The Shape of the Earth

for male voice, piano and electronics (45′)

text by Pierce Wilcox



premiered 1 September 2018 at Resonant Bodies Festival, Carriageworks Sydney by Mitchell Riley (voice), Jack Symonds (piano), Benjamin Carey (electronics), Alexander Berlage (direction and design)

My new staged song cycle takes as its inspiration Patrick White’s iconic novel Voss and reimagines it completely. Pierce Wilcox and I were concerned not to emulate the epic, heroic tone of the novel (already a Grand Opera by Richard Meale), but rather interrogate its ideas in 21 quizzical miniature songs, reflecting shards of a complex, broken persona. This Voss is an idealist thrown into a world he longs to understand, yet remains always out of reach. The five parts of this work trace a journey from comic disbelief to flayed loneliness, with White’s indelible creation hovering just in the background.

To make this kind of work in Australia in 2018 requires a loving scepticism of the idea of Romantic, European ambition and an unflinching desire to try to understand how it became a dominant force in 19th and 20th century culture.

photo: Zan Wimberley

Climbing Toward Midnight

CLIMBING TOWARD MIDNIGHT (2012) (70 minutes)


Chamber opera after Parsifal in three acts

first performances by Sydney Chamber Opera, April 15- 20, Parade Theatres, Sydney

The Australian review

Sydney Morning Herald review

Bachtrack review

Link to Showreel

Kundry (soprano): Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon
Kundry (dancer): Maya Gavish
Parsifal: Mitchell Riley
Director: Netta Yashchin
Set/Costume Design: Jessica O’Neill
Lighting Design: Ross Graham
Ensemble: James Wannan, Mee Na Lojewski, Peter Smith, Jack Symonds

2013 is the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth, and Australian composer Jack Symonds, in collaboration with Sydney Chamber Opera, wrote a new stage work taking arguably Wagner’s most controversial opera, Parsifal, as its basis.

Parsifal itself has only been fully staged once in Australia (Adelaide, 2001) and is perhaps somewhat of a mysterious entity to many Australian audiences. The transcendent qualities of Wagner’s music are primarily what has kept this work at the pinnacle of the international operatic repertoire though its reception is still problematic. Its highly personal presentation of Christian morality and seemingly obsessive focus on blood purity have sometimes been received with suspicion, bordering on revulsion ever since its premiere in 1882.

The new work aims to focus instead on the relationship between its two central characters, Parsifal and Kundry, who partake in an extraordinary and original love scene in the second act of Wagner’s opera.

The text for the new work is drawn largely from Wagner’s own in Act II of Parsifal, and is shorn of references to other characters in the drama, or directly to Christianity. As such, the focus is drastically altered to become a modern parable of obsession, desperation and twisted redemption in an aborted romantic relationship between two ill-matched people.

Fragments from poetry by the great German Expressionist poet Georg Trakl are woven into the Wagner to highlight the alienated and forward-looking qualities of Wagner’s conception of Parsifal and Kundry’s relationship. Sullied redemption, guilt, sacrilege and sexual transgression are dealt with in strikingly similar ways by both Wagner and Trakl. The title- Climbing Toward Midnight- is drawn from the latter.

This new work is not an arrangement or pastiche of Wagner’s music. Rather, it is a re-imagining of Wagnerian processes and practices for the twenty-first century, as well as a reinterpretation of the modernist leanings of his words. Symonds’ immediately previous stage work, Nunc dimittis (premiered November 2011) similarly re-imagined the musical implications of a particularly existential Bach cantata to critical acclaim.

The piece is scored for just two singers and four instruments (piano, viola, cello and bass clarinet- a ‘dark’ Quartet for the End of Time) and aims for an intimacy and intensity to throw new light on the difficult and strangely modern relationship between Kundry and Parsifal. Its 70 minutes divide Wagner’s text into three acts focussing on Parsifal’s guilt, Kundry’s tortured past and Parsifal’s rejection of Kundry respectively.

The Expressionist miniature form is developed into heightened connective tissue through which Wagner’s monumental, symphonic conception of music drama and the concerns of the intervening 130 years of music can meet and combine to explore the terrifying implications of this single tragic relationship.

Nunc Dimittis

dramatic scena for baritone, viola and four instruments (28 minutes)

first performances by Sydney Chamber Opera
20- 26th November, 2011 at the Parade Playhouse, NIDA, Sydney



Aria 1 ‘I’ve had enough’

Dream of an imaginary self-crucifixion

Aria 2 ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind’

Mitchell Riley- baritone, James Wannan- viola. Sydney Chamber Opera Orchestra conducted by Huw Belling


The words Nunc dimittis are the Latin name of a canticle from a text in the second chapter of Luke named after its first words, meaning ‘Now dismiss…’ In thinking of a work to pair with and ‘continue’ Bach’s “Ich habe genug” (1727), I thought that it could be dramatically potent to set the same text as Bach, coming to very different musical and expressive conclusions. All of Bach’s text is used, and there are several lines from T.S. Eliot’s “A Canticle for Simeon” spliced in. Eliot’s 1928 poem- coming almost exactly two hundred years after Bach- is a deeply ambiguous, personal refraction of the Christian text of the actual ‘Nunc dimittis’, which itself is the direct source material for the (anonymous) poetry of “Ich habe genug”.

Knowing Nunc dimittis was to be performed after Ich habe genug, it was important for me to attempt to capture the spiritual ambit of Bach and take it on a new course without altogether negating it. It would have been easy indeed to be some sort of ‘anti-Bach’ and write a sarcastic, damning parody of it, but I personally don’t find this very interesting. What is much harder, and much more rewarding, is finding a musical language that allows various expressive and some technical aspects of Bach to appear transformed, not negated, by the cultural experience of the intervening centuries.

More and more, I see the three arias of the Bach as three very different ways of looking at the problem of the interface between life and death in the presence of religion. I don’t find that Bach’s ending is in any way a resolution of the text’s difficulties, which makes it even more tantalising. The furious dance alternating religious ecstasy and terror is really quite ambivalent in the most powerful sense, and it is from there that I wanted to find some way of ‘releasing’ all of the conflicting modes of thought in the Bach into a piece which can absorb their disparity and function with what unities they do possess.

The form of the piece divides Bach’s and Eliot’s texts into two large arias with obbligato viola (in contrast two Bach’s three arias separated by recitatives) around a central ‘Dream’ for the baritone and string quartet meditating on the words ‘I’ve had enough’. In the first aria, the precipice of death is reached in an unsteady acceleration towards the terrifying, then potentially consoling, idea of eternal sleep. The contrasts are violent, the rhetoric caught in a constant tension between uncertainty, acceptance and resignation. After the ‘dream’, the second Aria is unreal, half-lit and mysterious, attempting to find common points of language and even resolution of all the musical and textual difficulties of the first Aria in single long lines. I imagine here a state of consciousness beyond the very ‘human’ passions of the first Aria, which hopes to create, as if in a waking dream, a realisation of the death-of -life and the living- in -death.



Notes from Underground

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (2010, rev. 2015- 2016)
chamber opera after the novel by Dostoevsky (90 minutes)

Libretto by Pierce Wilcox


performances of revised version by Sydney Chamber Opera
13- 20 August 2016, Carriageworks, Sydney

performances of original version by Sydney Chamber Opera
17 -23 February
2011, Cellblock Theatre, Sydney

Broadcast on ABC Classic FM, available as a podcast in two instalments:

Part One

Part Two

The Novel
Notes from Underground, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky early in his career in 1864, is presented as the handwritten notes of an unnamed man who has abandoned the world and fled to a symbolic Underground. In the first of two fragments, ‘Underground’, the Underground Man, age forty, presents his rambling, digressive and misanthropic account of the state of humanity. In the second fragment, ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’, the Man records a memory from twenty years earlier that has been oppressing his mind.

In ‘Underground’, a tirade riddled with contradictions and dogged by self-loathing, the Man delivers a rage-filled critique of utopian idealism, morality and consciousness itself. The recollections of ‘Wet Snow’ satirise a different world of thought: the romantic idealism of literature. Fiction tells us that men can be heroes, the fallen can be redeemed, and love can conquer all. The Underground Man shows us the failure of these dreams.

The Adaptation
Anyone but the most daring Dada-ist would typically read Notes from Underground from start to finish. This adaptation was built to use the live stage to its fullest and present the novel’s two halves simultaneously. The Underground Man’s diatribe no longer tumbles ‘from empty into void’. Instead, it is anchored to the unfolding action of his Aboveground self. His existential manifesto becomes a bitter commentary.

The libretto’s structure identifies resonances across the novel’s two sections- moments where the paralysed reflections of Underground and frustrated energy of Aboveground can balance each other, illuminate or undermine each other’s beliefs. Having the two onstage together allows the work an equilibrium between talk and action; one alone is no story worth telling.

Liza is the novel’s only female presence, and her encounter with Aboveground is the centrepiece of the ‘Wet Snow’ story. She is a character born of another genre, the sentimental narrative of the rescued prostitute, and so she has only text not drawn from Dostoevsky. In Scene 4 she sings a poem by N.A. Nekrasov from 1845 which Dostoevsky quotes as the epigraph to ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow.’

The fact that the Man’s ideals have to be decimated and shown to be hollow is something the music very consciously renders ‘operatically’: through means both literal and metaphorical, the music annihilates its own language. In general, the musical and temporal separation of the ‘Aboveground’ and ‘Underground’ versions of the Man gradually closes throughout the piece, until a union of material and purpose is attempted in the final scene.

Though the seven scenes are distinct in their construction, there are a large number of unifying musical elements representing character, character development and ideas. The stylistic means to achieve this are wide-ranging: there are just as many passages of (idiosyncratic) tonality as there are of quartertonal harmony. ‘Symphonic’ development in opera is a contentious structural issue, but one which is perhaps necessitated by the iron-clad logic of the ‘Underground’ Man’s arguments- hence such musico-dramatic conceits as the strict Sonata form that shapes Scene Six. Tonally, compassionately yet dialectically it forces the Man and Liza apart. The concept of etiolated ideals is, however, the locus of the piece and the one against which an arsenal of ‘negative’ developmental techniques is deployed. The ’emergence’ out of language for both the Man and Liza is particularly important in understanding the interpretation of Dostoevsky that the piece ends up underlining: that our self-hope and self-destruction are held in a perilous balance by a fractured set of ideals.

“A striking and impressive new operatic voice”

Sydney Morning Herald

“thoughtful, compelling music drama, powerfully staged and finely sung…deserves to be taken up at international level”


“a deeply compelling, finely composed, written, directed, designed and performed work”

RealTime Arts

notesfromunderground-0529notesfromunderground-0641Photography: Zan Wimberley



Song Cycle

SONG CYCLE (2010-11)
for viola and piano

first performed June 20th 2011, St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Sydney
by James Wannan and Jack Symonds


IV. Liebeslied für Schumann

V. Chanson d’amour pour Fauré


This piece is a détente with Romanticism; a way of dealing with and assimilating favourite songs both German and French that seem to invite re-composition and re-examination through the medium of instrumental song. Each of its nine movements takes a different path through this process- the progression of the processes and thematic treatment being the ‘cyclical’ element rather than any narrative meta-structure.

It is dedicated to James Wannan with the greatest thanks and admiration.

Time Unredeemed

for female voice and piano

first performed at The Judith Wright Project, Sydney Conservatorium of Music 21st September 2010
by Anna Yun and Jack Symonds

AUDIO (complete)


The four songs of this cycle each represent a ‘glimpse’ of the four long poems that make up T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. In choosing the fragments, I have tried to trace a drastically shortened, synecdochical path through the poet’s masterwork from his vision of terrifying endlessness in Burnt Norton through to the purgatorial fires of possible redemption in Little Gidding.

In the first song, Eliot’s Augustinian conception of the unity of past, present and future finds a musical counterpart in the three layers of palindromic piano writing, each moving at different speeds and with different ‘characters’. The vocal line acts as a cantus firmus to many of the melodic figures, finding and sustaining single pitches or ides like an anchor in the slipstream of polyrhythms. The second song deals with the loneliness at the heart of an individual’s sense of time and begins with a long, winding fugue as spacious as the first song was compact. The entrance of the voice breaks the cycling of the fugal texture and forces the piano to conflate its previous linear melodies into a series of thick, soft chords. This process is repeated for three stanzas, with the fugue interpolations becoming extremely compressed and the vocal line ever more passionate before the song freezes over once more, quietly waiting for the end. The third song is a hellish vision of the cacophony of time’s decay with violent piano textures and fevered exhortations from the voice throwing up material from the previous songs to be decimated. The central section of this ternary song sees rigid patterns gradually become floridly animated into the final crazed, ecstatic ‘prayer’. The final song is a slow procession of many of the main ideas from the previous songs, each melting into silence underneath the implacable rising scales of the voice’s tentative hope for redemption.

The cycle is dedicated to its first interpreter, Anna Yun, whose amazing range, expressive capabilities and virtuosity meant I could write whatever I wanted.

Text © Faber & Faber