In 1995 I was approached by the NZSO to write an overture to commemorate the recent death of New Zealand’s most famous war hero, Sir Charles Upham. Upham was famous for having won the Victoria Cross twice for bravery during World War II. He was, however, extremely modest when it came to discussing his achievements. Some years before his death it was suggested to Upham that he have a state funeral; he simply replied, “A bugle will do”. This comment seemed like a good starting point for my piece.
There are no bugles in the orchestra, but the opening section depicting the horrors of battle contains plenty of brass. Sub-titled Maleme and Ruweisat Ridge, the music is fast and furious, built from several motifs, and includes the opening rhythm for the most well known Maori haka (war dance), Kamate, kamate. The music builds to a climax, and the scene changes to a bleak Colditz Castle, where Upham was imprisoned during the war. While in prison he dreams of rural NZ, and the farm near Kaikoura called ‘Landsdowne’, where he eventually settled after the war. This brief pastoral section links into a coda celebrating the outbreak of peace. Motifs from earlier in the piece return but changed into brighter modes. ’
A Bugle Will Do was first performed by the NZSO in 1996 under Andrew Sewell, and was subsequently performed in the USA.
“The sanskrit equivalent for initiation is abhisheka, meaning ‘sprinkle’, ‘pour’, ‘anointment’. And if there is pouring, there must be a vessel into which the pouring can fall. So at last we might really give up all these complications and just allow some space, just give in. This is the moment when abhisheka – sprinkling and pouring – really takes place, because we are open and are really giving up the whole attempt to do anything, giving up all the busyness and overcrowding. Finally we have been forced to really stop properly, which is quite a rare occurrence for us.”
(Taken from Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, from album Nederlands Blazers Ensemble: Zeibekiko, NBECD014).
The composer writes: ”Drafted immediately after reading a book by the Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa, Abhisheka was my first-ever attempt at writing music with space in it. Until this piece, practically everything I had written was ultra-caffeinated, fast, full of notes, and murder on performers. But having been (albeit temporarily) inspired by the great truths and peace in Trungpa’s writing, I found myself navigating slower passages of musical time, as well as exploring the microcosm of inner space between the even intervals of our chromatic tuning system.”
Abhisheka by John Psathas was chosen for the list of string quartets in 2000 for ‘IAMIC Sounds of the Year’. The composer has also prepared versions of Abhisheka for mixed chamber ensemble, this version performed by Manos Achalinotopoulos, Vangelis Karipis and Nederlands Blazers Ensemble at Paradiso, in Amsterdam in 2004, and for string orchestra (2008).
Programme note from the New Zealand String Quartet’s 2012 New Zealand at Kings Place concert.
Acquerello (watercolour) revolves around two quiet and contrasting ideas – one slow, one fast. The principal idea is a slow and highly ornamented descending line. Sometimes the line is stripped of all ornamentation and moves instead in chords. Three times this is interrupted with a short, fast refrain.
An operatic setting of the dance-play by W.B. Yeats which is also performable as a dramatic cantata in a concert version. This is a one-act work and is ritualistic in nature reflecting Yeats’ modeling of the text on the Japanese Noh play. The music is at times dark and atmospherlc, and the archetypal symbolism and metaphysical suggestion of the text, wlth its archaic language and bleak images, is a rich source of inspiration for this. The musical language is comprehensive with tonality and atonality used in conjunction with each other to express literary ideas. Written for five solo singers with the main roles being a tenor and a bass, and a dancer, the backing ii provided by a 30 or so piece orchestra including piano, solo electric violin, and gamelan instruments.
(Programme note from composer’s website)
Ten years have passed since I wrote beneath the veil of silence. I remember at the time I was reading Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, which is where I found the title for my piece. The fact that I was reading a book entitled The Order of Things says something about my preoccupation at the time – order.
This preoccupation derived mainly from a fascination with the visual patterns of nature, in particular patterns found in trees and other flora, as well as patterns found in the movement of water in all its forms. There must, I thought, be a link between order and beauty; and perhaps by exploring this relationship I might also have a chance of making something beautiful.
The phrase beneath the veil of silence also refers to nature. Specifically, the idea that nature contains a message, it is trying to tell us something, but it is mute and unable to speak directly. Hence the veil – something is concealed from our view, even though we are aware of its presence.
The order of beneath the veil of silence is also intentionally hidden from view; it resides at a deep level in the structure of the piece. The surface we hear is laced with signs that refer to this deep structure but always in a more or less obscure way. Hopefully, the result is a sense of order – a feeling that something is going on in the background, without our ever being sure exactly what.
There are two main structural layers to the piece – one that determines the pitch organisation and one that determines the temporal/rhythmic design of the composition. These two conceptually unrelated layers, both products of reiterative processes, are superimposed and interact with each other; in particular, the rhythmic design “smudges” the previously almost geometrically perfect pitch design, shifting elements left and right, and unpicking vertical pitch configurations.
The “fleshing out” of this structural skeleton, although to some extent elaborating material from the skeleton itself, was largely an act of imagination/fantasy. Perhaps this is why the timbral aspect of the piece is so important. It is really in the interaction of the various instrumental combinations that the “poetry” of the piece (if it exists) is located. Thus following timbral indications, such as sul tasto or sul ponticello, are just as important as playing the right note at the right time; and being clear about how each part fits together, and what each part contributes to the combined timbre of the ensemble, is critical to performing the piece convincingly.
Listening to beneath the veil of silence now, I can hear that I was preoccupied with a post-serial musical idiom in the early 1990s. This is hardly surprising considering my teachers we very much of the “Darmstadt” generation and heavily influenced by serialism. In recent years, I have moved away from this approach to composing, but the critical role of timbre and the search for the relationship between order and beauty are two things that remain from the early period. There are very few pieces written before beneath the veil of silence that I would now offer for performance, so this work is very much a starting point, the first step down a path that leads who knows where…