In the isolated settlement of Ahipara in the far north of the North Island of New Zealand a tiny white church sits on a hillock looking out to a range of low brooding hills. In the cemetery below, an angel stands on a pedestal at the head of a grave. One day in 1992 renowned New Zealand photographer Robin Morrison came to the church and captured the essence of the angel’s vigil in a memorable and famous image.
In late 1997 the composer Chris Blake travelled to Ahipara and stook in the same place and experiences the same image. The outcome was a short work for string orchestra which captures the hope and desolation of the angel and the memory of the soul over which she stands guard. The work was created for conductor Andrew Sewell and is based, at his suggestion, on a passage from an earlier work We All Fall Down for obliggato cello and orchestra.
This work is one of a series of four, making up The Northland Panels. They were written and premiered as separate works.
In Northland, New Zealand, in the Port Albert Public Cemetery, among the graves of three generations of this pioneering forbears, is a plaque commemorating the death of a New Zealand soldier in the deserts of Libya in 1941. His name is also on the Remembrance Gate at the nearby Port Albert Reserve, one of the seven local men who lost their lives in the Second World War. This unknown story, one of many such stories, is symbolised in a poignant photograph – Memorial Arch, North Kaipara/Dargaville area by Robin Morrison that appears in his 1994 photographic essay A Journey.
This music charts a physical and emotional journey across the generations. It tells of a journey to New Zealand by sea in 1862 on the sailing ship Matilda Wattenbach. It tells of the land to which they came – Oruawharo and its bounty that gave then succour. It tells of a place that became home and of love of country. And then of another journey by sea from which there was no return.
This is the third of Northland Panels, a series of four works for string orchestra based on photographs from A Journey. The others in the series are Angel at Ahipara, Night Journey to Pawarenga and Christ at Whangape.
My first experiences of the soundworlds of Mahler’s late orchestral works revealed to me the vast distances over which late romantic harmonic language can transport the listener. I was instantly taken by the immense power generated by Mahler’s continual re-casting of the opening melodies of the Ninth (last movement) and Tenth (first movement) Symphonies, in subtlely or radically new harmonic and orchestrational contexts. One waits in expectation of the return of the opening and, no matter whether it’s the first or the fiftieth hearing, is stunned by the genius of the new twist applied.
Aufsatz (German for “essay”) is my attempt at capturing – in some very small way – the gist of Mahler’s regenerative methods. The piece is a lopsided sonata form, where an angular development is followed by a vastly expanded recapitulation, which culminates in a perpetual re-spinning of the opening material, cut short by a brief and optimistic coda.
Aufsatz is dedicated to my piano teacher from an early age, Margaret Carryer. Aufsatz was read by the NZSO in November 2003, and recorded for broadcast in 2006. Hamish McKeich conducted on both occasions.