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Letter to a Friend

March 5, 2011

This afternoon I spoke only for the second time in my life on that incredible skype thingummy. This time it was a friend I’d lost touch with, someone I haven’t spoken to for over twenty years. It seemed like only last year since we chatted, and yet at the same time it seemed like all of those twenty years as well. The astonishing and rather miraculous thing is, we find that we really are still friends, and that is a marvellous and beautiful thing. What do we do to deserve such blessings?

For someone who has spent most of his working life playing the piano, and who wrote all of his juvenilia for the piano, I don’t seem to have written much for the piano lately. In fact, while I was struggling to piece together the dozens of sketches that eventually coalesced to form my one-movement concerto Dreams, a distinguished composer from whom I sought advice told me in no uncertain terms to “lose the piano”. I guess, for a pianist, it’s often quite good advice. How else does one learn to escape the confines and conventions of the world of piano music and make ones own artistic journey unless one is prepared to let go of the security blanket?

On the other hand, the piano is an old friend, and as I get older I am more appreciative of the few friends I have who are still friends since way back. The piano and I have been through a lot, and our temperaments seem to agree. These three pieces, comprising the miniature suite Letter to a Friend, are based on songs I wrote for Elizabeth Campbell to sing with me at the Kangaroo Valley Festival a couple of years ago. I made piano arrangements recently and, as piano pieces, they won the Jean Bogan Prize at the University of Newcastle and will be premiered by Daniel Herscovitch on the 20th of May at the Newcastle Conservatorium.

Like a number of previous works, these pieces are the result of an ongoing interest in the poetry of Judith Wright, whose perception of both the beauty and spirit of the Australian country, as well as the dark tragedy of much of its colonial history, is always expressed in language of piquant and economical lyricism. Of the three, the first, ‘The Light Falls from the Sky’ is the one that has not quite met my initial expectations, and the fall of delicate chords has not found quite the ethereal melody I was after. Advice to self: stop fiddling and let the music be.

I’m much happier with the second, ‘I have sat down by this River‘, a tender reflection on the shared joy and sadness of real friendship, and the tragedy of its loss. The toccata in the middle is actually much more effective without the voice. I was writing ‘Black is the Night’ when the ACO asked for a piece to celebrate Richard Tognetti’s twentieth anniversary with the orchestra, so it now exists in three versions. In a way, the solo piano version is the one I like best. The song, naturally, is able to express the delicate precision of Wright’s dark thoughts; the string orchestra version has a luminscence due to the depth possible in the part writing and the quality of such exquisite playing as the ACO’s; but nothing compares with the flexibility and nuance possible in solo piano playing, at once the hallmark of ‘romantic’ pianism at its best and the annoyance to those who find just such expressive ‘affect’, well, affected.

There are more songs to come to complete Wright’s cycle, and I am working on them. Life tended to intervene rather dramatically over the last few years and many of my compositional projects have taken longer than they should have. Like many of my recent works, these pieces have a lot to do with friendship, and I am dedicating each one to a particular friend. ‘The light falls…’ is for Howard Penny, whom I first met many years ago in Vienna and with whom I joyfully reconnected at ANAM, where we taught and played together, and have shared much good craic ever since. ‘Black is the Night’ is obviously for Richard Tognetti, one of our country’s most remarkable living musicians. The piece I’m working on right now is ‘In the depth’, a lullaby for my old friend and music teacher Adrea, who wrote these lovely poems, amongst others.

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