Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
Complete Electro-Acoustic Works
ATOLL ACD 404 [3 CDs: 214:44; DVD: 54.48]
Considered ‘the father of New Zealand music’, Douglas Lilburn’s renunciation of the musical idioms with which he had had considerable success resulted in his turning exclusively to the creation of electronic works. In this way he felt he could avoid reference to European forms of music, and this was also because he felt these pieces more accurately portrayed New Zealand. The works in this collection are therefore essential for anyone genuinely interested in Douglas Lilburn, though listeners accustomed to the Violin Sonatas, Three Symphonies or Piano Music should be prepared to enter entirely new worlds of sound.
Superbly documented, Ross Harris’s booklet texts provide a concise and informative introduction, plus information on every work, including the composer’s own remarks where possible. Douglas Lilburn’s own ‘personal note’ from 1975 is also included, along with numerous photos. The development of technology is an important part of this pioneering period in electronic music, but the results speak for themselves.
Becoming accustomed to Lilburn’s ‘touch’ in the electronic sphere, the sense of refined nuance and poetry comes through very clearly. The three Inscape pieces are a good place to start, the composer’s mastery of the Putney VCS3 voltage controlled synthesizer resulting in some attractively gentle soundscapes, the third reminding me a little of those ‘Music for Films’ tracks made by Brian Eno, which appeared a little later but which at times inhabit a similarly timeless environment. Sounds and Distances takes floating electronic lines and some recorded sounds to evoke “the slow arching flight of birds hovering in the summer air.” This is a stereo mix by the composer, the four-channel vesion of which is to be found on the DVD. Carousel is perhaps more overtly abstract, but tickles us in the ribs with chuckling sounds which for Lilburn brought together “exhilarated and nostalgic memories of merry-go-rounds of childhood experience.” As well as the various controls, Lilburn also at times played his voltage controlled synthesizers in real time, and you can hear plenty of little improvisational fragments which add more of a human touch to the abstract nature of the music as a whole. Described as “the most static and austere of the late works”, Winterset is a slow evolution, perhaps comparable with something by Morton Feldman in the way it maintains a mood, varying its material with subtle inflections and inviting inner journeys and reflective contemplation. Tryptich is “a zany piece, a through-the-looking-glass piece” for Lilburn. Birdlike twittering, a certain rhythmic ‘swing’ and a feel of ongoing cadence make for a gently welcoming opening section, the tonal range widening further along as the piece develops, and electronic ‘characters’ converse in entertaining counterpoint.
Of Time and Nostalgia is a key work, like Harrison Birtwistle’s Chronometer filled with references to clocks, with chimes and ticking at various pulses making a mockery of time’s perceived linearity. It is remarkable how much Lilburn achieves with the resources he had at the time, and while there are familial connections with other works of the period you sense a raised pitch of the creative interface between artist and machine.
Moving on to CD 2 brings us to Soundscape with Lake and River, which was the last of Lilburn’s electronic works. Many of these pieces are connected with nature, and the electronic sections of this work are separated by recordings made in the field. The electronic sounds and shapes are also imbued with a feeling of nature, with calls, perhaps drips of water, the movement of air – these are qualities you fill in from your own experience. Poem in Time of War is an altogether darker set of images with grim, heavily filtered echoes setting up a doom-laden cave from which a sung text emerges – a Vietnamese woman’s expression of loss, the whole being a moving statement on the tragedy of the conflict in that region in 1967. The machine of war also emerges from that grim cave in the second half of the piece, and you’re better off not listening to this just before retiring of an evening.
Some of these tracks have the feel of studies, and the Five Toronto Pieces are the result of such a period. Toronto Tailfeather is an addendum to works which have some interest, but are more like preparatory sketches than finished concert works. More substantial and very much of its time is Fragments of a Poem, which pits a disembodied voice against the spacey effects available in the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University in 1966. Study from One Note is an exploration of a single note from New Zealand’s Kokako bird. The variety derived from this single signal is quite remarkable, showing how working with less can deliver so much.
CD 3 begins with an entertaining and quirky demonstration in God Save, the familiar anthem treated to, and arguably improved by random variations and microtonal tweaks. The Return takes Alistair Campbell’s poem of the same name, its mysterious atmospheres enhanced by Lilburn’s garland of effects. This is a four movement cycle with symphonic ambition, and very memorable indeed. This and several other pieces are recorded in mono, but the quality of the layering and balance makes this as good as irrelevant. This is for instance also the case with the Three Studies for Gustav Ciamaga, in which a sense of collage is generated through the variety of techniques involved. Welcome Stranger was a commission for The Royal Ballet, the subject of isolation of the individual within society impressively illustrated with a compelling abstract purity. This works best in its elongated tones in strange counterpoint, but the composer’s musical commentary on this theme is not without conflict and even violence at times. The third disc ends with Five Toronto Pieces, further studies made in Toronto, this time in binaural stereo, which can have some striking effects through headphones. These include Sings Harry, reckoned to be the first ever New Zealand electronic composition, and a humorous quasi-vocal duel in Two Part Scrabble.
The DVD has plenty of fascinating material. Glass Music is a real treat, a recording of various chimes overlapping and interacting with each other, accompanied by a slide-show of photos. The four channel works provide further insight into Lilburn’s interest in rich, slow-moving fields of sound with sharp contrast, this time in recordings made at the old Wellington Teleophone Exchange. The four-channel effect is always good fun, with sounds coming from behind as well as in front of the listener if you have the right surround-sound speaker set. Lilburn’s use of this spatial dimension is pretty basic as the technology available was of limited quality, and this work was never released for public performance. Don’t expect Stockhausen-like effects such as notes spinning around the room, but this is certainly worth a listen. This and the more nature-connected Sounds and Distances share a family resemblance in respect of their stretched notes and largely static atmosphere.
You can find the video of Douglas Lilburn demonstrating his work in Victoria University online, and it will be an education for younger composers to see a proper master working with tape in their natural habitat. Such things all happen invisibly these days, in the digital domain. Thoughts on and experience with Vaughan Williams and artist Rita Agnus are relatively brief insights which provide some added dimension to Lilburn’s character, but as much or more about the subjects. The teaching attitudes of and ‘lifelong habit of discovery’ of Vaughan Williams are particularly interesting. It is surprising to read that this is the entire extant footage of Douglas Lilburn on film. The radio interview with Jack Body is a wide-ranging discussion between two composers, Body’s questions drawing out Lilburn on composition, the later not afraid to take on some of the ‘rather difficult’ and sometimes quite personal angles investigated.
All of these analogue electronic works have been restored to a high sonic standard at Atoll’s Auckland facility. Sound quality is generally excellent, and only constrained by the limits of the technology on the original tapes. There is a little tape hiss audible, reassuring us that upper frequencies are untainted by extra filters or suppressors. This set is of course essential for any complete collection of Douglas Lilburn’s music. Those allergic to electronic music may not find themselves converted through these pieces, but I have greatly enjoyed the subtle poetry of Lilburn’s approach to his work in the studio. The more one hears of and knows about this composer, the more one appreciates how these pieces fit with his deeply cultured and outwardly modest but intellectually incisive character.
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CD 1 [67.07]
Three Inscapes (1972) [12.04]
Sounds and Distances (1975) [9.55]
Carousel (1976) [10.42]
Winterset (1976) [9.49]
Triptych (1977) [10.39]
Of Time and Nostalgia (1977) [10.48]
Cicadas, Oscillators and Treefrogs [2.33]
CD 2 [74.13]
Soundscape with Lake and River (1979) [11.01]
Poem in Time of War (1967) [15.01]
Dance Sequence-Expo 70 (1970) [10.52]
Summer Voices (1969) [6.32]
Five Toronto Pieces (1969) [18:48]
Toronto Tailfeather (1969) [1.08]
Fragments of a Poem (1966) [6.48]
Study from One Note (1967) [4.03]
CD 3 [73.24]
God Save (1977) [1.09]
The Return (1965) [17.03]
Three Studies for Gustav Ciamaga (1969) [9.07]
Welcome Stranger (1974) [26.25]
Five Toronto Pieces (1963) [14:48]
Spectrum Study [4.52]
Three Film Excerpts [6.20]
Glass Music (Audio with still photos) [6.25]
Four Channel Works
Lines and Distances (1975) (Audio only) [16.08]
Sounds and Distances (1975) (Audio only) [10.10]
Radio interview by Jack Body (c.1972) (Audio only) [15.45]