Commissioned in 2000 by the NZTrio, A Feather of Blue takes its title from a phrase in a poem called A View From A Window by New Zealand writer Kevin Ireland. I have always admired the wry humour and brightness of Kevin Ireland’s writing and many years ago set three of his poems for soprano and mixed ensemble. As a kind gesture Mr Ireland sent me a copy of his book of poems Skinning A Fish, and I was particularly struck by the imagery of colours, flowers, feathers and birds in this poem, which illustrates rain pouring down a window pane and giving way to a burst of sunshine after a storm.
I got to know Euan Murdoch both as a friend and as a musician when he came to Dunedin to teach cello at the University some years ago. Everything about Euan encouraged me to write him a piece: his lively and warm personality, his huge enthusiasm for music and his brilliance as a player, plus a certain down-to-earth Kiwi quality that is refreshing to encounter within classical music circles. Having composed The Blue Sonata for him in 1999, I was approached by Euan to write something else. He had moved to Wellington for a job at Victoria University, and wanted a piece for Trio Victoria. I relished this opportunity to compose again for Euan, and for the others in the group, Doug Beilman and Thomas Hecht. During 2000 I came to the conclusion I needed a substantial break from composing, due to what might be termed creative ‘burn out’. I also wanted the time to reassess the direction I was heading with my music. Consequently, the trio commission arrived at a time where I felt the urge to experiment and come up with something a little different. Having said that, there are connecting threads with earlier pieces, particularly my Symphony No.2 which was premiered at the Wellington Arts Festival in 2000. Piano Trio was commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand, with funding provided by Creative New Zealand.
The Piano Trio attempts to suggest psychological states through sound images. It is not directly programmatic but, as the titles of the movements suggest, there are distinct ideas and moods embedded in the music.
The first movement uses imaginary characters from childhood – Maggie Boy and Nice Boy – as representations of two sides of personality: the bad and the good, or the dark and the light. Maggie Boy has music that is barbarous, angular and dissonant. In the opening section a 12-note theme appears, providing the basis for much of the material that follows. Following a metric modulation (or change in note values) the violin and cello play a wispy, lyrical theme that portrays Nice Boy, while the pianist’s right hand tinkers away with 12-note themes, impervious to the sentiments of the strings. Maggie Boy returns in the final section of the movement, dispatching Nice Boy to the recesses of the mind.
The second movement, The Deamon, is concerned with neither good nor bad but rather the nothingness of depression, that caged state of mind where emotions and feelings seem to spiral inwards. Melodic lines twist and turn, trying to find a way out of the psychological cage. Reference is made to the 12-note theme from the first movement, as well as the ‘life and death’ theme from my Symphony No.2.
The third movement, Hyper-dyper is, as its title suggests, ebullient and almost frantically busy. An angular and jazzy opening theme is followed by a nervous, darting second theme featuring some special effects on the strings. The piano rudely interrupts proceedings and a playful but tense middle section follows, based on the 12-note theme from the first movement. In the Coda the ‘hyper’ quality dominates and the Trio comes to an end on a crunching discord.