Over the last two generations or so, Australian music has thrived. Such stylistically diverse composers as Percy Grainger, Don Banks, and Peter Sculthorpe have long made their marks. Closer to our moment, Matthew Hindson has produced scores that, like Osvaldo Golijov’s, successfully integrate pop styles into classical concert music. Enter David Lumsdaine (b. 1931). The key to the music on these discs is found in his Australian Soundscapes. These are onsite and edited recordings of nature sounds, often featuring exotic (to my New Jersey ears) birdcalls and, in one case, a veritable frog symphony. When I listen to these tracks, I think of Olivier Messiaen and his lifelong transcribing of bird songs that would later, to a greater or lesser extent, drive the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure of his composition.
My late wife, who was an accomplished folk singer, often stated that folk music was the ultimate basis of all the music that we deem classical. On this disc Lumsdaine, like Messiaen, takes that notion farther —the basis of all music can be found in the sounds of nature. To quote Anthony Gilbert’s liner notes as to the specific quality of Australian birdcalls: “They do it in harmony. In a given territory, which may occupy no more than a few hundred square meters, the birds of all native species sing in tune with one another and with an unstated but identifiable harmonic series built on an unheard fundamental tone. As with any natural harmonic series, the higher the notes, the closer the pitches, but rarely, if ever, do the singers deviate from the harmonic spectrum. So we hear diatonic phrases in the lower ranges, then chromatic, and rare examples of microtonal singing near the upper limits of audibility.” Each piece on this offering is preceded by a Soundscape that embodies and defines its musical essence. This pattern holds until disc 2, which opens with Soundscape 5 –the definer and illuminator of Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo recorder, A Norfolk Songbook for soprano and recorder, and Cambewarra for solo piano.
Lumsdaine is a master of scale. Most of these pieces are aphoristic miniatures. A Little Cantata — Tracy Chadwell In Memoriam is in five sections which combined occupy 3:51. The six movements of Six Postcard Pieces for solo piano take 4:45, and Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo recorder times in at 2:26. Like all successful miniatures, these encompass complete musical universes in their tiny durations. On the other end of the spectrum, A Tree Telling of Orpheus for soprano and chamber ensemble and Cambewarra for solo piano clock in at 24:33 and 31:20 respectively. These longer pieces are hypnotic. In them one loses all sense of time and comes away with a feeling of time (however much it was) well spent.
This is music of profound stillness despite its often disjunct, almost Webernesque intervals and moments of rapid-fire note clusters. Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers is unflappable in the face of this music’s demands. Given her accuracy of pitch, tone production, and excellent diction, she fully realizes the poetry of the texts before her. Recorder virtuoso John Turner becomes a cosmic bird; pianist Peter Lawson comfortably, indeed joyously, navigates the daunting demands of Cambewarra; and cellist Jonathan Price does honor to Blue Upon Blue. The recorded sound is first-rate by current standards.
A quick perusal of Wikipedia (the Cliffs Notes of our moment) tells me that David Lumsdaine retired from composition in 1996, to which I say, more’s the pity. The title of this two-disc release says it all — White Dawn. Too bad you had to read all that stuff above this last paragraph.