Gardener of Time. Barry Conyngham at 75

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Artist/s: Ken Murray (guitar), Robert Nairn (double bass), Linda Barcan, (mezzo-soprano), The Ormond Ensemble, The Melbourne Conservatorium String Ensemble, Richard Davis (conductor)
Category: Classical, New Music
Label: 2 CDs, MOVE Records MD 3455
Reviewed by

“A wonderful collection of recent works from one of Australia’s most important composers.”

When Barry Conyngham turned 75, I couldn’t quite believe it, and was reminded of a quip I heard many years ago about British composer Michael Tippett: ‘oh’ said the quipper ‘for years I thought Tippett was about 40, and then woke up one day and he was 45.’ As to many, many others, Barry has been teacher and mentor, colleague and friend to me for a very long time; this was made abundantly clear in the online Festschrift BAZAAR, edited by Barry’s own Boswell, Vincent Plush. (Go to the Festschrift here.)

The volume brings together countless tributes, appraisals, new pieces of music from a vast number of people. In addition to this herculean effort, Plush also managed miraculously to keep it secret from Barry until its launch. But I suspect I am not alone in feeling that my association with Barry seems like no time at all, perhaps partly because of his continued youthfulness, but also because, in addition to his huge legacy as an academic leader, latterly at the University of Melbourne, he has continued to compose as prolifically as ever, each new work reflecting a new facet of his deeply individual vision and aesthetic.

Barry Conyngham at 75. Limelight.

Literary critic Harold Bloom once made the distinction between artists whose work ‘develops’, and those whose work ‘unfolds’. I place Barry in the latter group, and I think this is borne out by this recording made to celebrate his 75th birthday in 2019. By ‘unfolding’ I emphatically don’t mean that Barry found an early style which he has replicated endlessly since – far from it. His foundational piece Ice Carving – now half a century old – was and remains sui generis. His music ever since has always been exploratory, and happy to assimilate elements from outside: in addition to pieces for (for want of a better term) mainstream performance – works for symphony orchestra, chamber music, opera, he made an early and deep study of computer music technology and ventured into the realms of what used to be called ‘theatre’. The bracing world of Ice Carving is very different from the amplitude of the ballet score Vast, the pointillism of 1971’s Water…Footsteps…Time is miles away from the semi-improvised To be alone.

But what strikes me about Barry’s music is its devotion to what he once described to me as being ‘humane’ – concerned with the outcast, be it a visionary or a convict, and with the environment, built or natural. As his music has unfolded much has remained constant, and it’s been fascinating to hear how that manifests in this collection of mainly recent pieces. The two-disc set comprises works performed at a concert by the Ormond Ensemble in the composer’s honour in 2019, plus a studio recording of Bushfire Dreaming by the Melbourne Conservatorium String Ensemble.

In To the Edge (2006), for instance we hear a number of Barry’s musical fingerprints – the initial explosion of colour a static background provided by pedal points; the circulation of a short, sinuous four-note motif through various instrumental voices as it unspools into a rising scale passage; the joyous gambolling of small motifs like the figures in a Miró painting; the introduction (on bassoon) of a motif featuring third and fifth, which provides spaciousness. The piece, to borrow Melbourne University’s motto, gathers strength (and speed) as it goes leading to extroverted display; there are, too, those richly inflected close harmonies, such as we also find in the music of Barry’s Japanese mentor Toru Takemitsu.

Toru Takemitsu

As Plush, in his detailed liner notes puts it, this is a ‘concerto for chamber orchestra’, so the music’s focus is on line rather than mass. A similar delicacy of texture infuses the Mallorca Serenade (2019), for guitar and ensemble, and Kangaroo Island: Concerto for double bass and orchestra (2008), both, of course, instruments that need to be treated with care as soloists.

In the Serenade Ken Murray’s sensitive introspection is accompanied by diaphanous textures, with solo episodes set off by lyrical trumpet and wind solos frequently accompanied by pulsing strings in rhythmic homophony or glacial high-lying solo lines. This dreamy ambience is briefly dispelled late in the piece by faster music, propelled by emphatic repeated note figures against which more explosive motifs appear.

Kangaroo Island too treats its soloist (here Robert Nairn) with tactful care, keeping the orchestra out of the way in solo passages, but exploring a huge range of colour in the structural tutti sections. As we have noted, much of Barry’s work is concerned with the natural environment, here that of the eponymous island off South Australia. But here, as in the 1990 keyboard concerto Monuments the features of the landscape are depicted in tandem with human concerns. The spaciousness of the coastline gives way to bustling ‘visitors’; the spontaneous energy of kangaroos will give way to more motoric rhythms and – as the subtitle tells us – death. The evocation of animals (we also get bats, koalas and bees) is graphic without onomatopoeia and humans are also capable of positive emotions like wonder.

Wonder is a feature of Petrichor (2008-2019), written contemporaneously with works we have already discussed and named for the distinctive summer fragrance released by the earth when it finally rains after a period of heat. The title of the first movement, ‘Dry Spell’ consciously combines Australian vernacular with the sense of magic we hear in Takemitsu’s Rain Spell. This, the longest of the three movements is a substantial piece, showing Barry’s ability to create a sense of stasis and hushed expectation without longueur. This is strongly contrasted, naturally, with the busy textures of deluge, and the simple gleaming peroration of the third movement.

A recent production of ‘Fly’ by Melbourne Lyric Opera

Barry’s opera Fly (1984) told the story of aeronautical inventor and misunderstood visionary Lawrence Hargrave; a commission from Harvard University to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was a natural fit. This work, in which Darwin’s text ‘Comparing the Eye to a Telescope’ is read out and then sung beautifully by Linda Barcan, captures in its moments of almost silence, and its vertiginous whirling, the wonder which attended Darwin’s observations of nature.

Hiroyuki Iwaki conducts MSO rehearsal, 1990

Gardener of Time is Barry’s tribute to the late Hiroyuki Iwaki, whose association with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was decades long and profoundly influential. Originally premiered by the MSO in 2011, the work has been reimagined for large ensemble, without losing any of its opulence or range of colour. Emotionally and dramatically it ranges widely, from the insistent brass ostinatos near the opening, to the immense vistas created by that third plus fifth motif that also occurs in To the Edge, which here releases an exquisite (and exquisitely played) violin solo and generates hypnotic heterophony at the work’s moving conclusion.

Originally a string quartet entitled Bush Dreams, the final work in this collection has been rethought for string orchestra under the title Bushfire Dreaming though this is not, evidently, related to the term which has come to signify – rightly or wrongly – aspects of Indigenous Australian spirituality. It is rather, related to the experience of dreaming. In a series of varied sonorities the music depicts emotions like apprehension and fear, and sombre mourning; elsewhere it behaves like fire – flickering and crackling and releasing bursts of unpredictable energy.

A late grand gesture from Barry Conyngham as Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne was to instigate and follow through the construction of an imaginative new building for the Faculty of Music and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

This is a fitting tribute to this most sensate of composers, performed with conviction and strong musicality. Now that Barry has retired from academia I am sure we’ll have even more music to celebrate soon.

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