Iain Grandage: Dances with devils

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Portrait of Iain Grandage outside a window
Iain Grandage, Australian composer (Image: Jessica Wyld)
Iain Grandage is one of Australia’s most highly regarded collaborative artists.

Iain is the Artistic Director of the Perth Festival 2020–2024, and has been celebrated for bringing a sweeping sense of place to the Festivals he has curated, with a strong commitment to Noongar artists and stories standing alongside events of scale like Highway to Hell.

Iain has won Helpmann Awards for his compositions for theatre (Cloudstreet, Secret River), for dance (When Time Stops), for opera – with Kate Miller-Heidke (The Rabbits), for silent film – with Rahayu Supanggah (Setan Jawa) and as a music director for Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl and Secret River

Iain has been music director for large-scale events for the Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide Festivals over the last two decades and has an extensive track record of collaboration with Indigenous artists across the country.

Iain has an honorary Doctorate from the University of Western Australia.

Iain Grandage
Dances with devils: Concerto for percussion and orchestra

The Chosen Vessel
The Conquering Bush
The Drover’s Wife
Lola Montez

The Australian Bush – that great mythic landscape – has always held a particular grasp on the psyche of white Australians. It is the great unknown – beyond the realms of our control, and source of many subliminal fears. Indigenous Australians are more than aware of the power and mystery held within the earth, but those are not my stories to tell or my songs to sing. This work is instead a response to a series of short stories that reside within the Australian Gothic literary tradition of the nineteenth century, a tradition where the tropes of the old world – ghosts, spectres, haunted houses and mythological beasts, were transposed and transformed into events and situations that had particular resonance with the Australian colonial experience.

The opening movement of Dances with devils revolves around Barbara Baynton’s Chosen Vessel. This concise masterwork tells of the terror of a young woman one twilight, who is dreading the return of a swagman to her isolated hut. On hearing a passing horse, she mistakes it for a saviour. However, the passing rider is a young religious man who mistakes her for a ghost in her flowing nightgown, with her cries of ‘For Christ’s sake’, and refuses to stop. She falls victim to the lurking swagman.

The movement features the marimba and is dominated by triplet rhythms redolent of horse hooves. The second movement is a subdued sarabande, based on Edward Dyson’s Conquering Bush, a story in which a woman, unable to cope with the searing, incessant noise of the birds around her bush home chooses a drowning death for her and her child instead. It features a series of instruments being transformed in pitch and timbre by water.

The third movement is a traditional scherzo, launching from a moment within Henry Lawson’s famous story The Drover’s Wife where the principal female character dreams of a different life, far from the bush. This is juxtaposed with harsher sections that reflect the reality of her current situation – namely staying awake all night in a bush hut, awaiting a snake’s reappearance.

The final movement provides a moment of hope amongst the Gothic landscape. It is a tarantella inspired by Lola Montez, whose famed Spider Dance was the talk of the goldfields when she toured Australia in the 1850s.

I am indebted to Claire Edwardes for all she has brought to this collaboration. Claire’s energy, virtuosity and musical competence redresses the seemingly impossible imbalance between
a solitary soloist and the massed forces of a symphony orchestra that is inherent within the concerto format. She stands strong against that conquering noise and casts doubt and darkness aside. I love her for it.

© Iain Grandage, 2015

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