Aboard a Lightship with Archie Binns

Grove Koger

Today’s post from the project I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with a once-famous novel by Archie (Fred) Binns, who died June 28, 1971.

□□□

Lightship. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934

Archie Binns’ maternal grandfather commanded the blockade runner SS Atlantic during the Civil War, and his mother was born aboard the same ship. Thus it could not have been a surprise when the young man signed on with the Umatilla Reef Lightship, anchored off Washington State’s Cape Flattery, in 1917. Although Binns went on to enlist in the army in 1918, he subsequently spent six more years at sea. His appropriately titled first novel, The Maiden Voyage, was written with noted nautical authority Felix Riesenberg, but it was with Lightship that he came into his own.

Maritime Studies Program, Williams College & Mystic Seaport

Lightships function as lighthouses in positions unsuited to permanent structures. The subject of Binns’ book is Lightship 167, an old vessel anchored a few miles off a dangerous coastal reef on the Northwest coast. Like their ship, most of the crewmembers have seen better days, and wait out their time in a kind of dreary limbo. Binns recounts their somber life-stories and desultory conversations, and puts them to the ultimate test when a furious storm breaks the ship’s anchor chain.

Postcard, Umatilla Reef Lightship, early twentieth century

One of Binns’ characters muses that “the world was like a ship,” but most readers will reverse the simile, sensing that Lightship 167 is like the world and that its ultimate fate, like that of the world itself, is uncertain. Although virtually forgotten today, Lightship was hailed as the best sea novel of its time, and proved so popular that its self-contained second chapter was published separately in an illustrated edition as Backwater Voyage in 1936.

Lightship lantern gallery, c.1913, U.S. Coast Guard

If you’d like to know more about Binns, see Bert Bender, Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Greed, Passion & Deceit in the Tropics

Illustration by Kari Brownlie, photograph by Magali Moreau

Grove Koger

Although he studied law and worked for a dozen years as a lawyer, Miguel Sousa Tavares has made his name as a writer, particularly for the 2003 novel Equator, which became a best seller in Portugal and won the Times Literary Supplement / Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation prize for translation (in this case, by Peter Bush) in 2010.

Portrait of Tavares on canvas by Bottelho

Now an independent nation, the small African islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are part of the Cameroon line, a chain of volcanic peaks that stretches southwestward toward the equator from the mainland nation of Cameroon. They were uninhabited until discovered toward the end of the fifteenth century by Portuguese explorers, who anticipated that they would be handy posts for trading with the mainland. Over time, they also proved to be ideal for growing sugar cane and, beginning  in the early nineteenth century, coffee and cacao. Aside from fertile soil, these crops also required slave labor—and there lies the crux of the issue that Tavares explores.

Equator follows the experiences of newly appointed governor Luís Bernardo Valença, a well-meaning businessman who accepts the position from King Dom Carlos in late 1905 almost on a whim. Aside from his other duties, his job will be to convince newly appointed British consul David Jameson that slavery, which both Britain and Portugal have officially abolished, doesn’t exist on the islands. Since it certainly does exist, in the guise of “contract labor” involving workers forcibly “recruited” from the mainland, the job will be a challenging one. But if Valença doesn’t succeed, the British firm of Cadbury Brothers will boycott the islands’ cocoa beans, a step that would be a serious blow to the colony’s—and Portugal’s— tenuous economy.

Cameroon line, reproduced courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the moral dilemma that Valença faces, he finds himself involved with Jameson and Jameson’s beautiful wife, Ann—a knot of relationships that he finds himself unable to untangle.

Although Equator is fiction and Luís Bernardo Valença never existed, Equator is based closely on fact. Reporting for Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1905 and 1906, English journalist Henry Nevinson revealed how Africans from another of Portugal’s colonies, Angola, were taken from their homes to work on São Tomé, where conditions were so dreadful that twenty percent of them died each year. Nevinson’s account was subsequently published as A Modern Slavery. After further investigations, Cadbury finally stopped buying cocoa beans from São Tomé and Príncipe in 1909.

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Off the Beaten Track and onto the Canvas

Joseph Kleitsch, Drug Store (detail), c.1925

Grove Koger

One of the high points of my writing life was my association with Art Patron Magazine, which began publication in Laguna Beach, California. Today’s post is an abridged review I wrote for the magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.

□□□

Art Colony: The Laguna Beach Art Association, 1918-1935. Laguna Art Museum, 2018

It was a little more than a century ago that a group of artists and art enthusiasts formed the Laguna Beach Art Association—an anniversary that the Laguna Art Museum celebrated with an ambitious exhibition that ran from late June 2018 to early 2019. The museum labeled “Art Colony: The Laguna Beach Art Association, 1918-1935” a “tremendous milestone” in the history of the association, and indeed it was, with more than 100 works by 66 artists on display. For those who want a permanent record of the event, the museum published a sumptuously illustrated catalog as well.

Art Colony runs to 264 oversize pages and includes 200 illustrations as well as two substantial essays and an 11-page chronology tracing the relationship between Laguna and its myriad artists. Taken together, the pieces blend social history, travelogue and criticism in a detailed but lively manner, recounting the story of the association itself while analyzing the community’s transformation into a mecca for creative spirits.

Courtesy Laguna Beach Historical Society

Painters may have been at work in Laguna Beach as early as 1889, but we know that it was around 1900 that British architect and watercolorist Norman St Clair first realized the location’s artistic possibilities. It was a place, as someone told his wife, “off the beaten track,” where the trees grew down to the shoreline and the scenery was beautiful. We can’t be sure, but the watercolor Rippling Tide that the artist exhibited in the San Francisco Art Association’s 1904 exhibition may have been the result of the visit that St. Clair and his wife subsequently made.

Within a surprisingly short time, other artists followed, including William Wendt, Elmer Wachtel, Granville Redmond, Anna Hills and Edgar Payne. It was this last painter who spearheaded the establishment in 1918 of a community gallery in a pavilion next to the Laguna Beach Hotel. The effort led naturally enough to the creation of an association, one that welcomed both artists and their supporters. By the 1925-26 season, membership had skyrocketed to an astonishing 700 individuals.

Guy Rose, San Gabriel Road, c.1914

As the Laguna Art Museum’s Executive Director Malcolm Warner notes in his Foreword, the exhibition and its accompanying catalog put the lie to the widespread assumption that the association encouraged artists to work in “only one style—landscapes and seascapes in the tradition of the French Impressionist painters.” The later illustrations in the catalog certainly prove Warner’s point—particularly those from the 1930s by such painters as Anna Skeele, Paul Sample and Conrad Buff.

The Laguna Art Museum calls Art Colony “the first large-scale, critical study to focus exclusively on the art association’s growth and development.” For anyone interested in Laguna or its artistic history, it’s a must-buy. But will it change that widespread assumption that Warner refers to? After all, its dust jacket reproduces a detail from Joseph Kleitsch’s beloved Drug Store, a painting from about 1925 that fits comfortably within the California Impressionist style then common.

William Wendt, Old Coast Road, 1916

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Monsieur Freyssinet at the Wheel

Grove Koger

June 8 is the anniversary of the death of French engineer Eugène Freyssinet (1879-1962), celebrated in professional circles for his use of prestressed concrete but remembered in others for having proposed a wildly, wildly impractical project.  

You’ll find ample information about Freyssinet’s career online, and it’s impressive. Among other accomplishments, he designed five bridges over the Marne River in the late 1940s, a runway at the Paris-Orly Airport, and, near the end of his life, the elegant Gladesville Bridge over the Parramatta River in New South Wales, Australia.

Freyssinet in the uniform of the École Polytechnique. Wikimedia Commons

Along with these successful projects, however, Freyssinet also submitted a truly fantastic design to the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, otherwise known as the Paris Exposition or Paris World Fair. It was for what he called the Phare du Monde, or “Lighthouse of the World”—a structure towering some 2,300 feet above the ground that was to have been the centerpiece of the exposition. (By comparison, the Eiffel Tower is a mere 1,083 feet tall.) The Phare would have been built out of concrete, naturally, and would have been ascended by way of a spiral ramp with 30 revolutions that would have taken daring drivers to a parking garage at the 1,640-foot level. That facility would have held some 400 (or was it 500?) cars, and above it would have been a restaurant (seating 2,000 diners!), a hotel, a beacon, and, at the very, very top, a “meteorological cabin.” If you didn’t care to drive, you could apparently take an elevator, or a series of them, to the restaurant—a prospect that leaves me feeling only slightly less uneasy.

Modern Mechanix July 1933

Speaking of the Eiffel Tower, it was that iconic structure that another engineer, André Basdevant, believed could be improved by allowing access by automobile. If you missed it, you can see my post about him and his ideas here.

In any case, did Freyssinet intend for his proposal to be taken seriously? Or could it have been his way of acknowledging the ever-increasing importance of the automobile in contemporary society? Needless to say, the Phare didn’t get off the ground, but, as you see, contemporary representations of it have survived. To my way of thinking, they speak for themselves.

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Sax Rohmer, Egyptomania & the Imperial Gothic

1927 Pearson edition

Grove Koger

June 1 is the anniversary of the death of Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959), who wrote a number of once-popular novels and stories under the pseudonym Sax Rohmer. His most famous series involved Fu Manchu, a Chinese doctor engaged in a never-ending struggle against Western imperialism. But Rohmer also wrote several works set in Egypt or dealing with devious (and sometimes supernatural) Egyptian designs on England and its institutions.

Rohmer can be seen as a late entry in a category that literary critics have identified as Imperial Gothic. In the words of Suzanne Daly, the category involves “late 19th-century fiction set in the British Empire that employs and adapts elements drawn from Gothic novels such as a gloomy, forbidding atmosphere; brutal, tyrannical men; spectacular forms of violence or punishment; and the presence of the occult or the supernatural.” Among other examples, Daly refers to H. Rider Haggard’s famous 1887 novel She and Bram Stoker’s influential 1897 horror classic Dracula.

Daly also mentions an astonishingly bad 1897 novel set in London and Egypt that few will have heard of—The Beetle, by Richard Marsh. I once tried to read it but abandoned the effort halfway through, as it’s written in a breathless, hysterical style that suggests that its author would have profited from the attentions of a psychologist. Slightly better are several other examples of Imperial Gothic with an Egyptian flavor, including Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1899). Here an “undead” Egyptian priest intones an ominous warning: “Ah, my nineteenth-century friend, your father stole me from the land of my birth, and from the resting-place the gods decreed for me; but beware, for retribution is pursuing you, and is even now close upon your heels.” That’s pretty good, but on the whole, Boothby writes suffocatingly padded prose. Another little-known novel that belongs here is Stoker’s own Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), which I actually finished a few months ago, scarcely believing that the author of the intensely dramatic Dracula could have produced such a static narrative.

These three deservedly forgotten novels capitalize on a recurring fascination with things Egyptian on the part of Britons. This Egyptomania, as it’s been called, washed ashore in several substantial waves. One followed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869—an event that established a lifeline between Britain and the “jewel” in its imperial crown, India. Paradoxically enough, however, the event led in turn to a wave of anxiety over the very vulnerability of that lifeline, one centered on the “mysterious” land through which the Canal passed. Another wave of Egyptomania followed the 1922 discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Lantern slide of Meidum from the Brooklyn Museum Archive, in the public domain in the United States

Having surveyed the obvious contenders, I think I’m safe in saying that Rohmer’s works involving Egypt constitute the late high point of Egyptomanial Imperial Gothic. His characterization was seldom more than facile and his actual knowledge of the country seems to have been haphazard, but he was fascinated by Egypt and visited it several times, on the first occasion with his bride in 1913. The couple made the acquaintance of Egyptologist Rex Engelbach, who in turn helped them inspect the burial chamber of the step pyramid of Meidum. The Rohmers also visited a number of better-known sites, including Luxor and the Great Pyramid.

My 1966 Pyramid edition with a cover by J. Lombardero

The best of Rohmer’s Egyptian works is the 1918 novel Brood of the Witch Queen. Here a reincarnation of an immortal being, the Witch Queen of the title, has taken up residence in the heart of London. Thwarting him are “tall, thin Scotsman” Robert Cairn, who undergoes what his father, a learned doctor, refers to as a “saturnalia of horror” involving a clutch of carrion-eating Dermestes beetles (Dermestidae spp.) taken from the skull of a mummy. The ordeal results in Robert’s heading to—wouldn’t you know it!—Cairo for a “rest-cure.” As it turns out, however, a “thing very evil,” as a fortune teller puts it, has entered the city before him. In Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media (Paladin, 1977), Les Daniels praised Brood, noting that “Rohmer’s occult lore was never as well employed as in this tale … and he never equalled the claustrophobic chills of the scenes in the bowels of a pyramid.” David Huckvale described the novel as “gloriously lurid” in his study Ancient Egypt in the Popular Imagination (McFarland, 2012).

Other works by Rohmer that can be considered in this category include the collection Tales of Secret Egypt (1918); The Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931), which deals with the apparent death of a distinguished archaeologist at the Tomb of the Black Ape in the Valley of the Kings; and The Bat Flies Low (1935), which involves an ancient Egyptian lamp that functions without any obvious source of energy—an artifact based on “knowledge for which the world is not yet ready.” How Rohmer must have grinned when he wrote that phrase!

The only substantial biography of Rohmer is Master of Villainy, by Cay Van Ash and Rohmer’s widow, Elizabeth Sax Rohmer (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972). Although not reliable, it has a personal significance for me, as my first wife and I had stopped over in Bowling Green to visit an aunt and uncle of mine on our way to Europe. Thus I was able to buy a copy in the university bookstore shortly after it was published. More authoritative but less fun is Lord of Strange Deaths (Strange Attractor, 2015) a collection of essays edited by Phil Baker and Antony Clayton.

Painting of “Fu Manchu” orchid (Phragmipedium) by Jo Fisher Roberts

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Memories of Mahón

Grove Koger

News that someone we know is spending his sabbatical in Mahón (or Maó in Catalan) has reminded us of our first experiences there in 1998.  

We had traveled aboard a Trasmediterránea ferry from Mallorca to Menorca in late June, and while our visit lasted nearly a week, one of our most memorable experiences came the first day, as our ferry sailed slowly into port. Lying at the eastern end of the island, Mahón’s harbor (part of which you can see in this webcam) is nearly four miles long, and provides travelers with several reminders of Britain’s occupation of the island, which lasted, with two interruptions, for most of the eighteenth century.  

The first reminder is the squat Torre de Felipet (which you see in Maggie’s photograph above), which was built by the English in 1798 or -99 on the site of an older structure on Illa del Llatzeret, or Lazareto Island, near the entrance to the harbor. The island itself is named for the quarantine station that the Spanish began building in 1793, although they weren’t able to complete it until after the final British occupation of 1798-1802. Once opened, it remained in operation until 1917—seven years after the construction of the Sant Jorge Canal had transformed Llatzeret from a peninsula into a real island.

Another island (which you see below) is Illa del Rei, or King’s, where the British built a hospital in 1711. Its use as a medical facility and, from time to time, as a warehouse continued into the twentieth century. Like Lazareto, King’s is now officially an historical monument, and in 1993 also became a biosphere reserve, as it’s the only place in the world where a subspecies of Lilford’s wall lizard, Podarcis lilfordi balearica, lives. (Another subspecies is found off the coast of Mallorca on Sa Dragonera, which I wrote about in my post for March 11, 2019.) To top things off, the redesigned hospital became the site of an avant-garde art gallery, Hauser & Wirth Menorca, last year. The gallery prides itself on being environmentally friendly, and architect Luis Laplace even designed homes for the lizards beneath the benches that have been scattered around the grounds.

Aside from Mahon’s spectacularly long harbor itself, the port’s most striking feature is the steep ridge (seen in the photograph at the top of today’s post) that towers over the harbor’s southern bank. It’s there that the port’s historical center lies, accessible from the quay by a twisting roadway, the Costa de ses Voltes, as well as a tricky series of stairs apparently once known to hapless English sailors as the “Pigtail Steps.”

A short walk from the base of those steps along the picturesque quay is another reminder of England’s near-century presence, the Xoriguer (sho-ri-GAIR) distillery. As I mentioned in my post for November 4, 2018, the Menorcans learned to distill and enjoy gin during the occupation (a fact that may account in part for the haplessness of those sailors), although Xoriguer itself dates from 1910.

Maggie and I stayed in a modest posada near the center, and, as it turned out, our room opened onto a large terrace offering views out over the quiet little city. It was here, having negotiated the Pigtail Steps after busy days harborside, that we spent our evenings enjoying the placid atmosphere of old Mahón. We had been surprised to realize that we were sharing our quarters with several geckos (which we’ve since learned were probably the Moorish variety, Tarentola mauritanica), but as they kept to the ceiling and the walls and we kept to the floor, we all got along perfectly well.

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

With Boswell & Johnson in the Hebrides

Grove Koger

As I expand and update When the Going Was Good, I’m posting revised entries from the first edition. Today’s deals with a delightful travel account by James Boswell (1740-1795), 9th Laird of Auchinleck.

□□□

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D (London: Charles Dilly, 1785)

James Boswell was a descendant of Robert Bruce and James II, yet his pride in being a Scotsman was tempered by a strong desire to cut an elegant figure in English society. He studied law at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but left the latter for a short visit to London in 1760, anxious to sample the great city’s low life and make a name for himself in its literary circles. At this time he met a number of distinguished figures, although his introduction to famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson did not occur until his second sojourn in 1762.

Johnson was, admits Boswell, “particularly prejudiced against the Scots,” but agreed after a long campaign on Boswell’s part to visit his friend’s homeland. Johnson joined Boswell in Edinburgh in mid-August 1773, and the two set off together a few days later on a journey that would tax the aging and corpulent Englishman. They traveled by coach up the east coast of Scotland and down the west coast, visiting the Inner Hebridean Islands of Skye, Coll, and Mull. The undeveloped country’s roads were few, its weather stormy, and its seas dangerous (although Johnson’s seasickness generally blinded him to the peril). Boswell and Johnson concluded their trip in late November, with the great man declaring himself well satisfied with what he had seen.    

Boswell’s account of the tour is based upon a section of the journal he had kept since youth. The work is urbane and mellifluous, concerned not so much with sights—which Boswell treats peremptorily—as with individuals and conversations. As its title suggests, it is also an account of Johnson himself, an immensely learned, opinionated, sharp-tongued figure who published a more conventional account of the same trip in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Boswell would devote another, more fully developed and more famous work to his friend in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791).

If you’d like to read more of the very readable Boswell, see: An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island; and the Memoirs of Pascal Paoli (1768); London Journal, 1762–1763 (1950); Boswell in Holland, 1763–1764 (1952); Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764 (1953); and Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765–1766 (1955).

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Camilo José Cela, Entomologist

Grove Koger

The Hive is a difficult book to write about. Camilo José Cela’s naturalistic 1951 novel of Madrid (La colmena in Spanish) isn’t violent, but it’s certainly unpleasant. And much of the unpleasantness, for me at least, stems from Cela’s detached attitude toward his characters. Is his detachment clinical? Disgusted? Ironic? Bemused? There are, it’s true, occasional notes of something like compassion: “None of us ever understand with full clarity what it is that happens to us.”

Whatever else, The Hive is a busy book, as its title suggests. According to Cela (THAY luh) himself, his novel deals directly with 160 characters over the course of a few short days in Madrid during World War II. In a note accompanying the first edition, his publisher Emecé observed that there were actually 346 characters in all—296 of whom were imaginary. For the most part, their lives revolve around money, food, sex, and gossip. We follow them, or note their passage now and then down Madrid’s streets, or catch a glimpse of them in the city’s alleyways, through more than two hundred brief episodes arranged in six chapters and a short “Finale” that takes place a few days later.

Much of the book’s action is set in Doña Rosa’s café. “For Doña Rosa her café is the world, and everything else revolves around the café.” What she likes “is simply to drag her great bulk about between the tables.” She may smile at her customers, but “at heart” she loathes them. A handful of them are reasonably well-to-do, but most are poor, and for many, a cup of “white coffee” or a glass of anís represents an important part of their day’s nourishment. If they care to smoke, they call over the cigarette boy to buy a single cigarette or a packet of tobacco.

Newspapers are sometimes passed around Doñ Rosa’s café, leading one character to comment scornfully: “I can’t see why they want to find out about everything that’s going on.” But “Doña Rosa herself is worried about the fate of the German armies. “Every day she studies the communiqué from Hitler’s headquarters and associates, through a series of vague forebodings she dare not try to see clearly, the fate of the Wehrmacht with the fate of her café.” But that’s about all we hear of the conflict.

Of the larger world, the characters are ignorant. In one brief episode we learn that a young woman is known familiarly as the “Uruguayan” because “she comes from Buenos Aires.” Buenos Aires is, of course, in Argentina.

Ironically enough, Cela fought with Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, meaning that the Madrid he presents in The Hive is, to some extent, the product of Franco’s ruinous campaign. In another irony, Cela worked as a government censor during the war, but was forced by his own government’s censors to publish La Colmena abroad, in Argentina. Despite those external contradictions, his unsparing literary honesty won him the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature. “Life is like a game of tennis,” the cynical writer remarked of the award, “and this time I have won.”

□□□

The image at the top of today’s post is the delightfully garish cover of my 1954 Signet Giant paperback. The photograph of Cela shows him as an apparently angry young man, while the image at the bottom is the cover of the first edition.

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Edo Murtić Looks Out to Sea

Grove Koger

Today is the anniversary of the birth of painter Edo Murtić (EH doh MUR dik) who was born May 4, 1921, in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia. Within a few years, the young man’s family moved to Zagreb (now the capital of Croatia), where he studied in the city’s Art Academy. Then, during World War II, he fought with Josip Tito’s Communist partisans against the invading Germans.

One of the key events in modern Yugoslav history was Tito’s break with Russian dictator Joseph Stalin after the war—a move that also signaled a break with Russia’s official (and stultifying) Socialist Realist artistic style and opened Yugoslavia to more progressive artistic influences. In Murtić’s case, it led the artist to the discovery of Abstract Expressionism. He met leading American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning thanks to a Fulbright grant on a visit to New York City in the early 1950s, and in 1958 became the first Croatian artist to exhibit in the renowned Venice Biennale, largely on the basis of his abstract paintings. That same year, he also participated in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and, the following year, in documenta (as it styles itself) in Kassel, Germany.

Murtić’s abstract canvases are routinely praised as “lyrical,” but, with few exceptions, I don’t find them so. The artist seldom seems satisfied with his first bold painterly gestures, and what look like snarls (as Maggie succinctly describes them) of second and third thoughts drain off whatever energy might have been present initially. I prefer his simple watercolor landscapes, particularly those that he painted on the rocky Adriatic coast of Croatia in the early 1980s. It was small reproductions of several of these that my first wife and I bought in 1984 on the island of Hvar. Here, Murtić’s first quick impressions are his last, and they’re all the more satisfying for it.

□□□

The watercolor at the top of today’s post is Kornati, Summer on the Adriatic, Yugoslavia (1981), and the second is Skoljić, Summer on the Adriatic, Yugoslavia (1982). The Kornati Archipelago lies off the coast of central Croatia, and Skoljić (also known as Gelavac) is an islet in the Zadar Archipelago, northwest of the Kornatis. The photograph of Murtić shows him as a young man.

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!

Peter Sculthorpe & the Cry of the Earth

Grove Koger

April 29 is the anniversary of the birth of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died in 2014.

I wasn’t familiar with Sculthorpe’s name until I began researching the music of an Australian composer of an earlier generation, John Antill, and his rousing composition Corroboree. That famous work recreates the experience of an Aboriginal dance ceremony and incorporates an Aboriginal instrument, the bullroarer.

Like Antill, Sculthorpe was inspired by the indigenous life and music of his country. I’m still learning more about his works, but the ones that have moved me the most make use of the didgeridoo, routinely described as being our planet’s oldest wind instrument. Categorized by musicologists as an aerophone (a category that includes such seemingly unlike instruments as the accordion and the flute), a didgeridoo is basically the limb of a tree that’s been hollowed out by termites before being trimmed and further hollowed by hand. Examples range from 3 to 9 feet in length, and when blown with vibrating lips, produce deep, resonant, haunting tones. To me, they’re the aural equivalent of handfuls of cool, rich soil.

Didgeridoos are usually constructed from eucalyptus limbs, although bamboo or pandanus is sometimes used. The term itself isn’t Aboriginal but was applied to the instrument by non-Aboriginal writers trying to imitate the instrument’s sound. There are nearly four dozen authentic regional names, ranging from artawirr to yiraka.

But whatever we call the instrument, it features prominently in several of Sculthorpe’s works, especially the extraordinary Earth Cry, which you can watch the Australian Youth Orchestra perform in a 2013 video with Christoph Eschenbach conducting and William Barton playing the didgeridoo. That’s Sculthorpe himself you see walking to the front of the stage amid enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance.

The piece “owes a debt,” as Sculthorpe put it, “to a setting of Aboriginal poetry, The Song of Tailitnama,” that he completed in 1976. He called Earth Cry itself a “straightforward and melodious work,” and explained that “we need to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as the Aborigines have done for many thousands of years.”

You’ll find plenty of information about Sculthorpe online, and he’s the subject of several books as well, including Graeme Skinner’s Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of a Composer (University of New South Wales Press, 2007).

□□□

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share!