Music and Words: Mark Roberts previews ‘Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney’. A song cycle by poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden

Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney. A song cycle by poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden. Alison Morgan (voice and thumb piano), Anna Fraser (voice), Ezmi Pepper (cello), Joe Manton (bass), Josh Hill (percussion), Stefan Duwe (viola), Acacia Quartet (string quartet), Andrew Batt-Rawden (voice and conductor). 7pm, Friday 01 March, 2013 at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Stations Banner  600  x 357 pxReading the press release for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney, a song cycle for mixed ensemble and electronics by Andrew Batt-Rawden (composer) and Chris Mansell (poet), prompted two very early childhood memories.

The first was catching a train into the city with my mother. I must have been very young, it was well before I started school. I can remember waiting on the platform at Meadowbank station and watching a stream train fly through the station (yes I am that old!). Later, after the boarding the ‘red rattler’ there was the wonderful electric smell, the shuddering of the carriage, the rattling of the windows and the rhythm of the wheels on the track. After leaving Burwood the train curved towards the city. If you looked down you could see into backyards full of vegetables and washing lines, looking up you could see the city getting closer and closer. As the train approached Central it dropped down below the level of the other lines and criss-crossed under what looked like ancient brick aqueducts. Then, suddenly after leaving Central the train disappeared under a building into a dark noisy tunnel – only to emerge at Town Hall station where my mother and I climbed the stairs to emerge in the heart of Sydney.

The second memory is from much the same time. Growing up as a Catholic Easter was an interesting time for a child. There was lots of chocolate, but there was also the solemn Catholic Easter rituals. Good Friday was especially busy as there was Stations of the Cross in the morning and the Solemn Good Friday Mass (which went for ever!) in the afternoon. The Stations of the Cross was much more exciting. It was an easy narrative, there were pictures on the wall and the priest walked around the church telling a story – while it was a particular bloody and distressing story, it was one which I seemed to already be very familiar with – and there was lots of music. Many years later, as a long term lapsed Catholic, I returned to St Mary’s Cathedral for Stations of the Cross to hear the Cathedral Choir sing Miserere Mei Deus. It was a very moving experience.

While it seemed perfectly natural for me to make the connection between train stations and stations of the cross, I’m not sure it is a connection that others will easily make (particularly if they are not from Catholic or High Anglican background). Going a little deeper, however, there is something of a secular ritual about Seven Stations – We are taken on a tour of Sydney’s CBD train stations (though it appears this particular train does not stop at Wynard or Martin Place). At each station we hear a different response to the station, its history, its surroundings and the people who pass through it (and one of the stations is called ‘Kings Cross’).

Andrew Batt-Rawden

Andrew Batt-Rawden

It is perhaps a little surprising that there is not more collaboration between poets and composers. At first glance it would appear to be a natural extension of both the poet’s and composer’s work – in each case one should be enriched by the other. In reality, however, things can be a little different. For the poet (and I am coming from a writing background), the music adds another layer of complexity. The poet is working with the internal rhythm of the lines, wondering when to break a line, whether to use this word or that, understanding how the words/lines will look on the page. While they will also be working on the ‘sound’ of the poem, of how the poem will sound either read aloud/performed or the internal sound when it is read silently on the page, the addition of music can take the poem in a very different direction. The poem has suddenly lost any pretence of being self-contained – it is now part of something larger. The rhythm of the poem can be disrupted by an external rhythm, the words take on different sounds, even different meanings, in the context of the music it is now a part of.

For the composer I’m sure the task is no less difficult. On one level the poem becomes another instrument to write for – there are different ways for each word to be sung, the poem becomes part of the musical text, it is notated into a different language.

It is also a different task for a listener/reader. The reader of a poem brings their own context to the work, they respond to it and to an extent they make it their own. They can read it fast or slow, they can emphasise some words and let others almost disappear. When a poet reads or performs a poem that level is taken away. The poet/performer now controls many of the subtleties but it is still the words that convey most (but not all) of the impact.

Adding music into this mix muddies the waters even further. For most pop/rock/popular music I would argue that the words are still key, the lyrics of a pop song sit on top of the music, the beat may drive it but it is the singer, in most cases, who fronts the band. When we look at jazz, however, the relationship can start to blur. The voice begins to take on more of the attributes on an instrument and there is generally more interaction between the voice and the other instruments. This becomes even more apparent when we turn to classical music. On one level the voice is another instrument and the ‘sound’ may be as critical to the success of the piece as the meaning of the words.

So trying to preview the premier of a new song cycle for, voice mixed ensemble and electronics is problematic if all you have are the words of the song. Fortunately, in the case of Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for sydney, one of the pieces, ‘Town Hall’, was previously performed as part of a Chronology Arts program in Newtown last August.

Town Hall (the station), we are told, is the second busiest station on the NSW rail network (Central is the busiest) and this is reflected in both the music and the words of the piece. The music begins with a frantic percussive cacophony which echoes the metal on metal sound of an underground train which slowly blends into a repetitive horn which suggests the traffic chaos of the city above the station. We are at once placed into the middle of the city. Then a few seconds of silence – perhaps reflecting the moment of calm between trains – before the city returns.

SStations cover grabWhile the words on the page also reflect this slightly frantic edge – In particular the way “I am” is repeated throughout the piece emphasises the repetition that takes place every time the train door opens as well as echoing the musical reference to the sound of the train wheels on the track – it is when we hear the words sung as part of the piece that we can begin to appreciate the value of this collaboration. In the recording I have heard Alison Morgan ( Soprano) and Jenny Duck-Chong (Mezzo Soprano) provide the words with depth, their voices sometimes weaving around each other, multiplying Mansell’s repetition, at other times complimenting each other, pushing the words out ahead of the music demanding our attention (“look at me!”).

Read in isolation from the music, Mansell’s text hints at different aspects of the station and its surroundings. It is linked to the Queen Victoria Shopping Centre and reference is made to the statue of the old Queen:

I am the Queen…….. Victoria
…………….reigning still
…………………over retail

in perhaps the strongest image of the piece the past history of the station site as a colonial cemetery is recalled in the next lines as the dead Queen becomes:

the white dark witch
………blessing
…..and cursing
….the newborn

……breaching
from the underground

In ‘Town Hall’ we can see evidence of the successful collaboration between Batt-Rawden’s music and Mansell’s words. Batt-Rawden’s manages to take Mansell’s text and makes it work on another level. It is a different experience to reading the words on the page – richer, but more demanding of the listener/reader.………..

I recently asked Chris Mansell how the collaboration with Andrew worked her reply suggested that it was a trusting collaboration where both parties were willing to let the other take the running at different times:

We worked both collaboratively and in isolation. We had meetings beforehand, swapping ideas, swapping sounds (I’d recorded train sounds), swapping music (Andrew giving me an idea of the sorts of things he liked). Despite the disparity in our ages, we were on the same wavelength creatively. Andrew is very energetic and likes to take risks musically. I didn’t want to hold on too tight to the words – I wanted to give him room to move. I wasn’t going to stand over his shoulder – that way it’s not a true collaboration, it’s one person trying to impose their will on another. You get better results if you can be surprised when you collaborate.

Reading through the text of the other 6 stations (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and bless Thee”) I became slowly aware of the potential of the complete song cycle. The text is playful at times – the title ‘Getting off at Redfern’ hinting at the old Australian (or at least Sydney based) colloquialism – or the reference in ‘Sydney Terminal’ to “the fruiting towns/ (Orange, Berry….)”

Seven Stations in any order – love poems for Sydney promises to be an event of some importance. Its first performance will take place at 7pm, Friday 01 March, 2013 at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, NSW. Lets hope it is the first of many performances and may there be many more collaborations between poets and composers.

– Mark Roberts

____________________________________________________

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.

The text/poems for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney is available from Chris Mansell’s website http://www.chrismansell.com/Home.html

Information on Andrew Batt-Rawden can be found at the Chronology website http://www.chronologyarts.net/content/andrew-batt-rawden. A recording of ‘Town Hall’ can be found on Andrew’s SoundCloud page https://soundcloud.com/abattrawden.

Bookings for Seven Stations – in any order – a love poem for Sydney can be made at http://www.trybooking.com/Booking/BookingEventSummary.aspx?eid=39238

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