An experimental setting of six small poems by Michael Harlow for solo soprano and five percussionists. The soprano part uses graphic notation for all but one movement. The percussion parts avoid all the large instruments and also use a number of home-made instruments, e.g. a dowel box (resonating box with dowels of different lengths glued into it, which is played with a violin bow), bowed plate (a wooden version of the Chladni plate) and numerous found gongs. Devotion to the Small was recorded by Radio New Zealand, the recording winning a Mobil Award for best produced New Zealand Musical Work 1981.


Devotion to the Small

lt is how
climbing an
even air-
less stairway
one sleeve catches
a dry stalk
of thorn how
the first nail
its bead of
light waits in
shadow for
the moon on
the snail’s back
to appear

Michael Harlow
Devotion to the Small (Song 1) - Jillian Bartram (Sporano)

Jillian, Michael and Kit during a rehearsal

The following article was written for CANZONA in the late 1980s (Kit)

Devotion to the Small contrasts deliberately with The Ever-Circling Light. There is one solo voice instead of a large choir, and all the large percussion is avoided in favour of small instruments, including many found and home-made instruments. These are arranged on two large stands, so that some of the gongs and bells can also be played by the solo singer, while the rest of the battery is managed by five percussionists. The texts are a selection of six small poems by Michael Harlow, whose themes are also “small”.

To a large extent the texts determine the shape of each movement, e.g. the short lines of Andacht zum Kleinen are emphasized by breaks in the singer’s line. In the second movement “Stone Poem”, the text even determines the Instruments: each of the five percussionists has two large stones, which are gradually replaced by the softer sounding clay chimes. In Contemplating the letter O the singer does just this through a range of emotional Os from sadness, shock, surprise, interest and ecstasy, while the percussionists supply both accompaniment and text. The fourth movement, like the other even-numbered movements, has a strong “tonic”, which is superimposed onto the graphic notation. In this movement the singer tries to break away from this tonic, making small jumps at first, but only really succeeding on the very last note. This, note is one of the few big sounds in the whole piece. It is sung fortissimo and supported by two bull roarers, two bowed Chladni plates and a vibraslap. This “different” note is an example of the contrast principle on a micro-level which I discussed during the planning period of the piece with poet Michael Harlow: ‘The lateral leap which throws the whole structure into relief.' The fifth movement is an example of the same principle on a macro-level. It stands apart from the other movements by the use of conventional notation and of repetition of various parameters: words, rhythms, even melodic fragments. The number of repetitions of the percussion ostinati and durations of rests were determined by chance, but the number of instruments playing was determined by me. The “lateral leap” in the last movement is given by the percussionists in the form of a brief cadenza.

Devotion to the Small