First Light – Music of Ground and Sky

      First_Light-final-2  First Light, by Chris Sainsbury

In Australian composer Chris Sainsbury’s “First Flight” you can hear a new approach to connecting orchestral music to the natural world: Sainsbury thinks in terms of “ground sounds” and “sky sounds” and explores the spaces these ideas evoke for him. The resulting music is colorful and expressive.

As Chris explains …

“The terms are original (as far as I know) and deliberately uncomplicated. They are Australian for me, or even local to my place. I am now thinking and hearing these as ‘elements of music’ (and of course they cross-over with the various elements of music that we know). The difference is that I’m working somewhere between natural sound sources, music and place. It’s not just music that I’m writing. I’m also creating a place, and in that place the world can turn slowly, for me at least. And here I can articulate matters in a context that I own, rather than using an imposed context from a myriad of styles and descriptions about music. I really like the simplicity of ground sounds and sky sounds as terms and in my music. It does not necessarily mean my music is different. It’s just a difference in terms of approach.

Ground sounds are characterized by sustain, repetitive device, ‘melod-ercussion’, and the non-development of idea (in a Western sense). These are present through sustain, subtle convergences, absence of dramatic interpolations, veiled ostinati, use of tone-scenes (the dominance of particular colour combinations), and subtle melod-ercussive device (melodic thumps, scratchings, breaks and bumps).

Sky sounds include the phenomenon of sky reverb and sky amplification, which vary in the natural environment with landscape, weather and time of day. At various points I set out to orchestrate this reverb and amplification into the work. Sky sounds are also near-melodies, being melodic fragments that fall from the sky.

“Near-melodies are the melodic fragments of birds. They sound short songs and calls, often fantastic tunes which they abandon as soon as they’ve begun. Of course they are entire for birds, but we need something longer to call ‘a piece’. In this light I string them together end on end making major themes, and ‘classicising’ them. There are however, many near-melodies that are left in tact in the work, often flittering and fluttering about the major themes, almost a nuisance to themes and often abandoned as soon as sounded. There are some 40 bird calls or songs in all. With this amount of ‘tunes’ rolling one can see the need to be careful about Western developmental thinking. There is no augmentation of interval, nor inversion of tune, nor fragmentation or such device. I have used simpler treatments such as transposing up a step and have at times expanded the rhythm of the near- melodies.

“Basically I suspended part of me the composer and I didn’t mess too much with the birds! I also use the pulsing of cicadas and small frogs that live in the acacia trees near my house. These also I consider to be sky sounds.

Some near-melodies in the work are clearly identifiable bird sounds, down to the species. Some are ‘my close rendition’ of a bird sound that I heard and notated and whilst it works for listeners as bird sound, it would be difficult to identify the species (especially some of the parrots). The species include the Pied Butcher-birds and the Little Wattlebird, the Common Koel, Plovers, the male Satin Bower-bird, Currawongs, the Australian Magpie, the Rock Warbler, the Channel-billed Cuckoo, Lorikeets and more.

“I mainly utilise the sounds of the Pied Butcherbird and the Little Wattlebird, the later grounding in pitch what first appeared in cackles. Birds don’t necessarily sing ‘in tune’ within our Western scale system. All of their tunes here are effectively classicised into a twelve note system. It is a vehicle which assists the listener to ‘hear my local environment’, essentially enabling one to stand alongside me and particpate in that First Light singing.

Other pieces by Chris Sainsbury include:

  • Bushfire – a Concerto for Cor anglais and Strings
  • Concerto for Guitar – The Luthier
  • The Wellbeing Clarinet Concertino
  • Brackish Songs (Guitar and mezzo-soprano)
  • Lydian Caprice for String Quartet
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