Symphony 4


Symphony 4 (1994-7)

For many years I wrestled with the decision whether to revise this vast work, written over 25 years ago, and first performed in 1997 by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn. On the one hand, it is overwritten, particularly the opening, and there are a few instrumental solecisms that I would, ideally, correct (fishing reels in the middle of a dense orchestral tutti, for instance). On the other, it is a genuine expression of my outlook in the mid-90s, and if I were to rework any of it, it would lose that contemporaneity.

It also has a backstory, one that was exclusively narrated by the national press here in Australia at the time – at no stage did anyone think to talk to me about it. So, for the record, and succinctly, here is what I understand to have transpired. The tale begins with a conversation in 1992 between myself and Tony Fogg, who was then working at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. We discussed my writing a piece for the orchestra; I had mooted the idea of adding four voices, who would sing a text to be written by a Chinese poet I had recently been introduced to. This provisional idea got the go-ahead. However, the Chinese poet turned out to be both a bit elusive and somewhat unreconstructed; I decided I really didn’t want to try and collaborate with him after all. So I substituted a series of other texts that interested me, and which shaped the piece’s ultimate character.

I wrote the piece while living in Lyneham in Canberra, only about fifteen minutes walk from the ABC radio office there. The first inkling of trouble came when someone involved in decision-making rang me and said: “Good news! We’ve managed to get Gunther Schuller as conductor for your piece”. I had repeatedly warned them at every stage of the project that a sympathetic conductor was a sine qua non. My immediate response was that this was a non: I told them there and then that Schuller would refuse to conduct the work. Oh no, they said, he was a professional and would honour the arrangement. But I knew this was not so – his aesthetic and mine are so diametrically opposite that he would either sleepwalk through it or decline outright.

In the event it was even worse than that. Not only did Schuller decline to conduct the work the moment he saw it, but he attacked it for being ‘unperformable’. (David Porcelijn who eventually conducted the piece with the ASO told me he had no idea what Schuller was talking about; he considered it more doable than the later, larger version).

This rebuffal was quite unsurprising in retrospect; even at the time it was fairly predictable that Schuller, already 70 then (my age now), having flown halfway round the world, wouldn’t want to be bothered to learn a challenging new piece at short notice. (Someone who attended the rehearsals told me that Schuller showed up in carpet slippers). He substituted a work of his own, which was in itself telling, as none had been previously programmed for that SSO season. At that time, 1995, classical music had not yet fallen completely beyond the purview of the national press, and it was reported with great cultural-cringey relish that an Australian composer was so callow as to write a piece (worse: a smartarse piece) that could not be performed.

Unfortunately, while all this was going on, in a quite separate incident, the percussion group Synergy also declined to play a work of mine on the basis of unperformability. What they actually meant was simply “without a conductor” – something they had not budgeted for – but this distinction was lost on the press. The accidental coincidence of these two events added an enduring rumour of incompetence to my reputation. The fact that the percussion piece was played very successfully a year later by the newly-formed Speak percussion (in fairness to Synergy, conducted by Carl Rosman), was entirely ignored by the press; this performance was so fine it eventually ended up as the titular track on my Tzadik CD, beyond status geometry.

The Adelaide Symphony took up the challenge of performing the, by this time somewhat extended, Fourth Symphony, guided by the very experienced David Porcelijn, and made a magnificent job of bringing it to life. It had a sizeable and enthusiastic audience who seemed to really appreciate it – and even got some decent reviews. Nonetheless, the two triumphant performances did little to remediate my reputation; it took a very long time to get past the lingering odour of dubiety, evinced in the rapid and lasting drop-off in commissions and opportunities. A few organisations were transparently grateful for the excuse to exclude my work.

It is typical of Australia that the main reason why the press failed to notice the Speak and ASO performances is that they both took place outside Sydney. Oz was still very parochial in the ‘90s.

For these reasons I have long held a rather sour view of my Fourth Symphony. It represents a lost opportunity, an undeserved falling from grace that really need not have happened had the ABC taken my advice on conductors. But twenty-five years is long enough in the shadows; it is time to rehabilitate the piece, and to that end I have enlisted my long-standing collaborator Andrew Bernard to produce a zoomable version of the score – a huge improvement on the old multiply-photoreduced copy that has previously been in circulation.

At the time of its first performance I wrote the following about the piece, which I reproduce here with very little alteration:

“The genesis of this work has been long and strange.

“The initial torso began life as a series of photographs (now lost) illustrating certain gestures, modelled by my then wife, dancer Diane Palmer. These postures were the gestural manifestations of emotive simplexes such as ‘emergence’, ‘benediction’, and ‘concealment’; hence propriocepts. Of the twelve images only eleven were selected, the last, Nataraja or Śiva’s Dance, providing the key as to appropriate texts to use for the singers. Once it became clear that the symphony was to extend beyond this core structure, the next step was to conceptualise this torso; I concluded that, given the framed, ‘still-life’-like character of the music, the most pertinent title would be quanta. By extension, if this music is the expression of a kinesthetic ‘internal imagery’ of the spiritual, then the Other material ought to be its complement, a mental imagery: consciousness. Consciousness is described in terms of qualia, and this became the title of the new material, with a suitably self-contradictory Gnostic text: Thunder: Perfect Mind.

“The conjunction of the two technical terms, quanta and qualia, as, respectively, articulations of the somatic and psychic experiences of the spiritual, brought to mind the Motet of Peter Abelard O quanta qualia and I decided that it would broaden the meaning of the symphony to preface it with a setting of this mediæval Latin text, balancing the new Qualia section. I also then detached the last section of the Quanta torso, the culminative destination of the harmony, which uses proper names from the Kabbalist Tree of Life as text, and annexed it to end the work. This final section, which is concerned with First Things, neatly associates with the fourth word of the Abelard text: sunt (‘they are’). The immensely powerful symbols from the Kabbala precede even duality, and are better expressed by fiat (‘let there be’ – hence the parenthetical subtitle) because they are of the nature of the En-Sof, or Transcendent Infinite. [“…the Creator God of the Bible is a limited God … subordinate to yet a higher, limitless and unknowable God, the En-Sof.” – Charles Poncé: Kabbalah (Straight Arrow Books, San Francisco, 1973).]

“A tension arises naturally from these contemplations: the privileged access of selfhood, both somatic and psychic, seems to me to be a suspiciously perfect model for the external cosmos as imagined by either religion or science. My distrust of the monotheistic conception of ‘God’ derives from this too-close fit, while science is still struggling with acknowledging the Inventionist semiology of the world-view.

“The exegetical subtext of my Symphony 4 is therefore concerned with ‘Monotheism as an externalisation of the sensation of being human’. We project ‘God’ or ’cosmos’ out of our inner awareness of being infinite and consequently expect Him/Her/It to know our name and our thoughts, and answer our prayers. My certainty is that Everything is vastly more impersonal and complex than that; ‘God’, like music, is a Sign without a Signified.

“The architecture and pulse-life of the music are gematrically derived from the name of the dedicatee. The several references in the sung text to Symbol, Metaphor, Name, and Sound, are elements of the work’s self-description. The harmony moves incrementally from a specific pair of artefactual chords (original and inversion, with harmonic rotations) to a sonic ‘found-object’ – which I have made no attempt to render realistically; it too functions as a sign.

“The musical architecture consists of two independent levels of tendency: the four sections exhibit familiar formal characters.

1 3’ Chorale-prelude-like setting of the O quanta qualia text

2 12’ Song cycle / set of directional variations

3 2’ Unsyncronised vocal ‘cadenza’ comprising both the final variation, and a link to

4 3’ A single large decay-envelope presenting the harmonic series (only the odd-numbered partials), juxtaposed with a vocal decrescendo. Antithetical to Section 1: (over-)busy orchestra becomes inert sonic ‘object’; homophonic vocal ‘chorale’ becomes subtle (microtonal) polyphonic web.

“Taken as a single arch, the music exhibits a huge decoupling of voices from orchestra; a gradual atrophying of orchestral material, culminating in an almost inanimate final harmonic series chord; and a psychic movement from ‘public’ (overtly religiose) to ‘intimate’ (unmediated, gnostic) utterance. In all of these respects, my intention was to demonstrate, as much as to express, to embody as well as to emblematise, the concerns musical and otherwise addressed by the work.

“Although this Fourth Symphony is, in every sense symphonic, from the almost-standard sequence of movements, to the rigorous unification of material, it is also, and not just because of the chosen texts, a religious work, concerned with what Ingmar Bergman has called “the silence of God”, and not merely an attempted humanist rapprochement with sacramentalism”.

Or, as it seems to me now in 2023, it was the first of my pieces that actively sought to repudiate supernaturalism in asking the question: does religion simply confuse inner and outer space? Back then I was still in romantic thrall to Neoplatonism, and the idea that a world of abstract pattern sat beneath reality – perhaps coded into the sci-fi ‘spacetime foam’ – functioned as a powerful creative engine. Over the years since I have slowly retreated from this position, to the point of seeing it purely as a metaphorical stance. My works do still embody the titles of pieces or the names of dedicatees, but these days that arises from the search for musical material rather than the search for cosmic meaning.


Full score

Symphony 4


Symphony 4

Kirsten Hardy, soprano
Carol Young, mezzo-soprano
Bernard Hull, tenor
Timothy Sexton, bass

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by David Porcelijn, 1997.

[This is the only available recording, a transcription from the radio broadcast.]

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