Malcolm Speirs, or Jack Speirs as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1939. He studied composition in Edinburgh and then at the Berlin Hochschule, before settling in Dunedin in his mid-20s where he became active as a conductor and a lecturer at Otago University. He eventually became an Associate Professor, a position he held until his death in 2000.
He once described his pet hate as the idea that a composer here should look to the Pacific rather than to Europe to become a genuine New Zealand composer. He was interested in the music of various non-European cultures but believed a New Zealand composer simply to be one who lives and writes in New Zealand, inevitably absorbing the complex resonances of this country. The work we're about to hear, Three Poems of Janet Frame, is a definite reflection of this stance.
Malcolm Speirs' interest in Janet Frame's work began with her novels and extended to her poetry, and her style seemed perfect for use by a composer. The text is from Frame's only collection of poems published in her lifetime, The Pocket Mirror of 1967. The first and third songs set excerpts of the poem "Some Thoughts on Bereavement". The cycle, however, is a unified whole centred around the second song "People Are Ill and Dying", which is a comment on the destructive and dehumanising effect of nuclear war.
The first and third songs have a personal aspect. They express an individual's reactions to the deaths of others. The last line of the final song had a particular relevance for Speirs. It expresses the love and concern one has for one's fellow human beings and that with the death of others, part of oneself dies as well.
In the central poem of the set, Speirs admired Frame's skilful use of metaphor and sense of imagery as a means to avoid a literal depiction of the horror of the nuclear age.
Janet Frame once said that poetry was the highest form of literature because, as she put it, "you have no dead wood in a poem". Speirs reflects this in his instrumentation: he avoids the overt gesture of a large ensemble, instead scoring the work for 12 instrumentalists and high voice. The music demonstrates the general influence of Webern and serialism, following on from the guidance he had from teachers such as Boris Blacher in Berlin and Kenneth Leighton in Edinburgh, both of whom, in the early 60s at least, adhered to twelve-tone procedures.
Speirs mixes measured passages with tightly constructed aleatoric textures, which utilise a strong, crystalline sense of counterpoint he would have picked up from Leighton in particular. The music translates some of the powerful verbal images into musical ones. Frame skilfully uses metaphor in the central poem: a recurring image of a mushroom suggests a nuclear explosion, and its corrosive power is underlined by a reference to the worm in the pillar. Speirs set these two climactic references as long, dying melismas for the solo voice. Throughout the cycle, patterns of accelerating and decelerating repeated notes, especially on the horn and trumpet, carry a suggestion of warfare, which we inevitably associate with nuclear might.
The work resulted from a commission by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in 1970 when Speirs was only 31. It was first performed on The Music Programme on NZBC TV, believe it or not. My, how times have changed! The soloist on that occasion was the tenor George Metcalfe, and members of the then NZBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by the composer.