July 2011

Arts & Letters

Sound harvest

By Andrew Ford
David Lumsdaine, 1998. © Bridget Elliot. Image courtesy of the photographer.
David Lumsdaine’s ‘White Dawn’ and ‘Big Meeting’

Whenever the old conversation is had about what constitutes the authentic Australian sound in classical music – and fortunately it is had less and less – Peter Sculthorpe tops the list of composers. Anne Boyd’s name usually crops up, too. This is hardly surprising. Sculthorpe’s highly idiomatic style has long been identified with the flat, expansive landscapes typical of much of this country and so, when we hear his music, that is what we think we see. Boyd’s music, no less distinctive, adds other sounds, some of them recognisably Asian in origin. Her harmony, like Sculthorpe’s, moves slowly (when it moves at all); her melodies are long, flat and repetitious and, once more, the landscape seems to shimmer before us.

What is surprising is that you seldom hear mention in this context of David Lumsdaine, the composer of a list of pieces that (if you knew no better) might look like a conscious pitch to the patriotic music lover. There is Kelly Ground and Cambewarra, both for solo piano, Kangaroo Hunt for piano and percussion, and the cantata Aria for Edward John Eyre. There are the very different orchestral pieces, Salvation Creek with Eagle and Shoalhaven, and Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for recorder. It isn’t only Lumsdaine’s titles that reflect Australia: since the early 1970s, he has made regular trips to favourite patches of bush, taking with him the latest recording equipment to document the songs, solo and en masse, of hundreds of species of Australian birds.

Some of these recordings have been turned into soundscape compositions, constructed with minimal editing to reflect the diurnal patterns of a particular place, its frogs, insects, weather, as well as its birds. Three of these – Cambewarra Mountain, Mutawinji and Lake Emu – have long been available on CD, and the temptation is to hear in their structures the same sensibilities that characterise Lumsdaine’s concert music, especially the use of foreground, middle ground and background. Indeed the idea of a ‘ground’ – in the musical sense of a continuum, a fixed element, sometimes repeating (though, with Lumsdaine, not often) – is very important to his work.

The temptation to compare scores with soundscapes was too much for Lumsdaine’s friend and colleague, the British composer Anthony Gilbert. White Dawn: Songs and Soundscapes (Metier Records, $35.99; released in November 2010), a double CD supervised by Gilbert, intersperses seven of the composer’s later vocal and instrumental works with excerpts from five of his field recordings. It would be stretching things to say the 12 items are of a piece but nothing jars when the listener is taken from the tiny, bright toccata that concludes the Six Postcard Pieces for solo piano straight to the thoughtful song of a pied butcherbird, then to A Tree Telling of Orpheus – Lumsdaine’s extended setting of words by Denise Levertov, which themselves explore the points of contact and similarity between music and nature. “Line is the driving force,” Gilbert writes of the Levertov piece, but he might as well be describing the butcherbird.

David Lumsdaine, who is 80 this year, left Sydney for England in 1953 and has lived there ever since. For the first 20 years of his exile, he didn’t even visit Australia. When he did begin to return, drawn by the new political climate as much as by a need to renew his experience of the continent, he commenced his field recordings, but it was another decade before he began turning them into composed soundscapes. From the 1970s, Australian birds became important elements in Lumsdaine’s concert music. Gilbert insists that “Lumsdaine does not imitate birdsong”, but if the orchestral clarinets of Mandala 5 aren’t trying to be Australian magpies then I don’t know what they are doing.

Another new CD of Lumsdaine’s work, Big Meeting (NMC Recordings, $19.95; released in May 2011), contains a single, hour-long composition. Although one of the composer’s earliest and finest soundscapes, it has never before been publicly available. In 1971 Lumsdaine was teaching at Durham University in the north-east of England, one of the great coalmining areas of the British Isles. That year marked the centenary of the Durham Miners’ Gala – the midsummer assembly of pitmen from across the county, who would often walk considerable distances to join the celebration, marching into the city beneath their lodge banners, accompanied by brass bands. The miners would gather at the old racecourse for the ‘big meeting’, where they would hear addresses by union leaders and politicians; from there, in an oddly English version of socialism, they would take their banners (some bearing images of Marx and Lenin) to be blessed at a service in Durham’s great Norman cathedral.

That day in 1971, Lumsdaine and his students took tape recorders out into the streets to gather the sounds – the speeches, the bands, the cathedral bells, the general hubbub that results from the sudden quadrupling of a city’s population. Listening back to the recordings, Lumsdaine formed the idea for a soundscape and, over the next seven years, he shaped the piece. Making a stereo version of the original quadraphonic composition proved a more intractable problem. But now we can finally hear why the piece was talked about so much. It is enormously powerful, made poignant by the knowledge that in the four decades since the original recordings were made, every coalmine in County Durham has been shut.

In Big Meeting, Lumsdaine was forced to be more interventionist than in his later Australian soundscapes. He did not have nature ordering the sounds for him, so he edited and reordered material, building drama into the structure of the piece: at its centre lies the simple eloquence of a brass band playing the miners’ hymn; either side of this human voices dominate, now rhetorical, now intimate, shouting, laughing, speaking singly or flocking together.

Then there are the silences. Big Meeting holds many pauses, some of them uncomfortably long. These are not moments of punctuation; on the contrary, the piece reverberates through the silences – the resonances linger in our memories, in our emotions. Big Meeting is a profoundly emotional experience. In the penultimate section of the work, we seem to be standing at the side of a street as a marching band approaches – we hear the bass drum coming closer – and all round is a general babble of voices, some of them intermittently in earshot. Suddenly, very close, a child calls, “Dad? Dad?” We hear the child tell its father something, and the father say, “All right.” Then Lumsdaine repeats the child’s call: “Dad?” And, very briefly, there’s complete silence. Again, “Dad?” Again, silence. There’s an echo of the word, another full-throated “Dad?”, and abruptly a brass band is heard in ultra-slow playback, the cries of “Dad?” proliferating in this dark, queasy sonority. The whole dreadful history of mining disasters rises up in a moment.

But these silences are everywhere in Lumsdaine’s music. There’s the gradual and very beautiful falling away to nothing at the centre of his orchestral essay Hagaromo, and the much more sudden silence just before the rapt coda of Mandala 5. You do not need to have listened to nature with a composer’s awareness to have noticed the way birds will sometimes stop singing one voice at a time, while on other occasions they will cease simultaneously, as though cut off by a conductor. When Gilbert dismisses the idea of Lumsdaine as an imitator, he is right to emphasise that the composer’s experience of nature has affected his work most profoundly at the structural level. The sound of Lumsdaine’s Australia is as rich and multilayered as the sounds of the rainforest or bush. If Sculthorpe and Boyd offer us an idealised version of the country, Lumsdaine finds beauty in the complexity of its nature – and in the nature of that complexity.

In 1997 came Lumsdaine’s longest silence of all. He announced that he had stopped composing. His last piece, A Little Cantata, dedicated to the memory of the soprano Tracey Chadwell and setting three of his own poems, can be heard on White Dawn. At the centre of the piece are these words, addressed to Chadwell. They might be addressed to us:

I gave you some scores …


Some joyful minutes

the music danced;


in the ground of mind.

Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford is an award-winning composer, writer and broadcaster. His books include The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies from Hitchcock to High Fidelity, In Defence of Classical Music and Earth Dances.

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