As I began work on this piece, I realised that the music I was writing was taking on a plaintive, desolate cast. I hadn’t set out with this in mind. Maybe it was a logical consequence of my arriving back in Dunedin after some time away to find that all my old friends had left, and that I was more or less unknown. I became, as composers often do, somewhat reclusive.
This was also, perhaps, a result of my listening to some rather melancholic music: the gorgeous Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius, in which a cor anglais evokes the swan ploughing the black waters of Tuonela, the Finnish kingdom of death; Gabriel Yared’s evocative score to The English Patient, depicting the wide, desolate wastes of the North African desert; and the astonishing music of Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, who once said of composing that “I feel more as if I were filling a space that has been deserted”.
I needed a title that evoked a similar frame of mind, but from my own New Zealand perspective. I’ve never been great with titles but in this case I drew a complete blank. Nothing seemed to sum up the sense of isolation I felt in the music. It was not until I had almost completed the work that I had a chance encounter with Shonagh Koea’s book The Lonely Margins of the Sea. The title seemed perfect for my piece—except for the fact that she’d already used it, and my scruples would not permit me to pilfer her idea. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered that she had herself taken the title from a painting by nineteenth-century Australian artist Jessie Scarvell called The Lonely Margin of the Sea. That settled it. I decided that my piece could just be a musical response to a title that already exists as a painting and a book.
Besides, deserted beaches are very special to me. On a cold, wet winter’s day, when a southerly rips through, the beach becomes a bleak, brooding place, a meniscus, a periphery, a narrow interface that tenuously separates us from the vast expanse of the Great Southern Ocean.