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A colonial sketch book

March 8, 2011

The title of my second string quartet. Sounds good, doesn’t it? ‘Second string quartet’. This guy must be a serious composer, with opus numbers and stuff.

Actually, it’s true what they say: writing about music, really writing about it and not just about all the more easily discussed aspects on the periphery (like the words, if there are any), is hard. But writing the music itself is much harder, so it’s a pleasant diversion from the task in hand to sit down this afternoon with a lovely cup of tea after a long swim in the Melbourne outdoors and meander about a piece I heard for the first time yesterday afternoon.

This piece, like Letter to a Friend, as all about friendships. Commissioned by my friends Irene and John Garran, it honours Irene’s parents Kathryn and Bill Purnell, and is written for our mutual friends who form the Flinders Quartet. I can think of no better way to invent music than in this sort of situation, and I’m only hoping that the music repays such trust and confidence. Thank you, Irene, John, Erica, Matt, Helen and Zoe.

The two movements that comprise the quartet, ‘The Convict’s Return’ and ‘Gargal Machree’ are developed from folk material collected by John Meredith in his wonderful Folk Music of Australia, a treasure trove of colonial musical relics and associated stories by and about the old-timers who sang and played into Meredith’s tape recorder in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the tunes I have lifted more or less directly, like ‘The Dying Stockman’, which forms the choral hymn-like tune near the end of the second movement. The main theme of the first movement, however, would be barely recognisable as the colonial song about an emancipated felon making his way back to England. I was quite pleased with my modernistic transformation of this simple tune via sophisticated deconstructive techniques until I walked into the rehearsal room yesterday and all four players asked me whether I was consciously mimicking the opening of Mendelssohn’s Octet! Oh well, at least I love Mendelssohn, and the Octet is a masterpiece, and actually, I’m happy to report, the two openings do only bear a passing resemblance. Phew!

Dame Mary Gilmore and the Bushwhackers c.1952

‘Gargal Machree’ is something else altogether. The tune here is one that immediately caught my fancy, being unusually modal for an Australian colonial folk tune, and with a tender melancholy at odds with the often maudlin sentimentality of the sort of songs routinely favoured by drovers and shearers in the 19th Century. I can find no other reference to this tune, either, so would be glad of any further information from any source. I had meant this entire movement to be an elegiac solo for viola, for my friend Helen Ireland, but of course it became more evenly distributed than that as the music evolved, and as more and more folk melodies crept in. In fact, the whole quartet became a sort of medley of eight or so of my favourite tunes from Meredith, and I will have to go through the book to list them in detail.

A nice coincidence. Zoe Kinghton mentioned that she had a dream about just such a piece, although we didn’t discuss the form or theme of the quartet at all during its writing. She explained that she had wondered what sort of new composition might pair well with a Bartok quartet, with all of its intricate and striking references to Hungarian folk music, and imagined that something based on Australian folk heritage would be just the ticket.

Great minds do think alike, Zoe.


Having fiddled around with the idea of transcribing the quartet for piano quintet, I’m leaving that project quietly on the back-burner. But thinking about it made me realise that, although it works perfectly well as a two-movement work ending quietly, what I’d like to do is add a final romp. Or rondo, or something. There’s a sketch based on yet another colonial tune about the bushranger Jack Doolan from Castlemaine. More to follow…

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