These Texts for Composition owe their initial impulse to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen composed in May 1968 as well as his Für kommende Zeiten, 17 Texte für intuitive Musik, Werk Nr. 33.

I am indebted for some of the material extracted from Flexibility Exercises by T. G. Cutler, from his Speech Studio, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Michael Harlow: Introduction to the 1984 edition of “Texts for Composition”

Texts for Composition can be enjoyed as a work in its own right, but it can also be used as the framework and inspiration for a new work. Michael Harlow showed how this was possible during the writing of the work itself when he responded to his own first set of texts and to my graphic scores to produce the second set of texts. The deliberate ambiguity of texts and scores means that there is no limit to the number of new works Texts for Composition can inspire. In documenting the 1983 Christchurch version my aim is rather to remember what we did and to offer a possible realisation, than to give the impression of a definitive version. It is, of course, just one example of the many millions of possibilities.

The 1983 Christchurch version of Texts for Composition We set out to make a piece using found objects, tapes and movement—and the Texts themselves. These last were both seen and heard. Slides of texts and graphic scores were projected—white on black—for each section of the piece. This became a visual effect as well as a projection of the pages of a book, because the image was thrown across the acting space and danced on the backs of the players and on the sides of their instruments. The texts were also the impetus and material for spoken improvisations, which follow one or two of the “straight” readings on the tape.

Layout of stage: The stage diagram—see below—is shown on each left-hand page of the score. We worked in a square area which was dominated by two large scaffolding constructions: the gong stand and the tree stand. The two stands were joined by a 10 m long bar, which was about 2.5 m above ground level. Because we were using found instruments, some of which made tiny sounds, we needed microphones. M1 (microphone 1) lay on the ground near the stone mat and M2 (microphone 2) was on a stand in the corner opposite. C.M. was the output from several contact microphones which were planted in our trees. The trees were built under the direction of Ian Whalley, developing and enlarging an ideal of mine called a dowel-box. Dowels of different lengths are glued into a resonating box and are plucked or beaten or bowed, or they are fitted with rubber bands which are plucked or strummed. These trees were about 2 m high and hung from scaffolding. The output from each contact microphone went to a repeater (small microphone mixer) whose output went to another mixer which combined the signals of M1, M2, C.M. and the tape recorder.

Also mounted on the scaffolding were about 8 spot lights which were able to light the three general areas: centre stage, gong stand and tree stand.

The pattern for all ten Days is the same.

Here, as an example, is Day 1:

  • The first text (“Wake early . . . “) was inspiration for …
  • the graphic and …
  • the second text (“Play what you hear . . .") a reaction to the graphic.

Day 1

Wake, early
on your birth-day
breath in,
breath out,
like (two) boatmen

Michael Harlow

: Play what you hear, forward
then, backward : let the phrase
move in & out : let light and dark
be as a mirror :

Michael Harlow

DAY 1 (movement text): Rise slowly to standing position during text. Movement becomes more and more agitated. Shape of flower is completely open. Freeze on word “mirror”. The group turns slowly to leave flower formation and heads in slow motion towards gongs. Electronic and improvised voice sounds on tape. One big stroke on gongs from everybody, as tape finishes. Freeze. E drums on tiny drum. Duartion: ca. 3 minutes.

Day 1 Stage Diagram

The Christchurch critic Ian Dando wrote the following after the first performance:

Intelligence and Balance

Premiere performance of “Texts for Composition” by Michael Harlow and Kit Powell at the Teachers College Drama Workshop

“Sound for sound’s sake” said composer Kit Powell in his modest and brief introduction to yesterday’s first performance. “Texts for Composition” proved to be much more than that. It was intelligently integrated total theatre that balanced improvisatory freedom with structural coherence. The basic foundation for this coherence comes from the poems themselves. Poet Michael Harlow freely acknowledges that these texts owe their initial impulse to Stockhausen’s “Aus den sieben Tagen” and texts for intuitive music from the latter’s “Für kommende Zeiten.” There the likeness to the king of Germany’s avant-garde stops. “Texts” has had its own uniquely interesting and convoluted genesis. Harlow’s ten short poems, each of which outlines contrasted moves for ten separate days, determines the structure of ten miniatures for total theatre.

The poetry which is sensuous and rich in imagery, is almost music itself. Lines such as Curl the tip of the tongue up to touch the rim of the moon; feel for the earth under you have a musico-pictorial richness which motivated composer Powell to draw graphic abstract designs to each poem. These designs reacted further on Harlow who added musico-poetic aphorisms for each. The trio of poem, graphic and aphorism are projected on to a large screen as a backdrop to this theatre in the round presentation with Harlow’s own expressive reading adding intensity to each poem. In the stage circle stood Powell’s trees of instruments—clusters of suspended iron, steel, wood and glass of different shapes and sizes. The taming of raw sound sources into a highly sensitive kaleidoscope of musical tones has been a distinguishing obsession with Powell’s style. Here his musical imagination is both refined and inexhaustible.

Effects such as an animated dialogue between a struck hollow log and four home-made gangs, the miked amplification of vibrating suspended wood hangings with a violin bow or dropping tiny pebbles on to a live microphone showed the fertility of a refreshingly unconventional mind. The most imaginative of all, which Mauricio Kagel himself would have been proud to have invented, occurred in Day 7. Here the five musicians played, acted and danced with large plywood wobble-boards which they later used as shields to defend themselves against the attacks of these same sounds thrown back at them from the corners of the room by delayed electronic feedback. Such a scene epitomized two strong features of this work. Firstly it showed Powell’s recent adoption in his own way of Stockhausen’s innovation of “directionality”—that is sound moving fluidly in space. Secondly it highlighted the congruent interrelationship of sound, action and movement in each of the ten miniatures. Powell and his four players simultaneously act, move in structured formations and play instruments. Although each of these three elements has its own unity within each piece the close interrelationships of all three elevates this total theatre from the random to artistic unity. To this end Powell’s improvisations are carefully worked out and rehearsed beforehand, focused specifically on the interpretation of the graphic drawings but radiating out to embrace the general mood of Harlow’s poetry. The close harmony between word, action, drawing and sound makes this Powell’s most coherent and unified total theatre yet, thanks in a large part to Harlow’s close partnership. The repeat performance of this 50 minute work at the McDougall Art Gallery tonight may regrettably be the last new Powell work we hear locally. Next March he and his family re-locate to Switzerland where he has already had several works performed and published. There he intends to become a full-time composer.

IAN DANDO. The Star (Christchurch, NZ) October 7 1983