Monday, April 11, 2011
The alchemy of poetry and song
The result will be presented by Te Kōkī, New Zealand School of Music in a special concert on Thursday 14 April. Manhire will read a number of the poems before they are played—a wonderful bonus for the audience, says his collaborator Meehan. “Hearing the transformation from spoken to sung words has a certain alchemical magic, giving a glimpse into the creative process.”
Composer Meehan will be at the piano with Hannah Griffin providing vocals, and Colin Hemmingsen on saxophone and clarinet. They will be supported by backing vocals from Mara Simpson and Ruth Armishaw, Nick Tipping on bass and Wade Reeves on guitar, all musicians with strong connections to the NZSM as staff or former students.
"Of the poems included in this programme, Bill wrote eight specifically for Hannah Griffin to sing,” Meehan explains. “The majority of the other poems come from two collections of his poems, Victims of Lightning and Lifted. Those poems were written without any notion that they might assume life as songs, but they are all so musical that they seemed to cry out to be set as song lyrics. So far Bill hasn’t objected.”
Professor Manhire, who has recently announced his intention to retire from his position as Director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, is regarded by many as one of the most seminal influences on creative writing in New Zealand. He remarks on the pleasurable challenge presented by writing lyrics to be set to music and sung.
"There is a certain creative freedom in writing words where I didn't feel that every syllable counted and every line break had to be a pause—all that kind of stuff that poets get obsessed with or precious about,” says Manhire.
“The poem has its own strong music already in your head or on the page. The standard song lyric is keen on repetition, most obviously in refrains, and it is liberating as a poet to build the refrain in very deliberately, or repeat three lines in the middle of each stanza. I've always liked repetitions in poems, and rhyme is a kind of repetition. I like the strange energy that repetition and rhyming gives.”
Norman Meehan, who teaches at the NZSM, says he's happy to take musical ideas from anywhere, but: “To be really interesting, craft is needed to turn the ideas from raw stones into polished gems.”
“Over the past few years, I have been setting poetry to music and, deciding that I’d like to work with material closer to home, I started looking at words by New Zealand poets. In Bill’s work I found just the material I was looking for—earthy poems, funny and wry and full of smart observations and weird little twists.
“In setting the poems it's a matter of living with them for a while, to get a feel for them, and then playing around with musical ideas until finding something that fits the mood or vibe of the poem. That's generally been pretty easy with Bill's poems, which I find highly evocative.”
Meehan and Manhire is the first event for 2011 in the NZSM’s Hunter Concert Series. The Thursday evening concerts feature music making of the very highest calibre and will be presented in the elegant and intimate Hunter Council Chamber on Victoria University’s Kelburn campus. Future programmes in the series can be found on the NZSM website – http://www.nzsm.ac.nz./
Photo of Bill Manhire above - The Dominion Post.