Kit Powell (b.1955)
Father's Telescope (1989)
Performers: Nelson Wattie (baritone), Barry Empson (actor), tape
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in Studio Two, Broadcasting House, Wellington
5 April 1990
I. Nein, nein, Ja, ja
II. Father's Telescope
III. Easy Grammar Poem for "Where"
IV. Don't be silly
V. Tomorrow & Tomorrow Morning
VI. No I Don't, Yes I Do
VII. Why Don't You?
VIII. Are You The Milkman?
Introduction by Kenneth Young
I first met Kit Powell at a high school cricket match in the early 70s – a strange introduction for a music broadcast, I know. I was in the Cashmere High School First XI and we used to play Linwood High School in an annual fixture over two days. I had just begun to take music seriously, so I asked one of the opposing team who taught music at Linwood. He pointed out a tall, lean figure amongst those watching the game and named him as Mr Powell. (Kit, as I later discovered.) Kit apparently also taught maths: as well as a Bachelor of Music with Honours from Canterbury; he’d also gained a Master of Science in Mathematics from Victoria University of Wellington.
During the course of the cricket match I had a chance to meet and chat with Kit and found him really interesting, and he took an interest in what I liked and wanted to do. No wonder then that over the years he's found a niche for himself as a fine teacher. In Christchurch he taught at the Teachers College and took courses for New Music and for Creative Music with children; then since his move to Zürich in 1984 with his Swiss wife Brigitte and their family, he’s taught Music Theory at the Hochschule for Music and Theatre and tutored English privately.
His compositional activities have embraced a wide variety of genres: choral (both sung and spoken), orchestral, chamber music, brass band, percussion, music theatre and electroacoustic. His special interests in composition include chance techniques and "found objects" – objects of stone, metal, wood, etc. that aren't normally considered to be musical instruments.
The work of Powell’s we're featuring this evening is Father's Telescope, composed in 1989, a playful music theatre piece for singer, speaker and tape about power and submission – and the teaching process.
The text was written by Michael Harlow, a United States-born poet who settled in New Zealand. In 1987 he was the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton and it was during a visit to Zürich to see Powell that he began work on the text for this composition. The theme of the cycle, (a recurrent one in Harlow's work) is language itself; its use, misuse and ambiguity.
Kit Powell developed the scenario from the texts, and the composer notes:
"The texts contrast the language of the teacher (or parent, or military commander) with that of the pupil (or child or private soldier.) If the language of the one with the power is successful it changes the other. Success, however, means that the pupil learns the language of the teacher – he learns his secret of power. If the teacher does not constantly adjust to the development of the pupil, his position of power is endangered."
The Speaker is a seemingly strong character who holds the power of language and uses it. The delivery of his speech also matches his bearing; abrupt, hard, incisive and loud. When the challenge to his role inevitably comes he panics. He has no other role.
The singer is a supposedly weak character, not because he is really weak, but because it has never occurred to him to want power. He at first obeys, questions innocently, challenges only playfully, and when the speaker reacts to a supposed threat to his power the singer remains puzzled by the reaction he has caused.
In the end the speaker can only mumble a few words. He's become quite confused, whereas the singer takes over the position of power and ignores his previous master.
There are eight songs in total, each with specific directions for the two performers on stage. The only props are a chair and, of course, a large telescope on a tripod. This recording, however, was made in the studio – and I found the work loses none of its impact when it's only heard and not seen.
Powell dedicated the work to the Wellington based writer, editor, translator, and, in the case of this work, singer Nelson Wattie. He's joined on this 1990 Radio New Zealand recording by Barry Empson, who plays the Speaker.