The music of

David Lumsdaine

The music of David Lumsdaine

Dialogue of Discovery

Anthony Gilbert, 1990

Peter Lumsdaine, DL, Anthony Gilbert, Lluis Llobet, Col de So, Catalan Pyrenees, 1997.

Our decades-long dialogue emerged out of the early-morning mists at the 1964 Wardour Castle Summer School for composers. Talking was in the air there. Alexander Goehr’s analysis seminars were particularly stimulating, and I marked David Lumsdaine as the man on the boundary who time and again fielded Goehr’s more provocative statements and returned them with interesting perceptions of his own. Our own discussions, growing out of these seminars, soon fell into a pattern of being conducted en plein air, with equal attention being given to exploring unfamiliar woods and fields, and unfamiliar territories of the mind. We continued our version of ‘thought-ball’ for the following six years on a more-or-less weekly basis, to be resumed at intervals throughout the ensuing twenty whenever provoked by parallels in our respective work. We pursued concepts, which can be dangerous: an attempt to pin an idea down can cause it to deflate. An oblique approach and the choice of terms are very important. Little by little we learned to use the periphery of our minds’ vision, on the principle that if you keep a shy Turtle Dove in the corner of your eye it will come in and land on your lawn in full view. The main vehicle for our ideas, therefore, was metaphor, and amazingly agile ones were constructed to convey often the most tenuous of concepts, which might have meant one thing to Lumsdaine but possibly a quite different, though probably related thing to me. In this manner we were able to pursue and elaborate our inner thought processes, which usually, but not necessarily, flowed on parallel lines. The logic of abstractions, perhaps?

Quite early in this period, while living at Great Bookham in Surrey, David Lumsdaine embarked on what he knew would be a long journey towards a large-scale orchestral work. Even in its unformed state, this was his ‘mandala’ –­ not only a mysterious object for contemplation, but also, in the Patrick White sense, something beautiful to carry around with him quite close to the centre of himself. This emerged as Episodes of 1969, but when it finally landed on the lawn I personally felt this was not the full realisation of his mandala; this had to wait until Hagoromo (1977) or even Mandala 5 (1988). But whilst working towards Episodes, he began a succession of smaller-scale compositions which were not so much studies for the ultimate mandala as partial manifestations of it. It was as though the whole work could not be experienced at that time, merely glimpsed from various angles.

These satellite compositions, such as the chamber works Mandala 1 and Mandala 2, are fully-rounded pieces, in no sense incomplete in their own terms; and not all the works written during this period had an obvious bearing on the imagined orchestral composition. Kelly Ground, which suddenly arose out of early preparatory work for Episodes, reflected our joint obsession to write a large-scale work for piano, an obsession stimulated by the proximity and virtuosity of composer-pianist Roger Smalley. But Kelly Ground was also an early symptom of David’s turning back to Australian sources, and it shows how he is able to involve an extra-musical dimension – in this case, the dawn execution of Australia’s principal folk-hero, Ned Kelly, along with the natural world in which Kelly roamed ­­–­ without in any way seeming programmatic. This was the mandala at work. Hold it still and you perceive nothing; turn it and allow your gaze to widen and fleeting images begin to appear. I know no other composer who does this so well. Bruce Chatwin described something similar in Aboriginal lore which he called a ‘songline’. The Lumsdaine equivalent takes the rhythm, the space and the life – the birds, trees and insects – of a given place, and transforms them into pure music. It matters very little whether you, as a listener, have been there yourself. David does more than celebrate the genius loci for you; he gives you such a strong sense of it that it could conflict with, or more likely enrich, your own feeling for the place.


Lumsdaine the visionary could not exist without Lumsdaine the technician, and the effects I’ve delineated are all the product of a highly personal vocabulary of techniques which David evolved slowly, even randomly, throughout the period of our ‘dialogue’. The technical bedrock of it all – matrices and their evolutions and use – seldom came into the discussion. It was not that David was reluctant to talk about his note-ordering processes; rather, that little could be added to his own understanding of them by discourse. The detail of their unfolding in a piece was a constant source of fascination, because they were elegant organisms in their own right which seemed to exist independently of the composer. For the outsider, for whom the whole work was a complex of organisms and the perception of its orderings primarily aural, the dance and change of the matrix could only be grasped in the way one senses order in the dance of light on moving leaves. To know something of what was going on in the whole, one would have to observe one leaf closely, which would be somewhat unnecessary if one wanted to enjoy the dance for its own sake.

DL at Barn Cottage, ‘Shootlands’, Abinger, Surrey 1969.

Even so, despite all our metaphysics, we found ourselves returning again and again to the nuts and bolts of technical matters. For instance, there were lessons to be learned from other contemporaries, at least from those whose work we found aesthetically as well as technically fascinating. It was, after all, out of the analysis seminars at Wardour that our dialogue developed, and an enormously wide range of music had been discussed there. Isorhythmic motets of the late medieval and early renaissance periods seemed to be of fundamental importance because they drew attention to the relationship between pitch and rhythm and the extra dimensions that could grow out of it. But indeed the whole field of early polyphony came under scrutiny. Compositions by Pérotin were gutted as well as isorhythmic pieces by Machaut and Dunstable. And soon after, but in parallel, thanks to the later advocacy of William Coates and Ustad Vilayat Khan, there developed a passionate interest in northern Indian classical music which at that time was by no means as familiar to western audiences as it is now.

Those of our contemporaries whose work we found most fascinating were Stockhausen, Tippett and Birtwistle. I believe it was from Stockhausen that David learned how to use matrices, especially for the harmonic benefits they can yield. From Tippett we learned a good deal about texture, and about how to overlay and juxtapose materials in order to throw new light on them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was from Birtwistle’s music that we drew most strength. Practically everything we saw or heard of his throughout the sixties and early seventies offered us food for thought. It was not only the trenchancy and directness, the simple ‘why-didn’t-I-think of that?’ originality that bowled us over, but also the structural force of the music, the inexorable unfolding of its subtle mechanisms, the relationships between ideas and, in particular, the way the structures demonstrated a completely new perception of how time could work in music. David was endlessly fascinated by these games with time: the relationship between measured (pulsed) time and subjective time, the trick of expanding an idea well beyond its natural term by slyly re-setting it to a point near its beginning and then allowing it to run again with added components. I imagine these and the time-games of Indian classical music helped him to realise his own vision of musical time. The spaciousness of the music comes from large-scale forms which are unique to the music itself.


Form, for David Lumsdaine, is the product of two quite separate considerations. One is external to the work – it might be the ‘inscape’ of a text, a terrain, or a passage from Bach or Schubert, translated into a vision of the composer’s own. The other relates to the growth-mechanisms of the composition itself, and is a matter of technique, of creating logical processes. These processes must somehow correspond to David’s vision, but although they appear to be predetermined, their outcome is not always predictable. As a result, they create a sense that the music is embarking on a journey of discovery.

It is this sense of discovery that characterises David’s whole approach to musical invention. The words ‘invention’ and ‘discovery’ originally had the same meaning, but to him, what is commonly called invention would seem to be a product of the ego. This does not mean that he would simply set things in motion in order to see what would happen. He became familiar enough with this line of approach to realise his visions with exactitude. After all, he used a comparatively narrow range of generative procedures. The goal was always clearly in view, but the journey towards it produced any number of interesting passing encounters. These were usually the product of particular situations and were specific to a particular piece. One example is the delayed entry of the percussion in Catches Catch (Mandala 2), which is the inevitable result of the preceding rhythmic structure but is nevertheless quite unexpected. Sometimes, however, a discovery may be more abiding, and exploited in other pieces. One of the most pervasive, which always produces new revelations, was that of running one rhythmic cycle simultaneously with another. Kelly Ground is the work where this is very much in evidence, but the effects of these asynchronous cycles had been discovered when composing Easter Fresco a year earlier.

In Kelly, the ground interacts with other, more complex cycles, sometimes to create a single line of ‘projections’, sometimes generating decorations within a frame. The ‘projection’ technique created two important offshoots. One was the proposition that the coincidence of two attacks could trigger a new musical event – either an isolated gesture or a completely new strain of activity; the other was the idea that silence itself could be an essential part of the rhythmic structure. The miraculous ten bars of silence at the centre of Kelly Ground are the earliest and clearest example of this phenomenon. (In performance, the last two bars of stillness are ‘coloured’ by the extremely quiet decorative anacrusis to the next rhythmic event – music coming out of silence!) This progression into and out of silence could be a reflection of David’s relationship to the art of composing itself. His work pattern was characterised by long lulls during which he seemed desolately unaware of any forward movement. At such times, he turned outwards – as, no doubt, the ear turns outwards at the still centre of Kelly Ground – and searches for aural phenomena, not necessarily to stimulate further activity, but simply to fill the vacuum. In the sixties, it was to the music of earlier composers that he turned: to Ives in particular, but also to Mozart and Bach. Hours would be spent in quiet contemplation of a passage from Don Giovanni or a piano concerto, The Art of Fugue or the St. Matthew Passion.


Increasingly though, Lumsdaine began to seek out other external phenomena which to his sensibilities had the strongest musical attributes of all, namely birdsong. Birdsong has always fascinated him. The day after his return from a camping holiday in Hampshire in the mid-nineteen-sixties, he played me a recording of what he described as a ‘remarkable composition’. I heard, with some bafflement, a lot of silence, the apparently random cries of water-birds, and then the sound as of the mighty rushing of wings. Variants of the pattern followed, and gradually I began to get the point. This was the archetype of a musical structure different from those which had concerned us until then. It represented a possible alternative to the ‘anacrusis-climax-decay’ or ‘development-climax-resolution’ shapes which had seemed to be fundamental to music. What these waders on the Solent were suggesting by their rhythmic response to other rhythmic stimuli, such as the regular passage of patrolling predators or, on a broader scale, the descent of the tide, was that rhythm did not necessarily need the drama of tension and release to create movement. This could be created by the interaction of independent elements. There could be overall equilibrium until one phenomenon, perhaps by chance, impinged on another and a reaction was provoked. This was the perfect paradigm of the ‘trigger’ principle, and although David never used this term, it became the principle that guided not only his approach to creativity but also the created music itself.

The first composition to use the ‘trigger’ principle in this new, Solent-inspired way was Flights. The setting is an estuary suggested by the evocative calls of seabirds and waders. The composer’s position of observer is emphasised by the use of open forms, particularly mobiles. Even dynamics and some aspects of rhythm are left to the decision of the players.

From then on, this way of proceeding returned time and again: contemplatively in Mandala 1, elegantly and multi-dimensionally in Mandala 2, spectacularly in Episodes. Here each movement treats the interaction between different forces quite differently. Anarchy is hinted at, yet always avoided because of the internal disciplines of each strand of activity.

DL birdwatching on Lindisfarne, Northumberland, September 2010.

Birdsong became a major preoccupation in its own right. Initially, as a neophyte in this area, I contributed little to the dialogue which it began to engender. David’s interest was not only that of a competent ornithologist, but also, and principally, that of a laterally-thinking composer. He did not at that time use birdsong as primary musical material in the way Messiaen was ostensibly doing; instead, he took a detailed and analytical interest in the structure of the songs, which he himself recorded on tape in the field. (He has, in the course of time, become an outstanding recordist and his collection of Australian birdsong, in particular, is vast.) The analytical technique was a simple one: record fast, play back slow. The revelations of detail were astonishing. The human ear can only pick up the minute inflections at quarter- or eighth-speed, and when the pitch is taken down two or three octaves it becomes apparent that a great deal of birdsong comes from the intermodulation of two frequencies. But what absorbed David’s attention most was the cyclic structure of so much birdsong, especially the long songs of such birds as the wren. Fragments recurred repeatedly with microscopically different decorations and in varied, but apparently unsystematic, order. Here, he realised, was another structural model, not too dissimilar to the other one the natural world had given him. But the birds employed it with a sophistication, panache and freedom that set him wondering about the virtues of those types of strict control he had elaborated in his own structures.

David quickly realised that the birds had got it right and that the freedom to order events spontaneously should be given to the players at sectional or building-block level rather than at either overall or detailed levels. After Flights, he went on to use mobiles in Kangaroo Hunt and the first version of Hagoromo.

The importance of dialogue

After thirty years talking to other composers, my impression is that the dialogues David and I had are rare. They may occur in summer schools, seminars or conferences specially set up for the purpose of reviewing the mechanics or aesthetics of music, but the best discussions at such events tend to take place around a bottle at the end of the day, and are seldom sustained. The brain-stretching that David and I undertook would now be considered eccentric, or worse. Even for David and me, the benefits of such an exercise were not always immediately apparent, and I don’t suppose we ever expected all of them to be. But twenty years later, the odd idea stored up from that time now suddenly slots into place.

From time to time though, especially when the prospect of a performance had been dashed, David and I would consider the nature of composerhood and what our rôles and responsibilities should be to society at large and to other composing colleagues. In twenty-six years, David’s own view of his rôle has undergone no significant change. His opinion of those composers who make a virtue of necessity and cultivate ‘the market’, develop a popular image or write ‘downreach’ music, are just as dismissive now as they were in the sixties, and his definition of integrity as the relentless pursuit of an inner vision just as binding. In a move towards developing audience awareness he has evolved as an imaginative and highly idiosyncratic lecturer and broadcaster. The seeds of his gift in this field, no doubt cultivated through his long and distinguished career as an inspiring composition teacher, were just possibly sown during our long walks in the sixties.

For a while there was a positive result. The BBC, thanks largely to Michael Hall during his time as music producer, took a very keen interest, and commissions and broadcasts became fairly frequent. But in organisations other than the BBC, promised performances did not always materialise, and this caused David to suffer increasing distress and frustration. His mind, so well able to find solutions to problems within his work, seemed unable to cope with the simple, even banal fact that inferior works often get a wider exposure. It was a situation he found totally unacceptable, and it ultimately drove him to withdraw from public life, in particular from the very active rôle he had been playing in the greatly-missed Society for the Promotion of New Music, on which he had left a lasting mark, having been on their Executive Committee as well as co-founder and co-director of their long-standing and enormously beneficial Composers’ Weekends. From these, one can reasonably hope, other long chains of equally productive dialogue will have emerged.

(contribution to Michael Hall’s research on Lumsdaine’s work for his book Between Two Worlds).