Lines of the Southern Cross (part three)

Hi folks!  Welcome my LACO Blog posting #3, where we’ll finally move inland … at least for a bit … and look at one of the Australian outback’s most famous features … the


Back in 2002, Darrin and I were fortunate enough to take one of the world’s great train journeys: the trans-continental trip across Australia from Sydney (on the east coast) to Perth (on the west coast) aboard the famous Indian Pacific. Part of that trek (which includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track) is across the Nullarbor Plain. A vast, almost treeless semi-arid plain, the Nullarbor has the distinction of being the largest single exposure of limestone bedrock in the world. Covering an area of 77,000 square miles, it stretches from the Great Australian Bight coast in the south to the Great Victoria Desert in the north and straddles the border region of South Australia and Western Australia. The word “Nullarbor” is not of Aboriginal origin, but rather derives from two Latin words: “nullus arbor” … literally meaning “no tree.” The local Mirning people referred to the area as “Oondiri,” which is said to mean “the waterless.”  A place of extreme temperatures (from scorching days to freezing nights), it is extremely flat and what vegetation there is consists of low saltbush and blue bush scrub.

read more →The coastal cliffs where the Nullarbor meets the sea are the magnificent Bunda Cliffs. Ranging from 200 to 400 feet high, these sheer rock faces extend approximately 60 miles along the Great Australian Bight and were formed when Australia separated from Antarctica approximately 65 million years ago.


As we travelled across the wild landscape of the Nullarbor, I was struck by the fact that without any trees or defining geographical features to compare anything to … just low scrub and dusty ground as far as the eye could see … distance and depth perception were completely thrown out the window.  It wasn’t until the train made its one stop on the Plain itself … at the tiny station town of Cook, South Australia (resident human population: 4) … that we were able walk around for a bit and try to comprehend the extraordinary scale of the vast empty space that stretched around us in every direction.  I remember being awed by the enormousness of the sky above our heads and fantasizing that it’s weight could so easily crush us into the ground!

The movement opens with a high unison harmonic in the violins. Representative of the searing heat of the outback sun, this piercing harmonic returns a few times throughout. Other features of this movement include use of a bowed crotale, bowed gong and Japanese binzasara … unusual sounds which help underscore the total alienness of the landscape.  Static layered harmonics in the violins, punctuated by the above-mentioned percussion instruments, lead to the introduction of the theme which forms the basis of the movement. To me, there was an overwhelming sense of melancholy to the Nullarbor and this melody (first played in octaves by the solo violin and solo viola) embodies what I felt as I looked out across the emptiness surrounding us.

Intertwined with this sense of isolation and desolation is the notion of musically-generated waves … which crops up again here as it did in “Lake Cootharaba” and “K’gari Coast.” Suggested by arpeggiated figures in the solo second violin, as well as oscillating tones from the vibraphone, the wavelike motion in this case is not representative of water, but of the distant shimmer of the heat haze … visible on every horizon as you stand on the Plain.

The main theme ebbs and flows in intensity as my mind’s eye travels south across the barren landscape, building to a violent outburst from the timpani as we reach the Bunda Cliffs.  Magnificent remnants of an event that literally tore the continent asunder, they provide my imagination with a platform from which to turn inland and gaze once again into the vast red interior of the country.  Undulating triplets in the solo violins, like a lightly buffeting hot dry wind, caress the final statement of the theme, now played in octaves by the solo viola and solo cello, and provide a transition to the …


As with the Prologue, the Epilogue is not based on a single specific landscape. It represents an expression of both the pain inflicted by industry and urban encroachment on the environment; and a celebration of the powerful life force which enables that very same environment to regenerate and repair itself despite the harm visited upon it by human greed and folly. Having spent so much of these past months exploring … both musically and metaphorically … the areas of the Australian landscape that inspired this piece, I wanted to move beyond just my personal reactions to these places and open a window to the notion that as inhabitants of this Earth, we’re all interconnected with the land and responsible for understanding and caring for it.

This finale is built from both the thematic material and the low didgeridoo-like drone motif originally presented in the Prologue. The solo first violin starts the movement with a development of the triplet figures with which it concluded “Nullarbor Plain” … gradually ascending to a cry of anguish which soars above a bed of intense tremolo and a return of the drone motif, played this time by the double bass section. The angst subsides through a short solo violin cadenza to an even more powerful invocation of the drone motif, now played by the entire cello and bass sections.  Using the “is-it-major/is-it-minor?” harmonic motif introduced and developed in “K’gari Coast,” the second violins and violas play a strummed pizzicato figure over which the first violins jubilantly sing a tune derived the from opening material. Evolving into a raucous dance celebrating renewal and the awesome ability of the natural world to regenerate and reassert itself over man, the first violins, second violins and violas toss the tune playfully back and forth.  Both percussionists enter the fray and the piece blossoms into a joyful chant intoned by the cellos and violas.  The low strings and percussion then descend to begin a powerful repeated ostinato as the violins cascade around them. The excitement builds, culminating in a grand rendition of the Prologue’s opening melody, now played by the whole orchestra. The climax melts away and the drone motif is reintroduced, once again played as a duet between the solo cello and solo double bass accompanied by percussion as it was in the Prologue (claves being used to evoke the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks).  The work concludes very softly, with the two string soloists fading to silence … ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part two)

Hi folks! Welcome my LACO Blog posting #2, where we’ll move on to exploring the music in much more detail …

I approached the structure of “Lines of the Southern Cross” like a ballet. The Prologue is an exposition, introducing the recurring thematic material and the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass, then after a short Grand Pause, we travel through three distinct landscapes and the Epilogue, each section or movement flowing seamlessly into the next without a break.



The first of these landscapes is Lake Cootharaba, a saltwater lake on the Noosa River approximately 100 miles north of my home town of Brisbane. Wikipedia describes the lake as being roughly 6 miles long by 3 miles wide. It is close to the Pacific Ocean (separated by a mere mile of sandy scrubland) but does not drain directly into it. Instead the Noosa River enters from the north via the Everglades Wetlands and exits at the south via a navigable channel to meet the sea at Noosa Heads. Amazingly, it only has an average depth of about 5 feet … so it is shallow enough for people and larger animals to wade or walk through in spots. Brimming with wildlife and native vegetation that flourish in the surrounding Cooloolah National Park, Lake Cootharaba is (fortunately) one of the most protected wetlands areas left in my home state of Queensland.

My partner of 22 years (and spouse for 6!), Darrin McCann, and I were lucky enough to spend a few glorious days on Lake Cootharaba on a houseboat in 1994. The 2nd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross” was inspired by an evening laying out on the roof of the wheelhouse, entranced by the sky full of stars spread out above us. The gentle breeze whipped up small waves which lapped rhythmically against the sides of the boat and being a long way from any city lights, the Milky Way arched magnificently and brightly across the sky. As always, the Southern Cross and the Pointers winked down at us too. The violas open the movement with a wavelike repeated half-step figure, providing a gentle bed for the violins, who enter with a dreamy melody that floats high above. Both violin sections are divided into numerous choirs which exchange harmony and melody back and forth. Solo double bass playing pizzicato and glockenspiel then enter, answering each other and occasional violin interjections in short rhythmic figures, like flashes of light on the surface of the water. Other sounds of the night, like the calls of birds and frogs, interject in the distance. In my mind’s eye, the warm night breeze picks up, the waves become more insistent and the solo viola plays an intense theme which carries the listener east across the dark mysterious waters. Then, as if on the back of a large sea bird, the violins take flight with the tune, high and joyful, and over echoes of the didgeridoo, we cross the small land bridge between Lake Cootharaba and the beautiful beaches of Great Sandy National Park to be presented with the extraordinary vista of the ….



K’gari or Gari (pronounced “gurri”) is the traditional Butchulla (also spelled Badtjala) Aboriginal name for Fraser Island. Fraser Island is about 185 miles north of Brisbane and is situated a little over 9 miles off the Queensland coast just north of Lake Cootharaba. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island and is an area of remarkable natural beauty. It is about 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a diverse array of stunning geographical features ranging from towering sand dunes, giant walls of colored sands, sparkling freshwater dune lakes, and a diversity of vegetation ranging from luxuriant rainforest to eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests and heathlands, all of which grow in only sand with relatively little nutrient.

Wikipedia informs us that archaeological research and evidence show Aboriginal Australians, the Badtjala people, occupied Fraser Island at least 5000 years ago. Tragically though, the arrival of European settlers in the area in the 1840s was an overwhelming disaster for the Indigenous people. Overwhelmed by weapons, disease and lack of food, Aboriginal numbers were reduced to only about 300 people by 1890. Most of the remaining Aboriginals left the island in 1904 and were relocated to missions on the mainland. It is estimated that up to 500 Indigenous archaeological sites are located on the island.

I’ve been fortunate to have visited K’gari a couple of times during my life. One of the things that amazed me each time, was Seventy Five Mile Beach, which runs literally for 75 miles along the east coast of the island up to Indian Head. It is used as a landing strip for small planes and an informal highway for four-wheel-drive vehicles and is truly an awe-inspiring site … pristine sand and magnificent Pacific waves stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. It is this coastline that inspired the 3rd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross.” Featuring solo cello with the orchestra, this movement, like the 2nd, also begins with a musical suggestion of waves … but in this case, they are large and powerful, a force of nature to be reckoned with. The motivic harmonic progression of C major7 to E-flat major over a C pedal gives the piece a kind of major/minor uncertainty throughout. The expansive cello tune that enters over this repeated major/minor figure, carries the listener up the broad windswept coastline, dodging breakers as they rush up the beach and fording freshwater creeks that empty out into the surf. Soon a darkness seeps into the music and the mood changes. The cello begins a series of turgid arpeggios and the movement assumes a sense of urgency, reflecting the drama of a sudden squall or the appearance of a dangerous rip current close to shore. The movement climaxes with a full orchestral outburst suggesting the waters being whipped into a frenzy of foam. All quietens down to a reintroduction of the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass … laying a foundation for a rhythmically-augmented version of the waves from the opening of “Lake Cootharaba” in the low violas and celli. A solo viola plaintively sings a reprise of the melody from the Prologue, expressing my profound sadness for the Indigenous people and their loss of this paradise as their home. The rumble of the mighty Pacific diminishes into nothingness and a solo violin holds a high harmonic to introduce our third landscape …

To be continued … ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part one)

Hi folks! Welcome to my first blog entry on LACO’s website. I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to have the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presenting the premiere of my new work, “Lines of the Southern Cross” this September.

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Lines of a Southern Cross

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane first approached me with the possibility of writing a newly-commissioned work very early in January of this year. He’d been in touch regarding another piece of mine, “Impressions of Erin,” which was commissioned and premiered by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia in 2012. Initially, our conversations were about the possibility of LACO performing “Erin” in an upcoming concert, but clocking in at around 30 minutes, it was too long to fit anywhere on the new season’s programs. Jeffrey then floated the idea of me writing a piece for September 2014. What can I say? … I was immediately excited at the prospect, even though scheduling the work for the first concert of the 2014-15 season only gave me about 5 months to craft something from scratch. Luckily, Jeffrey also had some very strong ideas about the makeup of the work: it should be 12-15 (and no longer than 17) minutes long, it should be for strings and percussion, and subject wise: explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape.

Now these parameters were incredibly helpful insofar as they focused my thoughts very quickly in a very specific direction. The “spirituality of the Australian landscape” had me a little stumped for a bit … what a broad topic! I started reading and researching … trying to find an approach … and relatively quickly (thankfully!), found a common thread in discussions of stories from across the spectrum of world religions and spiritual paths: for millennia, human beings have spoken and recorded tales of encounters with the divine … of incredibly powerful spiritual experiences … in association with specific geographical locations. Most often, the place, through its combination of physical attributes, gave substance to the faith generated there … intertwining landscape and spirituality forever for the person involved and anchoring the experience in their memory of that place.

This struck a very real chord (please excuse the pun!) for me. I started thinking … when a place makes an impact on you, you don’t just see it with your eyes, but with your whole body. You feel part of that picture emotionally for the rest of your life. I thought … okay, so I was born and spent the first 23 years of my life in Australia and have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling in my homeland … why not cast my mind back over all of those journeys, sift through photos, maps and memories and compile a list of the places that affected me profoundly on both a spiritual and emotional level?

Jeffrey and I had also talked about the music of the Australian Aboriginal people and whether we could somehow incorporate a thread of a reference to Indigenous culture in the piece. I wanted very dearly to celebrate and recognize the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. We discussed iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom the world just lost a few weeks ago on August 8, and his evoking of “typical” Australian natural sounds like birds and insects, as well as his use of “Aboriginal melodic shapes, rhythmic patterns and instrumental sounds” … and the possibilities of exploring that avenue further (Deborah Hayes: Visions of the Great South Land in Peter Sculthorpe’s Opera ‘Quiros’). I understand how important it is to be sensitive to the issue of referencing Aboriginal cultural material in other forms of media and also understand that if I were to use direct quotes of specific musical material or sacred property, it would be important to gain permission of Aboriginal elders or spokespersons before embarking on a project. I didn’t want to reference Aboriginal music merely as some sort of badge of legitimacy … to make it “sound” Australian. It was more to honor in some small way the many voices of the people who’ve walked before me on the land I was referencing. Consequently, I decided that rather than directly quote Aboriginal music, I would use strings and percussion to evoke Indigenous sounds.

Another topic we discussed was songlines. A songline is a “musical expression of geographical movement … usually associated with ancestral journeys across vast distances.” It is essentially an oral map in which the singer describes a path’s physical features, such as a bend in the river, the rise of a hill … even a meteorological event or the flora and fauna in a particular area. For eons, songlines or “dreaming tracks” have guided Aboriginal Australians across the continent. The songs generate a sense of place for the listener, usually telling of a locale far away and the singer spends a “great deal of time using his skills to creatively evoke an image of places in the mind’s eye of his audience” (Peter Toner, Sing a Country of the Mind: The Articulation of Place in Dhalwangu Song).

So … short story long … I adapted this concept to compose an original musical “map” … my own version of a songline … to “sing” my own personal experiences through parts of the Australian landscape. These are journeys of my mind’s eye and I’ve drawn on memories of these places to take the listener on not just a physical path, but an emotional one as well. Of course, I’ve had to choose certain places over others (turns out I had a lot of wonderful travel experiences!) … otherwise I would have a piece that was 7 hours long!

The title, “Lines of the Southern Cross,” is drawn from a combination of sources. The Southern Cross, of course, is the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere which appears on the Australian Flag. The “Lines” part of the title refers to the concept of the piece as a series of songlines … and the following celestial factoid that I’ve carried with me since I was a kid (and I paraphrase from Wikipedia here):

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross is frequently used for navigation in much the same way that the Pole Star is used in the Northern Hemisphere. If a line is constructed perpendicularly between nearby Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (often referred to as the “Southern Pointers” or just “The Pointers”), the point where this line and a line drawn between the top and bottom stars of the Southern Cross (known as Acrux and Gacrux respectively) intersect, marks the Southern Celestial Pole. Tying the title of this piece to the celestial line that points due south seemed also very appropriate!

I’ve always grappled with the role of being an outsider in the Australian outback. As a city-born non-Indigenous Australian, I felt like a visitor, a tiny insignificant speck of dust, in a land which could swallow me up in an instant. I always felt like the rock beneath me, like some incredibly ancient, slightly malevolent intelligence, was watching me … but at the same time, in a nurturing way, that the original inhabitants were always still there watching over me too. These two emotional responses to the Australian bush manifest themselves in the opening Prologue. The piece begins with a duet of solo cello and solo double bass, playing a drone figure that evokes the sound of the didgeridoo. This motif appears often throughout the piece and acts as a reminder that at every turn, one is treading the paths of the original inhabitants. The opening tune played by the 2 solo violins, also returns in various guises throughout the work. The figures in the violins … and the percussion (which includes claves evoking the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks) … build towards a full orchestral statement of this theme. The overall sense of darkness in this initial outburst is a direct reflection of the fear and healthy respect I hold for the Australian outback.

To be continued … ↑ less ↑