Hysterical Penguins

In the 1980’s I wrote one of my very few pieces that does not include a guitar. Hysterical Penguins is a work in the form of my Song and Dances, that is to say, a slower movement followed in this case, by some outlandishly rapido hysterics.

Hysterical Penguins was premiered at the Sydney Opera House by Christine Draeger, the great Australian virtuoso and over time I have had the pleasure of seeing the great American Violinist, Jack Glatzer and the Principal Flautist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra perform Hysterical Penguins in some quite plush settings.

Hysterical Penguins has been included in the Australian AMEB Diploma Exam Syllabus and I quite often receive emails from young flautists who are brave enough to tackle what is really a quite difficult piece. Here is an example and I hope my responses may shed light on the origins and intentions of this work.

Gabby writes:

“I understand you dedicated this piece to Christine Draeger, and I was wondering if you have a personal relationship with her, or if this was perhaps a commissioned piece specifically for her?”

During the 1980’s I worked as a classical guitarist in a Flute/Violin, Guitar, Cello Trio known as the Bennelong Players. The trio was a function band really, but we did do some radio and television appearances. As a member of that trio I had the opportunity to perform with some of the most outstanding Flautists of that time including Rosamund Plummer and Christine Draeger. Christine and I formed a duo we rather pompously called Serata Musicale and performed and recorded quite extensively around Australia. Some of our recordings are available on YouTube. At one time during our association, Christine asked me to write a Flute solo. I thought this was a good idea and set to work. Christine was working with what was known then as The Seymour Group, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of uber modern classical music, and as a result of this and some incredibly hard practice she had become an incredible virtuoso able to cope with even the most difficult dots. In fact I’m sure she could actually sight read flies on a wall. In these circumstances I really had to stretch myself and come up with something that challenged Christine and the Flute. 

“What inspired you to compose this piece? When I play Beastie, I envision a sea lion watching a penguin planning its attack, followed by a big chase (??) Are you trying to tell a similar story here or am I completely off? I feel that the two movements work well together to provide a comical response and portrays the penguin’s ‘hysteria’ very effectively!”

I was having an exceedingly difficult time coming up with a title for this piece. In a conversation with Christine, I told her about these difficulties and asked what she thought, and she said in that fay, far off way she has; “birds” with a suitably Australian elevated terminus. The music I had sketched so far had no relationship to that colourful and romantic idea of birds we might imagine and eventually my imagination settled on the idea of penguins. Well they are birds aren’t they?! The music for the first movement was ominous and the second movement is quite flighty. I think at this point a documentary by David Attenborough comes to mind where some Orcas, or Killer Whales are stalking a colony of Penguins so yes, in the first movement there is trouble in the shape of the Beastie and the second movement is the fleeing of Hysterical Penguins.

“Who or what are you influenced by when you compose?”

Well, in this situation the parameters were Christine’s awesome technique, the musical environment of the time which is to say a snobby modernistic environment (try writing a tune in that environment!) After that I can only say in the words of Neil Young, “I follow the music, man.”Do your compositions represent current events or experiences in your life?

Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. I have been composing for some 50 years now and it’s always different because I’m always going for something different.

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