The Drowning Dream
One still morning in 1902, on a beach just south of Fremantle, a man rode his horse into the motionless waters of the Indian Ocean, dismounted and turned to face the rising sun. His body, gunshot wound to the mouth, was discovered shortly after, floating at the shoreline. That man was C.Y. O’Connor, Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia and driving force behind three great Western Australian feats of engineering – Fremantle Harbour, Mundaring Weir and the Goldfields Pipeline. The Drowning Dream is a response to the circumstances of C.Y. O’Connor’s life and death – from exacting control via paralysing anxiety to a final, submerged calm.
The work’s scoring is dominated by metal percussion instruments – vibraphone, 9 pieces of resonant metal and 3 tubular bells are supplemented with 6 pieces of resonant wood, a drum and a luminescent bowl of water. The resonance of his three great feats of engineering is reflected both in the groupings of instruments (and their metal-piped timbres) and also in the pitch collections, tone rows, rhythmic figurations and structures of the work. During the latter stages, tubular bells, each rigged independently, are slowly raised and lowered into water troughs, creating glissandi of evocative beauty. To control these, the performer must manipulate ropes hooked to his arms, creating puppet-like illusions and intimating at forces beyond his control. The real tragedy of C.Y. O’Connor’s plight lies in that image – a remarkably gifted man driven to death by his masters (both politicians and members of the press gallery) – people who only shared their glowing respect for him publically once he had taken his own life.
The melodic material is dominated by a tone row made entirely of the 5th and the semitone with a secondary descending semitone figuration dominating the latter section. The tension between semitone and 5th, between compression and stasis never fully resolves, imbuing the work with a constant sense of unease and disquiet. Texturally, the work contains huge contrasts between moments of woozy, quiet solitude and frenetic, dense madness. It is in arch form, ending as it begins, with a quiet evocation of the beach – the recapitulation, however, alluding to the presence of a fresh ghost from that summer dawn over a century ago.
The Drowning Dream requires 3 troughs of water. The first of these is actively played by the performer and can be a bowl or trough of any size, the larger the better. The second and third sit on the floor at either end of the vibraphone and serve as troughs for the A and B tubular bells to be lowered into.
These two chimes should be suspended on frames, each with a silent pulley at the top, and a hook at the other end of the rope
This hook, at the indicated moment, should be placed through rings attached to the perfomer’s elbows. The effect should be one of an over-sized marionette. . The E tubular bell should be on a third fame in front of the vibraphone – it, however requires no water or pulley or hook.
The nine resonant metal objects and six resonant wooden objects are at the performer’s discretion. A set of tuned circular saws was used in the premiere, however, any resonant objects will do. All attempts to make groups of three from the nine would be appreciated.
“In the darkened courtyard of the former asylum a man twists like a tortured marionette, his arms attached by ropes to tubular bells suspended above bowls of water, long wooden sticks protruding from his hands like extended claws.
The special thing about this year’s Soft Soft Loud series of outdoor chamber concerts in the inner courtyard of the Fremantle Arts Centre is that each of the four concerts features a specially commissioned work by WA-born Melbourne-based composer Iain Grandage.
For this second concert in the series, Sticks and Tones, Grandage composed Drowning Dream, which according to his program note is “a response to the circumstances of CY O’Connor’s life and death – from exacting control via paralysing anxiety to a final, submerged calm”.
Both Grandage and the great-grandson of the ill-fated engineer whose pipeline brought water to the Goldfields were present at this well-attended world-premiere performance by WA percussionist Paul Tanner.
It’s a wonderful work, musically and visually arresting, with the percuss- ionist called upon to wrest from a vibraphone, pieces of metal and wood, tubular bells, a drum and a bowl of water myriad sounds that variously argue and coalesce in luminous sonic skeins.
For his part, Tanner brought a visceral drama to even the most delicate passages, his theatrical flair also extending to the dance-like aspects of the work as he simultaneously wielded his sticks while raising and lowering tubular bells into water via ropes attached to his arms.”
William Yeoman, The West Australian. March 21, 2011