Michael Harlow

Michael and Kit in Eglisau, 2010
Michael and Kit in Eglisau, 2010

Collaborative Harlow / Powell Works

Stone Poem (1976, for double wind quintet, 2 speakers and stone curtain)

Texts for Composition (1980, graphic scores, published in “Vlaminck’s Tie”, AUP 1985)

Devotion to the Small (1980 soprano & percussion ensemble, Waitiata Music Press)

Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade (1985, soprano and instrumental trio)

Poem then, for love (1983, soprano, baritone and percussionist)

Stonepoem for Clarinet and Tape (1985, for clarinet and tape)

Nelson Songs (1986, baritone and tape)

Les Episodes (1987, soprano, baritone and orchestra)

Father’s Telescope (1989, baritone, speaker and tape)

The Green Man (1989 - 92, solo percussion)

Vlaminck’s Tie (1985 - 92, baritone and piano)

After Babel (1995, soprano, brass quartet and piano)

Today is the Piano’s Birthday (2003, soprano and piano)

A Shout (2005, soprano, women’s chorus and piano)

Missa Profana (2008 - 10, soli SATB, chorus SATB and orchestra)

Microzoic Piano Suite (2012, baritone, and ensemble)

Let all words be music (2016, choir, soloists, trombone and piano)

Symphonic Reflections (2017, soprano, baritone and orchestra)

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