"Caeli enarrant..." is a cycle of pieces reflecting my interest in astronomy as well as my religious beliefs. Mysterium, the last part of this cycle, is a conceptual work in an open form, consisting of numerous blocks that can be put together ad libitum. It is a kind of 'mystical sound web' - abstract lines, ideally meant to be read rather than played.
The initial stimulus to write Mysterium came after reading about Pythagoras' poetic notion of the Music of the Spheres - music, which according to the great Greek thinker, is produced by the friction of the heavenly spheres and is audible to God, but inaudible to human ears. I wanted to write music that does not evolve or unfold, but simply 'is'. The only way to do this seemed to be to write music that 'does not sound', and thus isn't subject to the arrow of time.
Wanting to write silent music may seem naive, even pretentious - it is hard to attempt this kind of project without seeming overly ambitious. In the real world of course, this music, 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, it is nevertheless the only way to communicate the work. Still, a performance of this piece will always remain but a crutch for the listener - an approximation of an ideal that is unattainable.
Mysterium is soft throughout and tension results solely from the contrast between sound and silence, tonal and quarter-tone elements, homophonic and highly complex polyphonic material, a regular crotchet beat and graphically notated rhythmic unpredictability, expanded and contracted time. My overall aim was to write music that would be as 'pure' as possible. Hence the severe self-imposed restrictions in terms of dynamics, (very little dynamic contrast), texture (homophonic lines, a result, perhaps, of my love of Gregorian chant) and rhythm (basic crotchet pattern). This crotchet pattern or grid is often broken by two symbols above the notes which make the note values four times shorter (semi-quavers) or four times longer (semi-breves). The effect produced is one of limping bars of very uneven beats.
The big question that I was faced with when writing Ngangkar was nothing less than how to continue evolving as a composer after my previous work Birrung, which was extremely sparse and static (Birrung is also a part of Mysterium).
How could I continue composing within the context of Mysterium (which was definitely my intention) without repeating myself or drying up completely? My answer was to reintroduce a slight element of movement/virtuosity to my compositional vocabulary: strings of semiquavers, appoggiaturas, trills, tremolos etc. Movement is also created by space effects on stage (sound moving from one section to another) and off-stage (brass positioned outside the hall - horns on the left, trumpets and trombones on the right). These might seem obvious steps out of sterility, but it took me many months of internal struggle to come to this decision without seeming to compromise the purity of the concept.
I started writing Ngangkar in late 1998 in the peace of my favourite composing place, the old presbytery in the tiny village of Ouren on the Luxembourg-Belgian border. The tranquillity of this place has undoubtedly influenced the work. It was finished a year later in Sydney. Unlike Birrung, which was simply an arrangement of existing blocks from Mysterium for 11 strings, Ngangkar contains mostly new material composed specifically for this piece.
Other influences include:
The novel Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game, 1943), the last novel of German writer Hermann Hesse, a book of great serenity and crystalline wisdom, much criticized after World War II for not facing the grim reality of its day, although to my temperament a sublime literary work.
Australian Aboriginal art, particularly the work of female Utopia artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, with its highly expressive world of symbolism and spirituality. The typical 'dots' superimposed over hidden lines found in her work have been a direct influence on my current compositional style.
The title 'Ngangkar' (an Aboriginal word meaning 'stars') reflects my love of the vast empty spaces of the Australian landscape with its radiantly beautiful night skies. While any number of interpretations are of course allowed, one possible way to listen to the piece is to imagine a starlit sky with all its different concentrations and constellations, its darkness and light, the vastness of its silence.