Eclipse was commissioned by the Cologne Philharmonie and was premiered by the Auryn Quartet in December 2003. It is in one uninterrupted movement comprising three clearly distinguishable sections.
The title refers not specifically to the astronomical significance of the word eclipse, but carries over into other usages of the word, especially in the sense of being overshadowed or surpassed. The piece draws its inspiration from several Australian writers, notably Tom Keneally’s book The Tyrant’s Novel, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s political analysis Dark Victory and the work of cartoonist and author Michael Leunig, and was written as a personal response to the political and social consequences of the Tampa crisis which unfolded in the Indian Ocean in the August of 2001 and which was the focus of both Australian and international attention for several weeks.
The Tampa crisis resulted through a showdown between the Australian federal government’s increasingly hardline stance against boat people arriving illegally in Australian waters and the humanitarian resolve of a Norwegian sea captain, Arne Rinnan, whose actions as captain of the freighter, the Tampa, saved the lives of hundreds of refugees when their boat was in trouble in the treacherous waters between Indonesia and Australia. In the ensuing diplomatic and political tussle in which Australian authorities steadfastly refused to give ground, defied the United Nations and openly lied about the character and behavior of those on board. The boat people themselves were increasingly demonised as undesirable illegals and queue jumpers. In this way I felt that their very humanity and the enormity of their own personal struggles and fates were entirely eclipsed by the power games of a bigger political agenda. To further add to this sense of indignity, such compassionate sentiments, when expressed publicly, have been increasingly ridiculed in the Australian press as being those of soft, bleeding hearts and apologists of terrorism. Most of the people on board the troubled vessel, the Palapa, were fleeing from Afghanistan and Iraq. The irony of a government turning their backs on the safety and claims of refugee status of people escaping these two countries’ repressive regimes in August 2001, yet within the space of two years citing the violence, human rights abuses and terrorist threat of these said regimes to justify being party to coalition invasions to instigate regime change in both countries seems almost to be the product of a bizarre and cynical fiction.
Despite its political gestation and subject matter, I don’t for a moment believe that a piece of music can change the political ways of the world and my Eclipse remains first and foremost a piece of chamber music and as such can hopefully be appreciated and understood on its own terms. It does however go some way towards explaining its brooding, troubled and at times aggressive features. The first section, Slow and spacious, secretive, evolves as an exploration of sound and sonorities from which a motive of oscillating fifths emerges in the lowest cello range, eventually permeating all instruments which in turn respond with a series of overtone-rich flageolet tremoli. This builds into a pizzicato texture, at the outset vigorous and chaotic, then quickly subsiding into a period of vagueness and mystery, descending further and leading into the second section, Unlikely Flight, a nervous presto movement of constantly changing meter and jagged accents, the motor of which is still perpetuated by the oscillating fifths. The title refers to a quote from Tom Keneally’s Tyrant’s Novel in which he descibes with harrowing clarity the dangerous circumstances and desperate state of mind confronting someone fleeing a country such as Iraq. “The most piteous creature on earth” writes Keneally, “is the one contemplating unlikely flight, and without papers.” There are startling parallels between Keneally’s fictionalisation and the eye witness accounts of the souls aboard the engineless and doomed Palapa as it survived a violent storm at sea on the night before its ultimate rescue by the Tampa. If a solar eclipse represents a cusp of razor sharpness between light and dark, then these experiences were surely riding the cusp between life and death, between future and past, transcending any discussion based on politics of state and entering the realm of sheer existence. The drama of the middle section eventually dissipates into a more consolatory final Epilogue where much of the preceding material is reconsidered in a different, and altogether more sanguine light. Though not exactly a happy end, the ambivalent openness of the work’s final chords seemed to me to be the only viable way of viewing this unfinished saga.