How a pioneering Kiwi war surgeon inspired a multimedia orchestral performance

by Elizabeth Kerr / 17 April, 2018

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Image/Barry Cleavin

Three artists have combined for Face, a musical and visual work commemorating the efforts of New Zealand WWI plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies. 

Centenary commemorations of World War I here and elsewhere included art of all kinds, most of it focused on the tragedies and losses of war. After 100 years, the pretence of glorious achievement has been abandoned. As the four years of remembrance come to a close, Face, a new work for orchestra and voices by composer Ross Harris and poet Vincent O’Sullivan, narrows the focus to a group of survivors who dealt with enduring destruction and loss.

Harris and O’Sullivan have already contributed to our understanding of the horrors of war and the effect on individuals through their opera Brass Poppies and the acclaimed Requiem for the Fallen. Face, however, looks beyond the war years, Harris says, “at the people who had to live on with injury or affliction, mental or physical”.

Face was also inspired by the recent work of Dunedin-based artist and printmaker Barry Cleavin, whose work has occasionally appeared on the covers of O’Sullivan’s poetry books.

“Brutally insistent” is how O’Sullivan describes Cleavin’s Veterans series. “Its concluding image is of the head and shoulders of a soldier wearing a New Zealand officer’s cap, the human features transfigured into an arrangement that fills where a face once existed with a precisely drawn jumble of horses and gun carriages: humanity replaced by military debris.

“I was drawn to this particular image as it seemed to work so exactly in that area of war experience Ross and I were immersed in – not the war dead, but those survivors who carried for the rest of their lives, and for all to see, the marring of appearance, the erosion of personality. Their bodies were used as part of ‘the war machine’, and their damaged features declared, ‘this is what your war gave us’.”

Sir Harold Gillies.

The new work also honours the contribution of pioneering New Zealand surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, who described his practice as “aesthetic reconstructive surgery”. Gillies used a multidisciplinary approach to what he called “a strange new art”, working with dentists and anaesthetists to rebuild the faces of soldiers who had received devastating injuries in WWI.

He set up a special unit, initially at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, and is considered by many to be the “father of plastic surgery” in Britain.

Harris has given Face the subtitle Symphonic Songs and Choruses. The 30-minute work is constructed around an accumulating refrain for chorus, with solo roles for a soldier, his fiancée and the surgeon. The young lovers express the tender and strong emotions of the work, the fear and despair and hope for the future. “How do I look my best, so she looks at me still?” The surgeon and the chorus, who sometimes become doctors and nurses, are detached, professional.

“Remember each of these men is a father, a son. Say what we can to calm them. Now there’s work to be done.” Face is not a symphony, says Harris, “but evolves in a symphonic way.”

One of Gillies’ cases.

One of Gillies’ cases.

The work will be premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will present the London premiere nine days later. These performances will be accompanied by a film created by multimedia artist Tim Gruchy, based on the Cleavin image. “Vincent and I,” says Harris, “were very keen that the images be ‘static’ and not at all obtrusive. My direction to Tim Gruchy was that the Cleavin face should change imperceptibly throughout the piece.”

Harris has had long experience of composing for orchestra. As a french-horn player, he had frequent contract stints with the NZSO during his three decades teaching at Victoria University, playing in the enormous Romantic orchestras required by Wagner and Bruckner. “Those big forces and their strange effects were a revelation,” he says now. “And I just love playing music. I think composers need to be in touch with the physicality, the vulnerability and the excitement of playing.”

After taking early retirement from his university post in his mid-fifties, Harris became composer-in-residence at the APO during 2005-2006. That was the beginning of an enduring relationship with the orchestra, which has since performed all of his orchestral works, including six symphonies. More premieres are planned. Harris acknowledges how valuable that has been for his craft. “It’s a tool I’ve been able to hone, [knowing] what instruments will do and how to balance layering and combinations.”

The military hospital for facial and jaw injuries at Sidcup, Kent, where Gillies developed his techniques.

The military hospital for facial and jaw injuries at Sidcup, Kent, where Gillies developed his techniques.

In Auckland, Face will be part of a programme called “Enigma” after Elgar’s famous variations.

The APO’s chief executive, Barbara Glaser, took the lead in arranging the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiere. Using strong relationships with international colleagues, she chose that orchestra “because it has a more adventurous remit. I sent recordings of Ross’s music and we had a dialogue for quite a while – and it happened. It’s great for New Zealand music to be in that high-profile environment.”

The London programme theme is about those who care for war victims, including The Wound Dresser by John Adams, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poems about the American Civil War.

Enigma will be performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, soloists and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir at the Auckland Town Hall, April 19; the BBC Symphony Orchestra, soloists and BBC Chorus will perform music by Ravel, Adams, Vaughan Williams and Harris at the Barbican, London, April 28.

Main picture: An image from Barry Cleavin’s suite The Veterans (2016) (Where have all the flowers gone – long time ago?).

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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