Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 2: Words (Last ones) and Music

My last Canberra Writers Festival event was, in a way, a little left field, because it primarily comprised a musical performance – but one with a strong literary element …

Turning Last Words into Music

I chose this one, for a couple of reasons, but mainly because it involved music and was at a time that would work for Mr Gums to join me. It featured a composition by Australian composer, writer and radio presenter, Andrew Ford (who appeared here long ago in my post on the Voss Journey). The session was MC’d by Jane O’Dwyer, Deputy Chair of the Canberra Writers Festival Board.

So, what was it about? Well, it was a performance of Ford’s 30-minute song cycle titled, yes, Last words. It comprises “the final poems, letters and diary entries of some of history’s most iconic figures” set to music. However, before we heard the music, Ford talked about its genesis and some of the challenges he faced in creating it.

He started by describing music as the most abstract of the arts, and song as the most ubiquitous type of music. But, he said, listeners will only pay attention to the words if the music attracts them first. He then explained that his wife suggested the project – that he set people’s last words to music, for soprano Jane Sheldon, and that he include Captain Scott’s last words.

Then the challenges started. For example, he said, “last words” tend to be very short which is hard for song, but then a friend suggested “last poems”, which he took up. Another challenge was the order, and structure. Given the topic, the mood/tone of course tended to the slow and mournful. Something fast, some relief, was needed to prevent its becoming tedious, but what? He lit upon the idea of including a fiction character, and chose Fish Lamb’s death from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Then there was Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. What sort of music would work with that? In the end, he decided it didn’t need music (though in fact some minimal cello and piano did sound occasionally during that song.)

Goethe's bed, Goethe House, Weimar

The bed Goethe died in, Goethe House, Weimar

Finally, there was the challenge of his opening “last words” from Goethe: “Mehr licht, mehr licht” (More light, more light.) He was reading them as portentous, but then his wife suggested that perhaps they could be read simply – as Goethe simply wanting more light!

Responding to a question from moderator O’Dwyer, he talked a little about music and emotion. Debussy apparently said that music is “pure emotion” but Ford said that he didn’t consciously try to “embed” emotion in the music, because that would be manipulative. In composing this piece he tried to find the notes that would approximate how he would say the words. Simple, eh?

Anyhow, then the concert started, and I found it engrossing and moving. It’s not easy music, but neither is it hard – and it was performed beautifully, even though the performers had their first and last rehearsal only two hours before they took to the stage. The lyrics were provided to the audience, and are available on line at Andrew Ford’s website.

Some of the things I liked included the structure (or order). I liked, for example, that it starts with some of those brief last words …

Mehr licht, mehr licht … (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Now comes the mystery. (Henry Ward Beecher)

Auftakt! Auftakt! (Alban Berg)

… and ends with some more brief last words:

Mehr licht, mehr licht …

Goodnight, my darlings. I’ll see you tomorrow. (Noël Coward)

Last Words trio and sopranoI think these beginning and endings gave the cycle a bit of a narrative arc, albeit the actual plot is death, death and death – if you know what I mean.

I also liked that Goethe’s words are used as a refrain, appearing intermittently to provide a transition between some of the songs – but sung with different dynamics or emphasis in different places.

I was particularly moved by Captain Scott’s last words, and thought that Ford, and singer Sheldon, handled its prose form very well. (As they did Fish Lamb’s faster piece, And Woolf’s suicide note.)

Appropriately, Emily Bronte’s last words were set to heavier more dramatic music, and ended in a screeching “Me”, which surely alluded to Cathy (from Wuthering Heights.)

And, I loved that texts included a favourite (last or otherwise) poem of mine, Dorothy Porter’s “View from 417”, with its final lines:

Something in me
despite everything
can’t believe my luck

The music here was more lightly lyrical. In other words, the mood and tone of the music did shift during the piece, despite the repeating death motif.

Performers: Jane Sheldon (Soprano), Helen Ayres (violin, replacing the advertised Tor Frømyhr), David Pereira (cello) and Edward Neeman (piano).

Q & A

There was some time for Q&A at the end, during which people asked:

  • does some writing “fit” music more easily than others (yes)
  • can music create new emotions (are there new emotions to be found?)
  • why does the voice occasionally get lost in the music, where mostly the music was subtle (it got “lost” in Fish Lamb’s scene because he’s drowning, so here the voice becomes another instrument.)

This was, for me, a delightful last session of the Festival – despite its theme!

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