Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary poetry and music
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
(from “Homecoming” by Bruce Dawe)
Last night I was lucky enough to attend a private function at which a small, local, male a capella group, the Pocket Score Company, performed. Their repertoire is primarily early music (medieval and Renaissance) but last night they also sang one modern composition set to a poem by Australian poet Bruce Dawe. The poem, bitterly titled “Homecoming” (1968), is about the bodies of soldiers being brought home from Vietnam. The composer is, I believe, Philip Griffin. As far as I can work out, he was born in England, grew up in Western Australia and now lives in New Zealand but info about him is pretty minimal.
My main point here, though, is not Philip Griffin but the close relationship between poetry and music. I often hear people who love to read say they’d like to read poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, but find it difficult … and it sure can be, but, set to music, poetry can suddenly become way more comprehensible. There is a lot of synergy between poetry and music – just think ballads, for a start – and I have touched on the poetry-music relationship in past posts on musical ensembles. Today, though, I decided to do a quick Internet search to see what else I could find. One exciting idea I discovered was the Pure Poetry Project which was established by Bronwyn Blaiklock and the Ballarat Writers Inc.
The first Pure Poetry event occurred in 2004 and focused on the performance of new poetry and new music rather than expressly requiring a crossover between the two. However, this year, it was decided to specifically encourage integration between the two art forms:
selected poets and composers have been asked to write specific new works in a two-part process. In the first part composers have been asked to musically respond to recently written poems, whilst poets have been asked to respond to recently composed works. The second part of the process is more of a direct collaboration where poet and composer work together to create a new work. (Anthony Lyons, composer)
The recital took place in May this year, in Ballarat. It sounds like an exciting event and I would love to have been there.
Another exciting project combining contemporary poetry and music is that between The Song Company (whom I’ve reviewed here before) and Australian poet Les Murray, in which composers from around the world have set selected Murray poems to music. One of the composers, Andrew Ford, asked Murray many years ago about an early collaboration with the Song Company and his view on the relationship between poetry and music. Murray said:
… My wife’s very musical, and some of the family are, and I think all of the Murrays believe that music was the art that mattered. I’ve always had rather a poor ear I think and tried to make music out of words. But I have this instinct to stretch words out to the edge, where they start crumbling away in music. [...] I’d love to write a good song, and particularly a good hymn before I check out of this profession. But yes, we’re all hovering on the edge of music, we’re always hovering on the edge of all the other arts I guess. Dance, for one; a lot of dance underlies poetry.
Finally, another musical ensemble I have reviewed here before, the Griffyn Ensemble, also regularly performs modern poetry set to music, and sometimes poetry recited alongside music, at their concerts.
None of these ideas are new of course. Poetry has been set to music for centuries and it clearly still is – but it can be hard to find, party because it may not be promoted as such. I’d love to hear of other collaborations and events, in Australia or elsewhere.