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"Voodoo Fire" for Clarinet, Percussion and Keyboard by Derek Strahan (duration 15'00")

These notes appear in the preface to the facsimile score of "Voodoo Fire" and also are included in an educational Music Kit on this work, which is scored for Clarinet, Percussion and Keyboard. While the keyboard part can be played entirely on piano, its full potewntial can only be realised when played on synthesiser. Notes on this aspect appear at the end of this file, refering to a detailed Chart Of Use which appears in the score. A performance of "Voodoo Fire" features on the Jade CD of that name, which also includes a performance of my chamber duo, "Atlantis" for Flute/Alto Flute & Piano. Music Kits for both works can be usefully purchased with this CD. These notes are a prelude to an analysis of form and content of the work, with examples, which forms the substance of the Kit.

"Voodoo Fire" belongs to a group of works in which material is developed intended for inclusion in a cycle of 4 operas on the topic of antedeluvian civilisations. There is a West African connection in the Atlantis story, and there is great antiquity in African religions and in the musical traditions which underly them.

Title, origins

In an arc stretching from Brazil to the Caribbean, the animist religious beliefs of Africa remain alive in South and Central America. The Haitian version of this religion is the best known probably because it inspired the only successful slave revolt in the world, and also because of its supposed link with black magic. However, as in most religions, there are two clear paths which can be taken, that of the common good, and that of manipulative individual will. Central to Voodoo practise is the belief that, through ceremony and ritual the gods will possess participants and speak through them. Music and dance induce a trance state so that possession will occur. Specific dances and rites invoke specific gods. African music is distinguished by its use of polyrhythms in drumming. A complex "engine" of interacting rhythms produces a basis for unison chant. When Western music absorbed African influence to produce "jazz" the following process seems to have occurred.

1) The polyrhythmic component was rejected, because it was alien to the Western harmonic system. In this, "harmony" is achieved by vertical alignment of tones in a uni-rhythmic music where the coincidence of tones produces "chords". "Jazz" as it has evolved requires performers to follow a "chord sequence".

2) One of the superficial effects of polyrhythm was retained - the displaced accent. Coming before the beat, this was called syncopation.

In African drumming much of what sounds like syncopation is a side-effect of the concurrence of different rhythms.

I have attempted in this piece to apply African rhythmic counterpoint to Western melodic counterpoint. The resulting fusion is not "program music", nor is it, of course, true music of the Voodoo. However, in order to compose it, I did study music for which I have the greatest respect, accessed through commercially available recordings of authentic Voodoo ceremonies which took place in Haiti. As these recordings were made with the specific permission of Voodoo hougans (priests), it is right that I acknowledge the source of the musical techniques I have attempted to apply.

In writing music dedicated to Shango, the Voodoo god of fire, I, a European Australian, am expressing also my admiration for the Voodoo attitude to a deity embodying this element. Western culture has its own gods of fire, and they have always been very badly treated - this was always most unwise since, at the same time as being mistreated, these gods (or this spirit in different forms) has always been acknowledged as a benefactor. The Fire offered by this spirit is the fire of Light, Enlightenment and Knowledge. According to our various myths., the chief gods guarded Knowledge and kept it hidden from humans. It fell to the rebellious fire gods to share it with us, and they were always punished for their disobedience - demoted to being demi- gods (half-human), or demonised. Some of the names of the fire god in Western culture are: Prometheus, Loke and Lucifer, the latter known also as the Light-Bringer and known also as the Fallen Angel, who was expelled from Paradise. By contrast, neither the fire god, nor any Voodoo gods are thought of as being either good or evil. All Voodoo gods are offspring of the Creator-God Mawu who is "understood in his entirety" (*).

Voodoo gods may at times behave with malice, since "they embrace all aspects inherent in their physical and spiritual existence"(*). It is up to humans to induce the gods to act on their behalf, and this is done through ritual. Shango, the fire god is regarded as a very powerful spirit and is still worshipped not only in Haiti, but also among the Yoruba of Nigeria, from whom Voodoo is thought to originate.

The generic Voodoo term for a god is "lao". The gate to the "laos" is protected by a barrier whose guardian is "Papa Legba" and who is also indicative of Saint Peter, since Voodoo "effortlessly incorporates aspects of other religions". The Voodoo attitude to the Creator-God is very similar to the philosophy which underlies the heretical Gnostic version of Christianity except that the voodoo do not share the Gnostic's horror of the material universe. What they do share is the Voodoo's positive acceptance of the fire god. Gnostics view the Wise Serpent of Eden as a benefactor, an intermediary who intercedes to connect humans with the true God, by revealing Hidden Knowledge (Gnosis). No wonder the Gnostics were persecuted as heretics!


1) Sound recordings collected in Haiti and the island of La Tortue by Maurice Bitter, with the agreement of the Hougans (priests) during actual Voodoo ceremonies. As released on LP, "Voodoo Ceremony in Haiti", Olympic records.

2). Book: "Voodoo, Africa's Secret Power" by Gert Chesi, published by Perlinger Verlag, 1979. (In 1964 Gert Chesi spent 8 months in Lambarene as the guest of distinguished author and Christian missionary Albert Schweitzer. It was during that time Chesi developed a deep interest in African tribes and their traditions) . (*) Indicates quotations from this book.

DEREK STRAHAN May 1995 (From the preface to the music score)



The foregoing analysis should not be construed to imply that the composer takes lightly the problem of evil in the world, or that he set out to write a piece of music designed to invoke a demonic entity! This programmatic aspect of the work evolved as a by-product of purely musical research. The work was commissioned by the Canberra School of Music for performance by clarinettist Alan Vivian and colleagues, as the result of discussions between Alan and myself over a number of years, following from Alan's splendid work recording my Clarinet Quintet No. 1 in D ("The Princess") in 1981. 15 years passed before the opportunity rose for me to write a piece especially for Alan, whose impressive credentials include periods with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australia Ensemble, the Canberra Wind Soloists, and many appearances in Australia and overseas as a soloist. When Alan suggested I write a Trio for clarinet, percussion and keyboards, this gave me the opportunity to advance a particular interest of mine - the fusion of Western melodic counterpoint with African rhythmic counterpoint.

As indicated above, traditional African drumming comprises several layers of sound in which different metres interact to create a wonderful musical engine, which can be heard on its own or in conjunction with solo or unison chant. I wanted to identify each of the different metres in this engine and apply a melodic line to each. Achieving this "fusion" was always the main purpose of composition. However, in researching source material I found that Caribbean Voodoo music was highly evolved as regards synthesis of rhythm and melody. (In the history of slavery the use of drums was only permitted in some parts of the Caribbean. Elsewhere in the Americas, drums were banned!) . This is how I came to write a piece with a Voodoo connection. The live recordings of Voodoo ceremonies which studied were made with the permission of Voodoo "hougans" or priests (see above, Acknowledgments). I certainly didn't want to offend Voodoo spirits by presenting their music out of context! Therefore, out of respect, the structure of this work reflects the structure of a Voodoo ceremony and, in particular, pays homage to the powerful Voodoo deity called Shango, who is a God of Fire, and whose music, I found to be especially impressive.

Voodoo ceremonies begin with offerings to a particular god or spirit, followed by a dance to invoke the god, leading to possession by the god of an initiate through whom the god speaks or acts. The three part structure of this piece, "Voodoo Fire", respects this protocol being written in 3 sections played continuously. They are: "Offerings", "Dance" and "Possession". The melody heard in "Possession" is closely based on an actual Voodoo prayer to Shango. The melody is modified to allow for a progression of harmonies (a chord sequence) as in jazz, but the metre and tonal shape of the original melody are retained.

As the work took shape, I became aware that, by invoking a fire god, I was following a well-trodden path in Western music. Allowing that, in Western culture, the fire God is a demon, we can observe that this fiery spirit has often been invoked by composers of the classical and romantic periods. We find him in Beethoven's ballet music "The Creatures of Prometheus" and, by direct quotation in Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, as well as the massive "Eroica" piano variations. We find him as Mephistopheles, the tempter, in the various operatic versions of "Faust", and we find him in Wagner's 4-opera cycle "The Ring of The Nibelung" as Loke, (or Loge) the fire god. It is interesting to note that "The Ring" was inspired not only by Nordic myth but equally by the Greek tragedian Aeschyluss whose Prometheus Vinctus offers close parallel in character and dramatic situation to Wagner's libretti for "The Ring".

Organisation of sounds by Charts of Use for Percussion and Keyboards: the philosophy of mechanical sound in music.

In the Preface to the music score students will find two pages providing guidance for percussion and keyboard players. The purpose of these is practical, to enable players to organise instrumentation so that sounds can be accessed when required. Study of the score will show that whenever a change of sound is required, an adequate number of bars rest is given to the player.

In the case of percussion, this always involves the physical change from one instrument to another, and the Chart of Use gives a running order by bar numbers, so that the player can arrange percussion in groupings on stage for convenience.

In the case of Keyboards, the player can elect to play the entire score on Synthesiser, treating the acoustic piano as one of the sampled sounds, or can elect to play the piano segments on an actual piano as is the case in the recording provided in this kit. Overall, the Chart of Use for keyboard lists by bar numbers the order of sounds as they occur. The sounds are listed as "pre-sets" by Key Number, that is, sounds to be programmed in advance in the keyboard memory so that all changes can be made by pressing the "pre-set" key on cue, as indicated in the score. The Chart of Use also indicates where the keyboard is split between two sounds, and on which note the split is made.

Alan Vivian and I agreed that the emphasis would be on the keyboard as a tuned percussion instrument. "Sampled" sounds of acoustic orchestral instruments would be avoided, and the only ones specified are an electronic equivalent of the obsolete Bass Saxophone (Sarrusophone) and Generic Synthesiser Brass, for the literal repeat of the Introduction which recurs at the beginning of the final segment (Section 3). (The real Sarrusophone can occasionally be heard in 78rpm recordings of dance music of the 1920s.)

Practical considerations (such as bars rest for changes) had to be observed, and these became part of the aesthetic of composition. Similar practical considerations apply in all forms of orchestration whether for small or large groups, and whether for acoustic or electronic instruments.

Although the range of sounds which can be achieved by modern technology is awe-inspiring, the principle behind the modern synthesiser is as old as music itself, namely the principle of the mechanical orchestra (or one man band) which has found expression in a wide range of instruments from the tiny musical box to the mighty pipe organ, with its numerous "stops". The principle of mechanical memory found expression in the past not only in the musical box and the organ grinder but also, splendidly, in the "pianola" which anticipated the recording industry by preserving performances of great artists of the early part of this century, on Duo-Art Piano Rolls. I wrote this piece with an awareness of both the past and present in music history, and also for the future. This awareness, became part of the process of composition.

Derek Strahan

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"Atlantis" for Flute/Alto Flute & Piano by Derek Strahan (duration 19'00")

These notes were prepared for inclusion in an educational Music Kit on my chamber duo, "Atlantis" for Flute/Alto Flute & Piano, which can be purchased along with the Jade CD titled "Voodoo Fire". The CD features my trio "Voodoo Fire" for Clarinet, Percussion & Keyboard and "Atlantis". These notes are a prelude to an analysis of form and content of the work, with examples, which forms the substance of the Kit. They are more extensive than those in the CD, but are less detailed than the programmatic breakdown contained in the music score. This is the first of three works written to develop material for a proposed 4-opera cycle on the subject of antediluvian civilisations.

"Voodoo Fire" is, in fact, a work belonging to this group, since there is a West African connection in the Atlantis story, and because of the great antiquity of African religions and the musical traditions which underly them.

Title, origins

This was the first work written to develop material intended for inclusion in a proposed cycle of four operas on the subject of civilisations of pre-history. It was commissioned by Michael Scott and composed in 1990 with the assistance of the Australia Council. It was given its first performance in 1992 by a senior student of Michael Scott, Belinda Gough with Josephine Allan at Ms. Gough's Masters Degree Recital graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is the live recording of that performance which is on the attached CD. Michael Scott himself also performed the work in 1996 with pianist David Miller along with the premier performance of "Eden In Atlantis", a 25-minute Scena for soprano, flute/alto flute and piano in which the soprano part was given by Liza Rintel who has sung leading roles with Opera Australia, including that of the Queen Of The Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" both touring with Oz Opera and sharing the role with Jennifer McGregor in the 1995 opera season. The live recording of that performance is available on another Jade CD, "EDEN IN ATLANTIS", JADCD 1074.

For a complete overview of the "Atlantis" opera project I refer students to the Atlantis Files on my website at: For the purposes of this study kit I restrict the information to what is necessary to understand the programmatic detail motivating the structure of the work. Additional information is contained in four pages of detailed commentary which acts as a preface to the score, accompanied by some annotated illustrations and diagrams. I will refer to these in the analysis which follows, but will not duplicate information.

The name "Atlantis" is found in writings by the Greek philosopher Plato dated from 4 B.C. The passages describing a former civilisation of that name are found in texts which include other verifiable history of the writer's own time. Plato's account of "Atlantis", however, describes an island empire which existed 9,000 years before his own time, and which was destroyed in a cataclysm sent by the gods. It was "swallowed by the sea and vanished in a single dreadful day and in a single dreadful night." Plato's account has always been controversial. It presents figures from Greek mythology as historical people. It seems to imply knowledge of the Americas before they were "discovered". It claims that a high civilisation existed during the Ice Age. And it claims that this civilisation was destroyed by a cataclysm of such magnitude that it could not have been a local event, but a global one, of universal significance. Plato stated that the information was of Egyptian origin, which raises the possibility that written records about Atlantis did indeed once exist in the great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum before they were destroyed in successive waves of conquest.

Many cultures have myths of not just one but several global destructions, and many of these accounts, being enshrined in religious belief, have some authenticity as tribal history. Much of what Plato reports about civilisation in pre-history has parallels, for example, in the Book of Genesis in Hebrew scripture, which itself is based on earlier Sumerian literature. Since much in those accounts of events dating from 3,000 B.C. has been factually verified, it is possible that science may also one day corroborate other tantalising recollections of a much more distant past.

It is this prospect which interests me, and even over the 8 years which have elapsed since I wrote this piece there have been more books written on the subject, and more disclosures. At the time of composition I was less concerned to build an operatic storyline on the subject, than, as a first step, to devise thematic material and leitmotifs which could be used to evoke images of the place and time of Atlantis as described by Plato, and of the key mythological figures who have ambivalent status as gods, symbols and real people.


Plato states that Poseidon was the first ruler of Atlantis, that he married a native woman, Cleito, who bore him five sets of twin sons, the most important of which was Atlas who became the second ruler of Atlantis. Plato portrays Poseidon, in this context, as both a god and a real person. As a ruler he laid the basis for government of his island empire and also laid down the laws of succession. As a god in Greek mythology, Poseidon comes across as a bad-tempered sea god who had the power to raise storms and cause earthquakes, using his trident as a means of controlling the elements. What this might boil down to, in the way mythology works, is that the land Poseidon ruled was subject to seismic disturbances, and that he, as a god, came to embody these forces. If Atlantis was indeed where Plato seems to suggest, in the Atlantic Ocean off the Straits of Heracles (Gibraltar) it was in an unstable are of the earth's crust. Atlas is also associated with seismic disturbances, in his role as a giant supporting the earth on his back. (When Atlas shrugs the earth shakes). Some mountains in the Azores are still active volcanoes.

In terms of musical expression, I have treated Poseidon and the primal forces he represents as one entity, and I have treated Atlas in the same way. Poseidon's wife, Cleito, exists only as a name and I have had to use my intuition in finding a theme for her, which turned out to have the character of a lament. This is because the age of Atlantis follows the Golden Age which seems to have been the age of matriarchal rule, when humans lived closer to nature. (This is the subject of my proposed opera "Eden In Atlantis"). Atlantis may have grown into a magnificent empire but, by Plato's account, its government was authoritarian, male dominant and perhaps marks the advent of patriarchy. Such rule did not remain unchallenged. This is the era of rebel female tribes (the Amazons and the Gorgons) and of independent women rulers surviving on islands, demonised in surviving accounts as sorceresses such as Circe and Calypso whom, interestingly, Plato names as a daughter of Atlas! (The third opera in the cycle is planned as "Calypso In Exile" and material for this proposed work has been developed in a large scale 50-minute solo piano work "Atlantis Variations").

As I have mentioned, this work is not concerned with stories, so much as with evocation and with memory. It is divided into 3 parts, and thus corresponds in structure to a traditional classical sonata. The first part evokes memory from the perspective of the present time. In the second part memory becomes reality as the music passes through the time barrier and actually takes us to Atlantis, to experience a lover's idyll in a romantic setting, this corresponding to the slow movement of a sonata. The third and final part seeks to portray the fabulous metropolis and circular harbours as meticulously described by Plato.

Literary sources providing inspiration for this work are quoted in the preface to the score, which also includes a bibliography of books on Atlantis and on the subject of global cataclysm generally. An updated bibliography can be accessed on my website.

Derek Strahan

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