Full Reviews of "White Dawn" by David Lumsdaine


A lesson in musical possibility and artistic skill from a composer of rare sonic vision. As a way of making what may or may not be music, placing microphones into urban or rural environments and assembling soundscapes in the studio from sounds you harvest is a controversial way to make art. Classical music snobs, fond of preaching about what music “should” be – better, surely, to think about what the thing we love “could” be? - are minded to pooh-pooh field recordings by pointing out that anyone can stick a microphone anywhere. Then again, any fool might have twigged that three Gs followed by E flat was a smart way to open a symphony; only one man did, though, and to luddites everywhere I say it's not the material, it's what you do with it that counts.

By taking five of Sydney-born David Lumsdaine's field-recording-derived Australian soundscapes and interweaving them between his meticulously organised instrumental and chamber pieces, this superb anthology reveals what a false dichotomy the whole field recording/ “conventional” composition debate can be. Lumsdaine's soundscapes are as concerned with inner dialogues, counterpoint and structure as anything he commits to manuscript paper. Yes, art based on birdsong or on cicadas calling stimulates different sorts of response to music written for piano or cello but either way, Lumsdaine snatches empiric sound sources from an open-ended world of possibilities . . .

. . . like how his solo cello Blue upon Blue (1991) plays modally inflected melodic cycles off against scattering percussive pizzicato figurations; or how those chirping landscapes typical of his field recordings permeate inside the precisely crafted and aphoristic A Little Cantata (1996), where soprano voice and recorder quiver and hum together like two crickets on heat, an approach A Tree telling of Orpheus (1990) uses over the larger scale.

But the best is last. The 30-minute solo piano Cambewarra (1980) is predicted on an assumption of space and silence which Lumsdaine delicately loads with fleeting mechanisms and modal melodies weighty enough to enhance, rather than pollute, the harmony of underlying stillness. These performances, by musicians associated with the Gemini Ensemble, prove deeply sensitive to Lumsdaine's needs, with a special nod going to pianist Peter Lawson for negotiating Cambewarra's secret labyrinths with such clarity of mind and finger.


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.


At last! That must be the reaction expressed by all those supporters of David Lumsdaine's music. Thanks to the indefatigible pushing and prodding by recorder maestro John Turner over eight years or so, this double CD has eventually seen the light of day and, like a rare flower, at last blossomed into being, just when we had all but forgotten about the project. That project has certainly been worth the long and frustrating lacuna.

The set showcases three vocal works, one of whom constitutes a major piece in Lumsdaine's oeuvre (A Tree Telling of Orpheus), as does the large-scale piano work Cambewarra, plus three shorter instrumental pieces (Blue upon Blue, Six Postcard Pieces and Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek). A recurring 'refrain' throughout the two CDs are five of Lumsdaine's Australian Soundscapes, the most immediate of which is the fourth, Serenade, with its aural snapshots of the Pied Butcherbird.

The whole selection has been artfully and sympatheti­cally curated by Lumsdaine's closest colleague and friend, Anthony Gilbert. In addition, Gilbert pro­vides a lucid overview of Lumsdaine's output and musical development. The three eloquent songs of A Little Cantata (Tracey Chadwell in memoriam) appear to synthesize elements of both haiku and bagatelle together in just under four minutes. Every note is perfectly placed and none wasted. Blue upon Blue, a two-part invention for solo cello, consists of a modal melody that interacts with a pizzicato ' commentary'; again, this is beautifully balanced and integrated, illuminating a haiku by Selcho.

Beethoven's bagatelles, Webernian brevity and Stravinskian magpie-like borrowings are all alluded to in the Six Postcard Pieces, whose gestures are all very succinct and tellingly made. A Tree telling of Orpheus is strongly modal, its text by Denise Levertov (not printed in full, incidentally) always moving forward in a setting that is lithe, rhythmic and dancing. At limes, it seems Tippettian in its celebratory sensuousness. A Norfolk Songbook sets ten of the composer's own nature poems and, for this writer's pair of ears, works most effectively in the briefer songs – cf. 'Hare, Hedgerow' and 'Gulls jostling'.

Perhaps most striking of all the works recorded here is Lumsdaine's large-scale celebration of part of his home territory, Cambewarra. An epiphany in three movements, this taut yet expansive piece, with its very clear harmonic world, almost returns us to the sound-world of his two previous piano works, Kelly Ground and Ruhe sanste, sanste ruh.

Common to all of these pieces is the immediacy of the local, momentary gesture which is always allied to a highly-evolved structural awareness, at both the micro as well as the macro level. It would be invidious to single out particular perform­ances; suffice to say, all the participants interpret this music with consummate skill and devotion to detail. In David Lumsdaine's richly-variegat­ed oeuvre, Nature and Art have become as one. If we listen sufficiently deeply, we may aspire to become, in T.S. Eliot's phrase, 'the music / While the music lasts'.


Over the last two generations or so, Australian music has thrived. Such stylistically diverse composers as Percy Grainger, Don Banks, and Peter Sculthorpe have long made their marks. Closer to our moment, Matthew Hindson has produced scores that, like Osvaldo Golijov's, successfully integrate pop styles into classical concert music. Enter David Lumsdaine (b. 1931). The key to the music on these discs is found in his Australian Soundscapes. These are onsite and edited recordings of nature sounds, often featuring exotic (to my New Jersey ears) birdcalls and, in one case, a verita­ble frog symphony. When I listen to these tracks, I think of Olivier Messiaen and his lifelong tran­scribing of bird songs that would later, to a greater or lesser extent, drive the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure of his composition.

My late wife, who was an accomplished folk singer, often stated that folk music was the ultimate basis of all the music that we deem classical. On this disc Lumsdaine, like Messiaen, takes that notion farther —the basis of all music can be found in the sounds of nature. To quote Anthony Gilbert's liner notes as to the specific quality of Australian bird­calls: "They do it in harmony. In a given territory, which may occupy no more than a few hundred square meters, the birds of all native species sing in tune with one another and with an unstated but identifiable harmonic series built on an unheard fundamental tone. As with any natural harmonic series, the higher the notes, the closer the pitches, but rarely, if ever, do the singers deviate from the harmonic spectrum. So we hear diatonic phrases in the lower ranges, then chromatic, and rare exam­ples of microtonal singing near the upper limits of audibility." Each piece on this offering is pre­ceded by a Soundscape that embodies and defines its musical essence. This pattern holds until disc 2, which opens with Soundscape 5 –the definer and illuminator of Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo recorder, A Norfolk Songbook for soprano and recorder, and Cambewarra for solo piano.

Lumsdaine is a master of scale. Most of these pieces are aphoristic miniatures. A Little Cantata — Tracy Chadwell In Memoriam is in five sections which combined occupy 3:51. The six movements of Six Postcard Pieces for solo piano take 4:45, and Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo recorder times in at 2:26. Like all successful miniatures, these encompass complete musical uni­verses in their tiny durations. On the other end of the spectrum, A Tree Telling of Orpheus for sopra­no and chamber ensemble and Cambewarra for solo piano clock in at 24:33 and 31:20 respectively. These longer pieces are hypnotic. In them one loses all sense of time and comes away with a feel­ing of time (however much it was) well spent.

This is music of profound stillness despite its often disjunct, almost Webernesque intervals and moments of rapid-fire note clusters. Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers is unflappable in the face of this music's demands. Given her accuracy of pitch, tone production, and excellent diction, she fully real­izes the poetry of the texts before her. Recorder virtuoso John Turner becomes a cosmic bird; pianist Peter Lawson comfortably, indeed joyously, navigates the daunting demands of Cambewarra; and cel­list Jonathan Price does honor to Blue Upon Blue. The recorded sound is first-rate by current standards.

A quick perusal of Wikipedia (the Cliffs Notes of our moment) tells me that David Lumsdaine retired from composition in 1996, to which I say, more's the pity. The title of this two-disc release says it all — White Dawn. Too bad you had to read all that stuff above this last paragraph.


Australian-born composer David Lumsdaine (b 1931) studied in England in the 1950s, first with Matyas Seiber, then with Lennox Berkeley. In 1970 he accepted an appointment at Durham University in northeastern England, where he built an electro-acoustic studio. Later he shared a lectureship with his wife, composer Nicola LeFanu, at Kings College, London; and now he lives in New York. Lumsdaine writes conventional music, but he also deals with naturally occurring sound—as do visual artists who create works from found objects.

Lumsdaine has had a lifelong fascination with birds and their songs, so he has written numerous works based on recordings made in the wild. The two discs in Metier 28519 include five A ustralian Soundscapes , each with a picturesque title: ‘The Billabong at Sunset', ‘Frogs at Night', ‘Raven Cry', ‘Serenade', and best of all, ‘Hunting a Crested Bellbird for Dr Gilbert at Palm Creek'. Whether or not you think of these tracks as music, the “carefully edited assemblages” are vivid and intense, and they do create an atmosphere.

Then there is the music, often freely tonal, often quite abstract. Instrumental pieces include the little ‘Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek' (1994), where recorder player John Turner makes remarkable bird sounds. In the seven-minute ‘Blue on Blue' (1991), cellist Jonathan Price sounds alternately wistful and energetic. Peter Lawson is the pianist in Six Postcard Pieces (1994), a little collection of atonal miniatures, and in Cambewarra (1980), a meandering, rambling, quasi-improvisatory, 31-minute study where cragginess is occasionally softened by tonal sounds.

Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers is heard in two works for soprano and recorder. ‘A Little Cantata' (1996) is a four-minute setting of a Lumsdaine poem; and A Norfolk Songbook (1992) is an 18-minute, 10-song setting of Lumsdaine poems about military disruption of the natural beauty of Norfolk, England. The big vocal piece is the 24-minute Tree Telling of Orpheus (1990, poem by Denise Levertov), given an excellent performance by soprano Rogers with the chamber ensemble Gemini. Of all the works in the collection, this one best captures David Lumsdaine's intertwined passions for music and nature.


‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder' or something like that, and in the case of David Lumsdaine born in Sydney eighty years ago, long resident in England and married to composer Nicola Lefanu it is certainly so. These discs sum up Australia and its culture superbly well and he has had the idea of linking what he calls ‘Soundscapes' - there are six of these in all, with some songs and instrumental works which reflect on or are an echo of the natural world.

For example the opening track of birdsongs and crickets leads us into the fleeting A Little Cantata written in memory of Tracey Chadwell that wonderful soprano and supporter of contemporary music whose sudden death in 1996 deprived us all of what might have been many more years of new music making. Lesley-Jane Rogers is a fine substitute but I'm not convinced that in her very high register the words are really distinct. Talking of which, Lumsdaine himself, to make sure that he has maintained the atmosphere of the soundscape, has written them. He favours here and elsewhere on the CD short, aphoristic poems from which he can capture a single mood and then move on, dividing the poetry by brief instrumental sections which themselves are, in a way, not unlike the bird calls or frog noises in the Soundscapes which precede and follow them. It's wonderful how the frogs ( Soundscape II ) are followed by a gorgeous piece for solo cello, Blue upon Blue , so wistful and shimmering. The dawn chorus, which constitutes Soundscape III with all sorts of exotics, segues into the more brittle sound of the six bagatelles - very much Beethoven-inspired apparently - which constitute the Six Postcards . What I love about these pieces is how they make their mark, say what they have to say and then move on.

Don't get thinking that the Soundscapes are just Lumsdaine going around with his tape recorder on a spare afternoon; no, the composer talks of the counterpoint of frog noises and bird calls, a counterpoint heard in the music. Some amazing birdcalls are offered. In Soundscape IV we hear the extraordinary Pied Butcherbird with its tune, beginning with a tri-tone, you can easily write on manuscript and after it the lengthy song-cycle A Tree telling of Orpheus . This uses a beautiful text by Denise Levertov (died 1997) who, although born in England and who lived in the USA seems a perfect poet for an Australian with gift-lines like ‘He sang our sun-dried roots back into the earth/watered them: all-night rain of music so quiet'. Lumsdaine sets it mostly as a Scherzando, with a few very still and eerie passages, with a generally modal tonality in triple or in compound time and with unpredictable dancing rhythms. The whole performance with Gemini and the pure-voiced Lesley-Jane Rogers is an absolute delight and worth the cost of CD on it own.

CD 2 starts with Lumsdaine's attempt to record the ‘Crested bellbirds' in a site in central Australia . They sing a single note but as an equal duple followed by a triplet rhythm, each bird choosing a differing pitch. As he says, it becomes the most haunting of the five Soundscapes and flows into an extraordinary piece for sopranino recorder where for a moment you cannot tell where the soundscape ended and where John Turner's magical playing begins. Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek is seemingly a metamorphosis of the birdcalls just heard. I had the weird pleasure of hearing these tracks on headphones outside where the sounds of Australia 's birds mingled with those of an English Spring - quite bizarre. But hearing these far-off birds has whetted my appetite as a keen ornithologist to visit Australia myself and see these amazing singers live.

There follows another demanding and challenging song-cycle and finally a large-scale piano work, which builds on previous ideas. The composer Anthony Gilbert admits, in his witty booklet notes, to visiting Lumsdaine at his North Norfolk home in 1972. This area was to prove to be another inspirational natural environment for the cycle A Norfolk Songbook , a sequence of ten poems by the composer set with simply a recorder - John Turner again moving between at least three. He acts as a perfect duettist evoking bird sounds mentioned such as oyster-catchers, gulls and crossbills. The longer settings bookend eight interior aphoristic poems such as Hedgerow with its lines ‘Yellowhammer / Yellowhammer / Yellowhammer / passing tractor / dust.' In a sense Australia moves to East Anglia - just briefly.

Written in a remote area of Australia known as Kangaroo Valley Cambewarra is named after a nearby mountain. To quote the notes it presents ‘three parallel visions of the same points approaching sunrise', rather like Claude Monet as his paintings, say, of Rheims Cathedral in differing lights. There are three attached movements although the outer ones, both of eleven minutes duration, can be played separately. Almost outdoing Messiaen, birdsong totally dominates especially in the middle, scherzo-like movement, but there is a reminder of a rough, harsher landscape in the ‘chorale' type chordal writing and in some of the abrasive piano textures elsewhere. Modality, coupled with chromaticisms found in other works like the Norfolk Songbook is lost in this brittle, sun-drenched but beautiful soundscape. Yes, a soundscape but five years before the first recorded one heard on this CD. In addition Peter Lawson is quite brilliant and utterly convincing in this vivid and exciting performance.

The excellent booklet has biographies and texts. With this double CD, we can say “Happy birthday, David Lumsdaine”, a composer with much that is original to say. I for one will never forget the effect that his seemingly forgotten orchestral work Hagoromo had on me at the Proms as long ago as 1980.


English recorderist John Turner continues to impress with his interpretations of music by living composers and his ability to present the recorder in its rightful place as a modern instrument . These two releases from UK Label Metier [referring also to MSV28522] present Turner's work with three composers of tuneful, mainstream chamber music.

Deserving particular note is the double-disc set White Dawn . A strong connection exists between all music and the natural soundscape of our planet. Australian composer David Lumsdaine's work makes this connection very clear, and this set provides thoroughly enjoyable demonstration of that. Ideally, one would listen to this along with a recording of the 18 th century repertory from The Bird Fancyer's Delight.

n White Dawn listeners are treated to five beautifully engineered recordings of the Australian soundscape, interspersed with works for recorder, voice, piano, cello and chamber ensemble. Most remarkable is the work Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek for solo sopranino, which follows Australian Soundscape V: Hunting a Crested Bellbird for Dr Gilbert at Palm Creek.


Australian-born David Lumsdaine's music is arguably less well-known than that of either his wife, Nicola LeFanu, or his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Maconchy. Whether or not that is how things should be is not really answered by this rather curious new release, a mixture of almost ephemeral snippets, more important works and items that are not really music at all.

Anyone not aware that Lumsdaine is also a keen ornithologist certainly will be after listening to this double CD set, which features five of his six Soundscapes (the sixth from 1995 is mysteriously absent), all commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. 'Soundscapes' here is a synonym for outdoor tape-recording of wildlife noises. They are only music in what might politely be called the 'post-modern' sense: as the liner-notes put it. They are "in their own way compositions in any case, since they are not simple, passive recordings, but carefully-edited assemblages". To be fair to Lumsdaine, he insists that in these recordings it is the birds who are 'composing' - but should they feature on a CD of his music? After all, with modern technology, anyone really could have done them. They also take up around a quarter of the overall recording time.

The Soundscapes ' descriptive subtitles are: The Billabong at Sunset ; Frogs at Night ; Raven Cry ; Serenade ; and Hunting a Crested Bellbird for Dr Gilbert at Palm Creek . Certainly there will be many who appreciate each smorgasbord of natural sounds, but probably far fewer - bird-fanciers aside! - willing or able to sit five times through five or six minutes of relentless rainforest-level bizarre bird chatter or eerie frog noises. These are not the gentle sounds of British pastoral scenes.

The Soundscapes link - or intrude upon, depending on one's viewpoint - the more orthodox works, though even here, Lumsdaine's music is not for the faint of heart. It is modal and spartan, and also fragmentary - the Six Postcard Pieces last only five minutes, and A Little Cantata , at less than four minutes, is positively minuscule. Too brief in either case to really have time to say anything worth repeating.

Wedged incongruously between two noisy Soundscapes , Blue on Blue , for solo cello, is probably the most accessible work on this release. In the notes, Lumsdaine's friend and fellow composer and 'twitcher', Anthony Gilbert, describes it as a "duet for soloist: a modal melody, almost a raga, against the more percussive, pitch-unfocussed pizzicato commentary."

The first disc ends with A Tree Telling of Orpheus , a dramatic monologue, commissioned for the occasion of Lumsdaine's 60th birthday by the ensemble Gemini, who perform it here with Lesley-Jane Rogers. Twenty-five minutes long, this is very demanding music for performers, particularly the soprano, but Rogers is more than equal to it. It also asks a lot of the listener, but effort and concentration should be repaid after a second and third play-through.

CD 2 opens with the final Soundscape (mercifully), and then Metamorphosis at Mullet Creek keeps the birdsong theme going. It is a short and shrill piece for solo sopranino recorder, imitative of Australian bird noises.

A Norfolk Songbook is a collection of ten settings of Lumsdaine's own poems, based on his stays in East Anglia . Birds again feature heavily in the poetry, which concerns itself both with the natural environment of Norfolk and the bombing of Libya in 1986, when the US military used the region as an airbase. Neither the poetry nor the music will be everyone's cup of tea, but the combination of clear soprano voice, other-worldly recorder and Lumsdaine's ambiguous texts creates a potent effect, particularly on repeated hearing.

Cambewarra , for solo piano, is half an hour long, and substantial not only with regard to length. Gilbert describes this work, in three continuous movements, as "an architectural embodiment of shape, colour, space and charged stillness." The sections are, as it were, Lumsdaine's responses to three different views of the landscapes around Cambewarra ( Smoky Mountain ) in Kangaroo Valley in southern Australia . This is challenging music for the listener - think Boulez piano sonatas - but not without its rewards. Peter Lawson makes it sound easy, which it is anything but.

The sound recording is excellent, though the cellist's breathing is rather audible in Blue on Blue. The booklet is glossy and informative, with biographies, poem texts and interesting and well-written notes by Gilbert. Overall, it is difficult not to conclude that this would have been a better product if it had dropped the Soundscapes and showcased more of Lumsdaine's music. On the other hand there is still more than a full CD's worth of his works here that any lover of contemporary music should be familiar with.