Michael and Kit in Eglisau, 2010

Collaborative Harlow / Powell Works

Michael and Kit at the Giacometti room in the Zurich Kunsthaus, 2016

Introduction to Chapter 9 of Quite by Chance / Wie durch Zufall

When I look at the long list of collaborative works with Michael Harlow, what comes first to mind is not the many texts he has supplied (which have produced many of my best works), but the confidence he gave me, to believe in myself and my own musical abilities, in my own creativity – although this was not something we ever discussed. When we first met in 1976 we were both new lecturers at the Christchurch Teachers College and I had just left Linwood High School (a period of almost exclusively writing for amateurs) and I was now looking for a new start. The years at Linwood High School had been happy but enormously time consuming writing music for the annual total theatre productions and it had left no time for working with other musicians. I had made a name for myself in this school music field but now I wanted to be known for music in general. It was a new challenge, one that I specially wanted to accept, but it needed courage and Michael gave me that. Just his matter-of-course manner and the enthusiasm for my ideas was enough to remove any doubts I might have had. I suggested works to the huge Royal Christchurch Musical Society (a choir of 150 to 200 singers) in which I sang at the time and they were accepted (including The Evercircling Light – whose history was to prove long and difficult!) and I was invited to write a piece for the Sonic Circus (festival of contemporary music) using the Christchurch Wind Ensemble (double wind quintet), something that Michael supported enthusiastically and out of which grew Stone Poem in which we both took part as speakers and stone players! The mere fact that this work was a concerto for two speakers with a curtain of large stones shows the Harlow influence. Had we never met I would have done something similar with the double wind quintet but nothing so outrageous as adding stones to this revered group.

The idea of the stones started on the farm south of Christchurch where Michael and family lived at this time. We visited them for a weekend and on the way back to his house in the nearby countryside we invented a game in which one was only allowed to step on stones. We leapt and balanced and collected a magazine of stones for the empty stretches. “They are the bones of the earth” said Michael and when we arrived back: “We’ve performed a living stone poem”. That was not only the beginning of the work for the Sonic Circus it was the beginning of other Harlow poems about stones, including his now famous Stonepoem which I have set at least three times and also marks the beginning of my use of stones in other works: The Evercircling Light (1980), Stonepoem for Clarinet and Tape (1985), Les Episodes (1988), etc. and in the book for teachers: Musik mit gefundenen Gegenständen (1984).

Before I leave the subject of the artist’s confidence in himself, it is interesting to note that Michael, as many others before him, must have given this considerable thought as the following shows. Microzoic Piano Suite (2012) is essentially about the life of an artist, his beginnings, his masculine and feminine sides (a frequent theme with Harlow), his necessary slight craziness, his emotional problems, and his old age. The “slight craziness” is an essential part of the artist’s creativity and he needs courage and conviction to face the almost certain opposition. But he will always have to battle with the doubt that this step into new land involves. Against such doubt, according to Samuel Beckett, whom Michael quotes in this poem, the only antidote is music: Quand on est dans la merde jusqu’au cou, il ne reste plus qu’à chanter. Whether singing also works for musicians he doesn’t say, perhaps they should read poetry? And yet there is, according to Harlow, some hope: “The depth of despair can be the place and source of renewed spirit.”

Michael and Kit up to their necks—and singing!

Some Words for Kit’s Book : ‘the poetry of music’

If ‘poetry is the music of thought’, and by mirror-reply ‘music is the poetry of thought , then one of the privileges and delights of working with Kit, is his understanding (sometimes wonderfully intuitive) that words inherently want ‘music’ to make them dream and sing again. Of course, he is a composer-poet himself. This for me was clear from the beginning or our collaboration a good many ‘piano birthdays’ ago. As Kit has said, ‘the fact is that we were both writers, he of poetry and I of music’.

He is also a maestro of language. A fact I think that gives his compositions a reach and a depth that goes beyond what’s happening at the surface, where as Herakleitos said ‘deep equals true’. In short, one aspect of Kit’s genius (in the classical sense of that word) is that he knows how in his work to ‘risk delight’. It is always clear I think that this is so. The feeling quality of the work we do together owes a great deal to the musical intuition and sensitivity of his compositional imaginativeness. Working with Kit—and performers say this again and again—can be good, liberating ‘fun’, and sometimes serious fun, too.

He knows how to ‘play’ with the music of sounds, and words, and dance. This has the effect of ‘breathing life’ into otherwise musical conventions, and the sometimes flatness of prediction that formula music falls into. Hence, his adroit and I think very imaginative use of ‘chance systems’, which on the one hand provide a kind of formal structure and on the other create and re-create those ‘quick surprises’ and discoveries that truly can and do ‘shine a light in the ear’ as I think Coleridge suggested.

Among other works, Texts for Composition (l983, 1984), a music-theatre, musik performance werk, is a fine example of Kit’s inventiveness in terms of both the music and the instruments played, including the dance movements of the player-performers, and the use of poetic texts translated into graphic scores. ‘We set out to make a piece using found objects, tapes and movement—and the Texts themselves.’ [K.P.].

One of highlights and a central one at the core of Kit’s work, and one which I think has made a significant contribution of music in NZ (and elsewhere), is his realized insight that there is music and the possibilities for ‘music’ virtually everywhere one looks and sees, listens and hears. Found objects, hand-made instruments, the voice/breath (a musical pneuma) and its incredible range of musical possibilities, and the gestural poetics of the body in musical motion: all of which in various arrangements and performance are wonderfully and imaginatively dynamic and alive to the principle that Kit can ‘make’ (in the poetic sense of that word) a music that is a music of discovery. The music of invention is one thing; the music of discovery is quite another.

As collaborator librettist, being involved in the making of this kind of poetic of discovery—that is to say ‘making the invisible, visible’, translated and transformed into sound and the sounds of meaningful silence…is I think a realization that music may well be the ‘song of our species’. One can hardly resist the ‘naming of parts’ a it were for the sheer pleasure of their imaginative being, and musical expressions: stones and their acoustic expressiveness [Stone Poem]; metal drums and log drums and practically anything else that can be drummed on (‘a drum made of a cylinder [from the middle of a newsprint roll] with a formica head); metal plates preferably rusty…for scratching sounds…; (and why not) at least 10 round gongs made of sheet steel, a walnut twirler..with a paper skin stretched over it and twirled on a stick (two walnut twirlers required [thank you]; and a bull roarer, and a length of rope [of course], and a whistle twirler…produces a bird-like whistle…wobble boards; wooden resonating boxes suspended from the branches of ‘trees’…with contact mics…that can be bowed, tapped, stroked..; and bells tiny tubular bells and strings of bells and bells from far off and near….’ Only a partial listing of the many ‘instruments’ found and made and brought into sound, that are so characteristic of Kit’s musical imagination. And they work too in musical performance; to extend the musical ‘language’ that the composer (and players) create to express something of what’s its like to be so mysterious to ourselves and the world, and the ‘world’ so mysterious in itself (as it should be).

One could say more and without any risk to hyperbole, but for the occasion I’ll consider my ‘say’ one note of an ongoing composition. With a small bell-like coda: for a poet, and a listener-spectator too, Kit’s acoustic imagination–his really quite acute sense of the acoustic association of words and their inherent musicalness/musicality is to my way of thinking how word-thought and music-thought, and the thoughtfulness of both remind us that when thought is sung and music made we have the poetry of music. And for that (as they say ‘that’s the ticket’), there is much to be celebrated here in the ‘music poetry’ of Maestro Powell.

Michel Harlow, 2012 Alexandra N.Z

Michael is always ready to play the most outrageous games