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  • Graham Abbott

Sun Music

When I was at the end of what is now called Year 10 I attended my first music camp, run by the NSW Department of Education Music Branch. (Some of my readers may recall the Broken Bay music camps...) At this I had my first experience of playing in a large orchestra and of singing in a large choir. I encountered so much amazing music for the first time, and this included a work I found bizarre and strange at the time but have since come to love: Peter Sculthorpe's Sun Music III.


Sun Music III is arguably one of the most important Australian works of the 20th century. It was one of the first musical works in which an Australian composer looked to both Asia and the Australian landscape for inspiration and it contains passages of distilled beauty. As a youth I got to thinking: if there's a Sun Music III, is there a I and a II? Indeed there were, and a IV as well, an important series of works which is the subject of this article.


Peter Sculthorpe

Some of Peter Sculthorpe's music is difficult to get in to for some people as it uses a musical language which is not based on the classical western mainstream. Just as it's pointless to compare Rembrandt with Jackson Pollock or Bernini with Henry Moore, so comparing Mozart with Sculthorpe is not what I'm about here. Still, even as someone who craves reality can find beauty - or at least interest - in some pieces of modern painting or sculpture, so those of us raised on mainstream Classical music can, if given a few keys, unlock music which seems at first to be foreign. That's my aim here, if the Sun Music series is new to you.


Sun Music I was written in 1965 at the request of the conductor Sir Bernard Heinze. The work was intended to open a program given in London by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as part of the Commonwealth Games Arts Festival and John Hopkins conducted the first performance with the SSO in London’s Royal Festival Hall in September of 1965. Sculthorpe had been developing his own musical style which reflected developments in art music in Europe, the US and Asia during the 1950s and early 60s.


Bernard Heinze
John Hopkins

Sun Music I is scored for an orchestra of strings, brass and percussion, without woodwind. The composer Anne Boyd has noted that in Sun Music I the brass seem to represent earth-bound forces, whereas the strings create an image of the celestial. The thickness of some of the string clusters is a special feature of this music, and these contrast with the heavy, weighty, stuttering chords of the brass. To me the string writing has a close connection with ideas from music then coming out of Europe, most famously in Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.


Right at the start there is a little four-note motif made up of two descending intervals played on a muted trumpet. This serves as a sort of "sun music motto" and is heard later in the piece, as well as in Sun Music IV. [listen]


It's clear from Sun Music I that Peter Sculthorpe is not writing a holiday postcard here. Roger Covell's program note for the premiere performance in 1965 said that this was "not in any sense bronzed, swaggering holiday music...it has more to say about the mystery, fear and lonely glare of the sun than about the pleasures of warmth. This is sun music written by a composer living in a country where the sun can be as much an enemy as a friend".



In 1966 Sculthorpe was working for a period in the United States and it was during that time that he wrote a work originally called Sun Music II. This work, for choir and percussion, was later given a new title when the composer decided to make the Sun Music series purely orchestral, but it's a fascinating work so I've decided to include it in this survey.


Now called Sun Music for Voices and Percussion, the original second piece in the Sun Music series uses percussion instruments conventionally. The piano, though, is not played via the keyboard; rather, the strings are struck directly with beaters and the fingers. The choral forces have no text to sing in the conventional sense. The composer requires them to sing and speak disjointed syllables, thus making the choir a sort of enlarged percussion section itself. Here again, as in Sun Music I, Sculthorpe arranges cells and ideas and repeats and expands them over time to create a collage of sound.


Sun Music for Voices and Percussion also briefly had another title, Canto 1520. This date refers to the year in which the Aztec king Moctezuma was killed, thus providing yet another sort of "sun", a central American one, into Sculthorpe's musical inspirations. (I’m unable to find a recording online to which I can link here.)


Aztec sun stone (early 1500s)

The piece which came to be known as Sun Music II was in fact the last-composed of the series. Written in 1969 it was originally called Ketjak (Kecak in modern Indonesian) and it was premiered under this title by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under John Hopkins. This original title refers to a Balinese dance, part of the Ramayana cycle. It's often called the "monkey dance" and in its traditional form tells the story of the monkey-like creatures known as the Vanara who help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.


Modern Kecak dancers in Uluwatu, Bali

Of this piece, Sculthorpe said, "The music isn't oriental...but without Asia the work wouldn't have existed," and there are to my ears definite suggestions of the monkeys, the trance-like dancing of the traditional performers, and much else one might expect to find under an Indonesian sun. Calling it Sun Music II was therefore very appropriate.


As we heard in Sun Music I, string clusters create the sense of sky, and the brass are very much down to earth. The horns create a sound very reminiscent of the monkeys and the percussion have passages which seem to come right out of the Balinese mountains. [listen]


Sun Music II grew out of Sculthorpe's developing fascinating with Asian music - and particularly Balinese music - in the 1960s. In 1963, six years before he wrote this, he was teaching a course in Asian music at the University of Sydney, and in addition to Balinese music, he had a particular interest in Japanese traditional music. In fact some of the sounds in Sun Music I seem inspired by traditional Nō theatre.


In 1966 the Canadian composer and musicologist Colin McPhee published his ground-breaking study of Balinese music, a book which affected a huge number of composers around the world, including Sculthorpe. McPhee verbalised the different approaches - as he saw it - between western and eastern music. Western music developed, whereas eastern music was (to our ears) exotically static. In this context, development is not seen as intrinsically better and stasis is not seen as intrinsically worse; they are simply viewed as different approaches, and this Sculthorpe took on board in his next two Sun Music pieces.


John Coburn: Curtain of the Sun (tapestry, designed for the Sydney Opera House)

Sun Music III, the piece I discovered as a teenager, was written in 1966-67. Sculthorpe described it as "the first work in which I really did something about my interest in Asian music". It was begun in the United States while he was staying at an artists' community and completed in Sydney on his return. In an interview in 1994 he recalled, "I wrote most of Sun Music III at a time when it was snowing up in New York state, and I'd often look out of the window and dream of a place like Bali, an endless warm paradise". It had its first performance - under the title Anniversary Music - in Perth in May 1967 with Sir Bernard Heinze conducting the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.


In Sun Music III we have the Asian sun to complement the Australian and Mexican suns of earlier works. Here also we have music (primarily in the vibraphone) designed to evoke the gamelan gender wayang instruments which accompany the Balinese shadow puppetry known as wayang kulit. Sun Music III depicts a timeless sun which speaks a language closer to home. The shimmering string clusters remain but they take us to different places, and the mournful melody in the middle, first heard on the oboe, again shows that sunny places are not always happy ones.


Gamelan players

My own opinion of Sun Music III is a very high one. I think it's an Australian classic that marks a seismic shift in the Australian musical consciousness, and as such it's a piece every Australian music student should study and know.. [listen]


Sun Music IV was written more or less alongside Sun Music III but charts a very different musical course. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in Montreal in May 1967, as part of the 1967 World Expo. The conductor was Willem van Otterloo.


Willem van Otterloo

Sun Music IV was Sculthorpe's personal favourite of the set and it has close links with Sun Music I, including the "sun music motif" I mentioned earlier. The Mexican sun is evoked here in interlocking sliding patterns in the strings, heard near the start. These are a reference to the pyramids of Teotihuacan and they even look like pyramid shapes on the page.


Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan, Mexico

This work contains the first example in Sculthorpe's orchestral music of a device which would later become a trademark: the rapid free high-pitched string glissandi which give the impression of a flock of birds. There were hints of this in Sun Music III, but here it's on a much larger scale. It would later be a feature of works like Port Essington and Kakadu. [listen]


Peter Sculthorpe's Sun Music series stands as one of the most important monuments in modern Australian music. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that taken together they represent Australia officially taking its place in the musical world. That we felt confident enough to present music so confidently Australian at major international events in London and Montreal is highly significant, and shows that we didn't any longer see the need to emulate others or look for inspiration anywhere else other than at home, or in our world view.


The recordings of the four orchestral Sun Music pieces linked in this article come from a 1996 ABC Classics release featuring the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn. Graeme Skinner's excellent notes for this recording were my primary source for this article.



This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2011.

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