In Andrew Ford’s program note for The Sea and the Mirror, which violinist Tor Frømyhr and cellist David Pereira will perform for the first time in Canberra on Friday, he dedicates the piece to Kim Williams, partly “because Kim himself has spent much of his time reflecting on the points of contact between life and art” and also as an apology for mentally sketching it during Williams’ 2017 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address.

“He started talking and I’m afraid I did what composers so often do, which is go off into a little world of my own,” Ford tells Limelight. “I just remember feeling a little guilty afterwards, when I thanked him for the talk, most of which I heard.”

Andrew FordAndrew Ford. Photo © Jim Rolon

Ford wrote the The Sea and the Mirror, which will be premiered in a concert at Lewellyn Hall featuring the Side By Side Chamber Orchestra (musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra alongside staff and students from the Australian National University’s School of Music), as part of his residency as the 2018 HC Coombs Fellow.

The ANU’s HC Coombs Fellowship boasts a starry roll call of former recipients that includes Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Don Burrows, Judith Wright and many more Australian arts luminaries. “So to be asked to do it was, of course, hugely flattering, and I had not the slightest hesitation in saying yes,” Ford says.

The program involved teaching and public lectures, as well as creative work, with Ford composing a solo work, Hearing Voices, for Pereira, who premiered it last year, and the duet which so preoccupied the composer during Williams’ lecture. Though Ford may have missed some moments of the address, the time wasn’t wasted, and he walked out with an opening to the piece that would remain largely unchanged throughout the composition process. “Afterwards I went and jotted it down and it starts pretty much the way it started in my head, in that lecture,” he says. “The heavy, fast pizzicato in the violin and sustained, high harmonics – bowed harmonics – from the cello. I had that, the actual rhythmic pattern and the pitch pattern in my head by the end of Kim’s lecture. I mean, sometimes you can’t help it, it just takes over and you’ve got to go with it.”

From the outset, Ford knew he was writing the work for Frømyhr and Pereira. “If you know who you’re writing for, it’s bound to affect what you write, and I’ve known these two men a long time,” he says.

Knowing that Frømyhr was going to be playing the opening pizzicato figure, for instance, must have influenced the music to some extent, Ford says. “Knowing that Tor is going to play it, I can’t write it without imagining the expression on his face when he plays it and the way his body will move,” he says. “So that must, at a subconscious level, feed back into the piece. I’m not exactly a bespoke tailor taking the players’ measurements and fitting them for a suit of musical clothes – it’s not quite that – but nevertheless, if you know what the player does and how they play and what they look like, it’s bound to affect the music you write.”

The music’s title – which came later – is taken from Auden’s long poem The Sea and the Mirror, a reflection on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Ford has mined The Tempest for titles and text on several occasions, and he has a long-standing love of the play that dates back to singing in a production during high school. “We sang, I think, some Purcell settings of Come Unto These Yellow Sands and various other songs, I was sort of part of a backstage choir, so I’ve known the play since then – I suppose I was about 16 – and I’ve loved it ever since,” he says. “It’s the language, it’s the characters, I love the fact that I think all of the characters are flawed, as is so often the case in Shakespeare. He’s not Dickens, you don’t often get clear heroes and villains in Shakespeare, everybody’s got something slightly disreputable going on and most of the time even the villains have saving graces.”

Ford is also a long-time fan of Auden, though he came to The Sea and the Mirror more recently. “Like a great deal of Auden’s writing it’s hard to grasp. He’s not an easy writer, and sometimes you feel being wilfully obscure, but he also does great lines,” he says. “I read it and I’m still coming to grips with his work on The Tempest, but The Sea and the Mirror seemed like a good title for this piece.”

In Auden, Ford sees the sea and the mirror as representing life and art, respectively, “which is quite a good way of looking at The Tempest,” he says.

The two images have now become the titles of Ford’s duet’s two movements. “Having written one rather busy movement, I thought it would be nice to have something which is more glacial, and then of course the image of the mirror popped into my head,” he says. “Most of the musical materials in the second movement are from the first movement, but you would have to dig around and be rather analytical to find the connections. So actually I think what the listener hears is just two contrasting movements.”

There is also a striking contrast between the roles of the two players – with the plan being that the players would, over the course of the music, swap over. “The music would begin with this heavy, loud, low sonorous pizzicato pattern from the violin and high floaty bowed harmonics from the cello, but by the end of the piece it would be the other way around,” Ford says. “Like most plans in music I didn’t absolutely stick to it.”

The composer likens the process to a road trip. “You would be stupid to set out without some idea of where you were going, and having ideally perhaps looked at the map, and maybe you take the map with you – but along the way, if you see a nice view, you probably stop and look at it,” he says. “There might be a sign post or a detour or something. You don’t, generally speaking – if you’ve got time – end up following the route that you expected to.”

“You’ve got to be open to having other ideas – there are always other ways of doing things,” he says. “And if a piece of music is going well as you compose it, if it’s coming out fluently, it will probably take over. You know, writers talk about how their characters in their novels or in their plays begin to dictate the terms after a while, and it’s just the same, I find, in writing music. That the music itself tells you what to do.”

The Sea and the Mirror isn’t the only premiere Ford has coming up in October, with Halcyon giving the Australian premiere of his song cycle Nature (which was first performed earlier this month in Sweden) in Sydney and Arcadia Winds premiering his Scenes from Streeton (which the composer writes about in Limelight’s October issue) in Melbourne.

“Getting to rehearsals is a bit of a logistical problem, and you do really like to get to rehearsals when it’s a new piece,” Ford says. “The thing about performances, they’re like busses – you don’t have one for a while and then three come along at once.”

Tor Frømyhr and David Pereira will give the world premiere of Andrew Ford’s The Sea and the Mirror at Llewellyn Hall on October 4