On the last day of October, the Australian composer David Lumsdaine celebrates his 90th birthday. With celebration in mind, where in his music are moments of joy? And why do I return to his music again and again?
The best, and most sustained celebration, is A Tree Telling of Orpheus. The composition follows a linear trajectory from silence to the pure exuberance of music itself. The original commission by Gemini Ensemble, for the Huddersfield Festival, was for a shorter composition, though the final composition is about 25 minutes in duration. It is also a birthday piece, first performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to celebrate his 60th, in 1991. (Gemini will be performing it again soon, at the Royal Academy of Music on 7 November, alongside Blue Upon Blue (1981) and Mandala 3 (1978).)
A Tree Telling of Orpheus is somewhat unusual for being so overtly celebratory. Most of his music tends to be life-affirming, if not a clear celebration. The kind of outburst of life that A Tree Telling of Orpheus embodies is nevertheless always there, including in the quiet moments that the composition shares with so much of Lumsdaine’s music. Even Kelly Ground – a composition otherwise about violence, which makes it, in a sense, the antithesis of celebration – contains a glimpse of birdsong that takes its protagonist, and its listener, outside the strictures of its serial technique. That inside/outside separation, which raises the business of observation, and of the observer who is also a participant, stages moments where listening itself comes to the fore. Listening, and especially attentive listening, is always an active part of Lumsdaine’s music, and the intensity of music itself is what A Tree Telling of Orpheus celebrates.
All Lumsdaine’s published soundscapes are about listening – both his and ours – and I tend to hear them as invitations to listen. As invitations they are also challenges, to hear more clearly and more patiently. As much as I want to get up before dawn, and to sit quietly surrounded by birds as they awake, I rarely do, and I can’t fully imagine the technical challenges that go into making those soundscapes. Nor do I have the ears to differentiate so readily the many birds that those soundscapes include. The richness of these recordings, and their quality as composed sequences, sets them apart from so many of the other Australian soundscapes.
Most of the soundscapes are of the natural world, though Big Meeting also falls into the same category. This is another work with obvious humour, and it is also a work – perhaps like Kali Dances – that contains everything else too. It is composed from field recordings of Durham’s 1971 Miners’ Gala, and, like the event from which it extends, it is organized, anarchic, democratic, and surprising. Lumsdaine’s music is always technically virtuosic and beautifully crafted. And within that technique is also space for overwhelming the listener. One example of this comes at the climax of Aria for Edward John Eyre, where the amplification levels are increased to their maximum, determined as the point before feedback. Aria, Kali Dances, and Big Meeting all include moments that saturate the senses.
The soundscapes are the works where the sociable Lumsdaine meets the composer alone. That tension is also key to the instrumental works, which we hear though the collaborations of musicians, and often musicians who were close to the composer, even as we hear the creativity of the composer himself.
His music matters – to me – for several reasons. Firstly, because it is beautifully made. All the compositions in his catalogue are careful and considered, and they are all crafted with the highest expertise. The early music in particular shows the breadth of his technical innovation; some of his methods were shared with other leading composers, but his music always makes creative use of its technique. Indeed, technique itself sometimes comes to the fore as a layer of his music’s meaning, to be pushed and pulled, self-aware but never self-conscious.
Secondly, his music has integrity. It has musical integrity, in the sense that it prioritises making deep musical sense. And also because in and around so much of his music is a commitment to the kind of politics that the music rarely makes overt. Mostly the music is also separate from its politics, in the sense that the music is musical, as well as having something to do with politics. Occasionally we get a clearer view, such as in the poem for the sixth song of A Norfolk Song Book, written, as his programme note explains, in ‘the same year the US used its air bases in North Norfolk for the bombing of Tripoli’: ‘Yesterday, less patient birds flew these skies to Libya.’ The music never shouts its opinions, and so it’s also up to us to make the effort to engage with the openness that it affords. (This isn’t to say that the music is ever vague or indecisive – it is always clear-sighted and, in the best sense of the term, determined.).
Thirdly, it rewards close attention. The music all encourages us to listen better, to think again, and to revisit pieces and places that we might think we already know. This is music that has real depth. During my PhD on his music there were some pieces on which I worked for a year, and yet I still go back to them and realise how much more there is to say. This is not the experience I have with the music of many composers. His music is intelligent and elegant in equal measure.
Fourthly, so much of the music is striking. Although not a composer who operates pictorially, the music has its own drama, and it always sounds vivid and lively. For a composer with such technical capacity, the music often comes up to some limits, and so alongside the technical control is a sense of the wild, of control and the loss or ends of control. Careful planning meets improvisation.
For those who are new to his music, the selection made by Gemini to celebrate his birthday is a good place to start listening. In those three works you will gain a good idea of the breadth of his music, and you will hear why his music will endure.
Dr Michael Hooper is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of New South Wales. His 2012 book, The Music of David Lumsdaine, is published by Routledge, and his 2019 book, Australian Music and Modernism, is published by Bloomsbury Academic.
VIEW AND LISTEN
And this interview with him is recent and interesting