On Friday night Kupka’s Piano will premiere my new work Stars, not far off - a cycle of six songs, settings of ‘Six significant landscapes’ (1916) by American poet Wallace Stevens.
This excites me, as it represents the first successful vocal composition of my output. Successful in a couple of senses: in the melodiousness of the lines, in the setting of the texts, in the interrelation of the voice and the instruments. It has been a great experience talking through the ideas and expression with Tabatha McFadyen and with the instrumentalists, and hearing the pieces come to life. They are sounding fantastic.
It was not an easy piece to write, and took me two months longer than expected - the poor performers only having received the sixth song less than two weeks ago.
American composer Elliott Carter once said to his student David Schiff that you can’t set Wallace Stevens to music, because his poems lack the requisite drama. Maybe this is why the work was so difficult to compose. It is true Stevens' poems are often metaphysical meditations with no narrative or psychodrama, and these songs are no exception. But one thing that struck me when reading the poems over and over was that, despite their stillness, there was always an implied dramatic movement, albeit a subtle one. In each poem you can always find an internal logic of development in the conceptual framework and imagery as well as a formal and rhythmic logic to the diction and phrasing. It is a matter of bringing this movement and difference to the surface while remaining true to the equal measures of stillness and unity in the poems.
Another aspect that I wanted to explore - in fact, perhaps the main reason for choosing these to set - was the fact that the poems were written by an American poet about China. (Stevens, an 'oriental art' enthusiast, wrote the poems in response to six Chinese landscape paintings, hence the title). It is becoming clear that the economic, political, and cultural relationship Australia has to both China and America (and the tensions that come from this) will be an important part of what it is to be Australian across the first half of the 21st century. These songs therefore try to incorporate signifiers of typical orientalist fantasy - gongs, pentatonics, glissandi, tranquillity, etc - at the same time as trying to have a kind of American busyness, sassiness and worldly nonchalance.
Through this contradiction, I hope the songs to be representative of something properly Australian.
I hope you can come listen to Kupka’s Piano and Tabatha bring these songs into the world on Friday night.
Six Significant Landscapes
I An old man sits In the shadow of a pine tree In China. He sees larkspur, Blue and white, At the edge of the shadow, Move in the wind. His beard moves in the wind. The pine tree moves in the wind. Thus water flows Over weeds.
II The night is of the colour Of a woman's arm: Night, the female, Obscure, Fragrant and supple, Conceals herself. A pool shines, Like a bracelet Shaken in a dance.
III I measure myself Against a tall tree. I find that I am much taller, For I reach right up to the sun, With my eye; And I reach to the shore of the sea With my ear. Nevertheless, I dislike The way ants crawl In and out of my shadow.
IV When my dream was near the moon, The white folds of its gown Filled with yellow light. The soles of its feet Grew red. Its hair filled With certain blue crystallizations From stars, Not far off.
V Not all the knives of the lamp-posts, Nor the chisels of the long streets, Nor the mallets of the domes And high towers, Can carve What one star can carve, Shining through the grape-leaves.
VI Rationalists, wearing square hats, Think, in square rooms, Looking at the floor, Looking at the ceiling. They confine themselves To right-angled triangles. If they tried rhomboids, Cones, waving lines, ellipses -- As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon -- Rationalists would wear sombreros.