Antarctica has long been a place that has fired the imagination, especially for writers and film-makers. But it has only been in recent years that it has increasingly become a continent to be interpreted by other artists, including composers, visual artists, photographers and poets.
These Rough Notes, to be performed in Wellington this weekend, shows just how potent and mesmerising Antarctica continues to be for artists. It's also a singular collaboration involving some of the biggest names in their fields - composer and musician Norman Meehan, singer Hannah Griffin and two artists who have been to Antarctica - poet Bill Manhire and photographer Anne Noble.
Meehan, head of jazz at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, has been working with Manhire for the past four years, adapting Manhire's poems to music and releasing two albums, including Buddhist Rain. Meehan also adapted the poems of e e cummings to music for the album Sun Moon Stars Rain.
However These Rough Notes, which they began working on about 12 months ago, was a new direction for both, with most of the work written specifically for the project.
''All of the work that we had done together had, to some extent, grown out of work of his, supplemented with new material,'' says Meehan on Manhire. ''This project was more collaborative than our former ones. He's adopted a slightly different kind of approach when he writes a song text. A poem can go live in the world on its own, but a lyric for a song needs the music. So it was interesting to work with respective texts that exist as poems, that in Bill's estimation don't need music, and those that do need the music in his view.''
These Rough Notes is a song cycle divided into two sections of eight songs. The first section, says Meehan, focuses on the historical ''misadventures on the ice'', including Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the 1979 Mt Erebus air disaster.
The second half is about humans living on Antarctica today.
Meehan says this means a big contrast in tone between the two parts. ''The first half is really sad actually. But Hannah sings it with such aplomb and conviction. She's a pretty outstanding musician and I'm pretty dazzled by how she's got her voice around it.''
Meehan has worked for Griffin for the past 10 years, but says the singer's contribution to These Rough Notes was equal to the other three collaborators.
''She is not just a performer, she's bringing a lot to the table. Bill has said he has written these texts with Hannah's voice in mind, which is interesting given that most of the protagonists [in the songs] are male.''
Meehan says it the same for him and he thought of Griffin's voice as he composed the music.
Noble also came to the project early on. ''We talked about this would work as a suite or a succession of things and how images may or may not be incorporated into that.'' Meehan says Nobles photographs, which are projected during the performances, are very important. But they weren't so important in the initial creation of the songs.
''I was interested in the austerity and the bleakness of some of those images - they are beautiful but terrible. It's reflected in the compositions, but where it really came to me was when I did the orchestrations. Those were very connected to Anne's images.''
The concerts this weekend, which includes eight musicians, are only part of the project. These Rough Notes is also to be published as a book and CD featuring the poems, photographs and music. Meehan, Griffin and musician Colin Hemmingsen are also travelling to Germany next week to perform a version of the concert at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where New Zealand is the guest of honour. They will also perform one concert in Vienna.
Meehan says of all the songs in the concert, the most demanding were those based on Manhire's poem Erebus Voices, written for the 25th anniversary of the air disaster. ''I was very, very apprehensive. It came up between Bill and I in conversation. I thought 'I don't know if I can go there, I'm not qualified to do this. It's still pretty raw'. My feeling had been that 'this needs to be right. It needs to be terrible and respectful'.''
Meehan felt better after he and Griffin performed the songs at Manhire's home to a small audience that included writer Elizabeth Knox, her husband Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman and musicologist Robert Hoskins.
''We played these things and they were very moved by them. They felt that the musical settings were suitably serious. It is possible that there will be family members from those who died in that accident at these events or hear the record. I hope that the pathos and the awfulness of that is respected and yet there is some kind of redemption."
These Rough Notes, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, October 6, 4pm and 7pm and October 7, 2pm and 7pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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