Gateway to Paradise
I was sitting in the back seat of my family's car, driving
along the banks of lake Wakatipu, surrounded by low,
misty clouds and mountains, near Queenstown, New
Zealand. I hadn't wanted to head out on this excursion:
we had recently done some long mountain walks, it was
approaching dusk, and I was a little cranky and tired. What
I really wanted was to be indoors, working on the new
piece I had begun a few days ago. Chloe Chung, a good friend of mine from the Sydney Conservatorium (flautist), had recently become entranced by the Chinese bamboo flute (dizi), and had been learning it for the past two years or so from a charismatic Chinese flute teacher, Chai Changning.
She asked me to write a piece for dizi, pipa (Chinese lute), and maybe some string instruments. At first I objected - I had no experience writing for Chinese instruments - but the more I listened to Chinese music, the more I became entranced by the pentatonically-flavoured sound world, the sounds of the instruments, which seem to harken back to a forgotten period of human history, and especially the inflection and ornamentation, derived from the tones of the Chinese language (for a great example,
check out this piece). Being so used to baroque and classical ornamentation, this was so fresh and soulful.
I gradually developed the confidence that I could fuse some of the spirit of this music
with my own way of composing, based on my education as a Western classical
So now, back to the story...
We were driving by the lake, towards Glenorchy. The town
after Glenorchy is called Paradise. A sign greeted us as we entered:
Welcome to Glenorchy: Gateway to Paradise.
We never reached Paradise, but we got off at Glenorchy
near a lagoon. A narrow pathway of wooden planks
took us on a walk through the middle of the lagoon.
It was beautiful, misty, the clouds were low, mountains
surrounded us. As we turned a corner, we came across a little inlet,
like a tiny lake - upon which glided 30 or so black swans. I was still exhausted -
through my exhaustion, this sight took on an almost mystical quality.
Over the next few days, this impression slowly developed into the slow fugue that forms the second half of the above
video. Halfway through the fugue, the usual 'major' pentatonic mode - a c d e g - turns into a 'minor' mode - c e #f g b.
I find this minor mode magical - beautiful, yet tinged with sadness. This quality reminds me of a quote from the novel
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami - "The purity of her beauty gives me a feeling close to sadness – a very natural
feeling, though one that only something extraordinary could produce."
These impressions formed the heart of the piece. The overall structure was inspired by a commonly used structure for traditional Chinese music: a slowly unfurling melody in the first part, contrasted with fast dance-like music in the second half, ending with a grandiose return of the opening and a final theatrical flourish. I also included extended Dizi and Pipa solos in the first part, and added a Western Baroque touch by including a fugue - one of my favourite forms - which takes the first part to its climax. The first and second halves are connected by an interlude where the two soloists exchange bird calls modelled on native New Zealand birds I heard while travelling. This section cleanses the air and acts as a portal, as the birdsongs are passed back and forth in an irregular manner, interrupting each other and oscillating between softer and more energetic characters. Having passed through this portal, the Dizi and the Pipa then alternate to take the ensemble on a series of dances which become progressively wilder and wilder - a dance party in Paradise!
Gateway to Paradise:
1. Wandering: Mountains Surrounding a Cold Lake.
2. Approach: Paradise Reflected in a Lake of Swans.
3. Interlude: Serenade by Birds overlooking the Last Valley.
4. Entrance: Party in Paradise!
The above video features the first two sections, recorded at the Voces Caelestium charity concert