Anne Boyd (b. 1946) is one of Australia’s most distinguished and best-loved composers. Much of her rich and varied output is spiritual and meditative in nature and draws heavily on East-Asian musical traditions, especially those of Japan and Indonesia.
“…at the rising of the sun…” (2001)
The 10-minute orchestral work is titled after a passage in the gospel of Mark in I King James Bible. The passage describes the journey of the three women on Easter morning to Christ’s tomb, and their discovery that it is empty. It was recently performed in July 2022 by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martin for their mid-season Gala.
Boyd’s music evokes their dawning consciousness of the fact of the Resurrection, coming to terms with a new spiritual and mystical reality. The piece opens with a lustrous brass fanfare before moving into more ruminative territory with slowly shifting chords in the strings. A reworking of Boyd’s 1970 choral work As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, it is dedicated to Boyd’s mentor and friend Peter Sculthorpe.
The piece, Boyd writes, is “a meditation and a prayer.” She continues,
Essentially it is about tuning – of ourselves to each other and to the natural world. The sun is perceived cosmologically as a symbol for the Son of God and for the coming of light, of life (both natural and spiritual) and of knowledge. Philosophically the music is based upon the intersection of Christian Love with Buddhist silence, a concept which lies at the heart of my creative activity.
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A 10-minute work for 12 or more singers divided into three groups, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams is among Boyd’s most distinctive works. Boyd’s piece evokes the religious and spiritual culture of eleventh-century Japan. Its title is taken from Lady Sarashina’s accounts of three dreams, from which the text for the piece’s three sections is drawn; in it the ‘magic’ names of various Buddhas are phonetically transcribed and hidden inside its slow-moving choral textures, with the three SATB groupings converging and drifting apart at different points in the piece. In the final dream the six-foot Amida appears, radiating golden light with hands outstretched – it is on this image of salvation that the work concludes.
Boyd’s textures evoke the shō, the Japanese mouth-organ whose slow-moving chords provide a background sonority to the ancient gagaku music of the Japanese court; her harmonies are drawn from a whole-tone scale with some chromatic embellishment, and her progressions from one chord to the next evoke a gently-unfolding stillness. In 2002 Boyd created a version of the piece for 13 strings, with a single double bass set apart from the ensemble.
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams was premiered in 1975 by the John Alldis Singers. In recent years it has received performances from the Netherlands Chamber Choir, BBC Singers, Latvian Radio Choir, and Sydney Chamber Choir. It has been recorded several times, including by the Kammerchor Stuttgart, The Contemporary Singers, and Ars Nova Copenhagen under Paul Hillier; watch musica intima’s 2023 film of the piece here.
View a perusal score here
Bencharong is a 15-minute work for an ensemble of 12 strings, commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Festival Strings of Lucerne and Rudolf Baumgartner, premiering as part of an Australian tour in 1977. Its title refers to a traditional type of Thai pottery, which translates literally as ‘five colours’, whose style is characterised by repetition of flowing motifs around the centre of a bowl and tense, monochromatic lines around rim, base and central panel – graceful, refined, and quiet.
This shapes the first part of the work’s mood, which knits together different groups of strings; a violently-contrasting second part of the piece though, however, found its emotional motivation in Boyd’s response to the violent events of the 1976 coup d'état in Thailand, which saw her appalled by the brutal treatment of young left-wing students and activists. In this way the piece identifies the tensions that underlie that poised ceramic work Boyd so admired.
See a perusal score here.