The grey haze of clouds hangs over Brisbane. I watch the sky in distrust, waiting. I walk on dull, dead grass, and watch the angling, fat crows. An hour’s train ride, and then I’m home to my back yard, to its sagging pawpaw tree, failed veggie patch, and red, red dust. The geckoes are hungry. I put a cd on and the clouds darken. I wait.
From the Hungry Waiting Country, by Halcyon, flows through my speakers. A haunting, dreamlike, exploration of our country’s hunger for rain, for identity, and for a voice. This chamber work speaks to the struggle of Australian artists to understand our vast, alien landscape, and to form an identity. From the Hungry Waiting Country is a dynamic and moving work, that inspires listeners to consider how the landscape and language affect their own identity.
Halcyon takes the listener on a journey, travelling through childhood, along a river, and through the seasons. This journey is split into three stages: giving voice, Petit Testament, and From the Hungry Waiting Country. And, by the time the hour plus is over, you certainly feel like you’ve been somewhere. Waking up and returning to reality takes effort. After the cd is finished, I lie there in the silence for a moment, waiting.
giving voice is an exploration of childhood, identity, and language. The piece features Elliott Gyger’s young daughter, and her first sounds, or first words. Gyger has a particular interest in language, in the connections between syntax, semantic and phonetic aspects, and in communication. Gyger explores growth, development, transformation, and the forming of one’s identity, through the acquisition of language. He uses song cycles to reference life cycles. giving voice evokes ideas of first words, unspoken words, and reading between the words. The piece starts with violin and voice, in bold, bright trills, flutters and flourishes, evoking ideas of spring, birds flying, and new life. The strings then split into dissonant harmonies and complex, frantic, counter rhythms, swooping in and out of the voice. Heavy, dissonant guitar strumming then joins in. This dissonance evokes a sense of unease, reflective of the uncertainties and frailties of new life. This moment is almost confessional, revealing Gyger’s personal fears of parenthood and failure. The tempo and volume then lull, as gentle, moody cello comes in, contrasting the earlier sections. This conveys a sense of calm, of water gently lapping, of a child napping. The child wakes, as the bright strings and woodwind trills return.
The seventh movement of giving voice– ‘Hurdy Gurdy’, narrows in from a broad, rural landscape, to the everyday urban. The movement follows a rushed voice, paired with tremolo strings. The soprano voice evokes a mother’s voice, telling her child to constantly hurry up, behave, hurry up, eat up, go to bed. The tempo is fast and frantic. The strings are fast-paced, with counter rhythms, the cello and violin weaving in and out. The pace slows, and other instruments fall away, to a slow, solo, soft voice, to say ‘goodnight’. This evokes a sigh of relief, finally finishing the busy day. After the stress of this movement, it is a relief to be absorbed in the calm, tranquillity of Petit Testament.
Petit Testament takes the listener on a journey down a river, with eddies, currents and, thankfully, no mosquitoes. Petit Testament is a quest to search for an Australian musical identity, through travelling across a vast, expansive landscape. A series of Australian landscape poems, both indigenous and European, provide the lyrics for this piece. The river could be a reference to the Rainbow serpent, and dreamtime. Petit Testament features two soprano voices, like two currents, forking from the main stream. The voices use clear articulation, and expertly harmonise and complement one another. The piano plays minor, fragmented chords, like a ripple breaking across the water. An extended, gradual crescendo allows the heavy piano and softer voices to rise together. The piano melody is scalic and stepwise, conveying the sound of footsteps. The two voices mirror, blend, flow together, and then split apart again, like a great river coursing through the land. The piece escalates until the sopranos are almost screaming, like travelling towards rapids. Then, a calm return to subito piano, and one voice gently sings the final line. In this piece, Gyger pays homage to Australian notions of landscape, through referencing the great serpent, imagery of the channel country and vast distances. The two voices act as a reflection of one another, or two variations of the same voice. He reflects how rural isolation can cause one to forget how other voices sound, and how this alienation from society can be the root of mental health issues. Gyger references traditional Australian struggles of alienation, displacement, and transplantation; a loss of home. After this flowing, river’s journey, comes part one of From the Hungry Waiting Country, ‘Wet’.
Part One of From the Hungry Waiting Country is titled ‘Wet’, Part Two, ‘Dry’. ‘Wet’ begins with a gentle, homophonic soprano duet, with the two voices weaving in and out. The melody then splits, as one voice begins making percussion sounds. Both voices then make a buzzing sound, like mosquitoes in summer. The two voices are joined by piano, rain-stick, strings and low-pitched male voices, building up the texture. This evokes a lush, rainforest sound, with an abundance of birds, wildlife and community. The piano countermelody is disjointed, made of short notes, mimicking the sound of raindrops falling. Following this, the ‘Dry’ section is stripped back and bare, with a slower tempo, fewer instruments and a lower pitch. The rhythms are slower, less complex, with fewer ornamentations. This portrays a slow, hot, lethargic feel. The soprano voices come back in like hot winds, screaming through the desert, or the cold chill of the night, or dingoes howling across the expanse. A huge crescendo then conveys urgency and desperation. The piano abruptly drops back, subito piano, as the voices grow louder still. A faint buzzing mosquito sound returns but is quickly drowned out by the soprano voices. The voices then drop subito piano, to a quiet, lilting close.
In all, From the Hungry Waiting Country is an expansive, dreamlike journey across rural and urban, historical and modern, wet and dry, indigenous and European, Australia. Gyger reflects and exposes our inner fears of isolation, alienation, and the search for identity. This album is significant for Australian chamber music, as it successfully experiments with vocal layering. Specifically, in Petit Testament the soprano voice is multilayered, a technique that is unusual in live performance. Gyger employs further layering experimentation in From the Hungry Waiting Country, through using multiple texts, in varying languages, superimposed on one another. Gyger’s masterful exploitation of homophony, polyphony and vocal layering is testament to the work’s contribution to Australian chamber music. This work also raises significant issues of identity and language, which are valuable to us all. The album coheres well, flowing easily between the varying pieces, without being repetitive.
This style of choral work has a fairly narrow audience. I thoroughly enjoyed this album, but I know that for the untrained ear, it will take some effort to get through. Apparently, having chamber music screaming through the house during dinner is not normal. Just put on an easy pop song, okay? But that reaction only makes me appreciate this music more. Like I can keep more of my treasure for myself.
This work is relevant and timely, with the current drought out west and the struggling farmers, as it reflects these issues. It also blurs boundaries between rural and urban, which is significant in fostering support for rural communities. Music could break this drought. The clouds are gathering. Our country is hungry and waiting.