A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

On Poetry and Song

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Are poems ever happy to just sit on a page? Or do they wait, like a dog at the door, for someone to open the book and give their words a voice? poetry

One of my great indulgences is reading aloud. I’ve read to my children for years, and it’s as much a comfort for me as it is for them. Now, when I’m trying to slow down, to find a still centre, I read to myself.  Even better, I seek out someone to read to me, so I can savour the music of the words, the cadence of the voice. But what about words with music? Can it be as intimate, as affecting? How does poetry fare? Does it fight? Or does it dance?

Last night, the book opened and the words of six Australian poets came tumbling out to dance with music by six Australian composers in a concert presented by Halcyon. We had the sly, seductive lieder of Margaret Sutherland, setting words of Judith Wright; the arch and mischevious thought bubbles of Michael Leunig, set by Brett Dean; Katy Abbott Kvasnica’s pitch perfect settings of poems from Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s The Domestic Sublime; still, blinking wonder in the poetry of David Malouf, set by Gordon Kerry; and other worldly beauty in the pairing of composer Elliott Gyger and poet Ern Malley, plus Andrew Schultz’s Paradise, with words and music from the same imagination.

I’m fascinated by the range of voices that came across so clearly, with such individuality, in the words and the music. And I’m fascinated by how the two mediums met and entwined and embroidered each other. In Three Malouf Songs, for instance, the glassy ripples of the ensemble, or in The Domestic Sublime the ecstatic billowing of the spinnaker.

I’m loath to hold up a scorecard for each work or each performance. I will give a shout out to the instrumentalists, pianist Danny Herscovitch, cellist Geoff Gartner and violin Ewan Foster, for introducing me to Roger Smalley’s Piano Trio. And, I must also express my ongoing admiration for Halcyon — aka Jenny Duck-Chong and Alison Morgan — which never opts for the easy path when the hard path is more interesting. For example, pitching a long, line built around word-derived cyphers rather than a tonal centre must be one of the ultimate challenges for singers. Two voices singing such a line in unison, where any error will be immediately obvious, must be mind-bogglingly difficult. But Duck-Chong and Morgan came together in the final work, took the bewildering words and elusive music of Ern Malley and Elliott Gyger and made a strange and beautiful sense. I think the words were happy.

Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

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