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Donald WomackNa Iwi o Pele (The Bones of Pele)violin, viola, violoncello, clarinet, piano (four hands)20:002001
Commissioned by Norman Foster and the Red Hot Lava Chamber Music Festival

Along the seacoast below the slopes of Maui's Haleakala lie masses of broken lava said to be the remnants of a terrifying battle between Pele, goddess of fire, and her sister Namakaokahai, goddess of the sea. Defeated and left for dead, Pele managed to recover and escape to the Big Island of Hawai‘i. The shards of lava that remain below Haleakala are called Na Iwi o Pele – the bones of Pele.

These remnants also serve as an apt metaphor for what is perhaps Pele's most intriguing characteristic, the dichotomy that is her very nature. Just as this tale embodies an apparent paradox – the mortal and corporeal aspects of a goddess – there are many such seemingly incongruous elements surrounding Pele and all that she represents.

Pele, after all, is both a destroyer and a creator. The fire that rose out of water and created the Hawaiian islands brought – and continues to bring – both life and death. Places that Pele has left utterly desolate exhibit a strange beauty despite their barren face. And the fragile shoots one finds in lava fields – which will eventually blossom into the lush forests which make up much of the islands – show the rebirth of life that can only come after such total destruction.

From a musical standpoint these contrasts suggest a dramatic work. Na Iwi o Pele embodies the conflicting elements of the goddess that make her such a compelling figure – desolation and beauty, destruction and rebirth, violence and serenity, strength and fragility. While not programmatic in the sense of telling a story or depicting specific events, the music is clearly suggestive of moods and ideas. The various eruptive and driving passages in contrast to moments of delicate lyricism illustrate the dramatic scope of the work.

The piece begins with a brief explosion, followed by a sense of total desolation. Out of the barren soundscape rises a simple chant that will ultimately infuse all melodic material in the piece. A driving passage based on the chant theme follows, then winds down. Chaotic sections alternate with lyrical and mysterious passages, and several climaxes are reached. The tension finally subsides as the clarinet gives an extended statement of the chant melody. Fragmented echoes of chaos are interwoven with whispers of the chant as the piece gently evaporates.


"The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Donald Reid Womack's Na Iwi o Pele (The Bones of Pele). Womack's expressive language, drawing on techniques as diverse as Stravinsky's syncopated percussive rhythms and Reich's minimalist cells, is eclectic but also distinctive... a stirring, exciting work."

— Honolulu Star-Bulletin