Elliott Gyger Fly Away Peter (2015)

with a libretto by Pierce Wilcox, based on the novel by David Malouf

Mitchell Riley (Jim Saddler), Jessica Aszodi (Imogen Harcourt), Brenton Spiteri (Ashley Crowther)

Sydney Chamber Opera

Jack Symonds (conductor)

Elizabeth Gadsby (sets, costumes)

Imara Savage (director)

Melbourne Festival
The State Theatre
October 21, 2015

Australia followed Great Britain into the First World War on 4 August 1914. The declaration of war was met in Sydney and Melbourne, as elsewhere, with dancing in the streets. This was not necessarily a naïve response. Australia was then—as it is now—a migrant nation and the memories of the two Boer Wars and Australia’s own Colonial Wars were fresh in the national memory. Instead of a blind rush into battle, Australia’s enthusiasm for war sprang from a desire to demonstrate the bravery of Australian soldiers on the global stage.  This enthusiasm would be tested in 1916 on the beaches of Gallipoli, where thousands of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers died under British command in one of the most futile campaigns of the First World War. As countless historians and journalists have solemnly intoned since, the Australian deaths under British command made Australians wary of their imperial commanders and forged a new sense of national identity, even a new Australian subjectivity. But “bravely dying uselessly” is a difficult foundation myth to celebrate and its cognitive dissonance is hotly debated each year on 25 April, the anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. The debate has reached fever pitch over the past year and a half as Australia has commemorated the centenary of the start of the First World War. But a subject is not a cohesive thing and, like a family at Christmas, it is only appropriate that ANZAC Day should spill the nation’s contradictions out on the living room floor.

Australian artistic responses to the First World War are largely reflections upon this troubled birth. Each year thousands of Australian secondary school students read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, a 1982 novel that has at its core the War’s unprecedented fracturing of bodies, minds, and landscapes. The happy-go-lucky larrikin Clancy is torn apart close to half-way through the novel. The protagonist Jim Saddler rests to take tea after loading supplies for the trenches. Clancy approaches carrying a billy and mugs. Suddenly Jim is covered in blood and Clancy is nowhere to be seen. Clancy had been struck by a “minnie,” one of the German Minenwerfer or trench mortars that bombarded the Western Front. The traumatic event separates the optimism of Jim’s bird-watching days in Australia from his hardened military career in the trenches. On the surface, the novel is rife with such clear thematic binaries (as any Australian secondary school student will tell you): earth and sky, birds and biplanes, natural and human timescales, life and death. But surreal fragmentation, disorientation, and dismemberment pervade the novel from one end to the other. The novel’s emblem is not the songbird, but the minnie that irreconcilably explodes the novel’s harmonious elements.

Brenton Spiteri & Mitchell Riley

Brenton Spiteri & Mitchell Riley

How David Malouf’s writing met Elliott Gyger’s music for Sydney Chamber Opera’s recent production of Fly Away Peter is not a story of explosion, but rather elective affinities, of sympathetic elements drawn together. Joel Brennan, the University of Melbourne’s trumpet lecturer, encouraged Gyger to write a companion piece to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale that used the same instrumentation (clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, double bass, plus a couple of extra colors added by Gyger) but with Australian subject matter. Sydney Chamber Opera and Gyger were also in discussions about a new opera and it just so happens that David Malouf is a keen supporter of the organization. Malouf is himself a veteran of Australian opera, having written libretti some years ago for Richard Meale’s operas Voss (based on the novel by Patrick White) and Mer de glace (combining fragments of Frankenstein and events taken from the real lives of the Shelleys and Byron). Fly Away Peter’s surreal style immediately appealed to Gyger. To Gyger, writing for Resonate Magazine, surrealism is an essential prerequisite for “the wonderful absurdities of the operatic medium.” Instead of engaging Malouf to produce a libretto, however, Gyger worked with the SCO’s creative associate Pierce Wilcox to fashion a viable stage adaptation from the novel.

Wilcox’s libretto is set out in three columns, one for each of the principal voices, which were performed in the SCO production by Mitchell Riley (baritone), Jessica Aszodi (mezzo-soprano), and Brenton Spiteri (tenor). In this way Wilcox reflects the fragmented subjectivity of the novel’s central trio. Each character is gifted their own distinct faculty of knowing the world around them. The landowner Ashley Crowther is a musician who reverts to tuneless singing when at a loss for words; Imogen Harcourt the nature photographer captures the world in images; while Jim has a unique gift for the names of birds. Like the three wise monkeys of Japanese mythology, they are the three innocent monkeys who have not yet heard, seen, or spoken evil. Only the omniscient narrative voice has access to all three faculties of hearing, seeing, and naming. The distributed subjectivity of the trio prefigures Jim’s psychoanalytic observation, made while drenched in Clancy’s blood—though in the detached voice of the narrator—: “The body’s wholeness, it seemed to him, was an image a man carried in his head.” Fly Away Peter shows how the trauma of war reveals the imperfect and multifaceted knowledge we have of ourselves and our environments.

Did Gyger adapt his music to Malouf’s novel, or did the novel find a fortuitous partner in Gyger’s expressively prickly style? Gyger’s response to the libretto was a complicated synthesis of existing techniques and deeply apt responses to the novel’s structure. Though Gyger was inspired by the novel’s surrealism, his compositional process shows him just as much attracted to the way Malouf carefully presents binaries before exploding them.

Gyger’s preoccupation with balance and fragmentation can be found in the opera’s precompositional material. Gyger crafted a grid of twenty-one five-note chords. When composing, Gyger would trace an errant path through the grid, moving between neighboring chords as the drama required. Looking over the sketches, Gyger explained that five-note chords were chosen because they are “big enough for interesting complexity and avoidance of tonal pull, but small enough for intelligibility.”

Twenty-one-chord grid for Fly Away Peter with some common tones and inversional relationships marked. Image courtesy of the composer

Twenty-one-chord grid for Fly Away Peter with some common tones and inversional relationships marked. Image courtesy of the composer

Taking his cue from the novel’s binary of earth and air, each chord is mirrored by another, inversionally-symmetrical chord (that is, one that has been “flipped” vertically). One chord is not mirrored: the central chord, which is inversionally symmetrical around its central pitch, D. Read from right to left, the grid’s pitch profile moves from the highest registers of the ensemble to the lowest, just as the characters move from halcyon Australia to the earthy mud of the battlefield. My immediate impression when hearing that Gyger had used a “landscape-like grid of pitches” was a slight internal groan. Representing the (generally flat) Australian landscape is a cliché of Australian composition. Seeing the grid, however, I understood that Gyger’s landscape is less a panorama than a bird’s-eye view of the world as Jim sees when he is taken up in a light aircraft. The grid may also resemble a battlefield with the inversionally-symmetrical chords forming opposing networks of mine holes and trenches.

As well as being inversionally symmetrical, the chords are linked to each other through common pitches. The pitches written in hollow note heads in the chart above do not appear anywhere else in the grid. Each chord contains one such unique pitch, while the remaining four are common with the chords above, below, and to the left and right. As is indicated by the arrows in the top-left-hand corner, the common tones wrap around the edges of the grid.

Gyger’s manner of working with grids shows a steady progression from his previous works, in particular the non-register-specific five-note sets of Gyger’s 2014 saxophone concerto Smoke and Mirrors. The fixed registration of Fly Away Peter may seem an unnecessary limitation, but it was imposed precisely because it was enabling. “In the process of writing the first scene,” explains Gyger, “it became clear that I needed something more conceptually rigorous and sonically spacious.” The effect is indeed spacious, with each instrument and voice rejoicing in the transparent texture. The opera opens with gorgeous birdsong transcribed for the violin of James Wannan. Moments later Jim is taken on a terrifying ride in a biplane painted with little more than a gentle drum roll. The music perfectly suits Jim and Ashley’s carefree optimism as they plot a refuge for migratory birds (referred to as “refugees” by the Imogen) on Ashley’s estate.

Fifteen-note sets formed by configuring the first grid in a triangular lattice. Image courtesy of the composer

Fifteen-note sets formed by configuring the first grid in a triangular lattice. Image courtesy of the composer

As the story progresses, the characters become enmired in the battlefield. The actors are covered in eighteen buckets of white clay. This simple staging by Elizabeth Gadsby is both schematic and affecting. The blue buckets are the opera’s only props. Their varied placement around the five-tiered white stage is an art installation in itself. They begin in asymmetrical patterns, but finish ranged in rows like tombstones.

As the performers are covered in the thick mud, Gyger thickens his grid. Like Clancy mid-way through the novel or the map of Flanders Fields, the symmetrical grid is “turned inside out” by Gyger’s musical minnie. Gyger rearranges the twenty-one five-note sets in a triangular lattice and takes three adjacent chords at a time. This results in sixty-six possible fifteen-note chords. Instead of adjacent chords, Gyger forms his triangles out of chords that are distant from one another on his original grid. This way he is ensured a broader distribution of pitches from different registers.

Throughout the grueling fourth scene of the opera, The War, the three vocalists repeat the words “It will go ever on” in between graphic descriptions of trench warfare. Even this phrase is exploded, presented in a jumbled form with missing and repeated words each time. The coloring of the notes in the above score indicate their origin in Gyger’s grid.

Elliott Gyger, Fly Away Peter, scene 4, bars 1-4

Elliott Gyger, Fly Away Peter, scene 4, bars 1-4

Gyger has chosen the triangle c1-d3-e1 to provide most of the pitches for this opening. As in all of the harmonic fields used in this part of the opera, the chords are neither symmetrical, nor do they share common tones. This triangle wraps around the top of the grid, surrounding the symmetrical central chord of the grid. The red notes in the tenor and double bass, however, cannot be found in this principal chord. Instead, they are found in chords a3 and g1, which are strikingly placed at the far edges of the grid. These two chords are inversionally symmetrical, and a cursory glance at the above score shows that symmetry is an important part of this moment. The bassoon plays in contrary motion to the trumpet (this was Gyger’s first opportunity to compose for bassoon in a small ensemble and it is thoroughly exploited throughout). The violin line is also in contrary motion to the double bass. It is almost as if the laws of symmetry that have so far governed the opera are being challenged by the new chaos of the thicker orchestral texture. Or perhaps there is another reason. C♯ and F♯ feature prominently in the tenor, mezzo-soprano, and double bass. The only pitches from outside the above chord groups are the As from above and below the treble clef found in the tenor’s part and in the violin filigree at the end of the opening, giving just a whiff of an F♯ minor triad.

The exploded and thickened grid evokes war’s effect on bodies. It also evokes war’s effect on the mind and the new understanding of human subjectivity to which the trauma of war gave rise. It is only fitting then that Gyger should represent the ANZAC soldiers within his grid. As can be seen in the sketch above, Gyger associates each soldier a particular five-note chord. This gives an aural identity to the figures that flash across the stage in the first half of the opera. In the second half their deaths are described, sung to the same recognizable five-note chords.

Color code corresponding to scene 4, bars 1-4

Color code corresponding to scene 4, bars 1-4

Gyger’s Fly Away Peter is one of the most important artistic responses to the First World War in its centenary. The opera reveals the ephemerality of a nation’s map with all the conflicting emotion and detachment of Saddler as he stands covered in Clancy’s blood. One might say that the First World War made Australians aware that “the nation’s wholeness was an image a nation carried in its head”—to play on Jim’s battlefield reflection—a fact that the nation still grapples with a century later.


Note: Since publication Gyger has pointed out to the author that the double bass and tenor lines are in fact within the central chord group because of their octave transpositions—a rookie mistake! This just goes to show, so the author notes, that one should not be seduced by apparent symmetries and that an analysis always needs some breathing space prior to publication.


Matthew Lorenzon is a musicologist and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Matthew edits the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Arts and is the founder of the Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School. He recently graduated from the Australian National University with a Ph.D. in Musicology.