David Lumsdaine withdrew everything of his composed before 1964
when he completed his first acknowledged work Annotations of
Auschwitz (1964 – soprano and ensemble). This was followed
by Dum medium silentium (1965, rev. 1975 – mixed chorus),
Easter Fresco (1966, rev. 1970 – soprano and four players)
and Kelly Ground for piano; the latter completed in 1966
and first performed that year by Roger Smalley.
In the 1950s Lumsdaine
contemplated composing an opera on Ned Kelly in collaboration
with Peter Porter. This eventually came to nothing, possibly
because opera as a musical genre was deemed out of fashion
especially by composers who were rather attracted by the new
musical trends of the time as was Lumsdaine. The idea, however,
was not completely forgotten. Though it is not programmatic
in any way, Kelly Ground obliquely alludes to some
subliminal programme as each of the strophes makes clear,
such as “Kelly’s return to Consciousness on the morning of
his Execution”, “His view along the Ground to the foothills
of the Wombat Ranger”, “A Nocturne on the Plain”, “A clamorous
Aubade”, “An Aria for Kelly focusing simultaneously on Inside
and Outside of the Cell” and “The Hanging”. This, however,
must not be taken at face value for Kelly Ground is
a purely abstract piece in which much has been predetermined
beforehand. In it the composer attempted to achieve something
that he had been aiming at in several of his now discarded
works: rhythmic flexibility and fluidity within a tightly
controlled working-out of the basic material. In this respect,
I can best refer to Michael Hall’s thoroughly researched analysis
in his book Between Two Worlds – The Music of David
Lumsdaine (Arc Publications – 2003). As Michael Hooper
rightly remarks in his excellent insert notes, this substantial
work falls into roughly two cycles. The first (Strophes 1
to 5) is mostly virtuosic whereas the second is “still and
contemplative”. The music certainly brings a number of composers
to mind such as Boulez, Webern and Messiaen. The latter is
also a presence because Lumsdaine weaves some birdsong into
his own music, albeit in a much less systematic way than the
sanfte ruh’ alludes to the final chorus of Bach’s St
Matthew Passion, the first notes of which open the piece.
“The work is a meditation – on the religious level a meditation
on the untimely death of Christ, on the personal level on
the untimely death of Jannice, the wife of Peter Porter, for
whom the work is a memorial” (Michael Hall, op.cit.). The
three notes from Bach’s chorus permeate the entire work and
are sometimes transformed into soft bells.
In the nineties,
Lumsdaine produced five pieces sharing the title of “Soundscapes”.
These were in fact recordings of birdsong made in different
places in Australia. One of them was made in Cambewarra Mountain
located some hundred kilometres South of Sydney. Cambewarra
is heard here is a completely different piece of work although
birdsong is clearly present but in a personal way. It differs
from Messiaen in not aiming at imitation or transcription
of birdsong as the French composer did in so many of his works.
The music partly reflects what Lumsdaine achieved in his series
of soundscapes, in that foreground may suddenly become background
and vice versa. This creates some abrupt changes of perspective.
Six Postcard Pieces is a set of tiny miniatures in
which a maximum is achieved with a minimum of notes, the mark
of a true master. As Lumsdaine humorously remarks, “by the
time you’ve read the programme note, they’re finished…”.
piano music is certainly no easy stuff, but Mark Knoop navigates
fearlessly and almost effortlessly through these exacting
scores. One forgets about all the intricate working-out behind
the music and its formal and technical complexity and is eventually
impressed by the music’s sheer expressive strength and energy.