Sculthorpe: Sun Music (CD)

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Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, David Porcelijn

Peter Sculthorpe, named Australia’s greatest composer by Limelight Magazine shortly after his death in August 2014, wrote works in most musical forms, and his output relates easily to the unique social climate and physical characteristics of Australia.

Sculthorpe created an Australian classical music that for the first time spoke directly of the land, the people and the spirit of this country. His music opened up new possibilities for Australian composers, and brought a distinctively Australian voice to the concert halls of the world. Furthermore, his country's geographical position has caused him to be influenced by much of the music of Asia, especially that of Japan and Indonesia. Certainly he is Australia's best-known composer, and his works are regularly performed and recorded throughout the world.

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1. Memento mori 14:02
2. Sun Song 5:40
3. Sun Music I 10:01
4. Sun Music II 5:43
5. Sun Music III 12:13
6. Sun Music IV 8:37
7. From Uluru 3:44

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
David Porcelijn conductor

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Sun Music I (1965) for orchestra

In May 1965, Bernard Heinze asked Sculthorpe for a new orchestral work. Heinze intended to conduct it with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, on its first tour abroad, in London in September 1965, during a Commonwealth arts festival. He wanted an ‘overture’, no more than 10 minutes, something ‘brassy, not another Irkanda!’ His idea was to close the concert with the sub-arctic Sibelius Second Symphony, and he hoped the new Sculthorpe would register a little higher on the mercury. Within days of accepting the commission, Sculthorpe wrote to his mother: ‘I’m calling it Sun Music, for Orchestra, as it will be all quivering & intense, blazoning & with a climax of white heat, or black.’

Clearly hoping for something that might disconcert English expectations that anything new from Australia would be hopelessly old-fashioned, Heinze told Sculthorpe that if he wanted to write ‘a piece without melody, rhythm or harmony’, he should. And Sculthorpe told listeners to the first ABC radio broadcast of the work that this was what he’d set out to do: ‘Admittedly, there is rhythm, melody & harmony of a kind, but, I suppose, of rather a strange kind. My main concern … was to make long, shimmering, sonorous images, existing in their own right.’ He also told them that the score ‘looks in places like an architectural drawing’. In this he was influenced not only by the some of the graphic notation used in recent Polish scores he and his students had been analysing, but also the new sounds connected with them, as notably in Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), whose curiously notated clusters and percussive string sounds were, moreover, deployed with extraordinary expressivity and polemical force. Sculthorpe combined these new notations and gestures with his own characteristic ostinatos and drones, to achieve a more expressively neutral portrayal of static natural forces.

After two months of careful plotting and sketching, Sculthorpe composed most of this first Sun Music in an intense ten days, completing it on 15 August. When first confronted with orchestral parts for one of the most bizarre, avant-garde pieces they’d so far encountered – full of unconventional notational symbols for producing distressing sounds – some of the orchestra briefly threatened a boycott. Rehearsals were further complicated when Heinze suffered an attack of diverticulitis, and was replaced as conductor by John Hopkins. In his program note for the first performance on 30 September, Roger Covell warned the London audience that, despite the title, this was:

‘not in any sense bronzed, swaggering holiday music ... it has more to say about the mystery, fear and lonely glare of the sun and space than about the pleasures of warmth. This is sun music written by a composer living in a country where the sun can be as much enemy as friend; and, since light is often most clearly defined by darkness, it contains the aural equivalent of shadows as well as a representation of dazzling brightness. It is basically slow in tempo, static and incantatory ...’

Sculthorpe explained to his new publisher, ‘If Sun Music is rather ‘way out’, it is so on my own terms, being a logical development of the Irkanda series.’ That he wanted to indicate this, aurally and symbolically, is evident in the work’s ‘incantatory’ four-note opening figure for muted trumpet, which outlines not the yearning Irkanda intervals of major sevenths and a minor third, but their tonal opposites, more neutral sounding minor sevenths and major third. Also for brass, at the piece’s core is a brief contrasting low-pitched episode, based on a Haiku (1965) for piano he had composed for his students as a classroom exercise in Webern’s serial technique, and which he later also incorporated into ‘Night’ from Night Pieces (1971) for piano. As one of his students at the time, Anne Boyd, recalled, Sculthorpe’s use of brass and strings sounds had a symbolic significance: ‘the brass represent terrestrial forces (frequently pedantic and stuttering) while the strings are associated with celestial activities (utilising sounds ranging from sustained shimmers and gleams to those that are sharply percussive and rhythmically articulated).’ Massive cluster chords, formed by splitting the strings into multiple parts, and slow interlocking glissandos – recalling Japanese Noh music – dominate in the ‘celestial’ strings’ thoroughly unconventional materials. Though, through illness, Bernard Heinze missed out on conducting the world premiere of the first Sun Music in London, he did give the first Australian performance, in Hobart, with the visiting Victorian
Symphony Orchestra, on 21 November 1965, and when the score was published by Faber Music in 1966, Sculthorpe dedicated the work to Heinze and his wife Valerie.

Sun Music IV (1967) for orchestra

Due to teaching commitments in Sydney, Sculthorpe was not able to attend the London premiere of the first Sun Music. But he did pass through London at the end of the year, on his way to the United States, to spend 1966 on sabbatical on a Harkness Fellowship. On 29 December, he was famously quoted in an interview in The Times: ‘Europe is the past. Australia, Indonesia, and South Pacific the future.’ Taken together with his recently expressed interests in other Pacific sun cultures – not only Japan, but also, he told a reporter before leaving Australia, the Aztecs of Mexico – this was effectively a creative manifesto for the rest of the Sun Music series. While he was not denying Australian classical music’s strong European pedigree, it was his deeply held conviction that Australian music must look to its own Pacific region for inspiration. He was also becoming convinced that his music to date told only part of the Australian story.

Early in 1966, the first Sun Music gained a companion. Written while Sculthorpe was a visiting fellow at Brandford College, Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut), it was ‘II’ in the series until 1969 when Sculthorpe reallocated the number to the orchestral work Sun Music II. The superseded work was then retitled Sun Music for Voices and Percussion (1966), but Sculthorpe also briefly called it Canto 1520, referring to the year Aztec king Moctezuma was killed by the Spanish invaders. Another work composed at Yale was first named Teotihuacan, after the site of the Mexican pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. It was written for the Yale String Quartet and first performed on 29 July 1966, later known as Red Landscape (after a painting by Russell Drysdale), or simply as String Quartet No. 7 (1966), as featured on the DVD in this collection. Its music was also reworked for string orchestra, and performed by the Astra Chamber Orchestra of Melbourne in November 1966 as number ‘III’ of the Sun Music series. Withdrawn soon after, it too eventually ceded its number to the Sun Music III discussed below. Meanwhile, when he arrived back in Australia in 1967, Sculthorpe had already started to rework the more or less identical music of the 1966 string quartet and string orchestra pieces, adding new parts for woodwinds, brass and percussion, as Sun Music IV (1967). It fulfilled an APRA–ABC commission for a work for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to perform at the Montreal Expo ’67 in June. Under Willem van Otterloo, they gave the first performance on 29 May 1967 in Melbourne, and the second seven days later in Canada.

Sculthorpe completed the orchestration in a rush in the first half of April, having worked on it while visiting Bouddi on the NSW central coast, where he stayed with Drysdale in his new Guilford Bell house, that, appropriately enough, put Peter in mind of ‘a Mayan temple’. At Bouddi, he later told Michael Hannan, he’d been ‘looking out over a lake when he saw some birds which were making exciting sounds. These he incorporated in distorted and intensified forms at the climax of the work’. Aztecs, Mayan temples, Bouddi lake and birdsong fused in his imagination with Drysdale’s Lake Callabonna, a feat of imaginary geography that was typical Sculthorpe. Shortly before completing it, Sculthorpe wrote
to his former student Ross Edwards: ‘I think you might like Sun Music IV. It has even less melody, if that’s possible than Sun Music I … Completely a sound piece, but it’s very intense and passionate … also lots of birdcalls and also one of my latest crazes – double-basses running fingers up the backs of their instrument, my best bird call yet.’

Sun Music IV remains close to the original Sun Music I in its stark imagery and unconventional sound world. It is perhaps the most satisfyingly, audibly structured of the series (Sculthorpe claimed to like it best); its plan forms around a mosaic-like arrangement of discrete gestures, blocks of instrumental colour, percussive and pitch ideas. The eerie interlocking glissandos, in which four strings parts move up and down in a criss-cross pattern, make up one such block. Notated as diagonal lines, they map pyramid shapes onto the score, a visual reference to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, with the expression marking Angoscioso (distressingly) perhaps also referring back to the slaying of  Moctezuma in 1520. Another block is a halting dance-like episode for woodwind, an ostinato recurring with clocklike precision in a regular four-bar pattern. Elsewhere, the strings produce free continuous glissandos on high harmonics to create, for the first time in Sculthorpe’s orchestral output, the sound of flocking birds, to be a recurring feature in so many later works including Port Essington (1977), Kakadu (1988) and beyond.

Sun Music III (1967) for orchestra

In Yale in May 1966, Sculthorpe received a letter from the ABC’s musical director, John Hopkins, for another new orchestral work, this time – fate willing – not only to be premiered by Bernard Heinze, but conducted by him in all six state capitals. The commission was to celebrate the 20th anniversary in 1967 of the ABC’s orchestral youth concerts series (John Antill’s Overture for a Momentous Occasion was played for the 10th anniversary in 1957). Not only had Heinze conducted the first youth concert in
Melbourne on 28 July 1947, but Sculthorpe, then one of Heinze’s students, was in the first audience. Sculthorpe decided on the straightforward title Anniversary Music, under which the piece was premiered as planned, with Heinze conducting the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, in Perth on 16 May 1967. Heinze then conducted local premieres with all the other state orchestras, beginning with the Adelaide Symphony on 6 June, followed by Queensland (17 June), Tasmania (14 July), Melbourne (21 August), and Sydney (24 October). It was not until 1968, when reorganising the Sun Music series, that Sculthorpe finally renamed it Sun Music III.

Both Sun Music IV and the Anniversary piece were begun in the United States in mid-1966, and completed in Sydney in early 1967 in time for their respective May premieres, only a fortnight apart. Yet despite their parallel genesis, they mark a parting of the ways in the Sun Music series. In the first half of 1966 another Australian visiting scholar at Yale, poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, wrote a poem for him that Sculthorpe admitted he found ‘admonitory’. Two Ways of Summer addressed dangers of sameness in his Sun Music idiom (‘Full glare of noon / And withering of colour /… / Dry and mean’), and the dilemma of taking a new path (‘A meeting of the roads / I am torn both ways’). In the event,
with only an occasional backward glance, Sculthorpe took the new path, which led him first to the traditional music of Australia’s northern neighbour Bali. His guide was a newly released book by the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, Music in Bali: a study in form and instrumental organization in Balinese orchestral music (1966). Sculthorpe, who called it ‘the book that changed my life’, played the music examples it contained ‘over and over’, hoping they ‘would point me in a new direction with my music’. Using it ‘as a textbook’, he began by making an arrangement of a Balinese piece for tuned-percussion quartet (gender wayang) in Balinese shadow-puppet plays. His first
model was Pemungkah (‘opening music’), composed by I Wayan Lotring (1898–1982), later an almost legendary Balinese composer, from Kuta village, where in the 1930s McPhee befriended him and began transcribing his pieces for the first time into Western notation.

In September, with Lotring’s music ringing in his ears, Sculthorpe left Yale for Yaddo, the famous artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, where, over the coming months, he lived in semi-monastic seclusion with fellow inmates including composers Ned Rorem and Nicolas Roussakis, and writers Malcolm Cowley, Mario Puzo, and Eudora Welty. There, as the northern fall deepened into winter, he recalled: ‘Often I’d look out the window and dream of a place like Bali, and endless warm paradise’. He started sketching music for flutes and clarinets, ‘all madly gamelan, radiant, and, well, I think quite beautiful very happy music’, that with slightly expanded wind scoring soon became the opening of the new orchestral piece. Its sun was to be quite different from that of Sun Music I and IV, an Asian sun, generating tropical warmth and a profusion of growth. But the Balinese idioms Sculthorpe was absorbing represented more than an exotic new soundworld. In the music’s quite complex ostinatos – circulating pitches, rhythms and timbres while remaining harmonically quite static – he found another foil to the Western developmental structures he was increasingly attempting to bypass in his own music.

The work opens (Poco lento) with a shimmering string chord tinted by the watery sound of a rim-roll on a large cymbal (one of Sculthorpe’s favourite percussion sounds). A vibraphone solo leads into the gently flowing Yaddo flute-and-clarinet treatment of Lotring’s music (Tranquillo), now adding piccolo, and – using the orchestra to approximate gamelan sounds – triangle, gong, and soft squeak-like glissandos from the cellos. In McPhee’s book, he also found an example of a Balinese theatre arja song, originally for voice with gamelan accompaniment. In the slow, calm central episode, Sculthorpe reworked this, above drones and slow luminous ostinatos, into a sinuous, chant-like melody for solo oboe (the only real melody in the entire Sun Music series, it shares a curious half-likeness to the homely ‘Australian’ oboe tune in Small Town). Low sliding brass sounds recall the noise made by the kartala, one of the shadowplay’s comic characters. The climax coincides with the return of the opening music, which then merges with the arja melody now played by the violins. The piece comes to rest on a sustained chord for the full orchestra that, resounding with gongs and cymbals, fades away into silence.

Sun Music II (1969) for orchestra

Sculthorpe had been committed to composing a score for Robert Helpmann and The Australian Ballet since 1964. They first contemplated a more extended work growing out of the scenario and music of Small Town. By mid-1966, they were considering a more abstract ‘sun ritual’ ballet, in some way related to the Sun Music series, which, though they continued to canvass other ideas, they gradually accepted as the easiest and best solution. In September 1967, on a break from filming the Ian Fleming/Roald Dahl Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in Neuschwanstein (he was playing the Child-Catcher), Helpmann wrote to Sculthorpe, saying, ‘Half an hour is the ideal length’ and asking for the music ‘well ahead of time as I’m sure it will be one of the most difficult ballets I have undertaken.’ Finally, in February 1968, Sculthorpe wrote to his publisher, Donald Mitchell, at Faber: ‘We’re doing it to the complete Sun Music series,’ explaining that Anniversary Music would now become Sun Music III and provide Helpmann with a slower interlude. They also agreed that further variation would be supplied in a new movement for the men, for which Sculthorpe promised to compose something rhythmic and kinetic, music that would
ultimately become Sun Music II. Accordingly, together with the non-orchestral Sun Music for Voice and Percussion (which was pre-recorded and amplified), there were five movements, each with a new descriptive title, and together lasting almost 45 minutes, half as long again as Helpmann’s ‘ideal length’:

1 Soil = Sun Music I (1965)
2 Mirage = Sun Music for voices and percussion (1966)
3 Growth = Sun Music III / Anniversary Music (1967)
4 Energy = newly composed, later to become Ketjak / Sun Music II (1969)
5 Destruction = Sun Music IV (1967)

In the ballet sequence (danced and played over 100 times, both in Australia and on tour abroad, by The Australian Ballet), Sculthorpe referred to the new piece, Energy, as the ‘quick movement’, contrasting with its more static neighbours, the ‘desert’ outer pieces and the ‘tropical’ number III. And when later reworked as Sun Music II, it also plays a similar scherzo-like role in the quasi-symphonic concert sequence following the numerical order, I–IV, as recorded here. Helpmann had asked for a stronger ending for the finale, Destruction, which Sculthorpe provided for the ballet, though removed again from the published score of Sun Music IV. Along with other slight alterations, it was later added to the music of Energy when it was revised and renamed Ketjak for its first performance as a free-standing concert piece, at a Sydney Symphony Orchestra Town Hall Prom concert on 22 February 1969, conducted by John Hopkins. It officially became Sun Music II later that year, when Sculthorpe and his new music assistant, Michael Hannan, began preparing the score and parts to send to Faber in London. (The printed score finally appeared in 1973.)

In Balinese music, Kecak (or Ketjak) is also known as the ‘Monkey Dance’, or ‘Monkey Chant’, a partly vocalised group performance (developed in the 1930s to appeal to Western tourists) corresponding to part of the Ramayana, in which the dancers fall into a kind of collective trance, or shanghyang (spirit dance). The Ramayana episode recounts the abduction of Rama’s wife, Sita, by the demon Rawana, and her rescue with the help of the Garuda Bird, the White Monkey, and seven monkey armies. In Sculthorpe’s orchestral score, prominent passages for bongos and timbales represent this type of music, characterised by interlocking ostinato patterns, and its strict rhythmic pulse creates the framework for the even more bizarre and violent percussive sounds produced by the pitched instruments (strings, winds, and brass) of the usually non-percussive ‘normal Western orchestra’. Sculthorpe described, in abstract terms, the type of piece he was most interested in writing around that time as having ‘a form
which breathes freely, but includes conforming rhythms’. Without denying the structural importance of the music’s kecak origins, Sculthorpe later insisted: ‘The music isn’t oriental ... but without Asia the work wouldn’t have existed.’

Sun Song (1984) for orchestra

Sun Song for orchestra was completed in August 1984 and dedicated to the eminent Australian music educator, Frank Callaway (1919–2003), on his retirement as foundation Professor of Music at the University of Western Australia. It is a further reworking for full orchestra of the theme of the ‘Sun Song’ movements from the String Quartet No. 10 (1983) and First Sonata for Strings (1983), whose genesis is described above. A second idea derived from a pitch cell familiar in Sculthorpe’s output. Already by the end of his Irkanda series, the semitone progression A-flat to G was emerging as a key element in his musical language. As Sculthorpe later explained, he was probably recalling the yearning appoggiaturas in ‘Farewell’ from Mahler’s Song of the Earth, a favourite work of his youth. In the 1970s, the progression took on new significance for him after he read about the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s concept of the Music of the Spheres. Kepler’s music for the planet Earth is G to A-flat and back to G. As Sculthorpe pointed out: ‘These pitches have permeated almost all my music since that time. Many of the works are like extended songs, both sorrowful and joyful, songs for this earth, for the survival of this planet.’

After a very brief, incantatory chordal introduction (marked Poco misterioso) the whole of Sun Song is marked Estatico. An ostinato-driven series of repeats and free variations on the free-flowing main melody (the accompaniment figurations reminiscent of his Balinese music) is punctuated by contrasting episodes using a quizzical, stuttering rhythmic idea derived from Kepler’s Earth motif. Borne along by increasingly pervasive pulsing of conga drums, the pattern-making behind the melody intensifies, the congas again adding a ritualistic brilliance to the final repeats.

From Uluru (1991) for orchestra

The first version of the brief orchestral work From Uluru, composed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Schools Concerts series, was performed for an audience of primary school kids in the ABC’s Eugene Goossens Hall, on 11 December 1991, conducted by Peter Grunberg. Sculthorpe put the finishing touches to the score in January 1992. It opens with a brief Largamente introduction (for brass) that bears a close family likeness to the opening of Sun Song. But unlike Sun Song, which makes use of further contrasting material, From Uluru then charts a single intensifying musical arc, based on the varied repetition of just one melody. In this respect it realised a new compositional imperative for Sculthorpe, namely ‘that once a piece really begins, it maintains its momentum until its conclusion’. From Uluru joins several earlier works that draw their shape and contours quite directly from Australian landscape. In one early instance, in Irkanda I (1955) for violin alone, Sculthorpe explained that he plotted a melody to follow ‘a three-hundred-and-sixty degree contour of the hills around Canberra’. With a very young audience in mind here (younger than the secondary and university students for whom, almost 25 years earlier, he wrote Sun Music III), Sculthorpe uses the idea of a drive along a bumpy desert road between two massive central Australian natural landmarks, Uluru and The Olgas, as the music’s strikingly simple generating image. Another link with his earlier landscape works, the piece is largely a reworking for orchestra of music from Landscape II (1978) for piano and string trio.

Memento mori (1993) for orchestra

Memento mori (‘Remember that you must die’) was Sculthorpe’s next larger-scale full orchestra work after Kakadu (1988). It was completed in Sydney in June 1993, and first performed on 2 July that year by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, for which it was commissioned, conducted by Jorge Mester. Thematically, it belongs among his environmentally-focussed orchestral scores Mangrove (1979) and Earth Cry (1986), in that it moves away from the pervasively optimistic imagery of much of his music over
the previous decade, to include what he described as ‘music of regret’. In this case, his starting point was the environmental and cultural dilemma faced by the historical inhabitants of the Pacific island of Rapanui (or Easter Island), both before and after their colonisation by the Spanish. Sculthorpe explained:

‘It seems that on Easter Island, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was a population explosion. The inhabitants stripped the island of trees, causing soil erosion and depriving themselves of building materials for boats and housing. Retreating to the caves, clans fought each other and finally there was enslavement and cannibalisation. By the time the first Europeans arrived, in 1722, the survivors had even forgotten the significance of the great stone heads that still stand there.’

Sculthorpe had earlier reflected on Iberian exploration of the Pacific in his television opera Quiros (1982), and in both Quiros and Memento mori he quoted, note-for-note, the opening of the Catholic plainchant Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’) from the mass for the dead. Berlioz famously used the same tune in his Symphonie fantastique, to illustrate his love-sick hero’s drug-induced dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath. Sculthorpe’s point in using the chant is more subtle, and threefold: first, to refer to the pre-colonial tragedy of the Easter Islanders as a reminder of the human costs of environmental depredation; second, to recall the subsequent tragedy of the Old World bringing yet more death to the New World peoples and cultures it colonised and destroyed (whether the Spanish in Rapanui, or the British in Australia); and third, as a reminder that the Old World order is also sentenced, ultimately, to pass away. The principal mood, then, is a complex admixture of anger and regret for a tragic cycle of mortality that continues to play itself out in the human, cultural and environmental degradation of the planet.

After an introductory passage (Lento), Sculthorpe uses the well-known tune as the basis for an ostinato-like melodic strand that is then treated through repetition and varied accompaniments. A syncopated rhythmic idea provides the model for an extended central section of ‘music of lamentation’, which opens with the horns, and develops around what he called his Kepler ‘Earth’ motif, the oscillation of the pitches G and A-flat (see above in the notes to the Second Sonata for Strings, for a fuller explanation). A solemn incantation from the trombones (repeated four times) precedes the return of the Dies Irae theme. The eventual climax gives way, as Sculthorpe explained, to ‘music of regret, and the offering of the possibility of salvation’.

Having lived with him in Sydney during her last years, Sculthorpe’s mother Edna died in 1994, aged 93, and he dedicated the finished work to her memory.