The iso-études

  • iso– in the sense that (a) they were written during the ongoing period of partly voluntary self-isolation during the pandemic in Victoria; and (b) as in “a combining form meaning equal“.
  • The iso-études are a series of distantly related works for various instruments and ensembles that I have written over the last two years. Four of them were included in my successful application for an Australia Council Resilience Grant in 2020. They are not, in the Toopian sense, a “cycle”, nor do they possess any grand collective unity beyond being written consecutively and sharing a certain perspective.

I imagine that I will continue to add works to the series until such time as COVID has faded into the environment, and we all feel safe to emerge; this list will therefore continue to grow. As of today there are seven works fully extant, and one in suspension until I manage to acquit more of my queued to-do list. I am using the term étude somewhat loosely here, in that not all are for a single instrument, or presented as an exercise in virtuosity …although all are highly, almost flamboyantly, tricky to execute on their various instruments. (I like flamboyant…) Their étude-ness emerges from my treating the pieces as a kind of open-ended laboratory for exploring subtly different aspects of my compositional language, hence Iso-(a). What makes them Iso-(b) is that, being written very close together—over the last 18 months!—they share many elements, from harmony to gestural scope to ambition.

In early 2020 Sylvia Smith of Smith Publications contacted me to see if I would like to contribute a piece to her proposed volume celebrating the centenary of the vibraphone, Vibraphone Century. We had previously been in touch over the possibility of writing a solo snaredrum piece; on that occasion I concluded that the snaredrum simply didn’t offer the kind of parametric scope I would require to write something I could live with so ultimately I declined. The vibraphone on the other hand, interested me greatly—I have made extensive use of the vibes in previous works, not least the opening of flux, and a solo work seemed eminently worthwhile. I managed to complete the score by 3 September 2020.

1 Luminous

For solo vibraphone—(August 2020)

The score is included in Vibraphone Century published by Smith Publications, Sharon, VT.

Duration: about 12 minutes

Luminous will receive its first performance on February 12, 2021 played by John McGovern at the Recital Centre, Pennsylvania State University

The piece takes as its starting-point the remarkable short science-fiction story Luminous by Greg Egan. The correspondence between the piece and story is primarily structural, although the notion of a computer that operates with light seemed to me to invoke the metallic lustre of the vibes.

To my surprise I enjoyed creating Luminous even more than I expected, and as I was writing another possible vibraphone piece suggested itself to me, one that used a similar vocabulary but in a distinctively different way. I was aware that Egan had written a ‘sequel’ to the Luminous story, set in the same world, called Dark integers, and it seemed appropriate to me to name this new piece after that subsequent story. Once Luminous and ghosts of motion were written I launched directly into Dark integers and this second piece was finished by 12 October 2020.

2 Dark integers

For solo vibraphone—(October 2020)

The score will eventually be published by Smith Publications, Sharon, VT as a single volume coupled with Luminous.

Duration: about 12 minutes

John McGovern is proposing to give the first performance of Dark integers on a date as yet tba.

I consider Luminous and Dark integers as a pair and would approve of having them performed in the same recital …but not perhaps contiguously, given the timbral and structural commonalities.

One day, late in 2020, my old friend the clarinetist Richard Haynes rang me from his home in Switzerland and asked if I would be interested in writing a work for his newly developed modern clarinet d’amore. As my second favourite instrumental family (after the flutes, of course!) I am always open to writing for all sizes of clarinet, but this was a new situation, writing for an instrument I’d never actually heard. Richard described the clarinet d’amore and its sound in some detail and I felt that I could imagine the ineffable otherness of its sound well enough to engage with the project. I decided that, rather than utilise the suite of extended techniques that characterise modern clarinet music, I would focus on the ur-sound of the clarinet d’amore, given that all of us would be hearing it for the first time.

I also intended the work as a small homage to my old friend Robert Schuck. I had included a Tombeau in his memory in my 2014-5 Piano Sonata, but I had also long wanted to write a final clarinet piece as if for Bob. He was a pioneer owner of a basset clarinet in B♭; the clarinet d’amore is a form of basset clarinet; it seemed apropos that this piece be dedicated to his memory—a final farewell.

The score was finished on 17 September 2020. Richard played ghosts of motion in Bern mere hours before Switzerland locked-down in December 2020 and subsequently recorded it for CD. The happy experience of working on the work with him led us to consider a more concertante work for the clarinet d’amore, with an ensemble of flute(s), bassoon, trumpet(s), percussion, piano, and string trio. This larger work will be called solace of articulation, and I am currently in the process of developing its structure and substance.

3 ghosts of motion

For solo clarinet d’amore—(September 2020)

The score, engraved by Andrew Bernard, can be downloaded here.

Duration: about 11 minutes

Richard Haynes has released a CD, also titled ghosts of motion, on the Cubus label. To obtain a copy please contact him via his website:

Note that this work may not be performed on bass clarinet.

I can no longer remember where I found the title …perhaps I simply invented it.

Now, a mea culpa. I have, over decades, protested that I was not fond of the bassoon. Until, that is, James Aylward visited my studio and played my oboe piece ‘e/meth on his lovely instrument. The sound was much more sumptuous and expressive than I had been prepared for, to the extent that I immediately started to ponder a new solo bassoon piece. For me it is a sine qua non that the piece one writes be congruent with the character of the instrument one writes it for, and I patiently waited for an idea to strike me that was suitable for bassoon. Which turned out to be Arcanabula. This was a neologism that I came up with by analogy with incunabula and imagined meaning “the earliest stages or first traces in the development” of some concealed symbolic meaning. Of course, my very first step was to search online for prior usage and to my amusement the word turned out to have a very specific meaning in the world of gaming: a wizard’s spellbook. (Never mind the confused fake Latin… I treat the word as a collective plural). The wizard connection stuck with me, and I started to see the bassoon as a wizard’s staff, or rod, a sophisticated and puissant ceremonial adjunct that doubled as a musical instrument. So far, so playful. The slightly whimsical tone did not hinder me from writing a very structured, if rhapsodic work. After the enforced 12-noteness of the vibes pieces, and the relative austerity of ghosts of motion, it was a real pleasure to be able to dig deep into the toolbox of microtonality and provoke some really sonorous multiphonic playing from James. I completed it on 28 November 2020.

4 Arcanabula

For solo bassoon—(November 2020)

The score can be downloaded here.

Duration: about 14 minutes

James Aylward gave the first performance of Arcanabula on 12 April 2021, and a subsequent recording in Leipzig, from 16 April 2020. The latter performance can be heard below.

Immediately after Arcanabula I found myself without an immediate next project, and so began the process of re-imagining some older material as a big, quiet, piano piece to be called Noctuary, as in “night diary”. The original material has a flickering, hesitant quality that always reminded me of the overnight sounds of our home in Brown Hill. Some of these sounds had already found their way, in highly modified form, into my Piano Sonata, but I wanted to contextualise them less abstractly. These are not the banally literal transcriptions of a Messiaen, of course, but something kin to the night music of Bartók. I also wanted to give a sense of the near-eventless timescale of the hours of dark, small events intermittently punctuating a suspended envelope of stillness, and this led me to sketch the work as a fairly large unbroken arch, loosely subdivided into twelve unequal ‘hours’. Works like this have become clichés over the centuries, but that simply reflects the eternal appeal of tapping into our atavistic fascination with “the period of ambient darkness”.

5 Noctuary

For solo piano—incomplete as of January 2022

No score available yet

Duration: between 20 and 25 minutes, perhaps

However, almost as soon as I had started Noctuary I heard from Miranda Hill that it was time to begin on her new solo contrabass piece Resuscitatîve, which is why it bears the Iso-étude number #6 despite being completed after #7, un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute. Resuscitatîve came about after some rather desultory chat about my writing a piece for the great Melbourne bassist Miranda Hill. At that stage I had no definite ideas for a work for contrabass beyond the sense that I did not want to write anything that resembled Theraps or the Trittico per G.S. It was a few months later that I was comparing notes with my composer colleague David Murray who remarked that he was planning to write a bass piece. My immediate response was “best of luck” …but in that same instant a mental drawer opened itself and sitting inside I found an idea for a contrabass piece of my own. It happens like that sometimes—an idea presents itself as a fait accompli.

The idea was one of those incongruities that suggest potential for something emergent. In this case the collision of words resuscitate, as in CPR, and recitative, as in, well, “a style of delivery (much used in operas, oratorios, and cantatas) in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech,” (Wiki). Or, as I expressed it to myself when I got around to setting it down: Combine the inégalité of recitative with the sense of a slowing, fading, pulse …and back. I’m not naturally inclined to write for string instruments, let alone for contrabass, so it took a fair amount of careful preparation and research before I felt able to embark on what ended up being in effect a ‘symphonic poem for solo bass’.

6 Resuscitatîve

Dedicated to Miranda Hill and Bec Scully.

The score can be downloaded here. Please note that this score has not yet been edited by a bass player and there is a good chance that some material will need adjustment to be fluently playable. Any player reading this and finding an interest is welcome to make suggestions as to improving playability, although Miranda will retain editorship.

Duration: on paper, about 12′

There is no performance scheduled as yet

Ironically, though, having started on Resuscitatîve my plans were immediately upended when I was informed that I had been selected to be one of the 67 composers constituting the ANAM Set. The Australian National Academy of Music came up with the idea of pairing a single Australian composer with each of their 67 students, all advanced instrumental performers preparing for lives as orchestral professionals. The 67 composers are collectively known as The ANAM Set. The upshot of being chosen was that I was required to immediately write a new work for the instrument I had nominated, trombone. I have always had a great affection for flute and trombone, I suppose at least in part for their closeness to the human voice, but also because of the subtle unmediated physicality of their sound production—no intervening reeds or pistons.