A Dance and a Hymn for Alexander Maconochie

Norfolk Island, 25th May 1840

Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World.

He said: ‘It is useless, if the last landing-place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’

And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’

- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver.

About the title: During the composition of this music, I became engrossed in Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, a pretty fair and well-documented record of the English convict system and its place in the founding of the colony. There I came across the story of Alexander Maconochie. Amongst the sometimes careless, sometimes deliberate brutality of the System, his contribution as commandant of Norfolk Island, between two of its blackest periods, stands out as a brief flickering of what we would like to call humanity. The System got rid of him and his attempt at penal reform before any lasting damage could be done to it, but in a short time he did manage to create a space in which some of his charges were able to rediscover their dignity and spirit. The account of one day in particular stood out in my mind – soon after his arrival, Maconochie declared a holiday to celebrate the Queen's birthday. From dawn till sunset the prisoners were free to be alone, to be with friends, to roam the island, swim, eat and drink (food and rum provided at the commandant's expense), sing, dance, act plays – people who only weeks before would have been given the lash for singing, whose food was thrown to them as to pigs. There's no 'programmatic' significance to any of this music, not even Von himmel hoch, it's just that the characters of the Norfolk Island colony on that day began to inhabit "my" dance as though they had always been there – the people, the creatures of the island as well as its trees, shrubs, rocks, hills, bays – all dancing their way from dawn till dusk on the day Maconochie opened the great gates of the prison compounds.

A Dance and a Hymn was commissioned by Elision and given its first performance by Elision in Melbourne on 14:5:89.

DL, 1990