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I contemplated this poem over a long period of time and immersed myself in other poetry by Dickinson. I also read her letters. In some ways the music is not just inspired by the poem but by her life. When composing the work, I would picture her in her room over looking the cemetery in Amherst Massachusetts writing journals, letters and poetry. It seems to me hers was a life devoted to understanding the human mind, and the essence of existence, to understand and to give expression to the inexpressible.

As the poet Adrianne Rich says in the documentary:
“What I learned from her was that there are extreme psychological states which can be hunted down in language which can receive embodiment in language, but that language has to be forged, has to be created it isn’t just found in the air, it’s not the first words that come to mind”

Another writer in the documentary says of Dickinson:
“She looked very deep and saw very clear”

My earlier work Sulphurous Dreamscapes and Obscure Lunar Conundrums (written in 1994 for the same instrumental grouping) was a homage to Sylvia Plath’s life as a poet (and not her death which so many people seem to focus on) and was inspired by her poem The Ghost’s Leavetaking. Likewise, As all the Heavens were a Bell is a kind of homage to Emily Dickinson. She seems to me a deeply authentic person who felt the joy and wonder of life but also the anguish. This piece is an attempt to understand such deeply profound revelation as is expressed in her poetry. To me when she says “And Finished knowing- then-”, it’s the ultimate revelation that we are eternal beings, and the truth can not be known by the mind. These are the issues that many western and eastern spiritual teachings grapple with.

There is another piece of writing from Dickinson that is used: “each of us gives or takes heaven in corporeal person, for each of us has the skill of life”. I understand this to mean that we are blessed to be alive, have an individual personality, mind and physical body, we all make choices about how we want to live.

The bell is an important symbol in Poem #280 and I have tried to express my understanding of this archetype by use of the tam tam and gong. I recall Australian composer Liza Lim on ABC’s The Music Show saying that the gong is her point of departure in how she understands sound and music rather than the piano which has been such an important instrument and point of reference in western music (I explored the piano in a different way in The Waves). When hearing a performance by Vanessa Tomlinson playing her own tam tam composition where she concentrated on different harmonic resonances of the tam tam, I suddenly understood the eternity of sound within this instrument. To go into the tam tam is to venture into eternity itself! No wonder the gong has been such an important instrument across so many ancient cultures. In this recording there are sections where I ask Vanessa to explore different levels of sound similar to her own piece. In the editing process I have referred back to the tam tam and other gongs. With the use of Pro Tools, I have explored further the possibilities of the instrument by trying to bring out the ‘inner world’ or resonances of the gong and made sound collage with the results. These have become vital moments in the composition.

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