BRENTON BROADSTOCK: COMPOSING FREEDOMDr Linda Kouvaras
As a human being, I believe that I have a moral obligation to do what I can to improve the society I live in. The corollary of this, as a human being who is predominantly involved in the artistic expression of music composition, is that I am morally obliged to improve society through my art. (Broadstock, 1992)
Amongst many Australian composers of prior generations — not least among those, Brenton Broadstock’s former teacher, Peter Sculthorpe — has been the attempt to reflect “Australian” themes, centering on geographical or historical aspects of this country. Formerly, Broadstock has seemed to stand apart from this approach in his music. Rather, Broadstock’s works in fact, can be likened to “a good, long novel, progressing through impediments to some kind of resolution ... romantic metaphors of destination.” (Musicologist, Roger Covell.)
Over the past few years, however, Broadstock has been keen to explore what he perceives as a kind of psycho-geographical Australianness in our nature. While he was in the USA in Penn State in 1993, during a six-months’ study-leave period from his lecturing position at Melbourne University, he observed a group of Americans immersed in Australian studies (a very healthy Centre for Australian Studies thrives there). They described Australian society as embodying a certain directness of attitude and approach, an almost naive quality; they concluded that we “don’t suffer fools gladly”, we have an element of “brashness” to our nature. These are very broad generalisations, of course — open to argument and, finally, unprovable. But Broadstock found useful the truism that people overseas can be more objective about another country; this can also occur in the case of an Australian reflecting about his/her home country from thousands of miles away over a period of time.
The most significant outcome of this time for Broadstock was that the conversations spurred him to crystallise his own compositional voice, which resulted in a turning-point for him. This turning-point did not result in any shift in raison d’etre, nor a radical re-think of musical language: his music retains the idiomatically-developed, serialised use of modal structures, for example, and it has always contained a rich lyricalness; he continues to structure his works (albeit less consciously these days — he no longer has to labour over this) in an arch form consisting of the “golden mean” climax roughly two-thirds of the way through the work. But the means of expression is more direct, less cluttered; the gestures and flow of material less complicated. There is less tendency to use twentieth-century, extended techniques for their own sake.
One work on this recording comes from the composer’s early mature period: Beast from Air (1984); the remainder are recent works, representing the fruition of this compositional development. However, one constant has remained of utmost importance to Broadstock for his compositional process: this is his social conscience. Brenton Broadstock is not alone in this approach to his art. Throughout this century, well-known European composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono, Benjamin Britten, Kryztov Penderecki, Cornelius Cardew and Hanns Eisler, to name just a few, have been galvanised by the heinousness of their political and social situations. And closer to home, Australian composers in recent years have written works which refer to political events in the Pacific region: Neil Currie’s Ortigas Avenue portrays the revolution in the Philippines; Colin Bright’s opera, The Rainbow Warrior, is concerned with the sinking of the eponymous Greenpeace vessel; Martin Wesley-Smith has written several works expressing his concerns over the invasion of Timor; and Ann Boyd’s Black Sun was her response to the massacre in Tianenmen Square. In the clear majority of cases, it is a title or a concept which stimulates the very act of composition for Broadstock. The extra-musical association will then continue to influence the work, acting upon structural processes, determining the dramaturgy of the music itself. His inspirational sources cover an enormous range — from aphoristic maxims, to literary titles and philosophical quotations. But any initial impression of random eclecticism gives way under closer examination to reveal the consistency in compositional impetus. Particularly, Broadstock explores in different ways concepts of “freedom” and its antithesis: the suffering that is caused when freedom is impeded for whatever reason — either organic and internal or external and political. Titles of Broadstock’s works such as Deserts Bloom ... Lakes Die (1990),
And No Birds Sing and From the Skies (1987) and Beast from Air portray the composer’s sense of outrage concerning global pollution caused by industrial waste and nuclear testing: acts of political neglect and/or irresponsibility which are contributing gradually to the lack of “free”, unpolluted air on earth, with consequences for everyone. In Beast from Air, stabbing percussion and grating trombone denote an elemental sense of response to the destruction of the planet, specifically against nuclear testing by the French in the Pacific. The piece progresses organically, a condition of stasis and stability is gradually eroded and fragmented, replicating the effect of nuclear fallout on living things. It is prefaced by the composer’s own text:
Beast! Mushroom of repugnant residue… Nebulous… malicious… Malevolently meandering… Mindless mogul of decay… Fatal… fearful of phalanx… Fingers gouging at our existence. Deformity — infertility — pollution — death, Slow agonising death, The harvest… A millennium of harvests… Beast from air!
The final score direction to the percussionist reads “wait for at least 8 seconds until audience thinks that the piece has ended… then STRIKE!”, as though to remind the listener that even after the initial devastation from the ignition of the bomb, aftermaths continue.
A great part of Broadstock’s compositional output has been the exploration of the visual metaphor of light. “Light” has always been present, from his later-period student works (the first two from the Aureole series) of the early 1980s, but it is now developed in the recent works; the concept of freedom is still at the core but the pictorial image has been abstracted into a generalised metaphor, which manifests in many of the titles on this recording. Dating from the earliest Aureoles, the concept of “duality” has served as a metaphorical vehicle for Broadstock’s exploration of “freedom” — in all its various manifestations.
An “Aureole” is defined as “... a border of light or radiance enveloping the head or sometimes the whole of a figure represented as holy.” Broadstock was inspired by paintings showing figures with this aura around them, and again by examples of Kerlean photography which shows this aura around all living and some inanimate things. But it was not the sense of holiness which provoked Broadstock's compositional stimulus. It was rather “the dichotomy that exists between holiness and unholiness, radiance and darkness, the so-called ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ — those opposite facets of our human nature which are constantly struggling for supremacy.”
In Aureoles 1 and 2, the demarcation between contradictory musical elements is clearly delineated; the juxtaposition of opposites is maintained. A clear compositional development occurred in Aureole 3 (1984-85), which Broadstock describes as the first of his mature-style pieces. In this piece, as in Aureole 1 and 2, the two solo instruments are cast as musico/dramatic protagonists in order to reflect the contemplation of duality; but unlike the earlier works, the boundaries between their disparate characteristics are blurred; cross-pollination takes place constantly; positions of respective supremacy are in a state of flux throughout — in fact, it is not until the end of the piece that the actual natures of the protagonists emerge unambiguously.
In the Silence of Night (1989) belongs to the genus of his output Broadstock calls his “Life Cycle” series, along with Clear Flame Within (1996). Light is here perhaps muted, perhaps non-existent, in a physical sense, but in a metaphorical sense it could be representing emotional clarity — it is possible to gain the clearest insights and elucidations when alone at night. In an instance of those rare yet intriguing coincidences in the creative process, no sooner were the title and piece written than the pianist came across this poem from Søron Kiekergaard: Either/Or, A Fragment of Life (1843), which the composer agrees is an apt reflection of the central notion of the piece.
I have but one friend, Echo, and why is Echo my friend? Because I love my sorrow and Echo does not take it away from me. I have only one confidant, the silence of night; and why is it my confidant? Because it is silent.
The music unfolds over slowly altering, minimalist-structured ostinato patterns. Cast in the aeolian mode, it proceeds in a hypnotic yet wistful fashion, until it reaches its climax at two-thirds of the way through, conforming as usual to Broadstock’s predilection for the Golden Mean form. The intensity of dynamics and harmony at this point suggest that the meditator, experiencing the silence of night, is very much awake and is perhaps using this time to make deeply private reflections. After the turbulence subsides, the original mood returns; this time the ostinato patterns have swapped between the hands. The piece concludes with a recapitulation of the opening, gentle chimes-effect, which was transformed into a breathless surging forth at the climax, and transfigured again at the end into E major sixth sonorities, becalmed at last.
Clear Flame Within (1996) maintains a delicately-honed balance in the cello part resulting in what could be termed a “relaxed intensity”. It is accompanied by another poem by the composer:
I see — through eyes opaque ......yet see clearly I hear — with muffled ears ......yet hear clearly I feel — constrained, torn ......yet feel passionately I touch — with ambivalence ......yet touch honestly I know — what should be, cannot ......yet know there burns a clear flame within I am —- alone ......yet not alone
Glistening Tears (1998) is accompanied by the following lines — a heart-wrenching verse, penned by the composer, first meditating on the subject of Matthew, his multiply-handicapped son, then generalised into the thoughts of a carer of a person who has an incurable illness. Light touches the son’s/sufferer’s tears, reaches the father/carer; both parties in either situation are bonded by their helplessness.
I touched your glistening tears.... I stroked your hair helpless, watching as the life ebbed from your body Your eyes, like mirrors lifeless, reflecting only the life outside of you The sun shone through a nearby window giving radiance to your face, making the tears in your eyes glisten I wiped away your tears..... I can do no more.....
This is a more intimate musical essay on Broadstock’s feelings about Matthew than in his First Symphony, Toward the Shining Light (1988), which tracks not only the parents’ own struggle towards acceptance of a tragic situation, but also celebrates the achievements and developments that Matthew has made. In the present work, characteristic Broadstockian appoggiatura grace notes decorate the soprano saxophone melody that maintains a pure innocence and is accompanied by a gently supportive piano comprised of continuous quavers in a modern, also Broadstockian Alberti-bass type minimalist texture, reminiscent of another work on this disc dealing with loneliness, In the Silence of Night (1989), for solo piano. The joyous, almost ecstatic mid-section of Tears defies the notions expressed in the poem — until the texture of the first section returns and, in retrospect, one feels more a sense of yearning in the central section rather than an attainment of unmitigated positivity.
In another rare deviation from the normal course of compositional events for Broadstock, the title for At the Going Down of the Sun (1998) emerged after the music was written. The work had resonances of war for Broadstock, perhaps because of the sound of the instruments for which it is written, and the trumpet plays, in a happy coincidence, a fanfare reminiscent of The Last Post; and when he heard the ritual on Anzac Day the answer seemed obvious; it fits the mood of the music very well. The title is taken from the Returned and Services League Burial Ritual:
They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
Once again, then, the themes of light and freedom — political freedom, once more — intertwine. The opening organ augmented chords create an elegiac feel, the muted trumpet sounds distant: a new interpretation of typical associations with The Last Post is effected in the simple arpeggiation in the organ part and the muted dotted rhythms in the trumpet part. Glistening Tears, Clear Flame Within, and At the Going Down of the Sun are all very much melodically-based. They provide a challenge to the lyrical qualities of the instruments for which they are written, focusing especially on their upper registers and potential for passionate rendition.
All that is Solid Melts Into Air (1992) highlights notions of political freedom along with In Chains (1990) and Fahrenheit 451 (1992). The title is taken from The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, written in 1848, and now has a certain irony with the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. The work is to be played quietly and gently throughout, with a very breathy and “un-solid” tone from the flute and bass clarinet, except for the sections which are bracketed and marked agitato or feroce. The treatment of pentatonic scale structures traces the dissolution of the “solidity” of the essentially monodic woodwind lines with gently piano accompanimental figures. In contrast to the meditative first and third sections, the second contains much more contrapuntal, ferocious and agitated slabs of material, the eastern, meditative qualities shaken from the structure. The final section defies east-west dichotomies: the melodic structure is expanded to a much fuller chromaticism, the three instruments are more independent but the meditative effect remains. Each time the music establishes itself it “melts” into a single tone.
The 14 Stations of the Cross were commissioned from fourteen Australian composers by the Song Company in 1993. Broadstock was asked to write the setting of the 14th Station. The words are:
Then having brought a linen shroud, Joseph took Him down, Wrapped Him in the linen, And laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of rock.
In its use of modally-inflected organum, the elegaic music has an archaic sense to it, but in postmodern fashion it does not seek to recreate any existing style from the past. Rather, it is more like the imagined memory of a distant genre, which never actually existed. At the request of Ingrid Leibbrandt, formerly the director of Chora Australis, he is currently completing his own settings of the other thirteen Stations.
Broadstock introduces Dying of the Light: The media hype, hysteria and bigotry surrounding the AIDS virus has waned but the suffering of those who have contracted the disease continues. The title comes from a poem of Dylan Thomas and is a tribute and reminder that many HIV sufferers are still raging against the dying of their light, still fighting to maintain their health, their dignity and their humanity.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words have forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night. Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night. Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The extra-music-structural trajectory is clear in this work, particularly at the end where despite the bursts of life and the angry and at times confused attempts of will to overcome the decaying process of the disease, death overtakes. And yet beyond the sense of tragedy and outrage at untimely suffering and death, there is a feeling of transcendent positivity.
The suffering caused by schizophrenia could be described as the internal “dark (or even overly-neon-hued) prison” of an individual who has lost the grasp of reality. During his work as a music therapist, Broadstock worked with many schizophrenics; but it was twelve years later, while browsing through a second-hand bookshop in Carlton, that he was struck by the title of an obscure book: Stars in a Dark Night. The book is a collection of letters by English poet and composer/songwriter Ivor Gurney, a poet and musician who suffered from schizophrenia; the “stars” represented both the precious letters he received while in the “dark night” of the trenches during World War 1, and also the ever-decreasing periods of sanity in the “dark night” of his mental deterioration. Gurney's book inspired Broadstock's Second Symphony (1989) which borrows the same title; in the earlier work as in Bright Tracks, the dynamics of the schizophrenic condition — lucidity and rationality degenerating quickly and unpredictably into irrationality and mental distress — constitute the structural processes of the music. Bright Tracks (1994) contains a mix of tonally stable sections where the tortured protagonist’s mind comes to rest for brief moments of saddened reflection. These alternate with mental frenzied out-pourings as the protagonist rails against the confinement of the mental asylum, the injustices wrought by human against human and the prison of (her/)his own mind.
The words are taken from the many poems of Gurney. Gurney suffered from schizophrenia and spent the latter part of his life in a mental asylum. The poems chosen (particularly “To God”) reflect Gurney's mental instability, frustration, anger and a pathetic sense of hopelessness.
SONG 1 - 'THE SONGS I HAD' The songs I had are withered or vanished clean Yet there are bright tracks where I have been And there grow flowers for others' delight Think well O singer soon comes the night.
SONG 2 - 'HAD I A SONG' Had I a song I would sing it here Four lined square shaped utterance dear. But since I have none well regret in verse Before the power's gone Might be worse, might be worse.
SONG 3 - 'TO GOD' God! Why have you made life so intolerable And set me between four walls Where I am able not to escape meals without prayer, For that is possible only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual hell has been put upon me, So that all has deserted me And I am merely crying and trembling in heart For death And cannot get it. And gone out is part of sanity And there is dreadful hell within me And nothing helps Forced meals there have been and electricity And weakening of sanity by influence That's dreadful to endure. And there is orders and I am waiting for death And dreadful is the indrawing or outbreathing of breath Because of the intolerable insults put upon my soul, Gone out everything from my mind All lost that ever God himself designed Not half can be written of cruelty of man on man Not often such evil guessed as between man and man.
SONG 4 - 'THE SONGS I HAD' The songs I had are withered or vanished clean Yet there are bright tracks where I have been And there grow flowers for others' delight Think well O singer soon comes the night.
In this work, Broadstock reflects on the fact that there is no cure for schizophrenia; and the fluctuations between the representations in the music of ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ mirror the fine line between control and the lack of it that exists — Broadstock believes — for indeed all of us, not only for those diagnosed as schizophrenic. So, once again, Broadstock explores the idea of positivity (light) and negativity (darkness) which may unpredictably dominate our psyche at any given period in our lives. From its abstract manifestation in the seminal Aureole series, the exploration of the Manichean preoccupation with duality, manifested in the metaphor of light and its implied opposite, darkness, acquires a more unified application in Brenton Broadstock’s later compositions. The works on this recording explore concepts of metaphorical “prisons” and “freedom”, “tragedy” and “transcendence of anguish” — and the way that one state can impinge upon and ultimately overtake another.
His mature style, more direct, less cluttered, more lyrically based, presents the realisation that innate, oppositional qualities are mutually-interactive and can adopt or absorb their own antithesis, and it is this which, in a dialectical fashion, constitutes the human condition. One of the greatest dangers for humanity is history’s potential to “forget” such atrocities as the Holocaust, to ignore such potentially devastating situations as global pollution. It might be argued that Broadstock’s music — indeed, any music — cannot indisputably and intrinsically “mean”, for example, someone being shot!, or, say, the emission of greenhouse gasses: indeed, Broadstock does not intend to portray in real terms these concerns. Rather, he alludes musically to them and, further, through programme notes, titles, and associations built up through culture — through concerts, radio broadcasts, recordings, teaching — history’s lessons do not die; they are not buried underneath the often palliative blanket of “high art”: they remain as a constant in our culture.
©1998 Linda Kouvaras
Dr Linda Kouvaras is a composer, pianist and musicologist who lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her website
© 2019 Brenton Broadstock Contact Me