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Lullaby in Edo and the genesis of a trio

April 18, 2014

A brief piece written for Limelight Magazine, May edition. I’m publishing it here as I can’t seem to locate it anywhere in that journal.

My second piano trio A Book of Lullabies began life as a song for mother and child, a setting of a well-known folk tune from Tokyo, known as ‘Lullaby in Edo’ (Edo eventually grew into modern Tokyo), for a young Japanese friend, Tomoe Kawabata-Ito, who had recently been blessed with a lovely little boy, Ryutaro. Contemplating its haunting simplicity gave me great pleasure, so I kept writing, selecting six further lullaby-like melodies from around the world. Soon, I had a virtual ‘lullaby odyssey’ that began in Australia with the indigenous ‘Maranoa Lullaby’, made famous by the extraordinary aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, followed by ‘Nina Bobo’ from Indonesia, ‘Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi’ from the epic Finnish poetic collection, the Kanteletar, ‘The Skye Boat Song’ from the Scottish Highlands (the ancestral home of clan Munro), ‘Iesus Ahatonnia’, otherwise known as ‘The Huron Carol’ from North America and the Zulu lullaby ‘Thula Mama’. Each of the songs tells a fascinating story, and more than one involves an expression of great sorrow and pain. The author of the ‘Huron Carol’, for example, was a Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, who wrote the hymn for the Hurons amongst whom he lived and worked, in their native language. He earthly fate was finally to be tortured and more or less boiled alive during the Iroquois invasion and annihilation of the Huron nation in 1649.

I came to realise that I had stumbled into writing what would become a piano trio for my friends, the delightful Jo and John Strutt, who had commissioned such a work as way of celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. All three of us love a good tune, so seven of them seemed about enough. The only one that didn’t make it into the final piece was the delightful ‘Flower Drum Song’ from China, written for pianist Andrea Lam (who was initially bemused by the subject matter: a wife at the end of her tether because of a husband with the irritating pastime of banging on a flower drum). That certain folk melodies endure and are loved and passed on by whole communities is well documented, although the reasons why are subtle, mysterious and fascinating. Over the years, I have often wondered what it is about great music that needn’t be complex to be profound, or difficult to be challenging, or obscure to be thought-provoking. So, in this work, I aimed to keep all of the materials simple, so as to reflect and stay true to the nature of the songs themselves, while suggesting the haunting aura of the eras and situations which gave rise to them. In the final version, the trio begins with an introductory passage based on a figure from ‘Nina Bobo’ (which replaces ‘Maranoa Lullaby’ as the opening movement) and ends with a similar, complementary return, during which the pentatonic Maranoa melody transforms into the similarly diatonic Indonesian one, suggestive of the wishful notion that in music it might be more possible than not to understand each other and find a natural and common humanity in song.

The trio receives its Sydney premiere at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney on May 20 at 11am. It’s a Musica Viva Coffee Concert and will be recorded for broadcast by ABC Classic FM.

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