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THIS IS FABULOUS MUSIC, WONDERFULLY PERFORMED. THE WAY OF THE SEEKER IS A MONUMENTAL ACHIEVEMENT, NOT ONLY IN ITS SCALE AND POWER, BUT PERHAPS ALSO MONUMENTAL IN A LITERAL SENSE. IT CAN BE SEEN AS A QUASI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STATEMENT FROM COMPOSER LARRY SITSKY, A MAJOR FIGURE IN AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FOR HALF A CENTURY, AND HE LAYS HIS MUSICAL SENSIBILITY BEFORE US.

The work is in six movements: Prologue, Birth, The Guide, The Journey, Beyond Time, and Epilogue: the Man of Light. It maps a spiritual journey drawn from the writings of the 11th Century Sufi mystic Hakim Sanai. Sitsky has been influenced throughout his career by the mysticism of various Eastern cultures. In an interview on ABC Radio National’s Music Show with Andrew Ford, Sitsky, who grew up in China, recounts a moment in his youth when a local doctor, attending a sick neighbour, played a flute to him to heal him. This work is the latest in Sitsky’s explorations of mysticism through composition, but it is also a massive achievement pianistically, drawing heavily on the Western musical traditions.

The Way of the Seeker is a demanding work of around 50 minutes, brilliantly rendered by Michael Kieran Harvey, evoking the emotional and psychological states that envelop the novice on the path to enlightenment. It traces the progression from darkness or ignorance, represented by the heavy bass textures in the Prologue and early in the first movement, towards enlightenment in the Epilogue. In Birth, the music becomes discordant and agitated, and intense dynamics punctuate the calm. The writing is expressionistic and gestural, evoking the seeker’s tumultuous experiences. As the piano’s shadowy rumble continues, the principal voice soliloquises. A note is repeated for a few bars, suggesting a tolling bell, around which the voice dances. In his introduction on the CD, Sitsky states that the bell-like figure, which recurs periodically in different registers, represents crucial moments in the journey.

The drama ebbs and flows through subsequent movements: The Guide opens gently, becomes animatedly conversational and then regains composure. The final movement, Beyond Time, begins explosively, but calm ultimately prevails. The Epilogue is slow, gentle and introspective, concluding with a questioning, unfinished line suggesting that, although this journey is complete, a new cycle of life and searching will now commence.

Stylistically, the work recalls early 20th Century music, the music of Sitsky’s tutelage and perhaps of the beginning of his own journey. One thinks of Scriabin’s late works and his mysticism, and, more generally, of the transition from Romanticism to Expressionism and atonality. The listener senses a detailed formal structure and carefully calculated moves, but the CD liner notes suggest that the score offers limited performance directions and leaves the shaping of the dynamics to the pianist. The realisation of the work thus requires a shared sensibility—the performer also becomes a pilgrim—so as to induce this feeling in the listener. As well as the necessary technical virtuosity, Kieran Harvey brings to this music his experience of performing some of the great works of the contemporary repertoire, especially Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus (1944), itself an intense expression of religious experience.

The Way of the Seeker recalls the autobiographical feel of, say, Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage and, though very different in character, Shostakovich’s consummate 24 Preludes and Fugues (op 87). The seeker is one who sits alone at the piano to contemplate life and the universe.


See interview with Michael Kieran Harvey

Larry Sitsky: The Way of the Seeker (2004), piano Michael Kieran Harvey; Move Records, 2006. MD3309.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 41

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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