clarinet (also bass clarinet), percussion (also celesta), off-stage percussion (2 players), harp and string quartet
Commissioned by the Kowmung Music Festival
First performance by Kowmung Music Festival Ensemble conducted by the composer, Abercrombie Caves, NSW, March 1999
Andrew Ford: Icarus drowning (1998)
for clarinet (also bass clarinet), percussion (also celesta), off-stage percussion (2 players), harp and string quartet
Although I never intended to compose a cycle of pieces based on the myth of Icarus, I now see that I began it in 1984 with Like Icarus ascending for solo violin. In 1988 came Chamber Concerto No. 3: In constant flight for solo violin and ensemble, a reworking of that solo piece, and the following year, the music–theatre piece, Parabola. At this point, I still wasn’t thinking of the works as a cycle, but when the Australian-born, New York-based violinist Rohan Smith asked me to composed a piece for his music festival in central New South Wales the penny finally dropped.
The Kowmung Music Festival happens at the end of summer (late March) in the Bathurst region, a few hours drive west of Sydney. It is notable for arranging musical events in unlikely, though acoustically advantageous, venues such as cattle sheds. The concert featuring my new piece was to be in Abercrombie Caves, an imposing limestone cave system with a small wooden stage dating back to the gold rush of the late 1800s. The miners had used the caves as a social club; the stage was for dancing. Thinking about the subterranean concert and about Rohan Smith (who had given the American premiere of Like Icarus ascending and performed the chamber concerto a number of times), I finally began to conceive the idea of a group of pieces with the new work as the final instalment. At the end of Parabola, Icarus, his ambitious flight thwarted by the heat of the sun, has hit the water with a splash. Icarus drowning, then, begins with that splash, following the boy’s slow drift downwards. As he drowns, his life flashes before him in the form of fragments from the earlier pieces.
Icarus drowning is an astonishingly hypnotic piece, the high tessitura of the strings melded to the high strains of the clarinet, the harp echoing Grecian antiquity, the whole suspending the mind in thought; a brilliant performance of a brilliant piece.
David Alker, Musical Opinion [London]
Icarus drowning, most strikingly of all, takes Brueghel's painting 'The Fall of Icarus' as a starting point (in which all that can be seen of him are his two feet disappearing into the water) and in music of extreme slowness and growing intensity charts his descent through the water, recalling his ascent and flight as it does so. The poetic coda, with distant gongs and bells, was suggested by the site of first performance . . . and sounds both final—it refers back to the opening of the violin piece [Like Icarus ascending]—and like a tolling lament. It is the most impressive piece in the [Icarus] cycle.
Michael Oliver, Gramophone
This piece for nine instrumentalists begins, the composer points out, with the musical splash that ends the instrumental contribution to Parabola. Its character suggests a slowed-down version of Icarus's death, his mind recalling glimpses of his life in the form of brief quotations from earlier Icarus pieces. This is eloquently luminous instrumental writing for Peter Jenkin's clarinet (and bass clarinet), Alice Giles's harp, as well as a string quartet and three percussionists. The final gasps of the bass clarinet signal the end of the slow ballet as Icarus's body drifts and twists within oceanic tides. The tolling end of the piece is a memorable use of musical space.
Roger Covell, Sydney Morning Herald