“Sparkling parted tongues of flame crackling forth from the apostles’ heads, their mouths spouting languages intelligible to all”. Music can be a kind of ‘outpouring’, a creative combustion that we try to make intelligible with words. The piece begins as a steady, simple walk – like strolling down an old wooden pier. The boards creak, nails shake loose, the whole rickety structure shudders and quakes. Right at the end of the wharf, where the water laps the wood, there’s a barnacle – beautiful, ugly, and stubborn all at the same time. How can this small creature cling to one place for its entire life?
What happens to us after we die? This fundamental question has haunted human imagination for thousands of years. Many recorded accounts of ‘near-death’ experiences from all over the world provide evidence that human consciousness remains active in the time immediately following death. These independent accounts describe similar events: the person (or ‘spirit’) floating above their dead body, the appearance of a great light, being told to go back, and so on.
In 1959, Gina Baxter-Leipolot underwent an emergency operation, was in a coma for three days, and was not expected to recover. During this time she had a ‘near-death’ experience in which she was drifting above a Mediterranean coastline. She heard music, such as the “velvet sound of violins, underbroken by a sound like mandolins” and “a humming sound, building up in force like thunder”. Gina remembered the music after she recovered from the coma and twelve years later she wrote the music down in a basic form, with the help of a retired music examiner, John Chew. She called the music ‘Revelations’.
Having been stirred by Gina’s story and other ‘near-death’ accounts, I decided to base my orchestral piece loosely on ‘Revelations’. Gina’s music only appears in the coda of the piece, played on celesta and harp. It is fragmented and interspersed between large orchestral gestures that depict shafts of light.
Revelations begins with human suffering, symbolised by an anguished chromatic motif on the violins. This is joined by ascending brass chords counterpointed against descending wind chords, as the ‘spirit’ floats out of the body. With the entry of the harp the music becomes ethereal, and the flute plays a sinuous, floating melody. A sinister idea is heard on low clarinets, based on the ascending chords. Following development of these ideas it is the piccolo’s turn to play above the harp, as the ‘spirit’ floats even higher over the sea (symbolised by a static chord, C-D-E). The music gathers in intensity and at the stroke of a log drum the strings play a fast and dynamic fugato. This section is turbulent and spiralling, and uses elements from the slow section: the piccolo theme, the low clarinet idea, acsending and descending chords, and thick ‘cluster’ chords. Resolution is only found at the start of the coda, where the strings play the static chord C-D-E, and the brass and winds play joyful versions of earlier motifs. Gina’s music then appears, and the piece is rounded off by a blaze of light. To quote Gina: “Don’t be afraid of death.”
Music plays with time in so many ways – bending it, compressing it, folding it, expanding it… What role can silence play in this game of temporal illusion? Apart from its obvious potential as a kind of temporal/sonic punctuation, breaking up the apparently continuous flow of time, silence is pregnant with the potential for reflection – reflection on what has come before and on what may be yet to come. Taken to an extreme, silence can introduce a kind of entropy into a piece – a long silence can fracture a piece so severely that it functions as an open door, inviting the listener to wander off, away from the world of the composer. But silence is much more than just the absence of sound. It has a ritualistic aspect. Think of the minute of silence dedicated to the dead, think of the silence of meditation and prayer that takes us beyond the noise and continuity of quotidian existence. Perhaps music can be a metaphor for silence on this level. Perhaps the whole musical work can function as an extended metaphorical silence interrupting our everyday concerns, inviting reflection, turning down the internal dialogue and fading out the conceptual grid.
The Great Harbour of Tara is a tone poem about Wellington. A conductor’s score and fully edited parts are available.
The work starts with atmosphere – waves lapping very gently on Petone beach and the tinkle of sand. The main theme sounds on the french horn then the music builds and eventually a reference is made to the old whaling days followed by a storm (a characteristic of Cook Strait – the infamous ‘southerly’) building to hurricane force strength. The storm also alludes to the sinking of the Wahine (a Cook Strait ferry) in the ‘60s. An elegy for strings follows in honour of the victims of that disaster. The mood gradually changes to calm acceptance and on to an optimistic view of Wellington’s future, a big, full tutti . The work closes with the atmosphere of sand, surf and evening.