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13 May 2021

The Crossing of a Sea - composing before and during COVID-19

Cyrus Meurant Image: Cyrus Meurant  

Cyrus Meurant writes about his recent work, including the song cycle Stray Birds, setting selections from the poem by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and a brand-new work The Crossing of a Sea, now scheduled to premiere at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 24 March 2022 in a program by the Syzygy Ensemble.

Prelude: Monday to Friday

In 2016, I composed Monday to Friday, a chamber work intended for people living with dementia. The work, commissioned by Linda Beaumont for Beaumont Care in Brisbane, developed into a studio album of twenty pieces for flute, viola, vibraphone, and piano. I composed music for listening to at specific times of day - morning, afternoon, evening, and late night - with the intention of catering to the moods of dementia patients at those particular times.

The album Monday to Friday, featuring Sally Walker, Sascha Bota, Alison Pratt and Clemens Leske, later became commercially available and enjoyed both popular success and critical acclaim. As well as forming a sizeable portion of my doctorate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (completed in 2019), Monday to Friday was also nominated as an international finalist for 'Innovation of the Year - Dementia Solution' at the Eldercare Innovation Awards held in Singapore (2019).

The concept for Monday to Friday developed out of my own initial discussions with dementia specialists including Professor Elizabeth Beattie (Queensland University of Technology) and Beaumont Care's specialist advisor Tara Quirke. The work was then further informed by the growing body of international research pertaining to the beneficial use of music in dementia care.

The music itself was a creative response to theories relating to the nature of memory, the experience of change and the perception of time. The delivery and the very specific utility of the project also led me to consider an approach towards musical form and content informed by philosophical ideas surrounding material repetition and difference.

In more recent years I have included selections from the work in my own solo recitals and ensemble performances, just as I would any other concert music. Subsequently, Monday to Friday has arguably transcended its initial application, perhaps no differently to how a film, dance or theatre score would find its way into a concert hall. For me personally, however, the work remains evocative of its original inspiration, especially given its ongoing use in the health sector.

Healing: When I stand before thee at the day's end

Leading on from this dementia care project, professor Matthew Hindson in his then role as the curator of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra's 'Australian Series', invited me to take inspiration from the theme of 'healing' and compose a work featuring concertmaster Kirsten Williams as soloist. The premiere would take place in March 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

I remained open to engaging with some of the technical musical methods previously explored in Monday to Friday, however my approach to this new brief differed to the extent that I would compose music which could be appreciated not only experientially, but also considered as a deeper metaphor. Through the combination of disparate sources of influence, both musical and literal, all relating to the theme of 'healing,' I would endeavour towards the creation of a thematically multi-layered work.

As a starting point, I began by envisaging the work as a kind of Paean, an ancient Greek song of praise and triumph. As well as a musical genre chanted to Apollo, Paean was the physician of the gods, who healed wounds received in battle. A more contemporary equivalent of a healing song lay in the antiphon, where a soloist and tutti exchange roles, usually in the singing of Psalms.

In searching for further creative impetus, I widened my field of reference and focused on classic texts relating to 'healing' such as Psalm 103 and its musical setting Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven (Lauda Anima by John Goss). Ultimately, however, I would go on to find significant inspiration in Rabindranath Tagore's Stray Birds, a series of 326 short poems, published in Bengali and English in 1916. Verse 290 resonated with me most profoundly and served as the basis upon which I felt a musical form could be derived:

When I stand before thee at the day's end thou shalt see
my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.

The plain and stoic beauty of this image of healing - 'at the day's end' - struck me as both archetypal and profound. Tagore encapsulates the notion that, whilst through perseverance we can be healed and reconciled, we remain indelibly marked. The poem, for me, also latently evoked imagery of an individual standing after battle, and this, in turn, poetically resonated with the image of the solo violinist standing in front of the orchestra.

In endeavouring to explore contrasting ideas of hope and suffering - as a kind of musical metaphor - the work states two distinct themes, twice in succession. The violin and string ensemble take on clearly delineated roles of soloist and accompaniment throughout in an A1B1A2B2 form. The subsequent coda gradually combines the entire ensemble in a musical ascension, symbolising a higher state of being.

The premiere of When I stand before thee at the day's end occurred on 12 March 2020, literally the day before Australia went into a lockdown on Friday 13th, with all concert halls and public gathering spaces then indefinitely closed. I was not to know it at the time, but this would be the last composition that I would have premiered in front of a live audience for the year of 2020 and for the next 13 months.

COVID-19 and Stray Birds

At the beginning of 2020, I was planning to compose a major dance work for the National College of Dance (and its soon-to-be-launched National Youth Ballet Company), set to premiere in August. I had obviously never anticipated that this entire large-scale project would be postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19. Instead, through a combination of demand and necessity, I would turn towards composing a series of solo and duo works which would readily adhere to new social distancing standards.

The first work I composed during the pandemic was All through an empty place I go, commissioned by Kingsley Gee for Arcadia Winds' flautist Kiran Phatak and bassoonist Matthew Kneale, both exceptional musicians. The intensity of this three-part single movement work - with its title taken from the opening of Countee Cullen's poem The Loss of Love - was, in essence, the product of my harnessing the unease I experienced in April 2020. The evocation of an 'empty place' in the title also seemed a most fitting allusion to the stark images of empty cities filling the news. The work begins in a seemingly pensive fashion before frenetic figures from both the flute and bassoon dynamically build for several minutes. An elegiac coda brings the work to a close.

Following on from this wind duo I turned my attention to composing a song cycle for the German baritone Birger Radde (Theatre Bremen) and pianist/conductor Rebecca Lang (Director of Music, Leuphana University of Lüneburg). In doing so I felt that in Tagore's Stray Birds, as well as finding an inspiration for concert works (with poetic titles), I had found some texts which resonated with me and may well be suitable for song settings.

Birger Radde had sung the lead role in my opera Herakleitos which premiered at the Laeiszhalle Hamburg in 2018. The libretto to my opera Herakleitos was developed from and only contained the fragments of Heraclitus himself. I sensed that in the setting of some short and fragmentary, almost haiku-like poems of Tagore, my approach to vocal composition may not be dissimilar to the opera. The songs however, would ultimately be much shorter durationally than the immersive tableaux of Herakleitos and they would also engage with the lieder tradition. In all, I selected nine verses from Stray Birds which were set across seven songs.

Stray Birds
for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) and piano

Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and
fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter
and fall there with a sigh.

Her wistful face haunts my dreams like the rain at night. (8)

What you are you do not see, what you see is your shadow. (18)

The bird wishes it were a cloud. The cloud wishes it were a bird. (35)

I have suffered and despaired and known death and I am
glad that I am in this great world.

The storm of last night has crowned this morning with
golden peace.

Love's pain sang round my life like the unplumbed sea,
and love's joy sang like birds in its flowering groves.

Lead me in the centre of thy silence to fill my heart with

Let this be my last word, that I trust in thy love. (326)

Following the completion of the song cycle, I would begin writing a series of solo instrumental works, beginning with the brooding Or, maybe, yesterday for solo violin, commissioned for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra's online miniseries and premiered by Lucy Macourt. This work was inspired by the opening lines of Albert Camus' L'Étranger: 'Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas'.

Other completed solo works from 2020 and early 2021 include an arrangement of Dance No. 2 from Klash for bass clarinet (for David Rowden), Monograph for solo trombone (commissioned by Ars Musica Australis for Jacob Gross), and Sortie for solo piano (commissioned by Linda Beaumont, composed for my own performance, and released as an EP in October 2020). Most recently I have received funding from Create NSW to compose a Sonata for solo violin for Kirsten Williams and Lucy Macourt. This work will be completed by mid-2021.

The Crossing of a Sea

In 2017, following the premiere of my Concertino for clarinet and string quartet at the Sydney Opera House by the Omega Ensemble, I met Steven Alward and his partner Mark Wakely. Steven Alward was an arts patron and champion of ethical journalism. His distinguished career at the ABC included roles as both Head of ABC Radio National, and Head of ABC International News. Steven enjoyed my Monday to Friday album and wished to commission a new work from me. In early 2018, however, Steven tragically died, and the idea of a commission was at that time virtually abandoned by me.

Sydney Harbour at sunset following the scattering of Steven Alward's ashes, 2018.

I then spent much of 2018 working in Europe, performing violin in my ballet score for a production of Le Petit Prince at the Divadlo F.X. Šaldy (Czech Republic) and overseeing the premiere of my opera Herakleitos in Germany. Upon returning to Australia later that year, I would begin a new discussion with Mark Wakely regarding the writing of a commission 'in loving memory of Steven Alward'. Mark had now established the Steven Alward Memorial Music Commission and commissioned both Gerard Brophy's We two boys together clinging and Nico Muhly's Unexpected News. My new work would become the third iteration in this series of commissions.

Mark and I spoke about Steven's life and the arts he loved so much: the swimming pool paintings of David Hockney, R.E.M.'s song Nightswimming and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (Steven's favourite book). All these works include vivid water imagery. After speaking with Mark alongside Sydney Harbour, where Steven's ashes were scattered, it seemed fitting to find a title which aligned both water imagery and the notions of an epic journey. Mark and I also agreed that a new work should explore the universal themes of love, loss and transformation, whilst maintaining a personal and evocative undertow. By the time I had completed the Stray Birds song cycle, I had begun to reflect on the potential of this commission adhering not only to the considered brief but also rounding out a triptych about 'healing' and inspired by the Stray Birds poems of Tagore.

I then resolved to integrate, for perhaps one last time, the poetry of Tagore into a new composition, which, whilst in essence about, love and the pain of loss, would also be about the capacity for the arts to transform and renew us all. The Crossing of a Sea, scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano - it would form the conclusion to a trilogy of works which I had commenced with When I stand before thee at the day's end some 18 months earlier and continued with the song cycle Stray Birds. The first movement of The Crossing of a Sea: 'The light that glows on the sea waves - Love,' takes its title from verse 229 of Stray Birds:

Our names are the light that glows on the sea waves at
night and then dies without leaving its signature.

The music metaphorically engages with the concepts of the glowing light (perhaps too the 'green light' from The Great Gatsby), along with the surging of the sea, its undertows, currents, and overwhelmingly great powers. The tonality shifts between G minor and Bb major with passages of both delicacy and turbulence.

The second movement 'Amduat - Loss', falls into 19 'parts' or variations in the fashion of a lament or passacaglia. Each musical 'part' offers a corresponding response of sorts to each of the 19 verses of Psalm 51. The movement progresses to an anguished climax with a shift from C minor to C Phrygian.

'Amduat' literally means 'in the after world' in Egyptian. The similarities between the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Psalm 51 (the basis of the Miserere) are particularly striking and form a strong reminder of ongoing inheritances and the layers of meaning in texts. For example: allusions of ritual washing with special herbs and the healing of broken bones are common to both the Egyptian 'opening of the mouth' ritual and Psalm 51.

Similarly (yet in an entirely different context), F. Scott Fitzgerald couples the concepts of fatalism and vast historical time scales via a metaphor rich in water imagery in the closing lines of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The title of the third movement 'Our different worlds - Transformation' is taken from verse 242 of Tagore's Stray Birds, as is the overall title of the work:

This life is the crossing of a sea, where we meet in the
same narrow ship.
In death we reach the shore and go to our different worlds.

Cast in Eb major, the third movement symbolises an apotheosis. Following stately chords in the piano, the darker hues and textural density of the middle movement now recede, with the recurrence of a musical refrain and an overall mood of burgeoning hopefulness. Through perseverance and supplication, the journey leads towards healing, renewal and ultimately transformation.


The writing of The Crossing of a Sea has perhaps inadvertently rounded out a nearly two-year period of composition in my own life, which had begun in mid-2019 and has ended just as we have progressed from the acute challenges of 2020 into a period of cautious openings and resumptions across most of Australia. Of course, great uncertainty remains nevertheless, and the potential for snap lockdowns is ever-present (as seen in Western Australia in April). Indeed, the global reality continues to be stark on many fronts and enormous challenges will no doubt need to be confronted for some time to come.

As I look back on all these recent works and reflect personally on the ways in which the compositions have come into being, I am, in the end, reminded that the creation of music, along with its appreciation, continually demands composing, interpreting, performing and perhaps most importantly, listening, in order to fully realise the artform's extraordinary expressive potential. A good deal of trust and respect amongst creative collaborators and practitioners is then also essential.

In this spirit I am most grateful to flautist Laila Engle and the Melbourne-based Syzygy Ensemble for programming the premiere of The Crossing of a Sea at the Melbourne Recital Centre in June 2021 - in what would have been Steven Alward's 60th birthday year. Finally, a very special thank you to the commissioner Mark Wakely. [Note - premiere is being rescheduled to take place in 2022 due to COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne.]

> Cyrus Meurant - AMC profile. See also: https://cyrusmeurant.com/

Cyrus Meurant studied composition and violin at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards, Matthew Hindson and Richard Meale. He continued his study at the Conservatoire de Paris with Frédéric Durieux, and at the Royal Academy of Music, London, on a Churchill Fellowship. Cyrus’s critically acclaimed work spans theatre, dance, concert hall and the health sector, including music for the Australian Ballet, Divadlo F.X. Šaldy (Czech Republic), Theatre Basel (Switzerland), the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Signal (USA), NIDA, Orchestra Victoria, Momentum Ensemble, Inventi Ensemble, Omega Ensemble... More


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