24 Aug 2018

National Poetry Day 2018: NZ poets inspire Kiwi composers

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 24 August 2018

The wealth of New Zealand poetry has been a rich source of inspiration for New Zealand composers since the 1940s.

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire Photo: supplied

Douglas Lilburn, ‘the father of NZ music’ developed deep connections with poets and artists over the course of his career and his music was influenced by their work.

In talking about the New Zealandness of sounds, Lilburn said “…of course the poets could make it so much more explicitly than I could… but I knew that I couldn’t set those poems in an older romantic style. I had to throw out half the notes and make it a bit more ‘stringy’ or sharply defined in a sense. I think it all plays a part in cultivating a style…”

Lilburn’s Salutes to Seven Poets was inspired by the poetry of A. Rex Fairburn, Keith Sinclair, Allen Curnow, Michael K. Joseph, James K. Baxter, Kendrick Smithyman and Ronald A.K Mason  

The original version for piano and violin was created for a poetry event at Auckland University in 1952. Here’s Donald Maurice’s arrangement for viola, piano and narrator

The poems of Ruth Dallas have been a popular choice for many New Zealand composers including Douglas Lilburn and his student Dorothy Freed (Deserted Beach for voice and string quartet).

We asked SOUNZ's Chris Watson to pick out one of his favourite Ruth Dallas settings. He chose Dorothy Ker’s solo soprano setting of On the Bridge, sung here by soprano Rowena Simpson.

In the eighties there was a flourishing of song composition in New Zealand, and around 23% of works produced that decade used New Zealand texts.

In 1984, award-winning composer Ross Harris collaborated with writer Witi Ihimaera to create a ground-breaking Maori opera. Waituhi is based on Ihimaera’s novel Whanau - the story of the writer's life in an East Coast (New Zealand) village.

More recently Ross Harris has collaborated with Auckland poet Vincent O’Sullivan. His collaborations with O'Sullivan have produced two operas, a symphony, four song cycles and Requiem for the Fallen. This piece for solo tenor, SATB choir, taonga pūoro, bass drum, and string quartet was co-composed with taonga pūoro specialist Horomona Horo.

One of Ross Harris's O'Sullivan song cycles The Abiding Tides (2010) was described by music critic Rod Biss as "...a work that instantly enriched our heritage of New Zealand music".

In the 90s the amount of works using New Zealand poems increased and there was a considerable rise in the numbers of New Zealand poets represented.

Since 2008 composer Norman Meehan has focused setting poetic text as song. And the result has been six albums featuring his settings of texts by a wide variety of New Zealand poets.

One his most fruitful collaborations has been with poet Bill Manhire and vocalist Hannah Griffin: Buddhist Rain and Making Baby Float, the meditation on Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (These Rough Notes), and more recently settings of Bill Manhire riddles and charms (Tell Me Your Name).

Hannah Griffin also appears on Meehan’s 2015 album Small Holes in the Silence, which includes settings of a number of significant New Zealand poets including Manhire, James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare, Eileen Duggan, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and David Mitchell.

Research conducted by former SOUNZ director Julie Sperring in 2008 discovered that the acclaimed Hone Tuwhare was the poet most likely to be chosen by women composers.

Hone Tuwhare

Hone Tuwhare Photo: Hone Tuwhare Charitable Trust

Dorothy Buchanan set five songs from Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun for mezzo soprano, flute and piano and Maria Grenfell chose Time and the Child for her cycle for baritone A Pinch of Time.

Charles Royal

Charles Royal Photo: Supplied

In 1988 Brigid Ursula Bisley set Tuwhare’s sensual poem Rain for soprano and piano, and almost a decade later 2018 SOUNZ Contemporary Award finalist Leonie Holmes included Tuwhare’s famous poem Rain in her Three Songs for Baritone and Piano. And in 2015, APO Rising Star Composer in Residence Kirsten Strom set Rain for solo mezzo soprano in her work Moodscenes.

Julie Sperring’s research also discovered that the only poet whose texts were used consistently in the solo song genre across all decades was James K Baxter.

In 2010 Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal set Baxter’s poems - High Country Weather, Let time be still and an extract from Stephanie.

“When I hear these poems..." Royal said “… I think of Baxter as a young poet in the South Island (Otago and Canterbury universities) exploring the Otago hinterland. I think, too, of the early days of his relationship with Jacqui Sturm and imagine the two of them exploring the hills and mountains.”

In 2000 Charlotte Yates co-ordinated and released the 'Baxter' CD, with the poetry of James K Baxter set to contemporary music. That CD so impressed Toi Maori Aotearoa that they commissioned Charlotte to repeat the process, this time setting the lyrical poetry of Hone Tuwhare, to a range of musical styles - from Whirimako Black and Dean Hapeta to Don McGlashan and Graham Brazier, and from Te Reo duo Wai to pop favourites Strawpeople.

And in 2011 Charlotte Yates produced Ihimaera Live for the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival. The concert featured lyrics especially written by author Witi Ihimaera, set to music by 12 New Zealand composers.

If you’re looking for something urban, composer Alex Taylor set poems by Auckland’s Iain Sharpe, from his 1985 collection Pierrot Variations, which Alex found in a second hand book shop in Devonport.

Here's Alex Taylor (who is also a poet) singing The Desperados and Watching the Motorway by Moonlight.

And for something that trips off the tongue, The Work's limerick competition this week is on the topic of opera – that grand union of words and music.

This week's winner:

A young singer who played Rigoletto
Took his costume down to the laundretto
Washed his trousers too hot
And they shrunk such a lot
That he sang the whole thing in falsetto

Paula Weir

Related Audio:

  • Lilburn's landmark song-cycle 'Sings Harry' to poems by Denis Glover
  • Lilburn's 1951 song-cycle 'Elegy' on poems by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.