In 1990 I attended the launch of Cilla McQueen’s new book Berlin Diary. This diary made a big impression on me, initially because it brought back memories of my own trip to Europe. I also liked the brilliant mixing of poetic and prosaic styles, and the vivid descriptions of people and places. Something else that impressed me was the strong contrast between the inhuman political situation in Berlin (the wall was still up) and the natural, peaceful beauty of Dunedin, New Zealand (Cilla’s and my own home town). A few months later the Aramoana tragedy (where a deranged gunman killed 13 people – Aramoana is a remote seaside township at the end of the Otago peninsula) changed that around. Cilla’s beautiful, almost ecstatic centrepiece in the dairy “O Aramoana” now took on a terrible subtext, and it seemed as if the inhumanity of Berlin had come to the remote beach community. A year later, the Berlin wall finally came down, and the unification of East and West Germany became a reality.
When Judy Bellingham approached me in 1991 to write a song cycle for her, I immediately wanted to set extracts from the Berlin Diary, to capture these layers of dramatic historical irony along with the essence of a marvellous text. In reality I was able to only set a fraction of the diary to music, and hence the title of my work – Berlin Fragments (which I would also like to think suggests the breaking of the Berlin wall into bits). After talking to Cilla about the work, I decided to make “O Aramoana” the heart of the work, around which somewhat shorter texts are clustered. Sections are often linked by a recurrent chord in the bottom of the piano (the dyad E-F), which I have imagined as a tombstone in musical terms. Framing the work are brief sections which convey the flight to and from Berlin (the “green below” being an unmistakable reference to a return to New Zealand).
The 23 minutes of this song cycle run continuously.