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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Barry Conyngham: What is it about ‘Ice Carving’?

“Provoked by an enduring interest in my 1970 work Ice Carving, some thoughts and revelations on the history, context and life of this work and the personal breakthrough it represents.”

 Earlier this year, in a publication released privately online to mark the conclusion of my time as Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at University of Melbourne, I was once again reminded of the lasting interest in my 1970 work, Ice Carving. Many of the contributors referenced this work and spoke of their reaction to it. Some even talked of nothing else.

Ice Carving is the only I work composed while studying in Japan with Toru Takemitsu in 1970. You can hear it here: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/read-and-watch/classic-australia/barry-conyngham-ice-carving-1970/10448902. The score is also available in many music libraries (Universal Edition 29085).

As my contribution to this most interesting series, I thought that answering questions about this piece could touch on a number of things: a special and formative period of my life; the serendipity of learning; composing for orchestra; the trajectory and importance a particular work can have; possible advice for future composers; the effect of the passage of time; and the role of doubt.

What was the context of Ice carving? The beginning of the 70s was a transitional time for me. It was my first time outside Australia, on an adventure made possible by a Churchill Fellowship. The involvement with Toru Takemitsu was not a traditional student–teacher one (he always claimed he had no students!) and the learning took place through conversations and just being in his presence. He arranged for me to have an apartment close to his home, and to have access to his artistic management company. The former afforded time together at his house, where we would discuss scores and recordings (provided by him beforehand) of his and other composers’ works. The latter helped me with my day-to-day needs and facilitated my activities, including accompanying Toru on many of his professional outings, most notably for his work on the feature film Dodes’ka-den by famed director Akira Kurosawa.

Besides working so closely with one of the special composers of the 20th century, my other reason for travel to Japan was a significant international commission. I had composed music for the main part of the Australian Pavilion at Expo70 in Osaka. The six-month-long event also turned out to be full of contemporary art, technology, architecture and cutting-edge music by some of the major composers of the day. For example, the pavilion next to the Australian (where my music for the 360-degree nine-screen film was heard for duration of the event), was the West German one, a dome dedicated to the live performance of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. His music, 12 hours a day, for six months!

Takemitsu was also involved in Expo70 as artistic director of the Space Pavilion, a high-tech auditorium featuring two programs: one, a laser light-show with pre-recorded new works by Xenakis, Takahashi and Takemitsu himself; and two, a live-concert series featuring the new and the old, music of international contemporary composers and performers, alternating with traditional Japanese music.  So, the Tokyo experience was interspersed with periodic trips, often with Toru, to the excitement of Osaka.

Toru Takemitsu and Barry Conyngham in 1986 (Photo: Athol Shmith)

Why the title Ice Carving?   Well, the practice of carving or sculpting ice goes back hundreds of years to the use of blocks of ice for various purposes (we all know about igloos). For example, in 15th-century China, lanterns were carved from ice and candles placed inside. In Russia in the 18th century, the Empress ordered an entire house to be made of ice, an event preserved in a still existent painting. In Japan, ice carvings are associated with the culinary arts, and made to be placed around servings of food. My first exposure to ice carving, however, was an exhibition of large ice sculptures seen on day-long visit to the Imperial Gardens shortly after my arrival in Tokyo. This was not in winter, but in early summer. They were near the entrance, so when I first passed them, some were still being worked on with much hacking, carving and smoothing going on. But hours later as I left the gardens, the finished sculptures were glistening in the sun and – more memorably – starting to melt. This experience stayed in my mind.

Why the composition Ice Carving? Not far into my time with Toru it was agreed I should write a new piece. I had already written two orchestral works (Crisis: Thoughts In a City and Five Windows, both contributing to a publishing contract with Universal Edition), so I was excited to start a new work, using orchestral resources, in the context of working with Toru amid all the other stimulation going on: the first experience in a new culture; an international event; and exposure to an extraordinary level of music and art from inside and outside Japan.

Why solo violin for Ice Carving? Another circumstance determined the resources for the new piece following what was seen in the Imperial Gardens. Soon after arriving in Japan, contact was made with the only non-Japanese person I was to get to know in Tokyo, an Australian, a former Conservatorium friend of Peter Sculthorpe’s: violinist Wilfred Lehmann.  A recognised international soloist, he was at the time the Concertmaster of the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra. From our first meeting, Wilf and I got on well. He was intrigued by the choice of Japan as a place to develop as a composer. Married to a Japanese, his generosity and enthusiasm were to enhance my exploration of Tokyo music and beyond. In this context he was very receptive to having a work developed with, and for, him. It was easy to decide on a concerto-like work to be scored for solo amplified violin and four string orchestras (a close-placed air microphone for the soloist would enable the range of imagined sounds of the carving and smoothing and also balance it against the four string orchestras surrounding the audience). Thus, in Wilf’s living room, the solo violin sounds of the piece were born.

Wilfred Lehmann’s wife, Chiki, and Barry Conyngham in 1970 (note Wilf in the drawing) (Photo: Wilfred Lehmann)

The work was completed after my return to Australia in late 1970, but while premieres of the orchestral works Water… Footsteps… Time…, and Six (concerto for the SSO and Les  Percussions de Strasbourg), and the opera Edward John Eyre all happened in 1971, the piece written in Japan had not even been programmed as I left for the USA in mid-1972.

In 1973 Wilfred came to Australia. While I remained in the US, and after materials were brilliantly prepared by Michael Hannan, the work was recorded by Wilfred and John Hopkins with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was submitted to the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris (the annual world forum of music broadcasters) in the same year and placed in the top three in the voting of all the delegates. Interestingly, while broadcast extensively over many stations across the world and published by Universal Edition in 1977,

it was not premiered live until 1978 in London with Geoffrey Simon and the Australian Symphonia with Romanian soloist Nicholas Chumachenco. Subsequent premieres in Australia and Japan came slowly and despite the acceptance and impact when it is performed, (it received the ARIA for best classical recording with Southern Cross in 1986) the work is rarely performed in concert.

So why talk about Ice Carving now? As indicated earlier, people still identify my music with this piece. Also, I still often use the work myself as an example in talks and lectures. It makes sense: the piece is quite short – 12 minutes – and the matching of the structure and imagery of the music to the narrative of the piece is straightforward. But is it wise to be talking about it 50 years after it was written? Do I run the risk of suggesting it is my best and only successful work? The truth is that it’s a piece I still love to hear, and it continues to get a strong reaction from listeners. But, most importantly, it connects stylistically and viscerally to so much of what comes after.

And there are other reasons that make me go back to it. There are several recordings by different soloists and orchestras – all of them very good. The work seems to invite commitment, bringing out the best in those involved. Despite its being a challenge for soloist and conductor alike (the conductor of the premiere in Japan said it was the most difficult work he had ever conducted!), for the listener it is both dramatic and lyrical. Its trajectory is clear to the ear – even as the solo violin changes character, moving from being the sculptor, (hacking, smoothing and impacting on the block of shifting harmonies of the string ensembles), to becoming the sun (melting the orchestral texture into streams), a voice endlessly ascending.

What of the technical aspects of Ice Carving? Some are from the learning context at the time. The notion of dimension in the orchestration (Takemitsu); moving sound through actual space by amplifying the soloist and placing the string orchestras around the audience (Stockhausen); extended string-playing techniques (Berio); stochastic orchestration (Xenakis); texture transformation (Ligeti); and aleatoric notation (Lutoslawski).

Others are personal elements evolving at the time.  A working method of oscillating or moving between composing moments of the piece and confirming its overall shape and architecture. Developing vertical progressions and chord structures that smudge, or make ambiguous, the harmonic direction while preserving elements of traditional diatonic harmonies. Evolving (thematic) elements that share horizontal and vertical intervallic content. Finally, embedding a strong individual “voice” within the “environment” of the musical texture.

All these things first came together effectively and cohesively in Ice Carving. The work was a breakthrough, not only externally, but internally for me as composer. While initially not done consciously, these elements have continued to be explored and used over the last 50 years. Indeed, virtually every one of the 40-odd orchestral pieces written since 1970 reflect the personal discoveries made in this early work. I return to them unapologetically. In terms of violin writing, perhaps the most extravagant example of this revisiting comes in my piece dedicated to Sculthorpe for his 75th birthday, Dreams Go Wandering Still  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pggv4_9CnE&t=32s) which premiered in the same program as his Requiem at the Adelaide Festival in 2004 with the Adelaide Symphony. The last section of this piece features four solo violins ascending into very high register à la Ice Carving, here not as a dissolving ice sculpture, but as dreams wandering forever.

Are there any messages for developing composers from Ice Carving? Some straightforward ones: find a strong idea or image, something that stimulates or enables you to create, both the whole structure of the work and the musical moments it contains. Think as freely as you can about the vehicle, the resources and the context you need to best deliver this idea. If possible, seize opportunities to collaborate in the making or realising of the work, be they technical or artistic.  Most important of all, be as free and adventurous as you can. Note that this work, crucial for my development as a composer of “live” orchestral music, was launched and spread to audiences by an excellent recording and subsequent worldwide dissemination.  So, a good recording (now video) would seem very important as early as possible, distributed as widely as possible. Ironically, this work also gives at least one excellent example of what not to do if you’re hoping for lots of live instrumental performances: do not write a short (12-minute) work requiring a complicated setup, a very accomplished soloist, a committed conductor and a symphonic-sized string orchestra (minimum 4 double basses, preferably 8!).

At the outset of this discussion, it was said that looking back on Ice Carving could enable the coverage of some personal territory.  We all know of writers who have great success with their first novel but appear to struggle from then on. “One-hit-wonder” is not a kind term. Producing an early well-received work can intimidate the author’s next work, even the remaining output of a lifetime. I have not felt that. The initial impact of Ice Carving, though personally very satisfying, was overrun or masked in the following period by other opportunities for commissions, performance, and travel. It was only over time that the significance of the work became apparent. Here’s an extract from a 2005 review by the Age’s Clive O’Connell of the premiere of the orchestral work, Now That Darkness:

A work full of shifting textures and showing a masterful hand at heightening and relieving dynamic and timbral tension, it makes yet another addition to Conyngham’s impressive catalogue and a welcome reassurance that his compositional career did not stop with the well-known Ice Carving of 1970.

 Moreover, having a benchmark is a useful thing. Like a lot of composers and other artists, I have a favourites list. Since the 70s each new work has the chance of joining Ice Carving on that list. And this is reflected in the constant questioning that goes on while making each new piece: Is this working? Is this doing what it should do?  Is the original promise of this work being realised? Is this any good? Does it have that indescribable something that makes it go beyond just the working out of the idea, doing one’s best? And, most urgently, I am wasting my time here?

Regarding the passing of time, nowadays there is a question that is more uncomfortable.  And once again it connects with this early piece. In his memoir, Sun Music Journeys, my dear teacher, mentor and friend, Peter Sculthorpe, says that Ice Carving

…owes a small debt to Takemitsu’s Requiem (1957)… and to my Irkanda IV (1960) for solo violin, strings and percussion, in its own way a requiem for my father. While Ice Carving is not a requiem as such, it does suggest a Sun-death. Also, much of the work is based on the number four: there are four orchestras, and four main sections. It’s significant that the Japanese word for four, shi, is also the word for death.

Peter’s reaction and commentary raise a more fundamental possible undercurrent in my music: the unconscious preoccupation with dying. Yes, this work is about transience – the making of something, followed by its decay and disappearance. The role of the soloist as maker/sculptor and destroyer/sun is a story of birth, life and death.  Indeed, many of my works have touched on the cycle of life, on loss. Two recent works that do make the favourites list, are written after the death of friends: Passing (1999) for Takemitsu and Gardener of Time (2011) for conductor Hiroyuki Iwaki. Another, the already mentioned Dreams Go Wandering Still (2004), is based on Basho’s famous death-bed haiku. If not very conscious early on, thoughts of mortality and the passing of time are inevitable in the later part of one’s life.  With each composition, the time to write works that could join Ice Carving on the favourites list is reduced.

Peter Sculthorpe, conductor of Asian Premiere of Ice Carving Kazufumi Yamashita and Barry Conyngham in 1998 (Photo: Jill Aiken)

So, what is it about Ice Carving that has been the most enduring value at a very personal level?  For me, doubt is always a companion when setting out to create again. Each composing project begins with not quite knowing how it will turn out.  Any reason for confidence is always welcome. So after all these years, Ice Carving remains a confirmation, a positive answer, to the question posed every time a new work is started: can I really do this?

Barry Conyngham Melbourne October 2021.


 

VIEW AND LISTEN

ICE CARVING

https://www.abc.net.au/classic/read-and-watch/classic-australia/barry-conyngham-ice-carving-1970/10448902

DREAMS GO WANDERING STILL

ANZAC

GARDENER OF TIME (with score) 

STREAMS

After studies with Peter Sculthorpe (1965–69) in Australia and with Toru Takemitsu (1970) in Japan, Barry Conyngham is known nationally and internationally with premieres in the last few years in Palma, Hong Kong, Boston, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, Vienna, and St Petersburg. He has received many awards, including Churchill, Harkness, Australia Council and Fulbright Fellowships, an Aria and two Sounds AustraliaN Awards. He is a Member of the Order of Australia. Over his career he has published over 100 works (Universal Edition and Hal Leonard) and over 50 recordings. In his academic career he has been a Dean at both the University of Wollongong, Creative Arts (1989–1993), and the University of Melbourne, Fine Arts and Music (2011–2020), was also the first musician to be appointed as a Vice Chancellor, Southern Cross University (1994–2000) and to hold the Harvard Chair of Australian Studies (2000–2001). In 2021 he was appointed Redmond Barry Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne.

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