The music of

David Lumsdaine

The music of David Lumsdaine

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Mandala 5

I’ve yet to find a comprehensive definition of the Sanskrit word ‘mandala’. It’s not that the word is vague; on the contrary, from its ambiguities grow a cluster of rich, specific meanings. In English, it usually refers to a picture, a combination of a square and a circle, divided and re-divided, at its centre an image (usually a Buddha) which proliferates symmetrically and transforms asymmetrically. As a picture it may be painted on paper or cloth, or drawn with devoted precision on the sand. It may be a spiral dance through the four quarters of a squared space; the spiral may be in-turning or outward turning. It may be any combination of these things. Whatever its context, the word remains precise in its function: to express and explore wholeness – unity in diversity, diversity in unity.

One summer evening in 1967, I was watching the play of light on the patterns of sand banks and water sculptured by the receding tide on the Kent coast; the play became a dance, and over the next few days the dance became my first mandala, for wind quintet. I’ve never set out to compose a mandala. Each of the works bearing this name has taken their place in the set after they were composed. What links them is the single-minded way each has grown from a brief, central musical image into a diversity of transformed song-shapes.

Mandala 5 was commissioned by the ABC, and first performed by Stewart Challender and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in May 1989.

It is a single movement, 22 minutes long, which begins as a mosaic of fragmentary images and textures. Some five minutes in, the textures coalesce into a dense chorale, the ground of the piece, which slowly moves forward and upward in time till at the end it articulates the foreground. Growing out of the chorale, interrupting it and contrasting with it, is a vigorous dance that fuses with the chorale just before the coda. I couldn’t say if the music is slow or fast - changes in tempo and texture are like changes in perspective. Sharp detail in the foreground grows out of, and returns to the slowly moving background.

The best pointer I can give you to Mandala 5 is the verse which was in my mind from the time I first heard it and which I quote at the beginning of the score:

Rocks, roots embrace- the angophora grows out of the sandstone cliff.

Early spring, full moon, an hour before sunrise. This is the centre of my mandala.

DL, 1989