The Conquest of the Useless: Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon

Research output: Performances, compositions and other non-textual formsComposition



Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon represents the culmination of my involvement and, one might say, obsession with Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless; a collection of diaries written during the troubled making of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. The film itself concerns the exploits of Brian Fitzgerald, a turn of the century rubber baron fixated with the dream of constructing an opera house in the jungle. However, the diaries contain little information about the filming, rather, as Herzog puts it “they might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle”.

The images contained in those pages have fuelled my imagination over the course of several concert pieces as well as the music theatre work Sweat of the Sun.

Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon is scored for actor, mezzo soprano and large orchestra (with a prominent role for electric guitar). Actor, singer and guitar give voice, in their own unique ways, to the character at the centre of the diaries - a solitary man driven by a singular and all consuming vision:

“A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass… It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape…soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong.”

How to represent such an image in music? I knew from the outset that I needed to employ the full palette of a late romantic orchestral sound-world and all of the connotations, positive and negative, that might go with that. Descriptions of nature, from the minutiae of the insect world to the vastness of the jungle, permeate the text and I often imagined the piece as a kind of distorted, perhaps even occasionally disgusting Das Lied von Der Erde. To that end many of the tropes of this kind of music - explicit word painting, expressive lyricism, pathetic fallacy, even the direct imitation of sounds from the natural world - appear here unashamedly and go even beyond what one might nowadays consider tasteful. By embracing such an anachronistic form of expression, I hoped to stylise the means of expression as employed by Herzog in the text, infused as it is with the rich flavour of German Romanticism.

The piece is furthermore a dialogue with another already existing work, B A Zimmermann’s Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun), from 1972; music, as Tom Service puts it, of “single minded pessimism and late-flowering German expressionism”. There is an austerity bordering on brutality in that piece which I quote here at the start and further on with Zimmermann’s orchestration of the opening bars of Bach’s Es ist genug (It is enough), symbolizing in this case the nadir of the central character’s apparent ‘messiah complex’.

Other allusions are present too – Sysiphus and his rock represented by an inexorably rising glissando in the orchestra, the glossy sheen of Hollywood film scores, South American tribal conch shell playing, grand opera (specifically Verdi’s Rigolletto) and above it all, the voice of the great heroic tenor, Caruso.

This composition was commissioned by RTÉ for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in 2016

This piece can be performed alone or as Part III of the trilogy ‘Conquest of the Useless’.


Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversal Edition
Publication statusPublished or Performed - 28 Feb 2019