Saturday, December 19, 2009

Letter from Les Murray on our Sydney Highrise score

Let's face it, it's not the response one might have hoped for, but Les Murray has responded with a letter from Australia in response to our score of his long poem The Sydney Highrise Variations:

Dear Chris, my Egyptian son,
Thanks indeed for Sydney Highrise. Interesting! The music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times. But it's all up in the air now, even more than when we recorded the thing; I mean the future of poetry, performance, publication.
He goes on to ask after my daughter - my wife was very pregnant with Leyla when Les visited our house in New York - to extend holiday wishes, and to explain in brief the poem on the other side of his handwritten note, which ventures to answer the question posed by the opening line: "Why write poetry?"

He signs, "Les, of the Bowels" - a reference, I take it, to the drawing of mine on which I had inscribed my letter to him that accompanied the score. I had drawn a cartoon of Oliver Cromwell speaking a line that, in The Sydney Highrise Variations, Les said Cromwell never thundered: "After all, in the bowels of Christ, this is the seventeenth century!"

As for his salutation ("my Egyptian son"), I sign my drawings, as I had explained in my letter, with the Egyptian hieroglyph for son, which my Aunt Dorothy once described as "a duck getting hit in the butt with a stick".

Why score poetry? Not to please the poet, thank God. Poets know their own poems so intimately and have such a deep set of private and aesthetic associations with them that it's hardly fair to expect that a musical setting of a poem will please the poet.

Still, of course, one might have hoped for something better than "the music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times". But Les is an honest man, and given his eloquence and capacity for detailed description, I should be thankful that he kept his criticism as brief as he did!

After reading his letter, as soon as I could I gave our score a fresh spin, listening throughout for a fight between the music and the words, and I still don't hear it. I am still very satisified with our work.

I am also happy that Les was alive to hear the finished piece, whether or not it pleased him. When we started scoring poems, we took our good, sweet time, separated as we are in four separate cities, with no organizational structure or budget. It took a long time.

It so happens that the first two poets we scored, Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan, died while we were working on the scores. I will admit, at some point we began to feel like harbingers of a curse. I can't tell you how much of a relief it was when the third poet we scored, our friend and colleague Stefene Russell, was still drawing a breath when we finished Go South for Animal Index.

Les was next, so we are now 2-2 in poets surviving being scored by us, and 1-1 in our approval ratings from the poets who actually lived to hear the score. (Stefene loved the Go South score and reportedly wept to hear it.)

The translator of Blind Cat Black, Murat Nemet-Nejat, lived to hear our score of the poem and was enthusiastic about it. Since we scored Murat's English translation of Blind Cat Black rather than Ece Ayhan's Turkish original, I am going to go ahead and bump our poet approvals rating up to 2-1, our poet survival numbers to 3-2, and decide to feel good about where we are.

Though I do agree with Les - it is all "up in the air", the future of poetry. That is one of the reasons we translate it into other media - to help it survive.


Sydney postmark from the New South Wales archives.

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