The marvellous Brisbane pianist Alex Raineri will premiere my very new piano piece passing bells: day in his concert at the Brisbane Music Festival on December 18, at 7:30 pm in the Old Museum Building, Studio 2, 480 Gregory Terrace, Bowen Hills. The accompanying works will be the Ginastera First Piano Sonata and Chopin Preludes (complete). There will be a pre-concert talk at 7 pm--that would be me... It will be the last event of the Festival, after almost a month of astonishing and varied programs, with one shared feature: Alex performs in all of them.
Passing bells is a composite work, in a sense, linking the Middle Ages with our times. It ostensibly covers twenty-four hours in mediaeval life, from midnight through to midnight. The opening section, Vigils, is intended to recall the quiet intensity of the Great Silence of overnight monastic Prayer Watches: the Religious desperately attempting communion with their god. My certainty that supernature is fictitious makes this yearning all the more pitiable--nothing was ever going to come of their prayer. Vigils leads directly into Day, structured following the seven Prayer Hours, or Offices, of the mediaeval day, from Lauds at Dawn, to Compline in the evening. Bells obsessively toll throughout Day; expressive of the permanent melancholy of coexistence with the Black Death. The following Night section takes this one step further: Day intersperses the bells with the frantic pursuit of the everyday whereas Night presents them in a landscape of silence, the empty darkness of the overnight hours. But, as Barbara Tuchman reminds us, "the passing bells rang all day and all night...". The work ends with a brief postscript, named after Catullus: ...nox est perpetua una dormienda, which Raleigh rendered as 'The sun may set and rise,/ But we, contrariwise,/ Sleep, after our short light,/ One everlasting night'. After the dark Night of the soul, this is the long sleep of oblivion.
For all that, the work is also a very abstract mosaic of material, and even the bell-sound provenance and Gregorian chant borrowings are subsumed into a carefully-controlled mirror-like architecture. How you listen to it will depend on your preference: for narrative or for structural logic. ...Or both, of course.
I started the work in 2004, when the events of 9/11 still hung heavily on us all. Since then an almost daily litany of atrocities has tended to blunt our sense of outrage, and I find my own sadness heightened over our brutal, indifferent, and nihilistic times. As a composer I often feel that I flail impotently in the face of our unkind world; clearly passing bells is a manifestation of that flailing. But a tightly composed manifestation...
The passing bells: night section of this work was written in 2004 for Marilyn Nonken, at the request of Daryl Buckley, artistic director of ELISION. In 2018 I decided to complete the entire arch of the passing bells structure, in part in response to the encouragement of my webmeister and engraver Andrew Bernard, and Alex Raineri then asked that I finish it for his December 2019 Brisbane Festival closing concert. The rest is history.