First performance by Dene Olding (violin), Sir John Clancy Auditorium, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 28 October 1984
A number of my pieces have multi-referential, extra-musical dimensions to them. Like Icarus ascending is one of these. The title itself comes from a Joni Mitchell song ‘Amelia’ addressed to Amelia Earhardt, the long distance pilot who disappeared in 1928 off the north-east coast of Australia. Since Like Icarus asecending is scored for solo violin, there is also a punning reference in the title to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (and, perhaps, another to T.S. Eliot’s ‘dove descending’ from ‘Little Gidding’). The Icarus myth itself, clearly, is another source of reference, and particularly the large number of works of art it has inspired. Of these, Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and Auden’s marvellous poem about that painting (‘Musée des Beaux Arts’) are the most important. The idea that life continues as normal, even though the boy is plunging to his death in the painting’s background, is especially striking.
For all this, the music describes no fall; in my piece, Icarus continues his ascent, drifting off into the stratosphere, becoming invisible and inaudible. But has he avoided disaster? If, to us, he seems to be gliding effortlessly, it could just be that we are too far away to realise he has lost control and will not be returning (‘Ground Control to Major Tom . . .’).
This web of allusions, of course, is merely a catalyst for the process of composition – a structure of ideas from which the music ‘takes off’. Icarus, after all, is merely a piece for solo violin. I hope it can function on that level alone.
Like Icarus ascending was first performed at the University of New South Wales by Dene Olding in October 1984.
The solo violin traces the soaring arc of Icarus's progress until it is lost in the heights of rarefied silence, perhaps at the point where the aviator has disappeared from mortal sight.
Roger Covell, Sydney Morning Herald