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.
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 …