War Letters

Review by Gwen Bennett, Music Trust Loudmouth e-zine February 2017

War Letters: New Music Commemorating WWI - CD review

Halcyon, recognised as champions of new Australian music, commissioned four composers from different generations – Elliott Gyger, Nicole Murphy, Larry Sitsky and Diana Blom – to present a contemporary response to World War I. All pieces were written and recorded in 2015, the centenary of Gallipoli. The initial impetus for the project came from notes penned by Blom’s great uncle, Frank Nestor Robinson, as he departed New Zealand for Gallipoli in 1915. His photograph (in a locket) and other images relating to the music are reproduced in an interesting collage on the booklet cover.

Elliot Gyger’s Un poilu australien (poilu = soldier) sets extracts from letters written by Jacques Playoust, who was born in Flanders, lived in Australia from age 5, then returned to France to fight in the French army during the War. He writes in a mixture of French and English, with mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong singing the French words and bass Clive Birch the English, sometimes solo, sometimes together. Duck-Chong’s French diction is exemplary, but for listeners without much knowledge of that language, it would be advisable to download text and translations from the website. In Jacques’s communications to his family spanning two years 1914-16, we hear his mood change from moderately optimistic to dismayed, and finally to being thoroughly appalled by the horrific situation he finds himself in. In this five movement work, over twenty minutes long, Gyger has chosen an instrumental ensemble of viola (James Wannan), piano (Jo Allan) and percussion (Kaylie Dunstan), conducted by Geoffrey Gartner. An arresting opening flourish announces the start of war and a call to arms. This section and the beginning of the next are quite lively and spiked with humour, the music becoming increasingly sombre as Jacques speaks of disillusion and sacrifice. The third section is a long solo for the masterly Clive Birch with sparse instrumental accompaniment, a dark picture of the realities of war; any hint of cheerfulness has gone (“the most terrible week I have ever spent”) and we descend into hell on a deep bass note. The fourth movement, a letter written in 1916 returns to something more up-beat with a duet for the two singers describing, somewhat satirically, Bastille Day, their extra rations and the “fireworks” supplied by both sides. The final movement for two singers is again bleak and very moving. Gyger’s absorbing music makes demands of the listener and of the musicians, whose performances are uniformly excellent.

Edith “Queenie” Avenell was a nurse during World War I. Her letters home to ‘Dearest Mother . . ‘  vividly relate her experiences – the exhilarating sea voyage from Australia with shoals of jumping porpoises and hundreds of flying fish to the dismal truths of close contact with patients, their atrocious injuries and constant nightmares. Queenie writes of meeting a “nice, nice friend”, receiving his letters from the front, then news of his death, expressed initially in a happy, lyrical musical interlude before dropping into melancholy. The work is in four sections: “Leaving Home”, “Egypt”, France” and “England”, which  Nicole Murphy has scored for viola, piano and soprano. The clear, high voice of Alison Morgan is a perfect choice to represent the youthful Queenie and the viola eloquent in delivering her poignant pictures, accompanied by rolling piano figures. Use of a downward semitone figure accentuates the depressive tone. The horrors of war are compounded by the biting cold of an English winter and the music ends in an anguished viola solo. This is a strong and compelling work, sensitively performed.

Letter from the Trenches by Larry Sitsky uses quotations from many different sources, a “distillation”, to depict a composite view of the War – the smells, the dismembered bodies, rotting flesh, the mud, the rats, the fear, the anger: “It is barbaric and a futile waste of human life. I feel no pride in fighting and dying for my country”. The music is stark and disturbing. It is a solo for mezzo soprano which Sitsky describes as “a sort of concert aria”; he chose the mezzo voice to underline the youth of many of those who fought in the War. The occasional use of Sprechstimme and spoken word emphasises parts of the text and adds to the tension. Then the tension subsides. Most of us know of the incident one Christmas when hostilities ceased and opposing sides joined in singing carols. Sitsky brings the scenario to life, subtly quoting O Tannenbaum, to lead to a quiet and uplifting conclusion. Duck-Chong’s dramatic performance is well supported by the fine musicianship of James Wannan, Kaylie Dunstan and Jo Allan.

Diana Blom’s Triptych (war letters) represents three arenas of war – Gallipoli, Vietnam and Afghanistan. She employs three singers in varied combination of solo, duet and trio, with the three instrumentalists. The first section is “Gallipoli letter: Ellie” – Frank Robinson’s three letters written to his sister as he sets off to war to walking accompaniment, with an occasional rat-a-tat. The music is energetic and optimistic. The second section comes from David Wilkins, a Vietnam soldier in 1969: “Vietnam diary: Great bloody Xmas break”. Crashes in percussion and angular vocal lines convey much anger. Rat-a-tats propel the listener into the battlefield. A wistful viola solo introduces a 2009 war report from Andrew Hastie, which is sent via the modern method of communication – “Afghan emails: Bread and kids”.  Momentum builds as the work progresses. More rat-a-tats remind one of war, while the words paint a picture of Afghani kids crowding around asking for pens. The overall impression is one of intensity and vigour.

A project such as this would not have happened but for support from several funding sources, enthusiasm from the composers, performers and CD publisher Wirripang. The recording was made at Western Sydney University by engineer Michael Macken and produced by Diana Blom and Jenny Duck-Chong. Congratulations to all in achieving a profound and thought-provoking result.

Gwen Bennett

This review appeared in Loudmouth e-zine