Composer Lyle Chan reveals the startling effect of Sydney siege on the creation of his new orchestral work.
Untitled (Dec 2014) was begun as a ‘party piece’ for orchestra. When the Queensland Symphony Orchestra asked if I had a piece to contribute to its new music initiative, Current, I wanted to give them a fun, glittering showpiece. I wrote about 3 minutes of high- energy frolicking, almost mischievous music before, out of nowhere, came the Sydney hostage crisis.
I tried to ignore it but got absorbed into watching it unfold on TV. Martin Place is a 10-min walk from my home across Woolloomooloo Bay and I’m there a few times a week. That day I rescheduled my meetings in the area because it was out of bounds, surrounded by police, but my friends who worked inside the cordoned area were not allowed to leave, which distressed them because of speculations a bomb could go off at any time. I went to bed that night with no further information and woke early the next morning to news of the saved and the killed. I walked to Martin Place that morning and saw the start of the floral tributes. As I visited over the next days it grew into a brilliant sea of flowers. I think tragedies that happen just before Christmas have a sad resonance. In particular I thought of Tori Johnson’s partner and family’s first Christmas without him.
Security was at its utmost during those days, and people who brought flowers had to join a slow-moving line waiting their turn to enter the cordoned area. It looked like a river of people bearing bouquets to be dropped into the vast floral sea. This music came to me as I watched and knew that this crisis is a challenge to us, for us to find a way to trust and love people whom we label ‘strangers’ or even ‘strange’. As a composer I feel my job is to release beauty into the world – or actually, to remind the world that it is beautiful, and good, because we often forget, especially when faced with the opposite. As long as we wait until a tragedy falls to show compassion, there will always be tragedy. We must reach the point where we make seas of flowers when the world is peaceful and full of love.
The completed work is a truthful reflection of the writing process. It begins with the ‘party piece’ music I composed before the siege, but then it is interrupted by music that is a radiant ebbing and flowing, much like that river of people. It gives way to a quotation of an ancient music that surprised me when it appeared, but then I understood: the forlorn passacaglia of Heinrich Biber, about a guardian angel leading a child to heaven. Even as the angel goes about its duty, all the birds of the earth cry in protest; a soul is leaving us too soon. The birds are deafening.
Untitled (Dec 2014) for Orchestra will be premiered May 15 by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and conductor Alondra de la Parra as part of the QSO’s new music initiative Current.