An unusual but rewarding feature of this pair of CDs is the five Australian Soundscapes that intersperse Lumsdaine’s own works presented in the programme. Though recorded at specific locations (Soundscape I is entitled ‘The billabong at sunset’) or to capture particular sounds (II and III are titled ‘Frogs at night’ and ‘Raven Cry’) they are not, as the notes explain, ‘passive’ recordings, but ‘carefully-edited assemblages, composed’, as Lumsdaine himself explains, ‘to celebrate Anthony Gilbert’s 70th birthday.’ Tellingly, Soundscape IV has the title ‘Serenade’. Lumsdaine does not imitate birdsong or the other sounds in his music, but the underlying gestures, modality and, indeed, the ‘counterpoint’ of the soundscapes suffuse the textures of many of his compositions, particularly the lengthy, three-sectioned Cambewarra for solo piano (1980), which concludes the second CD.
A Norfolk Songbook for soprano and recorder (1992), and A Little Cantata – Tracey Chadwell in memoriam , for soprano, recorder and piano (1996) set the composer’s own poems, and were composed with the voice of Tracey Chadwell in mind, sadly in the case of A Little Cantata , posthumously. Both works exhibit a remarkably delicacy of texture and, for many of the individual songs, a Webern-like brevity. The twelve songs that make up A Norfolk Songbook were inspired by Lumsdaine’s own response to the Norfolk landscape, the calm of which was disrupted for a while in 1986 when the USA used Norfolk as a base to launch air attacks on Libya. But a simple calm is maintained throughout the cycle which nevertheless displays considerable contrast of texture, and inventive independence of vocal and instrumental lines. Just three short poems are set in A Little Cantata , there being an instrumental introduction and an instrumental interlude between the first and second songs.
There is a similar brevity in Six Postcard Pieces for solo piano (1994), yet in the space of as little as twenty-two seconds Lumsdaine says all that is necessary to convey his musical ideas. The declamatory dotted rhythms of the opening ‘Overture’ and the repeated-note energy of the final ‘Toccata’ are typical of his conciseness.
The remaining vocal work in the programme, A tree telling of Orpheus , for soprano and an instrumental ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello (1990), is much more extended, but has the same transparency of interplay between vocal line and accompaniment found in the shorter works. There are also passages of simple and beautiful calm over hazy harmonies that reflect the many musical references in East Anglian-born Denise Levertov’s poem.
Two instrumental works complete the programme: Blue upon Blue for solo cello (1991), in which long, lyrical melodic lines are interrupted and accompanied by pizzicato phrases, and contrasted with more vigorous interjections, ends quietly and reflectively; Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo sopranino recorder (1994) was composed for Anthony Gilbert’s 60th birthday and recalls an experience he shared with Lumsdaine as they recorded the songs of the Grey Shrike-thrush, the Spotted Pardalote and the Indian Koel. The microtonal inflections of the latter are present in this little piece of pure birdsong.
All the performers enter Lumsdaine’s musical world with skill and enthusiasm, and perform a representative programme of his music with which any composer would be delighted. Thanks to this pair of CDs we can also enjoy exploring the works of one of Australia’s most creative and individual musicians.