From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs
Some thoughts from the composer, Gareth Farr

On August 14, 1995, my composition ‘Tabuh Pacific’ for orchestra and Javanese gamelan was performed at Victoria University. In the audience was the artistic manager of the NZSO, Roger Lloyd. So impressed by the performance was he, that he came up with the idea of commissioning me to write the official piece for the NZSO’s fiftieth birthday celebrations. His idea was that the piece would be a multi cultural piece, and would involve Pacific drumming and perhaps gamelan and other Pacific Rim instruments. There were to be two concerts, one in October 1996 and one in March 1997, the official celebration of the orchestra’s birthday. Roger suggested that the piece be in two parts, one for each concert. There is an orchestral work by French composer Paul Dukas called ‘La Peri’, which has a fanfare opening, followed by a longer more rhapsodic section. Roger suggested this piece as a model for the work; a short impressive ‘pacific’ prelude followed by a more extensive tone poem as part two of the piece — the whole piece being about 25 minutes in length. The idea was that part one could be played on its own as a short rousing concert opener or the whole piece could be played as a substantial concert piece. Another piece that has a similar structure, and is used similarly in performance is ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ (a.k.a. the 2001 theme).

After thinking about the possibilities of combining various ethnic performance groups with the orchestra, I finally decided not involve any performers other than the orchestral musicians. My reason was that this piece was a celebration of the orchestra, and the many wonderful sounds and textures it can produce. My music celebrates the music of the pacific inherently as Kapahaka, Rarotongan drumming, Taiko drumming, gamelan and many other types of pacific music have long been my main musical influences. I was also very interested at the time in experimenting with reproducing the sounds of these ensembles with an orchestra, and one can find many examples of that in ‘From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs’, ‘Tabuh Pacific’, and various other orchestral works of mine.

One way or another, it was inevitable that this piece featured the percussionists in a prominent role, as much of pacific music is percussion based.

I had composed a small drumming piece in November 1993 for a big Wellington dance party called Devotion, for myself and two other drummers, Murray Hickman and Jeremy Fitzsimons. The piece was for ten roto-toms ranging from the smallest six-inch drum to the largest of 18 inches. The drums were set out in one line, and all three players played on the same drums (this idea was inspired by From Scratch’s piece ‘Drumwheel’. The piece was performed at midnight in front of a cheering crowd of thousands — it was the closest any of us had got to being rock stars!

I used this piece as the basic material for the drum cadenzas in Sea Gongs. I wanted to keep that rock star impact of the drummers there, but in an orchestral context this time — which would make the impact greater, as it was more out of context. I decided the first cadenza would have a short orchestral build up to it, and that the orchestra would slowly whip up the excitement until it couldn’t get any bigger and then with a huge impact the drummers would come in and blow everyone away.

I knew that the audience would also expect the piece to start in a bombastic energetic way, so I decided to play a trick on them. Instead, I decided to start the piece in the smallest most delicate way I could — with solo celeste. The celeste begins the piece very quietly with an ostinato and slowly the texture and volume builds up, so that within two minutes we’ve gone from nothing to everything.

Now that I had decided on the material for the cadenzas I went about composing the rest of the piece. I had a short three beat motive that recurred throughout the cadenzas, and it seemed like a good idea to continue this motive through the rest of the piece. In a way, it was working backwards from the way one would normally compose for an ensemble that includes percussion. Normally I (and many other composers) would have come up with a melody, and then transferred the rhythm of that melody to the percussion section for reinforcement, or variation. Now I was taking a rhythm, and inventing a melody to give it shape. After the first cadenza ends, and the three beat motive has been firmly established by the percussionists, you can hear the woodwind instruments play the melody that uses the three beat motive for the first time.

Part one of the piece was premiered in Wellington on the 26th of October 1996, under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. Part two was still incomplete at this point, but I still had a few months before it was to be played. It was finally played on the 6th of March, 1997 under Sir William Southgate at the NZSO’s 50th Anniversary Concert and received a standing ovation from the audience.

As far as the enigmatic title of the piece is concerned — I don’t think I could do better than to quote an article I wrote for Symphony Quarterly, the NZSO’s magazine. “In 1990, I was a member of the percussion section of the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in Japan. This gathering of young musicians from around the Pacific rim was conceived by Leonard Bernstein, and continues, after his death, as an annual event.

While I was in Japan, I was hired for a gig with the London Symphony Orchestra who needed extra percussionists. Their concert was to be conducted by Maestro Bernstein. In the midst of rehearsal of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes Bernstein looked straight at me and said: ‘Are you playing the snare drum?’

I looked around to see who he was talking to, and realised: ‘Uh oh…’, he was talking to me.

‘Yes,’ I stuttered, voice quavering.

‘Well, it’s very good but I need to hear the part by itself.’

So I played the excerpt, heart racing, hands shaking, able only to think: ‘Here I am, playing an instrument which I totally suck at, in front of the London Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein who is sitting there looking straight at me, listening!’

A little later in the rehearsal, he again looked at the percussionists: ‘Oh please, not again…’ I thought, but no, this time it was a more general comment. One however, that has stuck firmly in my mind. We were playing the second of the Four Sea Interludes, where the strings and wind are twittering around and suddenly huge bells start pealing, re-created by the brass and percussion — quite an astonishing moment. He said to us, hands held up, face contorted with a look of profound emotional intensity: ‘I want you to make those bells sound like Great Sea Gongs…’

And I thought: ‘Sea Gongs? What on earth are Sea Gongs?’ But then, when we played it again, I could see the Sea Gongs — masses of gleaming bronze, covered with seaweed, lurking far beneath the waves, waiting…

The maestro had offered to buy neckties for the ten disorganised members of the orchestra who had arrived in Japan without them, and I, of course, was one. After the rehearsal I saw him sitting on stage looking at the score. Realising that this was my moment to have a profound artistic interchange with a legend, I strode confidently up to the podium. Should I ask about Sea Gongs? Or perhaps a more academic question about the harmonic implications of the bi-tonal superimposed chordal sections? No of course not — out of my mouth came: ‘Can my tie have sequins on it?’

He looked at me, poked me in the chest, and lisped in a low growl, ‘You’ll get sssssequinssss…’. Then he walked off.

So much for profound.”

Gareth Farr, September 2001


“What a splendid celebration of the orchestra [From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs] is! … it revealed a kaleidoscope of colours, from propulsive South Seas drumming to the full gamut of sounds from the strings, woodwind and brass. A delicate, almost La Mer, moment, full of half heard fragments and followed by a tremendous sustained passage for full orchestra, sounding for all the world like the gods entering some sort of Pacific Valhalla thrilled the ear.”
John Button, The Dominion, March 10, 1997