When music and poetry converse

Michael Hooper: Halcyon, Stolen

Promotional image,  Window

Promotional image, Window

Promotional image, Window

In the manner of an album that takes its title from one of its tracks, Halcyon chamber ensemble named this concert Stolen. Some of the music fits, but not all of it is tied to a single theme. In fact only one of the compositions performed had an obvious relationship with the concert’s title, David Harris’ Yurrebilla Climbing, a quartet of instruments, without Haylcon’s voices.

Yurrebilla Climbing’s three movements presented the composer’s take on a place, the Mount Lofty Ranges; a fragment from the Bringing Them Home Report; and ‘modern multicultural society.’ Each of the movements was distinct, though perhaps not distinct enough to cover the vast territories between three very different ideas. The music could also have embraced conflict and disruption, to better capture something of the complexity and politics of its themes. Nevertheless, this was no distraction from well-performed music that was both modest and engaging.

The opening work was by David Kotlowy who, working with Kaurna people based at the University of Adelaide, set a text in the Kaurna language. With four instrumentalists on stage and two singers off, the slow unfolding of the text emphasised the vowels floating into the space. The instruments played unpitched sounds—key clicks, pedal noise, quiet whistles—as if all the consonants had been gathered—the combination dramatising the precariousness of the language itself.

Between some of the compositions, stories from Bringing Them Home were read and images by South Australian Aboriginal visual artist Allan Sumner were displayed throughout. In very different ways both elicited strong reactions. I would have liked a clearer sense of the music’s programming to make sense of these additions.

Gerard Brophy’s new work, When Peacocks Dance,was for two texts by the mystical Indian poet Kabir. The music for both was simple in the best sense, gently giving music to two very rich poems. The first, “Hansi”, an ecstatic tale of a swan and a place where “the heart wants no other joy,” is for very high soprano. The second, “Shadows” is a dark complement (though by no means downcast) with Brophy’s music in the tradition of folksong, non-dramatic, letting the text unfold.

The most successful work was Andrew Ford’s Willow Songs. Like Brophy’s, Ford’s approach to his text is sympathetic and straightforward. Unlike Brophy’s approach however, Ford is responsive to American-British poet Anne Stevenson’s line by line changes, setting the text, rather than letting the text speak against a musical background.

The songs form a continuous set, though the poetry covers a wide range of ages, from the perspectives of a 12-year old or someone recalling childbirth or contemplating death. All speak of personal experience, so it is appropriate that Ford’s music is equally direct and vivid. For a concert that also contained a good deal of silence, it was a pleasure to hear the songs run into each other. None of the other compositions in the concert made much of transitions, but Ford crafted music to flow from poem to poem. In the moments where voices fall silent, Ford’s own character comes to the fore, no longer needing to attend to a text—the result is a counterpoint of voices: singing, poetic and authorial.

Some of these transitions are particularly striking, such as the move from “Fool’s Gold,” which tells of “a girls’ night out on the town,” followed by “Incident”—the sudden self-awareness of adolescence. The musical transition is from deconstructed raucous jazz band to stark simplicity, and it comes with calculated awkwardness.

The last of the poems is a ballad, “Willow Songs,” which gives the set its name, and I was not the only person who left the hall with the melody fixed in my memory. Stevenson trained as a musician; much of her poetry in this set is musical, often the kind of poetry that composers are keen to avoid. But one has the impression that Ford is comfortable with this, speaking in an entirely sympathetic dialogue with the poet’s words. It is a conversation also open to the audience.

Halcyon and Soundstream Collective, Stolen, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, 6 Sept, 2014

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 43

© Michael Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

20 April 2015