Seven Stations. Love poems for Sydney

Alison Morgan and Anna Fraser, sopranos; Josh Hill, percussion; Joe Manton, bass; Stefan Duwe, viola; Ezmi Pepper, cello
Classical, New Music
Hospital Hill HHCD12130741
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2015

When I first saw the title of this new song-cycle I wondered whether it might not be a cut down version of the Good Friday ritual with its 14 Stations of the Cross. But no. Billed as ‘love poems for Sydney’, Seven Stations is thoroughly and (mostly) cheerfully profane, using some of the railway stations of the city’s centre as the focus of its imagery. Lest you be disappointed, yes: there is indeed a movement called ‘Getting off at Redfern’. And why not? We’ve all done it, even those of us who don’t live there. After all, the Australia Council GHQ was there back in the 1990s, so artists were constantly leaping off the train and making their way up Lawson Street, past the Esperanto Society, to try and get their elitist little mitts on wads of taxpayers’ cash.

Andrew Batt-Rawden

Poet Chris Mansell and composer Andrew Batt-Rawden celebrate a Sydney not immediately familiar from the travel brochures. The romance of urban grunge has a long history, from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land to David Simon’s The Wire. Closer to home, poet Kenneth Slessor famously eulogised William Street, East Sydney (then, no doubt, a rather more, shall we say, textured environment than it is now) with the refrain, ‘you find this ugly, I find it lovely’.

Mansell adopts several poetic registers, from Anne Carson-like economy through to a more discursive diction. Her imagery tends to be immediate and pungent, (though not without the occasional metaphorical misfire: I’m not sure why mud should be ‘trusting’ nor money ‘polygamous’). Batt-Rawden’s music, in response, ranges from the extremely pointillistic through hints of deftly handled parody to moments of real warmth. It, generally speaking, avoids simple onomatopoeia, though inevitably the random polyphony of passing trains, the scream of metal on metal, the sound of electronic chimes often come to mind.

The songs can be played ‘in any order’ but this recording begins with ‘Town Hall’, where I, for one, often expect to see Dante and Virgil on the down-escalator. The song begins with a bang, and is permeated with restless percussive rhythms going in and out of phase while the two female singers raucously enact aspects of meretricious consumerism under the eyes of the statue of Queen Victoria.

The imagery of birds is pivotal to ‘St James’ and ‘Sydney Terminal.’ In the former an ‘urban peewee squawks like a train’ leading us underground to a solo song meditation on the buried history of the city. Here the motoric rhythms are at a distance, but still present under the vocalist’s ornate, but sometimes spoken, line. The latter, which we get glimpses of the familiar story of innocents abroad – in this case country kids ending up in a dive near Central Station – is full of pigeon calls and foul odours, again told in understated music featuring high soprano.

‘Getting off at Redfern’ begins with more intricate textures and imagery of dissipation, but discovers in an almost Baroque arioso and a smoke-filled pub the love among the Indigenous ‘biami-hearted mob’ – love which is the unattainable object of various kinds of consumption in Town Hall and, later, Museum. ‘The Quay’ offers the menace of the shark in the green water unseen by tourist and commuters on the harbour ferries, while King’s Cross offers a panoply of different characters who inhabit the area, though lamenting that it has passed its prime.

Slessor’s ‘ugly/lovely’ dyad is applicable to the poetic imagery and to much of the music. Batt-Rawden frequently works against notions of conventional vocal ‘beauty’, not just in using various ‘extended’ methods of vocalisation but in the melismatic extension of short syllables, the placing of narrow vowels high in the tessitura and the use of obsessively repeated motifs rather than phrases of any length; this of course throws into stronger relief those moments, such as the discovery of real love in Redfern, where the music is genuinely tender. Perhaps the comparison with the Stations of the Cross wasn’t so silly…

The ensemble writing is, as mentioned, frequently pointillistic, with fragmentary motifs rapidly appearing and disappearing but almost always in an active, percussion-dominated texture. Only in ‘The Quay’ does the pervasive sound of percussion become, to my mind, a little too relentless.

Not having heard the work live I can’t comment on what changes were made for the studio recording, though it is clear that the engineers, Matt McGuigan and Jake Craig, have created and mixed certain sounds – unisons between plucked strings and voice at one stage, for instance – in ways not possible in ‘acoustic’ performance. And a fine job they have done too; the spatial effects of the recording make it a great pleasure to listen to with good headphones. The CD is beautifully packaged, as well, in a handsomely designed hard-cover booklet that does justice to the typography and layout of Mansell’s poems.

The performances are terrific. Alison Morgan and Anna Fraser negotiate Batt-Rawden’s demands admirably while projecting the sense of the words. The bass, cello, viola and percussion band of Joe Manton, Ezmi Pepper, Stefan Duwe and Josh Hill provide an always fascinating and precisely rendered account of this new work.

© Gordon Kerry 2015

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