Australian-born David Lumsdaine’s music is arguably less well-known than that of either his wife, Nicola LeFanu, or his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Maconchy. Whether or not that is how things should be is not really answered by this rather curious new release, a mixture of almost ephemeral snippets, more important works and items that are not really music at all.
Anyone not aware that Lumsdaine is also a keen ornithologist certainly will be after listening to this double CD set, which features five of his six Soundscapes (the sixth from 1995 is mysteriously absent), all commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. ‘Soundscapes’ here is a synonym for outdoor tape-recording of wildlife noises. They are only music in what might politely be called the ‘post-modern’ sense: as the liner-notes put it. They are “in their own way compositions in any case, since they are not simple, passive recordings, but carefully-edited assemblages”. To be fair to Lumsdaine, he insists that in these recordings it is the birds who are ‘composing’ – but should they feature on a CD of his music? After all, with modern technology, anyone really could have done them. They also take up around a quarter of the overall recording time.
The Soundscapes ‘ descriptive subtitles are: The Billabong at Sunset ; Frogs at Night ; Raven Cry ; Serenade ; and Hunting a Crested Bellbird for Dr Gilbert at Palm Creek . Certainly there will be many who appreciate each smorgasbord of natural sounds, but probably far fewer – bird-fanciers aside! – willing or able to sit five times through five or six minutes of relentless rainforest-level bizarre bird chatter or eerie frog noises. These are not the gentle sounds of British pastoral scenes.
The Soundscapes link – or intrude upon, depending on one’s viewpoint – the more orthodox works, though even here, Lumsdaine’s music is not for the faint of heart. It is modal and spartan, and also fragmentary – the Six Postcard Pieces last only five minutes, and A Little Cantata , at less than four minutes, is positively minuscule. Too brief in either case to really have time to say anything worth repeating.
Wedged incongruously between two noisy Soundscapes , Blue on Blue , for solo cello, is probably the most accessible work on this release. In the notes, Lumsdaine’s friend and fellow composer and ‘twitcher’, Anthony Gilbert, describes it as a “duet for soloist: a modal melody, almost a raga, against the more percussive, pitch-unfocussed pizzicato commentary.”
The first disc ends with A Tree Telling of Orpheus , a dramatic monologue, commissioned for the occasion of Lumsdaine’s 60th birthday by the ensemble Gemini, who perform it here with Lesley-Jane Rogers. Twenty-five minutes long, this is very demanding music for performers, particularly the soprano, but Rogers is more than equal to it. It also asks a lot of the listener, but effort and concentration should be repaid after a second and third play-through.
CD 2 opens with the final Soundscape (mercifully), and then Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek keeps the birdsong theme going. It is a short and shrill piece for solo sopranino recorder, imitative of Australian bird noises.
A Norfolk Songbook is a collection of ten settings of Lumsdaine’s own poems, based on his stays in East Anglia . Birds again feature heavily in the poetry, which concerns itself both with the natural environment of Norfolk and the bombing of Libya in 1986, when the US military used the region as an airbase. Neither the poetry nor the music will be everyone’s cup of tea, but the combination of clear soprano voice, other-worldly recorder and Lumsdaine’s ambiguous texts creates a potent effect, particularly on repeated hearing.
Cambewarra , for solo piano, is half an hour long, and substantial not only with regard to length. Gilbert describes this work, in three continuous movements, as “an architectural embodiment of shape, colour, space and charged stillness.” The sections are, as it were, Lumsdaine’s responses to three different views of the landscapes around Cambewarra ( Smoky Mountain ) in Kangaroo Valley in southern Australia . This is challenging music for the listener – think Boulez piano sonatas – but not without its rewards. Peter Lawson makes it sound easy, which it is anything but.
The sound recording is excellent, though the cellist’s breathing is rather audible in Blue on Blue. The booklet is glossy and informative, with biographies, poem texts and interesting and well-written notes by Gilbert. Overall, it is difficult not to conclude that this would have been a better product if it had dropped the Soundscapes and showcased more of Lumsdaine’s music. On the other hand there is still more than a full CD’s worth of his works here that any lover of contemporary music should be familiar with.