Sometimes, the words of my dear old dad return to haunt me.
‘Haunt’ is not the right word: perhaps I mean, simply, that I hear his voice again, saying things he used to say at the sort of times he used to say them. Dad had a fund of saws and sayings, which he would sagely offer at moments of indecision, challenge, disappointment, triumph or for no particular reason, it has to be said. Very few were original, although they were always invested with a dad-like quirky Hugh-ness (Hugh was his name). Some were inane, like “(Son,) there’s no time like the present”, which I suppose is a common man way of saying carpe diem, or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going (, son)”. No less useful for that, but still pretty inane. Being a dad and a dag, I am guilty of having frequently employed similar platitudes in the upbringing of my two daughters, who were never as impressed by my lacklustre attempts at wisdom as I was at my old man’s, back in the day. On the other hand, there were many instances when dad’s advice was actually wise as well as useful, and those instances and pieces of advice have formed part of my inner dialogue ever since. Once, when I was struggling with conceiving how I would ‘get there from here’ — how I would ever gather the skills needed to play the piano sufficiently well to make a living — he said something like “Son, you’ve got a long way to go, but it’s not a steep slope, just a long one.” Which turned out to true, on the whole.
The other one I like a lot is not easily remembered verbatim but may be summed up by “necessity is the mother of invention”, although that is not exactly the phraseology, nor quite the meaning. Nor can I remember the particular problem that gave rise to the advice, but I can explain it, because it came up again recently in a new iteration. When it did, I sought advice from composer friends and discovered that almost every one of them had a similar tale to tell, of frustration and pique. At least one told me that there simply was no workable solution. And yet, sometimes, seemingly insurmountable problems lead to improvised solutions that, it becomes clear in retrospect, turn out to be preferable to the original wished-for alternative. The principle seems applicable to just about any profession or situation, and is certainly true in the realm of composing, I have discovered. Let me explain.
My song cycle Three birds was commissioned for soprano Sara Macliver and the Australia Ensemble and was first performed at our August subscription concert in Sydney this year. Bringing together poetry from three eras, three places and by three very different poets — Judith Wright, Emily Dickinson and Matsuo Basho — the theme of birds, or man’s (and woman’s) relationship and fascination with birds, is explored across the centuries and continents. It also manages to encapsulate one of those serendipitous confluences of interest that, unknown and unsuspected until a moment of revelation, cause one to wonder about the more mysterious ways in which we are connected to one another. The commissioner of the work, Norma Hawkins, is a vigorous and delightful elderly lady living in inner city Sydney, who has been an Aus Ensemble subscriber since its inception in 1980. We did not formally meet until I had finished composing the pieces, and she was adamant that she did not want to place even the slightest demands on me in determining what form they should take, or what subject matter they might address. My plan to write songs about birds, therefore, was entirely my own idea.
On visiting Norma in her cottage in Glebe, it was immediately clear that she was a bird-lover, with books about birds stacking the shelves and pictures of them adorning the walls. She enthusiastically told me of her involvement in a local group of environmentalists who have successfully fought to preserve the habitat of Glebe’s blue wrens. The only blemish on such a blessed coincidence was, it seems, the choice of Wright’s poem about a currawong, rather than a wren. Norma set me right on the nature of currawongs, great sinister predators that they are, despite their pleasant and memorable call, a “cruel and melodious bird”, according to Judith Wright.
Wright is among a small handful of Australia’s finest poets, and was a galvanising force in my artistic thinking from the moment when, during an English exam at school, I read her poem ‘Birds’. Over her long writing career, from the early, intensely lyrical poems of New England, already troubled by concerns for social justice and environmental protection, to her unflinching contemplations on love, old age, loss and a myriad other truths about life, she always expressed in her words a strenuous desire to understand and face up to reality, however difficult. In one sense, ‘Birds’ (from The gateway (1953)) provides a key to her later bird poems. It is, on the face of it, about birds:
“Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.
Weapon kestrel hard as a blade’s curve,
thrush round as a mother or a full drop of water
fruit-green parrot wise in his shrieking swerve—
all are what bird is and do not reach beyond the bird.”
Soon, however, it becomes clear that her contemplation of the evolution of the bird to be “perfect in the bird” is a point of distinction between the bird and herself, her ‘imperfect’ human self:
“But I am torn and beleaguered by my own people.”
If only I could be a bird, she says, more or less. Or rather, if only I could be a person as a bird is a bird. Her many later studies of birds (including the superb collection Birds (1962)) deliberately eschew the distinction and the anguish, leaving the contemplation of birds to be enough, simply to be. In her distinctive voice, she does what Dickinson and Basho did: she shares her experience of being with the bird, directing her gaze through our eyes, trusting and respecting our intelligence to make of it what we will, by far the best way.
Emily Dickinson, acknowledged as one of the finest American writers ever to have lifted a quill, lived an exceedingly quiet life, which became more and more hermitic as she grew older. Such inwardness as she chose for herself served to focus her poetic insights on small things and slight observations after the manner of a microscopist, thereby to reveal tiny details and surprising truths. Reading such a poem as ‘A bird came down the walk’ leaves one convinced that absolutely nothing is incapable of giving rise to poetic thought, and that ‘poetic thought’, moreover, is not the airy romanticisation of the otherwise humdrum but the opposite. Dickinson, like Basho, Stevens and Wright, really sees what she looks at, and her words are her art of capturing, in Wallace Stevens’ notable phrase “things as they are”.
And so to the first song to be completed, which is the second of the group, ‘Basho’s birds: homage to Wallace Stevens’. It turned out to be by far the most problematic, and it is the nature of that problem that prompted me to write about it here. Originally, this was a song that I sketched many years ago to words by Wallace Stevens, the great American symbolist poet whose earliest collection The harmonium contains the gem ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’. It is a poem that has fascinated American composers and literature students for decades, and has attracted a large body of scholarship and music devoted to its zen-like simplicity and aloof beauty. Among the composers who have previously set these words are Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Virgil Thompson, Lukas Foss, Ian Wisse, Mohammed Fairouz and Robert Paterson. Perhaps the most lovely Stevens setting I know is ‘A mind of winter’ by George Benjamin, based on another Stevens poem ‘The snowman’.
On the second day of 2016, I sat down to apply to the various publishers for permission to set all these words to music, with all of the bureaucratic detail that follows by necessity. For composers, this is typically, but not always, a mundane procedure invloving the negotiation of terms for performance, broadcast, sheet music sales and the royalties and fees that accrue and must be divided between the parties. In the case of Judith Wright, the rights holder was able to settle on standard terms within a fortnight. In the case of Stevens, however, the publisher and copyright holder took twenty weeks to respond, proposing what appeared to me to be quite restrictive and ambiguous terms. In any case, during the interim I had had to begin work on writing the songs, anticipating that all would work out fine, as it usually does. Once it became clear that all would not be fine, and that if I held to plan A the day of the concert might come and go without formal agreement, I decided that the words I loved and admired so much would probably be unavailable to me and that I would need to prepare a plan B. It seemed to me that the options were, essentially, three: I could find new words for the existing song; I could write a new song altogether and abandon the one I had already composed; or, I could cancel the performance. It possibly would have been easier, looking back, simply to have written a new song with different words, but I felt that I liked what I had written, and was overtaken by a stubborn determination not to be beaten so easily. So I started the hunt for new words to retro-fit to my song. That was where I found myself being reaquainted with Basho.
Stevens was sometimes slightly evasive about his sources of inspiration, but the form and style of ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’ is strongly suggestive of Japanese haiku and its Chinese ancestors. A reading of the most illustrious of haiku poets, Matsuo Basho (1644—94), alongside Stevens clearly shows an affinity, if not evidence of actual quotation (insofar as that is possible in translation), and I have freely adapted, with the help of a Japanese-speaking friend, a selection of Basho’s poems relating to birds so as to form something of an anachronistic tribute to his later admirer and colleague in words. The two men, separated in time by some 250 years, lived very different lives and had quite different aims in their writing. Basho lived as an itinerant thinker almost all his life, poor, reliant on the beneficence of strangers, quietly contemplating the largely rural 17th century world he wandered through, distilling the essence of a day’s experience in a handful of often miraculously apt and simple words. Stevens was a wealthy insurance executive who wrote poetry on the side, known for his extremely abundant vocabulary, often impenetrable symbolism and esoteric philosophical content. What the two shared, though, was an abiding sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the attempt to capture the essence of reality in their work, as so many great poets do and have done.
I’d like to express my gratitude to Mirei Ballinger for her generous help with some of the Basho translations, and for helping me out of such a tight spot in a way which ended up artistically satisfying and interesting. It occurs to me now that the poetry of Basho has qualities that I might even prefer to those of Stevens, no matter how much I admire the supreme virtuosity, imagination and sense of beauty of the latter. Basho’s art is warm, personal and intimate: there is a sense in which you are with him, wherever he is on that day, in that moment, at that place, and he welcomes you always as a poetic companion. Stevens’ art is wonderful, cerebral, quirky, mysterious and often impenetrable but always beautiful and intriguing, but rarely warm or personal. Perhaps it is a time-of-life thing, but I find myself attracted more to the former these days. So, although it was not quite the piece I had planned to write, it might have been if I knew then what I know now, because of the the whole experience and because of the problem unhelpfully posed.
And I like to think that my old dad would have smiled an indulgent smile and said something pithy at this point. I just can’t think what it might have been.