July 15th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORIES Liberal discontents take internal struggle to Shakespearean heights

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell charged: the process is the punishment

EUTHANASIA What Boudewijn Chabot can teach Victoria

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Taiwan's 'friends' make the Beijing cut

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE NT abortion law oppressive towards health professionals

HEALTH Gardasil(R) and the man upon the stair, Part I

AFRICAN AFFAIRS Special force deals with scourge of poaching

MUSIC Andrea Keller: transpositions of death and grief

CINEMA Cars 3: On ageing without rusting

BOOK REVIEW Biggest democracy makes big strides

BOOK REVIEW A refinement of the Industrial Revolution


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Andrea Keller: transpositions of death and grief

by David James

News Weekly, July 15, 2017

There is a long tradition of music written to famous poetry, with at least as many failures as successes. There is a great temptation for musicians to go in this direction, but the dangers are many. The prosody of great poems invariably has its own musicality, but that does not easily lend itself to music.

Andrea Keller

Poetic effect relies on the rhythm of speech, which is very different to the shape of melody. Changes of pitch in poetry tend to be relatively constrained, which is usually not the case with melody. Most of all, poetic effects rely on shifts of meaning and music does not possess such specific meanings, it does not refer to anything.

There have, of course, been great musical successes, such as Benjamin Britten’s wonderful War Requiem, which is in part based on the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But even here there is a sense that Britten is imposing his musicality on the text. Listen to it and one gets a sense of a dark glory in the orchestration and jagged lines. There is no glory at all in most of Owen’s poems, indeed, quite the opposite.

Melbourne jazz pianist Andrea Keller ventured into this difficult area in her performance, Still Night, Music in Poetry, at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. It featured pieces from Proust, Dylan Thomas, Keats and Whitman, among others.

Keller’s approach to melody tended to be a straightforward extension of the prosody, with harmonic shifts used to create tension. The melodies tended to be rhythmically predictable, although the harmonies were full of lovely surprises. It became not so much an intersection of melody and verse as a highly skilled jazz backing to the line of poetry. If indeed, one could call this jazz; it sounded more like classical improvisation.

The two singers were Vince Jones and Gian Slater. Jones is not as good a technician as Slater, but he displayed his trademark skill as a front man and his command of nuance. Few Australian singers have as good an ability to sell a song or song lines.

Slater has a beautiful tone and an impressive range. Once she settled in she sang with great purity and intensity. Keller’s pianistic touch is excellent, and she plays with great subtlety.

In the opening pieces it was difficult to make out the words, only fragments were recognisable. This is an entirely legitimate device, but it has the effect of moving away from the poetic line and the meaning and turning the words into shards of sound rather than something approximating speech.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas

By contrast, the version of Thomas’ famous Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night was very clear. The song line was effective, but the assonance and power of rhyme in the original was largely absent. That is the risk in this kind of venture. Poetry has its own techniques, which do not easily translate into the techniques of music making. Crossing that divide is never easy, especially for skilled composers who are inclined to impose their own style on the text.

Keller used a variety of approaches with her compositions. She cleverly employed repeated lines that gradually disclose more of the lines of poetry. There were some effective interplays between Julien Wilson’s saxophone and the singers; some finely crafted call and response passages; and a fine duet between Slater and Keller.

The mood was deeply elegiac and reflective, well suited to the subject matter: a contemplation of death and loss. Throughout there was a sense that melancholy was being finely balanced with affirmation, reflecting the simultaneous presence and absence of life. In particular, Keller’s use of upward moving harmonies injected a powerful sense of strength in the face of desolation.

Taking on poetic material of this depth is a significant challenge and Keller is to be applauded for her ambition. It certainly made for an affecting performance and introduced some unusual elements into the musical tapestry of jazz. This is a long way from improvised versions of jazz show tunes (standards).

But in the end the music seemed much more about Keller than the poets. There is little surprise in that; the same has been true of many composers in the past. But true communion with the poems in the end remained elusive.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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