This work for clarinet quintet in three movements was written following time spent in the north of Scotland, during which I visited the remote and desolate places that my family left behind when they emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand in the 19th Century. Although the music is not intended to be strictly descriptive, the image underpinning the work is that of an infinite shore that stretches from the line of steep cliffs at Badbea overlooking the North Sea, around the world to the rocky southern shores of Aotearoa New Zealand. The work draws on the tonal colour and extremes of pitch that are possible in the clarinet, and the extraordinary platform of sound of the string quartet.
This song cycle for soprano and piano has texts by the composer in Maori and English.
“Awa Herea memorably evokes the physical appearance of symbolic significance of these braided rivers… cosmic weather-driven energy.” (Covell, Sydney Morning Herald).
“Its pace was shrewdly varied and the music encompassed a range of styles – from sung declamation to florid lyricism – without incongruity.” (Jack, Independent).
“The cycle displays all the characteristics of her [Gillian Whitehead’s] mature work. The vocal line is at once exultant and contemplative, the piano writing incisive or lulling; the formal shaping novel yet accessible. It is a memorable piece, filled with the energetic spirit of the natural world and finding through that spirit its own serenity.”
In 1990 I attended the launch of Cilla McQueen’s new book Berlin Diary. This diary made a big impression on me, initially because it brought back memories of my own trip to Europe. I also liked the brilliant mixing of poetic and prosaic styles, and the vivid descriptions of people and places. Something else that impressed me was the strong contrast between the inhuman political situation in Berlin (the wall was still up) and the natural, peaceful beauty of Dunedin, New Zealand (Cilla’s and my own home town). A few months later the Aramoana tragedy (where a deranged gunman killed 13 people – Aramoana is a remote seaside township at the end of the Otago peninsula) changed that around. Cilla’s beautiful, almost ecstatic centrepiece in the dairy “O Aramoana” now took on a terrible subtext, and it seemed as if the inhumanity of Berlin had come to the remote beach community. A year later, the Berlin wall finally came down, and the unification of East and West Germany became a reality.
When Judy Bellingham approached me in 1991 to write a song cycle for her, I immediately wanted to set extracts from the Berlin Diary, to capture these layers of dramatic historical irony along with the essence of a marvellous text. In reality I was able to only set a fraction of the diary to music, and hence the title of my work – Berlin Fragments (which I would also like to think suggests the breaking of the Berlin wall into bits). After talking to Cilla about the work, I decided to make “O Aramoana” the heart of the work, around which somewhat shorter texts are clustered. Sections are often linked by a recurrent chord in the bottom of the piano (the dyad E-F), which I have imagined as a tombstone in musical terms. Framing the work are brief sections which convey the flight to and from Berlin (the “green below” being an unmistakable reference to a return to New Zealand).
The 23 minutes of this song cycle run continuously.
One afternoon Margaret Medlyn and I sat across her kitchen table to discuss poems I might set as the basis of a song cycle for her. She produced quite a stack of New Zealand poems for me to consider: among the items in this pile was a slim, rather unassuming little volume by Alistair Campbell titled Galliploi & Other Poems. Whilst Gallipoli naturally conjures up powerful socio-historical associations for all New Zealanders, I was almost immediately drawn to the second set of poems in the book titled Cages for the Wind and decided to set the last five poems in the collection as a cycle. What struck me most, and still seems so fresh now, was Campbell’s talent for evoking deeply powerful images and feelings in poems of matchless delicacy and subtlety. This understated approach is what drew me to a poem like “Whitey” in which Campbell couches a rumination on death in what appears to be at first an almost whimsical remembered dialogue with a blackbird (the eponymous Whitey) that used to frequent his garden. Most important for me as a composer, though, was the immediately singable lyricism of the poems. I distinctly recall the way, as I began reading it, “Words and Roses” (the first song, and one of Campbell’s most famous poems), began to suggest musical atmospheres and vocal lines unfolding in my mind like buds of roses unfurling their petals. When poems being to sing themselves to me, I know I have found the right material.
This work was the recipient of the “Director’s Choice Award” in the Boston-International Contempo Festival’s International Composers’ Competition.
Commissioned for the opening of the new National Library building in 1987, this work was the centre piece in a concert of New Zealand music which inaugurated the Library’s auditorium. Harris chose Alistair Campbell’s poetry as he has always enjoyed its vernacular quality. Included in the ensemble are some of Harris’ favourite instruments: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and flugelhorn. Harris views this work almost as a kind of unstaged melodrama. As with his To the Memory of I.S. Totzka (2000), Dreams Yellow Lions was written in a period between work on his operas and acts as a substitute for the larger compositional form. Short instrumental interludes link the songs through various emotional states. “It’s all about memories and I always imagine an old man thinking about his younger days, dreaming away, getting old and becoming sick”.
Written in McLeod’s second year of study at Victoria University, this piece shows influences of Benjamin Britten and David Farquhar. The text is a poem by W. S. Broughton, the older brother of one of her childhood friends. She was drawn to the poem because it expressed the disillusionment with religion she herself was experiencing at the time.
Being a student work, Epithalamia has been somewhat neglected by performers, and has only recently been ‘rediscovered’. The youthful composer’s impressive self-confidence, both in the expressive use of the voice and in the effective piano writing is obvious. (Programme note: Mark Jones).