Program note: The Drowners

Originally posted at :

Andrew Ford (b. 1957)
The Drowners (2009–15)
songs for baritone, percussion, harmonium, celesta, harp and strings

This sequence of songs began as a commission from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for a single song for the baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. ‘A Dream of Drowning’ was first performed by those forces, conducted by Paul Daniel, on 12 March 2010, but it seemed incomplete, as though it was only the start of something. So I added five more songs to make the present work.

The Drowners was composed for Morgan Pearse to sing with two orchestras – Ruthless Jabiru in London, under their conductor Kelly Lovelady, and Camerata in Brisbane, under Brendan Joyce. The work was funded by a project fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts.

© A.F.

‘A dream of drowning’

I only remember the dream.
I was deep. The whole sea boiled overhead. White streaks of turbulence drove down like tracer fire and rocket trails, a free-fire zone in dim and shuddering green.
And I’m plummeting, a projectile. When it comes rushing at me, black as death, the reef is shot full of holes and I slam into one, headlong.
Next, I see myself, from outside my flailing, panicked body. Headfirst. Wedged in the rock. While my lungs turn to sponge and the ocean inside me flickers with cruel light.
Fighting it.
But drowning.

Tim Winton, from Breath


‘On a friend’s escape from drowning off the norfolk coast’

Came up that cold sea at Cromer like a running grave
Beside him as he struck
Wildly towards the shore, but the blackcapped wave
Crossed him and swung him back,
And he saw his son digging in the castled dirt that could save.
Then the farewell rock
Rose a last time to his eyes. As he cried out
A pawing gag of the sea
Smothered his cry and he sank in his own shout
Like a dying airman. Then she
Deep near her son asleep on the hourglass sand
Was awakened by whom
Save the Fate who knew that this was the wrong time:
And opened her eyes
On the death of her son’s begetter. Up she flies
Into the hydra-headed
Grave as he closes his life upon her who for
Life has so richly bedded him.
But she drove through his drowning like Orpheus and tore
Back by his hair
Her escaping bridegroom. And on the sand their son
Stood laughing where
He was almost an orphan. Then the three lay down
On that cold sand
Each holding the other by a living hand.

George Barker


‘Letter to a stranger’

My dear Sir,

Having at length complied with your desires to obtain flowers and seeds from Augusta, I send you the result of my labours, which at one time I had not the least hope of being able to do in a satisfactory manner

Under the afflicting but inscrutable decree of an all-wise Providence we have recently been overwhelmed with the most bitter loss of our darling infant and only son of 19 months by the aggravated death of drowning . . .

Captain Molloy, myself and his little sisters had been playing with him watching his vigorous and frolicsome mood just after breakfast on the 11th November 1837. We separated each to our necessary duties . . . Charlotte had put the dear child in his cradle, and not finding him where she last saw him, she asked Molloy, then me. I had not seen him, but answered: ‘He had his bell on,’ – (a little bell he wore round his waist, in case of his straying into the bush ). I instantly ran out, and on [seeing] her running up and down . . . I exclaimed: ‘Have you been to the well?’ and became quite alarmed. Captain Molloy said, ‘Do not frighten yourself, he never goes there!’ The fatal truth stole over me, and on Charlotte going to the well, she said: ‘Here’s the Boy,’ and pulled out that darling precious child, lifeless, his flaxen curls all dripping, his little countenance so placid, he looked fast asleep, but not dead; and we do not believe he really was so until some minutes later. But the medical man was at the Vasse, and we did not know what to do . . .

The well is in full view of the windows, about a stone’s cast away, concealed certainly by Virgilia and Mimosa trees. He had not been absent ten minutes, but from being a very fat heavy child, and after eating an enormous breakfast I am told, this increased his rapid step from life to Death; but had any Medical Man been near, I am fully persuaded my little Johnny might have been saved.

I trust you will pardon and excuse my entering thus egotistically and minutely on our present affliction,

Georgiana Molloy (to Capt James Mangles, amateur biologist and member of the Royal Society)


‘Elegy for drowned children’

What does he do with them all, the old king:
Having such a shining haul of boys in his sure net,
How does he keep them happy, lead them to forget
The world above, the aching air, birds, spring?

Tender and solicitous must be his care
For these whom he takes down into his kingdom one by one
– Why else would they be taken out of the sweet sun,
Drowning towards him, water plaiting their hair?

Unless he loves them deeply how could he withstand
The voices of parents calling, calling like birds by the water’s edge,
By swimming-pool, sand-bar, river-bank, rocky ledge,
The little heaps of clothes, the futures carefully planned?

Yet even an old acquisitive king must feel
Remorse poisoning his joy, since he allows
Particular boys each evening to arouse
From leaden-lidded sleep, softly to steal

Away to the whispering shore, there to plunge in,
And fluid as porpoises swim upward, upward through the dividing
Waters until, soon, each back home is striding
Over thresholds of welcome dream with wet and moonlit skin.

Bruce Dawe


‘not waving but drowning’

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith


‘ariel’s song’

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest


Passage from Breath © Tim Winton 2008, published by Hamish Hamilton. Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Group (Australia). ‘On a Friend’s Escape from Drowning off the Norfolk Coast’ © estate of George Barker. Used by kind permission of Elspeth Barker. ‘Elegy for Drowned Children’ © Bruce Dawe. Used with permission of Pearson Australia. ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ © estate of Stevie Smith. Used with permission of Faber and Faber.

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