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 ↑