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Diver's Lament

Diver’s Lament is a fourteen minute work scored for large orchestra. The piece is fast throughout but has two main sections that are linked by a passage for four Peking Opera Gongs. The first section is an ebullient passage in which a calling figure for horns, percussion and keyboard instruments is alternated with rising modal phrases in the brass; the second and longer section unfolds from a series of rhythmically active hymn-like passages in the strings which evolve over slow bass harmonies with bass drum and gong pulses.

Initially the name Diver’s Lament had come about as the working title for a music theatre piece which has not eventuated. My eye had been caught by a tragic incident in which four Australian commercial divers in a decompression chamber on board a ship during a typhoon in the South China Sea were swept into the enormously deep sea below whilst still in the decompression chamber. As in my first opera Black River, the elements of human isolation, containment, cutural alienation and racial conflict attracted me to the idea of a piece in which the set could become a shuddering musical instrument as the world is consumed with deep, all pervading and uncontainable water.

Synchronicity played its part a few years later when I came across a song by Paul Bowia recorded by Jeremy Beckett in Badu in the Torres Strait in 1960. The song is a ‘Diver’s Lament’ about pearl divers taken from their South Seas home; it has a text which Beckett has published in a translation from the Mabuiag language,

Mother , was it for this that you cut my umbilical cord, that
I should spend my life out here on the sea?
I am a castaway, the seabirds my only companions.
Alas, this is a bad life out here on the sea.
We have been sad like this a long time, floating on the water like gulls.
Our homes, where our fathers,
mothers and sisters stay,
are far away on the horizon,
while we set our feet in a
place that is alien to us.

The music of the song would seem to be typical of the Torres Strait. Eceletic yet unique, the song has passages in thirds, antiphonal hymn-like structures, modal sources from indigenous music of the region and the use of found instruments (in this case a memorable accompaniment played on tobacco tin). In one early draft of my Diver’s Lament, melodic passages from Bowia’s song had been quoted yet their anachronistic presence seemed musically at odds with the piece’s symphonic structure. In another draft a mnemonic version for percussion of the original song text’s speech rhythms had been employed; yet again, that draft was largely rejected surviving only partially in some of the material that underlies the passages for gongs and cymbals and which perhaps recalls the tobacco tin solo.

Maybe there is residue of meaning left from these sources. I see the first section as a rapturous invocation of the surface of the sea and the second as an enthralled contemplation of what lies under.

Diver’s Lament was commissioned by Eva Griffith for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in memory of Heinz Harant. The work was composed with the assistance of the Hazel Hincks Fellowship at Villa Montalvo Centre for the Arts, USA in November–December 1995.

 

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