great Hall of Liverpool University. Gary was at the centre and keeping us in touch with one another. He was still patient and full of faith, which was more than ever necessary, since the possibility of chaos was extreme.

Out of stillness Jane and Barry sketched the first, tiniest sounds. A crowd of Liverpool supporters erupted into the car park outside the concert hall, but the serene concentration of the performers didn’t flicker: indeed the sound of distant violence behind Jane’s gentle humming was extraordinarily poignant. Aria grew from that still point till it filled the spaces of the hall with the ‘landscape of the mind’ – whose mind? An hour later, Jane said “I want to sing that all over again, right now!” Alas, she had to wait twelve years to sing it again. But Aria is still there, in the mind, waiting for anyone who will to make it their own. This is my myth of the making of Aria. It’s an incomplete history, but so is all history. It will do for now.

David Lumsdaine, 23/6/90