the effort to return to the cities of the sane



for bass clarinet

9 minutes

A couple of months ago I got a message from a Brisbane clarinetist, Drew Gilchrist, asking if he might play my antique basset clarinet piece time on his bass clarinet. My immediate reaction was to discourage him, on two grounds: that the piece was forty years old and none the better for it, and besides, it was more effective on a clarinet with a thinner tone than the bass. This discouragement seemed unfair after Drew had shown interest in my work, and I decided to turn a refusal into an opportunity: I suggested to Drew that I write him a new work – quickly, as he needed it for a near-future concert in Germany.

This was not entirely a blue-sky suggestion. My next few pieces all feature single-reed instrument: clarinet d’amore and ensemble (the solace of articulation), for Richard Haynes; ⟨r⟩emote for any saxophone, for Thomas Giles; and Sparcle is a litil particle of fire, also for bass clarinet, for Carl Rosman; and after all those possibly a piece for multi-tracked saxophone choir. It struck me that having to create a solo bass clarinet piece very rapidly would ‘warm me up’ for this sequence of fairly demanding new pieces.

I offered a trio of ideas to Drew for him to select from, and the title he warmed to is the one the piece now bears: the effort to return to the cities of the sane, a line I lifted from a rather poignant remark in Daniel Swift’s 2017 book, the Bughouse, about poet Ezra Pound’s post-war incarceration in the Chestnut Ward of St Elizabeth’s Hospital for the insane outside Washington. He writes: “In the cabinets are displays of tableware and china from the old hospital. Beneath the sign ‘Art at St Elizabeth’s’ ... are lopsided figurines in glazed clay, a teddy bear, a bus, a sunken house. They are marked ‘favourite places’, ‘favourite animals’ and ‘trusted people’. ... the activity of making was held to be curative, and what is celebrated here is not the objects but that activity, long ago, and the effort to return to the cities of the sane.” I was saddened by this image of the institutionalised souls seeking some kind of ease by pursuing ‘art activity’, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to try and catch that sense of yearning. Intendedly, the effort to return to the cities of the sane is a respectful homage to those troubled minds.

Of course, literally ‘catching’ a mood is beyond music’s capacity, so I adopted a moment to moment fabric illustrative of the titular effort, a texture of festinatory twitchiness that is incapable of respite and could be said to signify the implicit agitation. This semiotic material is channeled into formal arcs that morph from ‘non-sane’ (incoherent) to ‘sane’ (coherent); the structure is articulated by differently paced transitions from the former to the latter. As the title suggests, such returns are striven-for but, sadly, not guaranteed; similarly, the music’s oscillations are unresolved and the work ends open-endedly.

25 November 2022

Drew Gilchrist has two years exclusivity from the date of first performance of this piece, which will probably take place in January 2023.