THE DYING SUN
Move Records MCD 609
In The Dying Sun, composer Rebecca Erin Smith has written a sonata in four movements – Blood, Milk, Nectar, Salt – each referring to an aspect of the Western Australian landscape. None is particularly long in duration – the first two just on 6 minutes each, the second pair about 4’30” – so the entire work comes in at closer to 19 minutes than 20.
Two performers are involved: violin Madeleine Antoine and pianist Setsu Masuda. Both of these musicians are residents of Perth and, despite having travelled widely across this country and internationally, their talents have never come my way, probably because my attention sits on a less wide range of musical experiences than those explored by this duo. You’d have to assume that the collaboration is not one of long standing, even though both (and composer Smith) belong to the Open House Music Collective, an organization dating from 2019 and operating in Perth and Fremantle. As well, both Antoine and Masuda have a good deal of live work to their credit but precious few CDs.
Smith finds her Blood element in Western Australia’s northernmost division, the Kimberley – and also the sun, which gives something of a balance to the next Milk movement which offers a vision of the Milky Way galaxy. As for Nectar, the state’s vast canola fields/farms stand in for the gods’ drink, while Salt suggests the sea – specifically Sugarloaf Rock off Cape Naturaliste at the top of the Margaret River region.
It doesn’t take a particularly keen level of insight to glean from this set of natural and unnatural wonders that Smith’s aesthetic scenario involves the state of this planet and, by natural extension, climate change. We can delight in the Kimberley’s many facets, although the composer asks us to centre on ‘ a wide expanse of land over the course of a day’. The stars? Well, we can still see them despite the thickening of our atmospheres. Canola I’m not so sure about as it’s a man-made product and has come in for criticism because of its universality, I presume; but then, Western Australia produces 50% of the nation’s output so it might come – like coal – under the banner of a ‘national treasure’. Sugarloaf Rock is the most pristine and somehow personal of these phenomena, although it too is as subject to human interference and degradation as is the rest of the WA landscape.
The accompanying notes refer to Smith’s work as a ‘sonata’. and it probably is – in the old sense, rather than referring to the formal shape of the Classical and Romantic period composers. Smith’s Blood/Kimberley movement begins with some scene-setting sounds; a kind of static continuum before the violin enters with a high held note (semi-harmonic?), eventually broken up with some brusque piano punctuation. At the centre of this sound-picture is a wrenching octave violin line competing with a rising four-chord piano motif which reaches an impassioned highpoint; then, a return to the exposed landscape of the opening – the whole possibly suggesting the Kimberley’s solitariness, if more reminiscent to these ears of the continent’s vast, empty centre.
As for the Milky stars, Smith’s inspiration is rapid sextuplets or sets of triplets – or plain 6/8 – in both piano and violin through an opening coruscation that is packed with fifths in a conservative vocabulary and more than a little touch of Bartok-style parallel chords in the keyboard. The action dies down to a Rachmaninov-reminiscent meditation before a move to Ravelian quiverings from both instruments and we come to a more spacious view of the galaxy before a reversion to the opening action, if a few shades less scintillating, and the piece fades, although not quite to nothingness.
After this scherzo, the sonata moves to a free meditation for violin on one note, then more fifths and fourths until it seems that we are in a sort of fantasia land. The piano enters well after the movement’s halfway point with individual notes mirroring the string line, supported more and more by chords The resultant mix moves to a pseudo-chorale before the violin is left alone to recall this adagio‘s opening. You might have better luck than I did in slotting canola-field imagery into these pages; as for Nectar, I doubt that any Olympian-worshipping apiarist could find much passion-supporting ambience in this admittedly melodious trail.
Smith ends with an aspirational piece that seems to sit mainly in a 5/8 rhythm at its start. Masuda’s keyboard sets up the pattern and Antoine soon joins in, but with a more lyrical line. The flow rises to a powerful Ravel Trio-style climax. This atmosphere of excitement dies away into gentle ripples and the sonata concludes placidly. With this movement, we have a visual stimulus in that the CD cover provides an image of Sugarloaf Rock and the sea that surrounds it – not as mind-blowingly savage as the landscape off Brittany but a sort of gentle cousin.
In fact, the composer has ‘loosely’ based her four movements on photographs by Andrew J. Clarke, although, like Beethoven, the images play second fiddle to the emotions instigated and recalled when visiting or observing these four sights/sites Clarke’s cover photo is mirrored by a painting of the same outcrop on the CD’s back, which was probably produced by Jo Darvall or Kelly Wong; it’s hard to decide which, given the context of the printed acknowledgements.
The entire experience is easily assimilable and pleasant enough, the duo competent in their realization of Smith’s intentions. Still, she hasn’t give her executants many problems to solve. You get some virtuosic flourishes from Antoine, forceful passages from Masuda, but not much that raises the performing or reactive level to excitement. Apart from Milk, the sonata is a restful and restrained work; not over-priced, given its length, impressing mainly as a mild plaint against the insane destruction of our planet, abetted and encouraged by clowns in public office, and those who aspire to it. However, by her overall title, Smith clearly sees the approaching apocalypse in much broader terms than simply the continual fouling of our natural, national habitat.