Notes towards a programme

Lilburn in the Victoria University EMS

Douglas Lilburn’s electronic music continues to fascinate. I’ve written about it in a number of (offline) contexts, and this Wednesday evening will be helping to present a concert marking the 10th anniversary of his death – 10 years ago today. Here follow notes towards programme notes for the electronic works in the concert, which explores the links between his lesser known piano works and the electronic work. Lilburn’s complete electronic works, by the way, are available as a box set from SOUNZ.

God Save (1972, 1:00). A familiar melody, transformed into wonky bagpipe filigree and, later, towards those birdlike forms so prevalent in the electronic work. It  is no doubt a republican snipe, not least given Lilburn’s focus on the “the discovery of our own [musical] identity” (Lilburn, 1946), and delivered with irreverent antipodean wit.

Five Toronto Pieces – Sings Harry (1963, 5:06). One of Lilburn’s earliest electronic works and it presages many of the features of his mature works in the electronic medium. There is a sparseness, a concern for inharmonic timbres (so characteristic of the technology of the day), a structure defined by refrain (song is never far away in Lilburn’s music), and the sudden opening of the texture into ebullient melody (birds and bagpipes again). Then at the end, somewhat unexpectedly, there is Lilburn, giving voice to a different reading of Denis Glover’s poem. This might be understood as Lilburn revising his own history which in 1963, as Lilburn embarked on a journey into the nascent electronic medium, was still largely defined by the success of the other Sings Harry (1954).

Soundscape with Lake and River (1979, 11:00). Without doubt Lilburn’s best known electronic work. It remains a singular statement, juxtaposing and overlaying field recordings made near Taupo with electronic textures that reflect and refract the natural world of New Zealand which Lilburn held to be key to his aural imagination. Aside from its sheer beauty, the reasons for the work’s significance are best articulated by Lilburn: “I think the last piece that I did [Soundscape with lake and river] really brought me full circle to what I’d been wanting to do all the time: take the natural sound of the river and lake at Taupo and weave it into the texture of the electronic sound and fuse them in some way.”

Triptych (1977, 11:00). This work presents something of summary of many of Lilburn’s signature sounds and techniques, and as ever bears relationship both to his instrumental work (melody always hovering close by) and his engagement with the natural world (birds around tangled horizons). To a contemporary ear, it has an appealing quirkiness and grittiness, which is one reason why these pieces grab the attention of those who are as interested in electronica as Elektronische Musik. More than this though, it is in soundworlds such as this that, as Frederick Page put it, ‘the strangeness, the remoteness, of our world, finds its sound’ (1970).

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