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Barren Grounds (1988)

for clarinet, viola, 'cello and piano

1. . . . this ground
2. The Twittering Machine

Barren Grounds is a wilderness reserve south of Sydney near the small town of Jamberoo. Perched high on the escarpment overlooking the sea, the landscape is strange and otherworldly: stunted growth and marshy ground but teeming with life. It is a bird breeding ground, yet whilst the feeling of the place is very still - almost suspended - the eerie surface conceals a fecund underlife.

For me, the place (and especially its perplexing name) occupies a state of mind and a way of seeing and it is this, rather than any deliberate programmatic intention, which gives the piece its title. Like a number of earlier works, Barren Grounds falls into two movements: slow, fast. This approach to the division of the work's parts is only superficially symmetrical as each movement is of quite different weight and purpose.

The first movement, ". . . this ground", is slow and lyrical in a sinewy way. It is a reworking of an earlier vocal sketch - Seafarer - the final line of which had the text: "And learn to sleep upon this ground." These words, with their reference to mortality, provide the key to the passacaglia form employed.

The second movement draws its title from Paul Klee's famous ornithological automaton painting, The Twittering Machine (although, incidentally, it should be added that the trails at Barren Grounds are known as Twittering Paths!). Spinning out rhythmic fragments and employing a sort of mosaic technique (where an idea takes on new meaning in a different context) are recurrent preoccupations. The musical intention at times resembles an ungainly machine that keeps running off the rails and then needs to be wound up again.

Barren Grounds was the inaugural work commissioned by Perihelion (the ensemble resident at the University of Queensland) and was composed with financial assistance from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. A recording is available on Perihelion's Compact Disc, Tapestry.

Short Version of Program Note

On the Illawarra escarpment overlooking the sea, Barren Grounds is a wilderness reserve and bird breeding area. With a strange and otherworldly landscape - stunted growth and marshy ground - the place feels still, yet the barren, eerie surface conceals a fecund underlife. For me, the place occupies a state of mind; this, rather than any programmatic intention, prompted the title.

Movement 1, is a slow, lyrical and sinewy reworking of a vocal piece, Seafarer whose final line: "And learn to sleep upon this ground", with its reference to mortality, suggested the passacaglia form used.

Paul Klee's ornithological automaton painting, The Twittering Machine gives Movement 2 its inspiration. The musical intention at times resembles an ungainly machine that keeps running awry and needs to be wound-up again. Spinning out rhythmic fragments and employing mosaic technique are recurrent preoccupations.

Perihelion commissioned the work with funding from the Performing Arts Board, Australia Council.

 

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