Program Note: SkyFire

SkyFire [1989]

I first came into contact with the medium of the ‘bowed piano’ in August 1984, when, at the invitation of Charles Amirkhanian, I shared a concert with Stephen Scott and his Colorado College New Music Ensemble at the Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, California. I was captivated by the sound and sight of what seemed to me an entirely original and unique concept in music. Over the ensuing years, I was fortunate in being able to experience several performances of the Ensemble. When Stephen Scott invited me to Colorado College to teach during the Fall Semester of 1989, I knew that I would want to create a new piece for his Ensemble.

From that initial contact five years earlier, I was struck by the corporeal dimension of this mode of performance. I was intrigued by the inherent theatricality and even choreographic possibilities in this music-making. Given my interest in music theatre, especially its application to extended instrumental performance, it seemed only natural to attempt to focus on this physical dimension of the Ensemble’s performance in the creation of a new work for them.

It seemed logical also to take up the focus of Stephen Scott’s own music which, around that time, had found life in legends from Greek mythology. I could extend this, I thought, by invoking the mythology of the Australian Aborigines, the original inhabitants of my homeland continent. They explain the origin of things through explaining legends of “The Dreamtime”. Many of their creation stories have a striking poetry, a quality which has attracted Australian composers over the years. Not surprisingly, composers like Peter Sculthorpe, Anne Boyd, Moya Hendeson and Colin Bright have all been attracted to the Dreamtime story-legend of “how the stars were made”. Of the several versions of this tale, I found the most striking to be the story of Kakan, the old fire-bearing crow, his story rich in possibilities for realisation as music theatre:

Kakan, an old crow, discovered how to make fire by twisting on stick upon another.In a dispute with a white hawk, the countryside was set on fire. One of the main casualties was a pine tree, which was used every day as a way for people to climb into the sky and descend again. The tree having burned down, the people had to remain in the sky. The crystals implanted in the bodies of these people trapped in the sky became starlight.

SkyFire is in three sections. To a large extent, the two outer sections are mime sections. They are performed to the accompaniment of bowed piano sounds pre-recorded by several members of the Ensemble. The opening section, Creaton-Mime, traces the evolution of the world from darkness and silence. From an inert mass, the world evolves with the appearance of hills, mountains, trees and finally, human beings. As the Ensemble members assume their human forms, they move to the piano to create the Fire-Music, the central section of the work. Here the piano takes on the role of life-giver. As a ‘billabong’ or small lake, it provides water; as a campfire, it provides fire and warmth. This section is performed without pre-recorded tape and can be performed separately as a concert piece in its own right, without any dramatic trappings.

The bowing motions of the performers appear to grow and extend into formations which resemble lighting and rainbows. Gradually, the performers mover further away from the piano, straining to take the ‘fire’ with them. Finally, in the concluding Star-Mime section, they move to positions far away from and high above the piano. Though they are still tied to their ‘life-force’, they climb a ladder (the pine tree) which provides their passage to the heavens. The Crow then reappears to give them the gift of Fire. One at a time, these people in the heavens breathe in the fire and are transformed into stars. The work ends with the twinkling of these stars (each player having one or two battery operated torches). They have become the fire in the heavens of the Southern Sky.

In SkyFire I deployed several techniques which, at the time, were new to the still-evolving catalogue of techniques for the bowed piano. Marking a departure from Stephen Scott’s own music to that time, the keyboard is played in a growing tremolando movement, but its pitches are also bowed simultaneously with the iteration of the fingered notes. Harmonic glissandi are created by rubbing strings which are vibrated by bows. The score of the piece is laid out in free notation, enabling the performers to determine the durations of principal sections.

The harmonic premise of the work is based on the overtone structure of the Didgeridoo, the Aboriginal drone instrument fashioned from hollowed-out wood. Blown at one end, it creates drones based on the harmonic overtone series. Several didgeridoo techniques – circular breathing, ‘whistle-tones’, sounds which imitate birds and other natural sources – are alluded to in the central section of the work.
And so some of the techniques of one of the oldest instruments known to man, the Didgeridoo of the Australian Aborigine, are applied to one of the most recent and original musical mediums of our time.

Copyright, Vincent Plush. Colorado Springs, CO. 1st November 1989

The first performance of SkyFire was given by Stephen Scott and nine members of the Colorado College New Music Ensemble in Packard Hall at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs on 19th November 1989. The Ensemble subsequently performed it on the tour of Australia the following year, in May-June 1990.