Program Notes: Pacifica

Pacifica (1986-87)

Ia. Voyage 1: Before the Wind
b. Chorale: Veni Imperator

IIa. Mexico: Terremoto
b. Peru: Danza
c. Chile: Song of the Innocents

IIIa. Becalmed: Veni Sancte Spiritus
b. Voyage 2: Astride the Wind

Since the mid-1970’s my principal concern as a composer has been the search for an Australian identity in music. Many of my works have celebrated Australia’s colonial history and folk heritage through the integration of folksong, history and mythology, even aspects of bush and Aboriginal music.

While many Australian composers have looked inwards into our own traditions and outwards towards Asia, few of us seem to have looked eastwards across the Pacific. For my part, I am interested in the ways in which the New World cultures of Hispano-America have absorbed Old World traditions, integrating these European dimensions with their own ndigenous folk materials. For those of us in Australia who have embarked on a similar quest for national identity in our music, there may be some models here.

As well as incorporating those Australian dimensions mentioned above, my music of recent years has absorbed some of the aspects of so-called ‘minimal music’: predominance of repetitive rhythms, static harmonies sustaining elaborate melodies, and a heightened focus on instrumental colour. Many of these same features can be found in the music of the Pacific, in the Pacific islands as well as in the Hispanic cultures of the Pacific Rim. Such music is not afraid to convey a ‘good-to-be-alive’ feeling – la vida es linda, as my Mexican friends used to say. This music speaks directly to people across broad social and cultural boundaries.

Pacifica is an attempt to integrate these two musics, historically so different yet in many ways so similar technically. The work is constructed along the lines of a three-movement ‘sea symphony’, in mirror A-B-A form, with each larger movement containing several smaller and quite distinct sections. More important to me, though, is the poetic impetus of the work; I imagine myself on the deck of a three-mast sailing vessel embarking on a vast ocean voyage eastwards from Australia across the Pacific and back again.

The first movement, Voyage I: Before the Wind, is characterised by an extended unfurling of a melody which is an ancient courtship ritual tune from Tahiti. Then follows a short sustained section, Chorale: ‘Veni Imperator’, principally for the brass. Its organ-like Chorale is a reminder of the telling influence of the Roman Catholic church in the New World.

The second movement is in three parts, its opening and closing sections slow-moving and irradiant. The contrasting middle section Peru: Danza is bright and intensely rhythmic, as winds, brass and percussion (no strings) play music based on an Incan dance-tune from ancient Peru, a rare musical survivor of a civilization obliterated by European conquest.

The two out-lying sections have darker origins. As I was planning this work, I learned of the earthquake in Mexico City in September 1985. Among the horrific death-count were thought to be many hundreds of Mariachi musicians. In my occasional forays into Mexico, I had come to love their vibrant music, played on the street-corners and in the restaurants of many Mexican towns and cities. The strings of the orchestra become a huge, strumming guitar. Trumpet cries recall the enduring Mariachi tradition. At the moment of the Terremoto the sounds of the guitars cease, but the strumming continues, silently, drifting into stillness.

The third section of this central movement is another lament, and also a kind of personal prayer for the survival or restoration of democratic traditions throughout Hispano-America. In 1981 I composed an ensemble piece called On Shooting Stars, an act of homage to the folk-singer Victor Jara who was murdered in the coup in Chile in 1973. Here, wind instruments reflect on his plaintive song Herminda de la Victoria, a lament for a young girl who was killed during a police raid on a shanty town near Santiago. It recalls the Chilean tradition of songs which mourn the loss of children, and thereby innocence, and my setting deliberately invokes the sound-world of Gustav Mahler, whose own music often reflects on kindertod, the death of children.

The third and final section opens with almost Impressionistic sea-music, Becalmed: ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’. Dawn on the silver, still ocean, the sea gradually stirs, through the invocation to the Holy Spirit to breathe life into the sails of our ship. This song swells through the full orchestra, leading seamlessly into the final section, Voyage II : Bestride the Wind. Recalling the glistening ‘sea-music’ of the very opening, we have now returned to a world of sea-faring adventure and excitement at the prospect of the home-voyage. This time our ship is borne along by the tonal winds of D Major, the ‘blue-hued’ key I have come to associate with the Pacific itself.

Copyright Vincent Plush, Sydney 1987- revised Byron Bay, NSW, 2009.

Pacifica was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to mark the tenth anniversary of ABC Classic FM, the fine music radio network inaugurated in 1976. The first performances were given by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under their new Chief Conductor Zdenek Macal in June 1986, in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. That concert was televised and broadcast by satellite to the world. For a further series of performances a year later, Geoffrey Simon conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the composer made extensive revisions to the score. In the intervening years, Pacifica has been performed by some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors.

An article by Martin Buzacott, to accompany the performance by The Queensland Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie, Brisbane, June 2000:
The scene is the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The year is 1986, and the great composer György Ligeti is visiting the city to be presented with the world’s richest composition prize, the Grawemeyer Award. As the legendary Hungarian composer steps out of a lift at the gracious old Southern hotel he comes face-to-face with expatriate Australian composer Vincent Plush.

The two men are introduced and Ligeti instantly recognises the then-36-year-old Plush as the composer of the recent orchestral work Pacifica, commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to commemorate the tenth anniversary, in 1986, of what is now known as ABC Classic FM. Ligeti embraces the young composer and tells him that in time Pacifica will be seen to be one of the most important musical works of the late 20th century.

A Hungarian in the American mid-west congratulates an Australian whose work derives from Chile, Peru and Mexico. Modern music is an international affair.

Ligeti’s is not the only tribute from a musical heavyweight which the Australian composer, broadcaster and critic has received in a career which saw him living in North America for most of the last two decades. After the initial New York performance of Plush’s chamber work On Shooting Stars, John Rockwell in The New York Times described him as possibly one of the most interesting composers of his generation, anywhere.

But Plush himself recalls an even greater compliment. In the early 1980s, a mayor in rural Victoria heard Plush’s horn piece Bakery Hill Rising and through teary eyes told the composer that the music had reminded him of his mates in the war. I think about all the acreage of newsprint that’s expended on critiques of composers’ work, Plush was once reported as saying, but to me that mayor’s response remains the most meaningful. My music touched real people.

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Plush realised early on in his life that America would provide a model for his own career - in fact he refers to it as a lifeline. While a student of music education at Adelaide University he wrote an assignment on the composer Charles Ives and became hooked on the music and philosophy of the brilliant American eccentric.

In the early 1980s when Plush found the opportunity to go to the USA on a Harkness Award, he wanted to discover where Ives evolved his theories of American musical identity. So he went to Yale (Ives’ alma mater), and thus began his twenty-year exile from Australia. Working on the Yale Oral History Project, he interviewed 160 of America’s leading composers and other musical figures and established a multitude of personal and professional contacts, resulting not just in the acclaimed multi-part radio series Main Street USA but also establishing invaluable promotional opportunities for Australian music in the United States.

But Plush’s historical and artistic importance as an Australian composer doesn’t centre on his interest in Ives, or his other great research interests including George Gershwin and Percy Grainger (the expatriate Australian composer with whom he identifies closely). Rather, it relates to his vision of Australia as part of the Pacific Rim cultures. Where his close friend (and arguably Australia’s greatest living composer) Peter Sculthorpe revolutionised Australian music during the 1960s by focussing his musical vision on Asia, Plush has looked further east for his inspiration. And where Sculthorpe established Asian music as an aesthetic halfway-house between the cultures of Europe and Australia, Plush, as one of the inheritors of Sculthorpe’s legacy, has projected the vision out into the Pacific and toward the Americas.

Plush’s greatest works, including the inspired chamber piece On Shooting Stars, the wind quintet Cristobal Colon: Guamiquina and his orchestral masterpiece Pacifica, all unashamedly find their sources in the music of Central and Latin America - in Chile, Mexico and Peru.

And in 2000, when at last the composer returned home to Australia, he pointedly based himself in Brisbane, geographically, and more-and-more politically and psychologically, the Australian gateway to the Pacific. Aside from his ongoing work as a composer, he is now known as a fearless, Brisbane-based music critic for The Australian, The Courier-Mail and Gramophone Online, and as a broadcaster on ABC Classic FM.

*****

When Vincent Plush began work on Pacifica he learned of an earthquake which had struck Mexico City in September 1985, killing, among others, hundreds of Mariarchi musicians. A core of the orchestral work - its guitar-style strummings of the strings and Herb Alpertesque trumpet shrieks - found its genesis in the human and musical tragedy.

Another germ of an idea came in the memory of Victor Jara, the Chilean folksinger tortured to death by Pinochet’s thugs in 1973. The gentle, lilting melodies of Jara’s songs of protest had already inspired another Plush work, the magnificent On Shooting Stars: Homage to Victor Jara, back in 1981. And then there was the influence of the Roman Church and its Gregorian hymns, whose ramifications were historical in their influence on Pacific culture and also personal, with Plush having been a Cathedral boy chorister and junior organist.

Add Plush’s innate love of, and affinity for, brass instruments, a Boys’ Own Annual sense of adventure on the open ocean, and the triumphant quality of the key of D major, and Pacifica had found its identity.

After a premiere by the Sydney Symphony under Zdenek Macal in 1986 and a further performance of a revised version of the score by the same orchestra under Geoffrey Simon the following year, Pacifica then set sail for overseas. Leading conductors such as Jorge Mester and Eduardo Mata made it well-known in the United States, but until this evening’s performance, it would receive just one further airing in Australia, with the Melbourne Symphony under Isaiah Jackson in 1992.

It is more than mere coincidence then that Michael Christie has chosen this triumphant orchestral tone-poem with which to make his Maestro Series debut as Chief Conductor of The Queensland Orchestra. It is a work which embraces the very vision of Australia’s newest orchestra - as a leading player in the culture of the Asia-Pacific region.

*****

There is tragedy and triumph in this three-movement musical travelogue.

Its first movement begins with a voyage, a sense of the open air and wide expanses ahead with the wind instruments pointing the way, the strings scurrying, and the brass answering with fractured fanfares. And as we head east across the Pacific, it is not long before the trumpets take over a position of dominance which they never really relinquish throughout the entirety of the piece. Plush actually derives the melody of this opening section from a Tahitian courtship ritual. The brass chorale which follows is based on the Gregorian hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ - a reminder of the influence of the European church on Pacific culture.

For the second movement the scene changes as landfall is made in Mexico and we hear a tribute to the Mariarchi musicians killed in the 1985 earthquake. Choirs of trumpets and horns form the Mariarchi band while the upper strings (to the horror, perhaps, of Euro-centric purists!) strum away at their instruments like demented street corner balladeers, and the lower strings run up and down with distorting glissandi.

Moving south, we arrive in Peru and the spiky, unmistakeable rhythms of the Incas, each bar changing its rhythmic combinations as wind and brass battle for supremacy.

And then it’s further south still, to Chile and the heart-and-soul of the piece, the Song of the Innocents which serves as the slow movement of the work. The haunting melody derives from Victor Jara’s ‘Herminda de la Victoria’, a lament for a young girl killed during a police raid on a shanty town outside Santiago. The melody emerges with an almost painful poignancy on the cor anglais and is soon taken over by the oboe, before the brass builds it into a climax. Guitar effects return, fragmenting the melody and with the piano weaving arabesques of farewell.

And then, with the score demanding playing which is Exuberant, debonair, we return once more to the open seas in the grand tradition (although not the actual sound-world) of Berlioz’s Corsaire, Debussy’s La Mer, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Elgar’s Sea Pictures. But it’s not all plain sailing. At first we are becalmed, before eventually, at the prompting of the Latin hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus, the wind picks up. As we head toward that triumphant key of D major, our speed increases (unconsciously the spirit, if not the actual letter, of the Finale of Mahler’s First Symphony is never far away). There’s a sense of urgency, excitement, perhaps a little trepidation but resolute self-belief too - all the emotions one feels when, after a long journey, at last home looms into sight.

© Martin Buzacott