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 …