Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reconsidering Lilburn

Apropos (oh, how I do love that word!) of a couple of posts back, the Elegy by Lilburn is available on SOUNZ for purchase. There's an LP version, and a cassette. Two different recordings: one is called Canzona: music for strings and voices, and the other is called, NZ Flora Series, Vol 2. Both have a mixed bag of other stuff on them, but the Lilburn in each case seems to be the same performance by Patricia Lawrey and Anthea Moller (mezzo-sopranos) and the Schola Musica.
I briefly debated buying the cassette (for NZ$19) - the LP isn't available for purchase or hire - but thought, Do I really want to buy something that I already don't have good vibes about? Nope, not at the moment.

Anyone who reads this blog frequently - as I do - will think I've got a snitch against Lilburn. I'll just state my case again, in case I haven't stated it clearly previously.
I think Lilburn, like some pioneer NZ painters, has got an overrated reputation. Being a pioneer, in the sense that he was probably the first NZ composer to make a name for himself as a [serious] composer rather than as a teacher or other academic, he has a place in NZ musical history. Regrettably, his music isn't on a par with his place in history; there are a few pieces worthy of attention, but somehow his status as a pioneer has managed to hoist up his compositions beyond their value. I wait for the day when we've got over the big deal of his pioneering effort, and have started to assess him against other NZ composers - of whom there are now a sufficient number to place him on the scale of worth.
I'm not saying we should throw out everything he wrote, but only that much of his work, while characteristic of him particularly, isn't terribly inspired - or inspiring. He seems to rely on movement without melody, movement without much harmonic interest, so that the ear constantly hears a limited range. He reminds me of Delius, one of the all-time great wafflers in composition. Let's keep Delius for the particular voice that he gave to the world, but let's not lay at his feet any great claims to him being startlingly original, or even inspirational to listen to. Delius is the great delineator of vagueness, and on that basis he has a certain standing. Lilburn seems to me to have taken a path of limitation: using as little material as possible, but not necessarily doing anything very exciting with it.
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