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Luminal was written in Melbourne and Adelaide between January 5 and February 29, 2008, as a continuous six-movement work for string quartet. It was the result of a private commission from Julian Burnside QC in early 2007. Knowing Julian to be a fan of chamber music, and wanting to write a new piece specifically for Silo String Quartet, by mid-2007 wheels were turning for an early 2008 premiere. Caerwen Martin, cellist and Artistic Director of Silo was very keen to create a sociological presentation frame for the work. She had just finished reading Robert Jay Lifton’s study The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. In late 1930’s Germany, borne out of the concept of Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life), a form of institutional murder masqueraded behind a revisionist-Darwinian idea of racial purity. Luminal was a sedative
repeatedly and secretively administered to children marked for the “Euthanasia” program in order to induce “continuous sleep”, coma and ultimately death, as was the practice.
I had for a long time been fascinated with the death of the Goebbels children, through sedative, then poison, at their mother’s hand. I remain intrigued by them as culturally ambivalent figures, unsure still how to read them. They cannot be fully claimed as victims of the Nazi regime since the suffering of so many others privileged their entire life, nor, as children, can one view them as culpable. They are stuck then, as tragic interstitial cultural icons, broadly perceived as beyond memorial. With so little known of them, save for their life given, and life took, they are in many ways an inversion of the Lebensunwertes Leben principle: Life it seems, to their parents Magda and Joseph, was unworthy of them. There are some clear nods to the Second Viennese School (so loathed by Hitler) in the musical language of Luminal. I felt it important to give the work aesthetic historiography, as if the Webern Bagatelles or Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht was playing on a gramophone in the other room, while the sedated, wandering mind tries to break through to some point of conscious resistance. This is less of a programmatic instruction, merely a point of reference.
Part Medea, part Kindertotenlieder, Luminal is loosely conceived as a lullaby requiem for Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Holdine, Hedwig and Heidrun and naturally all the other children whose lives were mangled or extinguished by the broader parent – the State – not just then and there, but still and sadly, here. Knowing the extraordinary humanitarian work Julian Burnside QC continues to do, let alone the fact that this composition exists purely because of his commission, the work is appropriately inscribed and dedicated to him with deep gratitude.
DAVID CHISHOLM FEBRUARY 29, 2008 MELBOURNE
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