Writing un petit mot crabe-cést-ma-faute

I must confess to having spent the last few months in an agony of impatience. Last year I was one of the 67 composers invited to contribute pieces to the ANAM Set, which started life as a project to provide every one of the Australian National Academy of Music’s students with a new work for their Final Recitals. At my request I was paired with a trombonist, and I had the happy chance to have Cian Malikides as my project partner, a seriously talented musician. Due to the COVID lockdowns and various other delays, the purpose of the Set compositions morphed from individual recital items to a Festival of Australian music, and was postponed from September 2021 to, eventually, May 2022.

For me this was an exciting project. We composers usually have something interesting to say on any instrument, but we inevitably have preferences: I love particularly flute and trombone, and as a close second, single-reed instruments. I had not written for trombone in decades, and the last time I wrote a soloistic trombone part was in 1990, for my ELISION début, driftglass, where the part was played by the legendary Brett Kelly. My musical language has evolved significantly in the ensuing thirty years, however, and it was intriguing to me to see quite what my current music might be like in the trombolect.

I immediately knew what piece I would write for the ANAM Set, a project that had been in the back of my mind for over two decades, a musical illumination of a poem that I had encountered in the collection moi, laminaire by the late Martinican author Aimé Césaire. The poem is called internonce, (Internuncio), and the fifth line caught my attention:

un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute.

I was intrigued by this crabe-c’est-ma-faute, or mea culpa crab, with its evocation of the confiteor beating of the breast. I did some research and discovered, on a French wiki page, that it is in fact a local name for the familiar fiddler crab, which gets its appellation from the male of the species possessing a single enormously enlarged claw that it beats against its shell during courtship—hence mea culpa. I watched a video of these crabs posturing and was struck suddenly by the resemblance of the crab raising its claw threateningly to a trombonist playing pavillon en l’air. Further, the trombone is an instrument that has long been associated with reggae, a native West Indian music, and it struck me that the characteristic dub version of reggae was a template I could use as a starting-point. The dub connection also put me in mind of the melodica, another instrument with a very particular tone-colour, one which can have a mischievous or sad character depending on its surroundings.

When I had pinned down these ideas for un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute it became very clear to me that the intensely rhetorical trombone line would need a co-participant, another musician to essentially contextualise the discourse, not least by contributing some melodica. Given that the crabe would be a ‘nature-piece’ it seemed to me that percussion was the perfect duo-partner, enabling me to create a notional ‘out-of-doors’ Caribbean soundscape within which the crabe could strut his slightly melancholy stuff.

Melancholy because, in amongst the ‘tidal pool’ saltiness of the poem, there is a faint sense of the isolated vulnerability of the flouncing male crab, attempting to attract mates by empty bombast. I can’t help feeling that the Catholic-flavoured mea culpa in the crab’s name is as much a reflection of his shame, his testosteroney vacuousness, as a comment on his single absurdly oversized claw. His ‘original sin’, perhaps.

At the beginning of the process of writing the score I met with Cian Malikides and we threw some ideas around, and got a little of each other’s measure. It seemed to me that he would be well able to deal with the inevitable subtleties that such a piece would entail–subtleties that one might not automatically expect to find in a work for trombone and percussion. I was slightly disappointed that the work would be performed in a finals recital, to a limited audience; the amount of work involved in producing a piece like this was not really commensurate with a one-off, invited-audience, gig. But I always take the long view: once a piece exists all potentials are available. COVID of course subverted the original plan, and after a couple of delays, ANAM announced that they would present the 67 new works as a single weekend-long Festival, the ANAM Set Festival, to be held in May 2022. This had two clear benefits: it gave Cian a longer window in which to familiarise himself with the piece, which he did admirably; and it presented the work in much more effective surroundings than a single recital.

Along the way percussionist Alex Meagher agreed to be the second player in the duo. I didn’t know Alex at the time, and was a little apprehensive how an unknown player might cope with my well-known percussion demands. I need not have had any anxiety: Alex was ‘all over’ the part, as they say. He brought a stunning and economic playing style, coupled with wit and elegance, that absolutely communicated the quirkiness and irony in my percussion part, not to mention the full range of rhetorical expressivity. When I finally got to a rehearsal it was beyond expectations, Cian and Alex played the piece as if they inhabited it, and we spent an agreeable couple of hours shaping and dramatising the music.

So: on 13 May this year trombonist Cian Malikides and percussionist Alex Meagher gave the premiere of my duo un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute under the aegis of the Australian National Academy of Music’s Set Festival. Their playing was beyond any criticism; they gave the sort of stunning first performance I would wish for all of my pieces. It was received enthusiastically by the (one suspects) specialist audience, and I was delighted to have midwifed such an exciting presentation.

Days afterwards, I sat with bated breath in front of my computer waiting for the audio to drop. And waited. And waited… Finally—I’m writing on 15 September—the recording has arrived, and it was well worth the wait. You can find out for yourself here:

un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute