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Birrung is a small section from a large-scale work-in-progress called ‘Mysterium’ (Caeli enarrant... VII), which I started working on in 1994. Caeli enarrant… is a cycle of works reflecting my interest in astronomy as well as my religious beliefs. ‘Mysterium’, the last part of this cycle, is a work with an open form, consisting of numerous blocks that can be put together ad libitum. It is a kind of ‘mystic sound web’, without fixed instrumentation – abstract lines, ideally meant to be read rather than played. The initial stimulus to launch myself into this idealistic project came after reading about Pythagoras’ poetic notion of the Music of the Spheres. I wanted to write music that does not evolve or unfold, but simply ‘is’. The only way to achieve this seemed to be to write music that ‘doesn’t sound’, and thus isn’t subject to the arrow of time. The symmetrical seven-tone-sequence (d-e-f-g-f-e-d) at the centre of the work (it appears seven times throughout ‘Mysterium’, in seven-fold unison) also points to this (vain) attempt to defy the one-directional (asymmetrical) flow of time.
This may sound naïve, even pretentious – it is hard to attempt this kind of project without seeming overly ambitious. In the real world of course, this piece, like any music, needs performers to make it come to life. While a performance (as opposed to a reading) obviously limits the endless possibilities of the concept in terms of both structure and timbre, as well as putting it into the time flow, as mentioned before, it is nevertheless the only way to communicate the work to other people. Still a performance of this piece will always remain but a 'crutch' for the listener – an approximation of an ideal that is unattainable. My overall aim was to try and write music that would be as pure as possible: hence my predilection for homophonic lines, a result, perhaps, of my love of Gregorian chant.
It was upon my publisher’s suggestion that I decided to facilitate the performers’ task somewhat, putting together a few of the many blocks that make up the work and giving the musicians an example of how ‘Mysterium’ could be performed. They thus have a finished piece with a beginning and an end, and with a definite instrumentation! In performance, the effect is of an enigmatic, ethereal kind of music that is extremely soft throughout. It should best be listened to forgetting all the above-mentioned technical details and imagining, perhaps, a starlit sky with all its different constellations and concentrations, its darkness and light, the vastness of its silence.
The title Birrung (a word coming from one of the Australian Aboriginal languages and meaning ‘stars’) reflects my fascination for the vast empty spaces of the Australian landscape with its radiantly beautiful night skies.