Program Note: Gauguin in Paradise

I. Prelude – Tahiti
II. The Spirit of the Dead Watching [Manao Tupepau] [1892]
III. Palette – Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms
IV. Gymnopedie & Valse macabre – The Gold on Their Bodies
V. Reconnaissance – Are you jealous?
VI. Self Portrait [1896?]
VII. Tahitian Landscape
VIII. The Contract – Barbarous Tales
IX. Reverie – The Call [1902]

For nearly 25 years now, much of my music has dealt with the theme of Old World in the New, what happens when Old World culture finds itself transplanted to New World environments. It permeates the Latin American core of my first orchestral piece Pacifica [1987] and questions the conquering hero, Christopher Columbus, in my wind quintet Guamiquina [1992]. It might even be said to chart the course of William Lane’s ill-conceived attempt to establish ‘a Utopian Australian colony’ in Paraguay in the 1890’s, a theme which crops up in my music from time to time: Utopia sought, but never gained.

Paul Gauguin sought his Utopia in the South Pacific. Born in 1848 to an adventurous Parisian family, Gauguin’s childhood included four years in Peru and time at sea with the French merchant marine navy. In 1881 he witnessed the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Two years later, after a successful business career, Gauguin decided to dedicate his life to art, a decision that forced his wife and children to move in with her parents. In 1891, disgraced and deeply in debt – he had, quite literally, “lost his pants” - Gauguin sailed to Tahiti to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional.” Seduced by the balmy sensuality of the Tropics, he breaks with Impressionism and adopts a bolder style - radical simplifications of drawing, brilliant, pure, bright colors, an ornamental character of composition, and deliberate flatness of planes, a style he called ‘synthetic symbolism’. He fights the colonial French administration and its Catholic hierarchy ferociously, scandalizing them by taking several young Tahitian women as mistresses and paints prolifically. He dies - with a smile on his face, we are told - in the Marquesas on 8th May 1903.

Whilst Gauguin hardly presents an attractive personality to engage as a musical mouthpiece, his ideas about the relationship between music and art are intently interesting. “Colour is vibration,” he declared, “Just as music is.” And again: “My paintings express no idea directly, but they should make you think as music does, without the help of ideas and images, simply by the mysterious relationships existing between our brains and arrangements of colours and lines.”

At one time in the pre-planning of this work, I was tempted to suggest some kind of parallel between certain pitches, chords and tonalities with their visual counterparts in colour, shape and form, but soon abandoned such convolutions. The true springboard for the piece came with the accidental discovery of a grotesque photograph of Gauguin. There he is, in coat-tails and underpants, playing Debussy’s Clair de lune on the harmonium in his thatched hut in 1895. That was all I needed. The piece had found its spark.

The ghosts of Debussy and Ravel flit willfully around this work. Debussy, in particular, as the work assembles piece by piece his famous piano solo – first isolated pitches, then the famous interval of the minor third, then hints of tonality, finally blossoming in full flower. Rather like the experience of a painting itself taking shape before our eyes.

This work was commissioned by the Brisbane Writers Festival with financial assistance from the Music Board of the Australia Council. It was composed expressly for colleagues at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, where I had been teaching for several years. The members of The Griffith Trio – violinist Michele Walsh, cellist Markus Stocker and pianist Stephen Emmerson – had long pressed me for a new work. In particular, the tenor Gregory Massingham whose performances of Britten and other later music had inspired me, and other composers. In the artful lines of poet Paul Kavanagh, a friend from Newcastle, the tenor soloist became both the Voice of Gauguin and the Commentator on his art. The first performance was given in the Queensland Art Gallery in August 2004 as part of the Voices series of concerts that I curated for the Brisbane Writers Festival.

On subsequent occasions, performances have been accompanied by (optional) projections of the Gauguin paintings specifically referred to in the score and text, illustrating the imagery and concepts which flow into the movements of the music.

In other words, three art forms – music, text and painting –explore Gauguin’s discovery of new sounds, meanings and imagery from his Pacific encounters.

Copyright Vincent Plush, Brisbane, July 2004.

Paul Kavanagh
Gauguin in Paradise [2003]
Text for Vincent Plush

I : Prelude - Tahiti


It is so dark.
Are you here?
The lamp has gone out.
Have you gone?
The spirits of the dead.
I feel your breath
On my hand.
I was afraid
You had gone.
Like earth.
Like flowers.

Let me touch.
With my finger tips.
Where are you?
Where is the light.
Are you my lover?
Your skin is
Smooth. Metal.
Your shoulders.
Your arms.
Like amber. Warm.

II. The Spirit of the Dead Watching – Manao Tupepau [1892]

I’ll light a match.
This lamp.
An orgy of chromes.
Sacred flower.
The skin of
Your arms.
Your shoulders.
Don’t be afraid.
The spirit of the dead

She had her hand
On the bed.
Just there.

Don’t leave me
That way
Without a light.
That way.
Without a light.

Don’t be afraid.
Hold me.
I am sacred.
In the night.
In the air.
Mango flowers.
Tropical sweetness.

III. Palette – Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms

The dawn.
All the suns of my life.
Sun after sun after sun.

IV : Gymnopedie & Valse macabre : The gold on their bodies

You have sobbed yourself asleep,
You say,

You went to see those women didn’t you?

At dawn
Your body
Floods the air
With gold, with perfume.
I love you.
Your eyes say,

I know.

V. Reconnaissance : Are you jealous?

You are my Muse.
You say,

My name is Teha’amana.
My name is Teha’amana.

My life is here
In this blue, this tenderness,
These cradled red flowers.

For a moment you touch the sky.

You want to know my secrets.
You want to know who I am.

You have my work.
Isn’t thatt enough?

Often I am naked.
That is not important:
It is what is inside that matters.

Sometimes at night
Flashes of lightning
Streak the gold
Of your skin.

That is all.
It is sacred.
You have seen it.

VI : Self Portrait [1896?]

I adore red.

Where can I find
The perfect vermillion?

‘But this is madness,’ they will say.
‘Where did he ever see that?’

I abandoned my wife,
My five children.
My daughter . . . died.

All I want is silence.

You knew when I wanted you to talk,
And when to be still.

I did a portrait of myself
I think it’s one of my best things
You’ll have to see
If you agree
You’ll have to see . . .

VII : Tahitian landscape

I was out riding my little horse.
And came to a village:
Thatched roofs, a milk sow, dogs.
I could smell rain, mangoes, fish.
Someone called:
‘Hey, man who makes men;
Come and eat with us.’
I went in.
A Tahitian woman asked me:
‘Hey,where are you off to?’
‘I’m going to Itia.’
‘What for?’
(I don’t know what I was thinking.)
‘To look for a wife.’

She says :
‘In Itia there are many,
They’re pretty too.
You want one?’
The woman looked at me.
I was afraid.
‘If you want I’ll give you one.
She is my daughter.’

VIII : The Contract – Barbarous Tales

I asked:
Is she young?
Is she pretty?
Is she healthy?

They offered me breadfruit,
wild bananas and shrimp.

You came in,
Tall, young,
A little bundle
In your hand.

‘You’re not afraid of me?’ I asked.
‘No,’ you said.
‘Do you want to live in my hut forever?’
‘You’ve never been sick?’

You were only a child.
We signed the contract.
I am almost an old man.
That’s all.
But what was happening in your soul?

IX : Reverie – The Call [1902]

In bed in the evenings
We talked about stars
And the spirits of the dead.

In the mornings
We would wash each other in the stream.

Your mother asked me:
Are you a good man?
Yes, I said.
Will you make my daughter happy?

When the tuna came
The men went fishing.
I caught a large fish.
They whispered and laughed.
My hook was in the lower jaw.
That meant my girl
Had been unfaithful.

Come bed time,
One question consumed me.
What was the use?
What good would it do?
‘Have you been a good girl?’
‘Was your lover today a good one?’
‘No. . . . I didn’t have a lover.’
‘You are lying. The fish told me.’

She closed the door.
Beautiful golden flower.

‘Hit me,
Or you will be angry
For a long time
And you will get sick.’

I kissed her eyes.
It was a tropical night.
Morning came, radiant.