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Derek STRAHAN (b.1935)
Voodoo Fire (1995)
Alan Vivian (clarinet), Michael Askill (percussion), Susan Powell (piano, synthesiser)
Live recording of première performance at the Canberra School of Music, 21st April 1996
Atlantis (1991)
Belinda Gough (flute, alto flute), Josephine Allan (piano)
Live recording of première performance at Goughís Master Degree Recital, Joseph Post Auditorium, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Eric GROSS (b.1926)
Mandigar III (1995)
Paul Hooper (mandolin), Adrian Hooper, Joyce Bootsma (mandolas), Barbara Hooper (guitar)
Caroline SZETO (b.1968)
Mandolin Dance (1995)
Paul Hooper (mandolin)
Dulcie HOLLAND (b.1913)
Lonely Valley (1994)
Paul and Adrian Hooper (mandolins), Joyce Bootsma (mandola), Barbara Hooper (guitar)
Colin BRUMBRY (b.1933)
Dance of the Shepherds (1995)

Paul and Adrian Hooper (mandolins), Joyce Bootsma (mandola), Barbara Hooper (guitar)
The mandolin items recorded by ABC Classic FM, 4th April 1996
Robert ALLWORTH (b.1943)
Hymn to the Bleeding Host of Santarem, Portugal (1989)

Lawrence Bartlett (organ)
Recorded at Saint Michaelís, Vaucluse, May 1989
BROAD MUSIC JAD CD 1063 [62:05]

This looks like a cross-section of contemporary Australian composers, but with the two works by Derek Strahan lasting 16:30 and 19:50 respectively it is best considered as a disc dedicated to him with a few shorter fillers.

Strahan spent his first five years in colonial Malaya, was evacuated to Perth (Australia), completed his education in Northern Ireland and subsequently returned to Australia. He began to write film scores in 1962 but has increased his production of concert works since 1980. We are told that "he does not subscribe to any particular school, style or set of musical dogmas. He is concerned to retain melodic lyricism, and to achieve harmonic liberation through a synthesis of melodic and rhythmic polyphony."

"Voodoo Fire" is written for clarinet, percussion (marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, tam tams, bongos, crotales, wood blocks, slit drums, bass drums, cymbals, gong and timpani) and keyboards (piano and a synthesiser with eleven presets, including steel drums). Strahan tells us that "This work was written to advance my interest in creating a fusion of Western melodic counterpoint and African rhythmic counterpoint. In researching source material I found that Caribbean Voodoo music was highly involved in such a synthesis. Ö this work pays hommage [sic!] to a powerful Voodoo deity called Shango, who is a God of Fire. Ö The 3-part structure of this piece follows the protocol of a Voodoo ceremony". The melody used in the last section is based on an actual Voodoo prayer to Shango.

"Atlantis" is for flute/alto flute and piano and "was the first of a series of smaller-scale works (there have been two more since) preparatory to composing a cycle of operas on the topic of ĎAtlantisí, as suggested by the writings of Plato (4 B.C.)." This piece is also in three parts.

The first of these pieces is the more ear-catching in the sense that if you write in a gritty-grotty, ragged-jagged, middle-of-the-road, post-war sort of style for the caboodle described above it obviously will sound more unusual than if you do it for flute and piano, a medium which was worked to death from the Fifties through to the Eighties and maybe still is. But does the composer write like this out of inner necessity or because he thinks that you have to write like that today? In other words, is he being honest? (I donít mean I think heís conning the public but I think he may be unwittingly conning himself). I say this because the music sounds most natural when conventional rhythmic or melodic features are allowed to come to the fore. The last section of "Voodoo Fire", in which rhythmic discontinuity is finally abandoned and tensions are allowed to build up with a powerful impetus, is rather stirring. And about eleven minutes into "Atlantis" there is an agreeable, rather nocturnal lyrical section (I suppose this is the part that "portrays a loversí idyll on the balcony of an Arcadian villa, on a moonlit night", but what is the point of all these detailed descriptions if we donít have separate tracks to identify them?) which, as it lasts about three minutes, would be worth performing separately. Iím not saying that the rest of the music is bad; it just doesnít seem particularly good either.

Eric Grossís "Mandigar III" contains plenty of twangy warming-up-style gestures, quite promising until you realise that itís not going to do anything else. Similarly Caroline Szetoís "Mandolin Dance" leads off with some lively "till-ready" formulae, and just goes on repeating them ad nauseam. The composer herself describes the piece as "quasi-minimal", which I suppose is a fair euphemism for gormless pattern-making.

Shameless traditionalist that I am, I enjoyed the post-Ravelian harmonies of Dulcie Hollandís "The Lonely Valley" far more. The piece may not break new ground but it provides the quiet enjoyment proper to music which aims to evoke "any remote and quiet valley, enclosed by wooden slopes and rarely visited by noisy towns folk". However, as I am in a bitchy mood I shall be bitchy to the end and query whether such a detailed description has any real value when applied to a piece of music. Indeed, I should like to challenge the composer to write another piece of a similar title, in which her "remote and quiet valley" is enclosed by grassy slopes instead of wooden ones, so that I can hear what the difference would be in musical terms.

Still, I shall hear this one again, as I probably shall Colin Bumbryís "Dance of the Shepherds", "an evocation of Shepherds dancing in the night celebrating a successful day at work, tending their flocks". I wonít go so far as to suggest that the composerís music is any more original than his prose (itís that "tending" which smacks of the elderly vicarís Christmas sermon) but itís agreeably folksy and suggests that if the Aussies are looking for a national style, "back to Grainger" might not be a bad way to do it. Mind you, if this had been "dished up" by Grainger himself there would have been some surprises along the way but all the same, it is very pleasant.

And so to the organ for the last track. The great thing about the organ, compared with any other instrument, is that its sounds can be sustained for all infinity. They donít die away and have to be replenished as with a piano, guitar, mandolin etc. They are not limited by the length of a bow or by the capacity of the human lungs. You just put the note down and hold it for as long as you like. This means that you can build up a reasonable-length (in this case, 3:36) organ piece out of incredibly little music. Just think of it! If you make each chord last forty seconds, then with just three of them youíve already knocked off two minutes of music with only 1:36 to go. This elementary consideration has not escaped Robert Allworth and he makes quite impressive use of it. But he should be warned that a long-held dissonance which can sound mightily imposing up to about 20 seconds, can get to seem frightfully nauseating as the forty-second mark looms up.

There are some things worth having on this disc, but as there is such a lot of dross too, I can only leave you to decide if itís worth it.

Christopher Howell

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