The Drowners

Originally posted at Resonate Magazine :

Template 258x173Andrew Ford writes about his work The Drowners for baritone voice and chamber orchestra, about to be premiered in London on 10 March. The same concert by the UK-based Ruthless Jabiru includes a premiere of a work for strings, percussion and tape by Rosalind Page.

In my sequence of songs, The Drowners, a surfer struggles against the rip (or dreams he does); a drowning man is dragged back from the cold North Sea by his wife, as his laughing child watches from the beach; a toddler drowns in a well in the 19th-century colony of Augusta, Western Australia; grieving parents are visited by the wraiths of their drowned children; a man, out of his depth all his life, drowns when he swims ‘too far out’; the King of Naples is believed to lie at the bottom of the sea, his eyes having turned to pearls. You might be forgiven for thinking I have an obsession with drowning.

In fact, the work sprang from a commission in 2009 to write an orchestral song for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. The rest of conductor Paul Daniel’s program contained Debussy’s La mer and A Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams. Marshall McGuire, the orchestra’s artistic manager at the time, said he’d like my song to have words by a Western Australian and that it should have something to do with the sea. Well, that’s Tim Winton, obviously.

As it happened, I’d just finished reading Breath, so I went back through it, looking for some words I might use. There, on page 120, was a dreamlike passage about drowning. I asked for permission to put the words to music and A Dream of Drowning was duly performed in WASO’s opening concerts of 2010, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing the piece from memory.

Marshall had not only stipulated the subject of the words and residence of the writer, he’d also asked that I keep the instrumentation light, so the concert might proceed from my short, rather intimate song to the vast ocean of sound conjured up by Vaughan Williams for the words of Walt Whitman.

‘Strings and a few other things,’ Marshall said. So I added vibraphone, harmonium, celesta and harp. At the end of my Winton song, I created a thick wall of sound, like some massive, threatening wave, before the piece suddenly stops. The more I heard it, the more it seemed to call out for the silence to be shattered by a whack on a bass drum and a flurry of activity from the strings. I began searching for new texts.

At school, I’d studied George Barker’s poem, ‘On a Friend’s Escape from Drowning off the Norfolk Coast’ and remembered the high energy of its opening: ‘Came up that cold sea at Cromer like a running grave / Beside him as he struck / Wildly towards the shore. . .’ It suited the scurrying strings to a T. Another poem that suggested itself was Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving, but Drowning’. Not her best poem, perhaps, but surely her most famous, and an opportunity for some much-needed ironic detachment amid the tragedy. The other songs are elegiac. They include Bruce Dawe’s incredibly touching ‘Elegy for Drowned Children’, and ‘Full Fathom Five’ from The Tempest, which concludes the work, Shakespeare’s words bathed in chords from Debussy’s prelude ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ (The submerged cathedral).

The heart of the piece, however, is a letter written in the West Australian Bush in 1837 by the botanist Georgiana Molly about the drowning of her infant son. It’s in Georgiana Molloy: Portrait with Background, by Alexandra Hasluck, and I was alerted to it by an audience member at the 2013 Port Fairy Spring Festival. Festival director Anna Goldsworthy and I were having a public conversation about setting words to music, prior to the first performance of my song cycle Last Words. I mentioned The Drowners, and that I was searching for suitable texts, and a kind lady told me about the letter and the book. I wish I knew who she was, because I would like to thank her.

The diction of the letter is formal – Georgiana is writing to a stranger – and all the more terrible for that, as she describes the disappearance of her toddler and the discovery of his body in a well. I struggled with this for a while, because I couldn’t imagine any music that wouldn’t simply be in the way. Then I thought of Georgiana in the bush and the birds she would have heard. So for the duration of her letter my orchestra becomes a little aviary of West Australian bird life: spotted pardalotes, bristle birds, New Holland honey-eaters and the rest, chirping away oblivious to Georgiana’s overwhelming grief.

Kelly Lovelady will conduct the first performance of The Drowners with her orchestra Ruthless Jabiru and baritone Morgan Pearse in the Gothic-revival splendour of the chapel at King’s College, London. Kelly has called the concert after my piece and placed the whole program in the context of our attitudes to refugees fleeing their countries by sea. This was certainly not in my mind when I was writing the work. Indeed, had Marshall McGuire asked me for a song about deserts, say, I would never have writtten a work about drowning at all.

But a few months after I completed the extended work in 2015, funded by a project grant from the Australia Council, we were all confronted by the horrifying photo of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach. Who could forget it? So while serendipity might have led me to write The Drowners, since seeing that photo, I too have come to associate the piece with the plight of refugees and the dangers they face, and I’m proud to have my music serve their cause, however poorly.

AMC resources

Event details: 10 March at 5pm, King’s College Chapel, London (AMC Calendar)
Andrew Ford – AMC profile

Further links

Ruthless Jabiru (
The Drowners – program note and song texts (