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

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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

Vive la madness! Chris Mansell Launches P76 Issue 6

P76 Issue 6.  Launch Speech by Chris Mansell at the Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe 21 October 2012.

P76 magazine was founded by Mark Roberts and Adam Aitken 1983 and, over the years, it has featured work by many leading poets and writers. Five issues were published between 1983 and 1991 (for a complete listing of each issue go to http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/). Issue 6 of P76 was scheduled to appear during the summer of 1992/93 but, due to a number of issues/incidents and circumstances, it never appeared – existing only on a old floppy disk which was presumed lost. Earlier this year the floppy disk was rediscovered and finally, after many years, issue 6 struggled towards the photocopier (rather than the gestetner) to be born. Chris Mansell kindly agreed to launch this long awaited issue………

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Greetings everyone on this Sydney Sunday where resurrections seem ripe – as do many of the attendees. It’s a brilliant, magnanimous, expansive day which seems to reflect the spirit of these new/old things – and their new/old editors and friends. We welcome the madness of the day and of this editorial adventure both then and now. It’s liberating to see P76 up on its legs again. It has been kicking about online recently, and now, over the horizon the Lost Edition appears like the Lone Ranger once again. (I think this makes Your Friendly Fascist Tonto by the way).

Most of us spend time feeling unreasonably constrained by what we are supposed to do or be – whereas, in fact, we are not constrained at all.

Small mags and presses come out of that freedom, that realisation, that we can do as we wish and have, up to now, the freedom to do and say as we wish. (Senator Conroy notwithstanding.) There might be opprobrium and marginalisation, even invisibility, but it allows us to do as we will.

The marginalisation or invisibility depends of course of where you’re standing. Stand on the high pinnacles of accounting self-righteousness and the small mag looks minute; stand on the shoulders of an international publishing company, and small mags look, if they appear at all, like typing errors – mildly irritating but inconsequential. Stand where we are standing, however, and they are innovative, transgressive, and places for writers to try things out.

Chris Mansell launching P76 No. 6

Of course I’m thinking about this because I’ve just read the article on small presses in P76 (the lost issue) – the Now and Then article (which first appeared in Rochford Street Review). It mentions Compass magazine (of which I was an editor) losing its funding. There were good reasons for that – I’d handed it over to someone else and they weren’t very good at accounting. Now as then the reliance on government funding is, I think, problematic. Can you imagine any government in their right minds funding YFF or Nigel’s Post-Modern Writing, Meuse, Magic Sam or 925? We wouldn’t want them to. That freedom is more important than ever, that under the radar, I’ll Do What I Want, is the important thing about little mags (online or off). Compass only ever had funding to pay more to the contributors, not a cent went elsewhere btw. That’s the advantage of funding – but the disadvantages are many – constraint and that argumentative, small-minded, nit-pickery which goes with handling someone else’s money.

The spirit of the small mag is back with the zine culture, and tiny presses taking advantage of sophisticated technology to do small but effective things (insert advertisement for PressPress here.). It’s appropriate that P76‘s final (is it final Mark?)* print edition should come out in this context. There’s almost no-one here who HASN’T edited or published a small press or small magazine at some stage. Vive la madness, I say.

The P76 – and YFF – time capsules we have in our hands today are a testament to a sort of literary exuberance, a charming, feckless arrogance that what we all had to say was worth investing our hard-earneds in – as editors, writers and readers. What amazes me is that some of us are still alive – given that recklessness. It was a great delight to open this slightly-overdue issue and see it had work by Joanne Burns, Rae Jones, and Margaret Bradstock for example.

Poignantly, Margaret says, (speaking about Nushu, but it could apply to us):

Marks on water,
sounds filtered by the wind,
how many times
must we record our names?

Who knows, who knows, but apparently, at least One More Time.

Thank you to the editors for making all the effort. The stapling alone I believe involved casualties. I’m glad Mark and Linda finally cleared out under their house and found those 5¼” floppy disks, broke into a computer museum and liberated the data. It’s a fine-looking, if somewhat-delayed, though not late, issue. Well done.

– Chris Mansell

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* There will probably be an issue 7. A call for submissions will probably be made early in 2013. – Mark Roberts.

Chris Mansell is a leading Australian poet, writer and publisher. She can be found at the following websites: www.chrismansell.com, www.presspress.com.au and www.wellsprungproductions.com.au.

P76 Issue 6 is available from http://members.optusnet.com.au/rochfordstpress/

Note. P76 is published by Rochford Street Press which also publishes Rochford Street Review

Something Disconcerting and Delicious: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Schadenvale Road’ by Chris Mansell.

Schadenvale Road by Chris Mansell. Interactive Press. 2011.

I have always regarded Chris Mansell as one of Australia’s leading poets so I was a little taken back to read that she is described on the back cover of Schadenvale Road as “one of Australia’s most accomplished short fiction authors” – had I missed something? Actually I approached Schadenvale Road with a hint of apprehension, my experience reading prose by writers who are predominately poets has not always been a good one. Not everyone can make the transition from poetry to the relative freedom of prose – some can’t let go of their background and their prose reads like an extended poem with no line breaks, while others embrace the apparent freedom offered by prose and take it much too far.

My hesitation lasted two paragraphs into the first story ‘Echidna Obscura’. Mansell is a ‘natural’ fiction writer – at once her style is confident yet unobtrusive, the imagery and narrative tugs at you, dragging you into the stream and sweeping you along. ‘Echidna Obscura’ is a simple story of an artist named Echidna living in the hills outside of town and his slowly developing relationship with Elanora. As the relationship advances at glacial speed Echidna decides to go bush, taking an old camera and a roll of film. Each day he takes a single picture and returns home only when all the roll is finished. When he opens the camera, however, he finds that the film hadn’t loaded onto the sprocket correctly and the film hasn’t wound on. Almost like a metaphor for the story nothing appears to have happened on the surface but approached from a slightly different perspective the narrative is heavy and rich with meaning.

The characters in this collection are mostly outsiders. For the most part they live outside the city or towns, or if they do live in town they are physically cut off from their neighbours, like Vorzetser, the writer stuck in a town called Paradise:

….The townspeople could have been alien plants for all the notice he took of them and he was utterly unaware that there were people living in the surrounding hills. They washed past his door and handled his personal correspondence without making a ripple in his life. He wrote to important friends who lived anywhere but in Paradise and complained about the parochialism of the place without ever speaking much to anyone, He was as prejudiced and wilful as it was possible for a poet to be without exploding.

There is something almost Dickensian about the wilful poet living in almost self-imposed exile in a town called Paradise. The final irony occurs when he travels out of Paradise to receive an award and he finds himself lost in the airport – his life “balanced on a point”. He realises he can move forward or simply disappear in the crowd, not answering to his name. We don’t find out what he does.

There is more than a hint of the early Peter Carey stories in Mansell’s short fiction – those in The Fat Man in History and War Crimes where Carey exploded onto the literary scene. Like the early Carey, Mansell creates a detailed narrative, we feel as we can almost recognise some of the towns and landscapes she describes. At the same time, however, there is something just below the surface, something that knocks our perspective just a little off centre. Something disconcerting and delicious.

We can see this in ‘The One in the Room with the Ceiling of Stars’. On first reading this story appears to revolve around a woman who starts hearing voices in her head and is confined to an institution. She can, however, remember a time before the voices: “She tried to remember how she got into this situation. It seemed to her that before the voices had begun she was happy”. But even then she was an outsider:

And then she remembered the people who came. Not good, but she supposed they loved her. In truth, she had very little idea what this might mean. She tried to figure it out. It seemed to be some sort of obligation. People said , “I love you” and you were supposed to say back “I love you too” and this meant you had to do things for them.

When she first starts to hear the voices she tries to understand them as they are often in different languages. She studies and learns many different languages in order to understand them. At first her family is happy with her as she studies, but when she tells them why she is studying there was suddenly “ a lot of serious conversations in secret places”. As the voices increase so does her “imprisonment”, cut off from the outside she finds a degree of solace in a room with a rounded ceiling covered with “paintings and gilded stars.”

The voices themselves are pleading, asking for forgiveness, asking for help. “some accused her of things or demanded that she do things”. Mansell handles the build up of tension well, we sense that something has to give – but when it does it is both unexpected and perfectly rational and we pinch ourselves for not seeing it coming.

The notion of the outsider is also central to ‘Walking into Ice’ where the main character goes on a journey/quest to find a wild cat or panther. There is debate about whether the panther exists, some claim to have seen it, but whether it exists or not it represents the unease, the fear of the unknown. Of course the quest for the panther becomes a metaphor or another journey and we begin to suspect that maybe the quest has become an internal one:

I took my bearings and as comfortably as the alien creature I had become, I gathered the dark around me and walked with my flame red hair through the silent , unanswering country to continue to look for the shadowing caves of real ice.”

The notion of the ‘panther’ or big cat that prowls at night, hiding in the darkness and threatening the otherwise peace existence of the characters occurs a number of times in this collection, most noticeably in the final story ‘Lot 20 Schadenvale Road’. This story follows a woman as she becomes an outsider, discovering a ‘secret’ valley and eventually settling there in what at first appears to be an almost perfect idyllic existence. Then suddenly one night she senses something in the garden:

I can’t say I felt the presence of evil – but it was something close to evil. An absence of light that was at the same time completely empty and completely full of fear – not the observers fear , but a physical fear that it feed on, that belonged to it and nurtured it and pulled down anything within its range.

Is this the panther, the black leopard, that people sometimes think they see? For Mansell, perhaps it is this absence that provides an edge to her prose which makes it so compelling.

Schadenvale Road should cement Mansell’s reputation as one of Australia’s leading writers. Already  firmly established as a major poet, it suggests that her fiction should start receiving just as much attention as her poetry.

– Mark Roberts

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

Schadenvale Road is available from Interactive Press http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/SRd.htm