Gramophone

A lesson in musical possibility and artistic skill from a composer of rare sonic vision.
As a way of making what may or may not be music, placing microphones into urban or rural environments and assembling soundscapes in the studio from sounds you harvest is a controversial way to make art. Classical music snobs, fond of preaching about what music “should” be – better, surely, to think about what the thing we love “could” be? – are minded to pooh-pooh field recordings by pointing out that anyone can stick a microphone anywhere. Then again, any fool might have twigged that three Gs followed by E flat was a smart way to open a symphony; only one man did, though, and to luddites everywhere I say it’s not the material, it’s what you do with it that counts.

By taking five of Sydney-born David Lumsdaine’s field-recording-derived Australian soundscapes and interweaving them between his meticulously organised instrumental and chamber pieces, this superb anthology reveals what a false dichotomy the whole field recording/ “conventional” composition debate can be. Lumsdaine’s soundscapes are as concerned with inner dialogues, counterpoint and structure as anything he commits to manuscript paper. Yes, art based on birdsong or on cicadas calling stimulates different sorts of response to music written for piano or cello but either way, Lumsdaine snatches empiric sound sources from an open-ended world of possibilities . . .

. . . like how his solo cello Blue upon Blue (1991) plays modally inflected melodic cycles off against scattering percussive pizzicato figurations; or how those chirping landscapes typical of his field recordings permeate inside the precisely crafted and aphoristic A Little Cantata (1996), where soprano voice and recorder quiver and hum together like two crickets on heat, an approach A Tree telling of Orpheus (1990) uses over the larger scale.

But the best is last. The 30-minute solo piano Cambewarra (1980) is predicted on an assumption of space and silence which Lumsdaine delicately loads with fleeting mechanisms and modal melodies weighty enough to enhance, rather than pollute, the harmony of underlying stillness. These performances, by musicians associated with the Gemini Ensemble, prove deeply sensitive to Lumsdaine’s needs, with a special nod going to pianist Peter Lawson for negotiating Cambewarra’s secret labyrinths with such clarity of mind and finger.

—Phillip Clark