Commissioned for the Brodsky Quartet by Julian Burnside AO QC.
First performance by the Brodsky Quartet and William Barton (didgeridoo), Canberra International Music Festival, Fitters' Workshop, Canberra, 30 April 2023
In the spring and summer of 2019–20, southeastern Australia endured horrific bushfires. They began earlier than usual, lasted for weeks – in some cases months – and affected much of New South Wales and Victoria, as well as parts of Queensland and South Australia. The small town where I live in the NSW Southern Highlands, though threatened, escaped the fires, but when my family returned following an evacuation in early January 2020, we found a place that was eerily still and shrouded in fog and smoke. About the only movement was specks of ash gently falling from the sky. The ending of this single movement string quartet was inspired by that experience.
The title Eden Ablaze refers to the town of Eden on the far south coast of NSW, which was not as lucky as our town, but I also intended it as a metaphor for the Gondwana rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland, which burnt in 2019 for the first time ever. Eucalyptus forests are supposed to burn from time to time – it’s how they regenerate – but subtropical rainforests are not. The Gondwana rainforests are a living link with the vegetation of Gondwanaland in the Jurassic age, 180 million years ago. In late 2019, approximately half these forests were burnt. It felt oddly like a loss of innocence, though in truth is was probably more serious than that.
At the start of Handel’s opera Xerxes, King Xerxes I of Persia sings his famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ in praise of the shade of trees. This is also the start of my seventh string quartet.
String Quartet No 7: Eden Ablaze was commissioned for the Brodsky Quartet and William Barton by Julian Burnside AO QC. It was composed in January and February 2020.
The stage was red-lit, evoking those grim days of flames and sulphurous skies. The piece begins with a didgeridoo prelude, played by Barton. The strings play “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s opera Serse, the Persian king’s aria to a plane tree, grateful for its shade. Slowed down here, it becomes a dirge, an astringent countermelody flickering through Handel’s tune . . .
The music becomes increasingly rough and discordant: pizzicato string plucking, jagged phrases, and fluttering descending figures over a sustained high note almost at the edge of hearing.
The didgeridoo returns at the end as a ghostly presence, puffs and wisps of wind grow in intensity, then the music fades out, quietly. It is a sombre piece, and a moving reflection on loss.
Nick Fuller, Limelight
This was a painterly piece of music that evoked the aftermath of the bushfires more than their raging actuality, with both the trembling strings and the didgeridoo suggesting ash falling to the ground . . .
Helen Musa, City News