Au began as a series of musical reflections on the Auroroa with pitch material based on the name of bass clarinettist Andrew Uren whose initials provide the title. This title, ‘Au’ is also the abbreviation for ‘aurum’, the Latin word for gold. As I was composing I realised that I was dealing with golden qualities not only of the sounds in the piece but also of the musicians in the ensemble 175 East who would be giving its first performance. This was particularly the case with the soloist Andrew Uren whose adventurous bass clarinet playing has revolutionised the way in which composers in New Zealand think about the instrument.
The work was commissioned by Andrew Uren with funding provided by Creative New Zealand and was first performed on 15 September 2002 at The Space, Wellington, by Andrew Uren and ‘175 East’ conducted by Hamish McKeich.
Fission draws its name from the actions and reactions that characterise a lot of its material. The work was based on the concept of organised chaos ‘resolving’ to a chaotic organisation. Despite the apparently haphazard nature of the first section, it is in fact highly organised, while the last section, calmer and seemingly more ordered is in fact far less organised. The piano plays an important role providing much off the impetus for the introduction of new ideas and textures, introducing the first real melodic material in the solos of the middle section, and directing the harmony towards the greater resolution of the work’s end.
Edgard Varèse’s Octandre (1923) is arguably not trademark Varèse: missing are the menacing batteries of percussion that punctuate most of his important works. While the challenging idée fixe rhythmic unisons of works such as Ionisation are in evidence, in Octandre, melody is also to the fore.
The work is, to my ears, both clinical and expressive, and, after umpteen listenings, it remains modern and fresh. It is the one work above all others that I go to when seeking inspiration. So, as a means of perhaps peeling back a few layers of mystery surrounding Octandre and also as a way of demonstrating my gratitude to it, I have written this homage, using Varèse’s same instrumentation and three movement structure.
First Movement – a solo flute incites an angry mob.
Second Movement – ugly harmonies mingle with fairground-esque diversions and a sinking feeling.
Third Movement – whereas the first and the second movement used isolated, haphazardly-chosen fragments from Octandre to propel the discourse, this movement is anchored by motifs borrowed directly from the work, including the oboe, piccolo and bassoon openings of each of the first, second and third movements respectively and the brutal tutti rhythmic unisons of Varèse’s third.
As if to underline the composer’s reverence for Octandre, the final oboe note, taken from the stunning ending to Varèse’s first movement, is a semitone below that used by the Frenchman.
This octet was commissioned by Donald Armstrong for Amici, and was composed early in 2007. It is a programmatic work in a single movement, divided into three sections. The first section, subtitled Octopus depicts the fluid and graceful movements of that mysterious seas creature. A quiet, flowing melody on violin symbolizes the Octopus, and is played in canon, before a more aggressive idea appears. The second main theme features horn and clarinet accompanied by the strings, and is glowing in character. A gently shimmering middle section is interrupted by suggestions of danger, leading to a climax. Following this, the main themes appear in reverse order, and a short clarinet solo leads the music directly into the second section, subtitled Sacrifice. After the female Octopus mates it stoically protects its eggs and slowly starves itself to death in the process. This section is characterized by slowly moving progressions, connected by glissandos, and a rising violin line that eventually leads to a lamenting bassoon solo that recalls the main theme of the first section. The bassoon solo speeds up and leads to the third section, Survival of the Small, in which the tiny Octopuses leave their mother to fight for their existence. Sinuous melodic lines contrast with an ominous-sounding second idea, leading to a rhythmic climax. The main theme only emerges following this, on the violin. A continuous stream of quavers through the movement is suggestive of a long journey. Towards the end the music settles harmonically and slowly fades; we hear fragments of the main Octopus theme returning on the horn.
This Octet was composed as part of the composer’s work at the University of Otago.