A Search For Tradition And A Search For Language, by Douglas Lilburn (Lilburn Residence Trust, with Victoria University Press, 2011) 112 pp., $29.
We missed out on a first-class prose writer when Douglas Lilburn decided to devote himself to music instead of literature. His language in these two essays is lucid and elegant, perceptive, and easily carries a huge range of reference without being in the least bit dry or pedantic. He might have developed into a philosophical writer in the vein of Jose Ortega y Gassett (1883–1955) or of the German, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). His writing combines Schopenhauer’s understanding of musical essence with the clear expression of social perspective by the Spanish Gassett.
These are large claims to make about a New Zealand composer, but we must remember that Lilburn’s sheer talent as a musician — one which compares favourably with mid-twentieth century peers such as Samuel Barber (1910–1981) and Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) — indicates a major artistic intelligence and a fine grasp, at the very least, of the sound and rhythm of language. Also, he never abandoned literature. It remained at the centre of his life. His direct engagement with it as a composer is significant in our cultural history. His settings of poems by Allen Curnow, Ruth Dallas, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Denis Glover, ARD Fairburn and others make up in themselves a major body of work.
He had, though, a problem, which he could not solve entirely through music; and this accounts for the existence of these two essays. Along with his literary peers he had to work out the mid-century question of identity and of the Pakeha artist finding a place to stand. This theme runs through both essays, the first, ‘A Search for Tradition,’ written in 1946, the second, ‘A Search for Language’ written in 1969. Lilburn was no jingoist and fully understood the limitations of nationalism. What interested him was a journey of discovery in a particular environment — and its corollary — a journey of self-discovery. It happened that the place he lived in was Aotearoa/New Zealand. How to turn this to musical and stylistic account?
I feel a musician in this country must develop his awareness of the place he lives in, not attempting a mere imitation of nature in sound, but seeking its inner values . . . Rhythm . . . seems to me to be the fundamental thing in music . . . . It determines the shape and vitality of any melodic line, and in its larger sense of movement or flow, it is the basis of musical form.
He realised that rhythm formed a constant, that moved not just in music but in nature in ways which shaped our social being. These rhythms:
in a subtle way affect our manner of living, and I believe that they impress themselves on our minds in a way that will ultimately give rise to forms of musical expression . . . . If we can discover these rhythms of our ways of living and our relations to the environment about us, then we will see the beginnings of a music of our own . . . .
Thus the first essay, ‘A Search For Tradition’, states the case for a kind of regionalism. Today’s reader, saturated by instant global communication, might find this anachronistic, even quaint, but this hankering for a bond between artist and place certainly bore significant fruit. The music Lilburn was writing at the time of this essay put into acoustic terms what it said in words. Like the prose, the music is finely argued and discovers, in addition, qualities of feeling — impossible to represent verbally — that the prose only hinted at. There is, then, a complementary relationship between the two arts that Lilburn clearly needed.
The second essay, ‘A Search For Language’, faces the dilemma posed by the emergence of a new generation of composers (often his students) who did not share his Modernist/Romantic/ Regionalist feelings. By 1969 the world was more internationalised, and Modernism was beginning to morph into its ‘post’ phase. Here Lilburn pulls off a coup, as he did also in his musical career: he continues to argue his original case, but fully accepts the demands made on composing at a time of much greater eclecticism. He observed the changes in idiom and the new resources of ethno-musicology and electro-acoustic technology. In fact, he led the way in this last endeavour, establishing an electro-acoustic facility at Victoria University and creating highly successful music in this medium. Yet he stayed true to his literary argument, not just verbally, but in the electronic work. It achieves a synthesis of natural imagery and higher-tech post-Modernism:
I’ve found it exhilarating and liberating to work in this new electronic medium . . . . I’ve felt a greater possibility of making that synthesis I’ve talked about— a closer fusion of experience and musical language.
This ‘experience’ is that of the receptive, searching self, and includes the self listening still to nature, to ‘the vast range of natural resonances locked away in material objects, now able to be recorded and used.’
So he employs his essay to help him negotiate his way into the era of Stockhausen (1928–2007), of Messiaen (1908–92), of Penderecki (1933-), and of younger generations of New Zealand composers. Both essays had been published before, but this book presents them in an art-press edition, well designed and notable for its use of paintings and drawings by Rita Angus. They were kindred spirits, and her imagery perfectly complements his words. She was as exacting in painting as he was in composition, and this book picks up on the increasing public knowledge, both of their love affair and their lifelong friendship. This it does without comment, relying on the reader to notice the cues.
Two pieces of prose by the music historian John Mansfield Thomson introduce Lilburn’s essays. The first, slightly fustian in style, gives context and interest. The second, less successful, lacks the thread of clarity that Lilburn had. Its quotes are interesting, but sit awkwardly in a prose environment of points, which are picked out, but not developed. There’s also an afterword by a representative of the next generation of composers in the person of Jack Body. His is the best of the three extra pieces and takes up on the themes of the second essay: exploring the realisation that the composer must adjust to the musical future.
Further illustration through use of Lilburn scores and photographs, as well as a Lilburn discography, a bibliography of published Lilburn music, and a detailed ‘lifeline’ of the composer, make this an information-rich book. Two strange omissions must be noted here, though. Dan Poynton, the pianist who has recorded all the Lilburn piano music, goes unmentioned in the discography; and Prometheus, who are now publishing the piano music, do not have their efforts acknowledged. The book design, typesetting and binding (hard-cover with jacket) are excellent. Ironically, production happened in China, as if to signal the all-embracing reality of globalisation — even in the handling of such quintessentially localised New Zealand material.
DENYS TRUSSELL is a pianist, poet, biographer and environmentalist. Since the mid-1980s he has regularly given public performances of Lilburn piano works, including the formerly little-known Chaconne for Piano (1946).
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