Nelson and I first met as students at the Cambridge Music School in NZ in 1961.
He left NZ before I did and we met again in Vienna in 1966 where he was studying singing and I was waiting to be accepted as an English teacher at the Berlitz School in Zurich.
Later Brigitte and I returned to NZ and Nelson and his family moved to Cologne. Ever since we've alternated living on opposite sides of the globe, just meeting when one or the other was on holiday or on leave. Nevertheless two further works were written especially for him.
The stories of our work together I have told in the notes to the works which were specially written for him:
The following essay, written by Nelson for my 75th birthday celebrations, tells so much about both of us that I will print it here as a portrait of him.
I first met Kit Powell at a summer music school in Cambridge, New Zealand, in about 1961. I was immediately impressed by his dominating height and his cheerful charismatic personality. We started out by laughing a lot, but I couldn’t know that he was to be a valued life-long friend. In fact I was a little bit in awe of him.
That was partly because he was a composer and therefore, surely, much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I could be. He was from the big smoke, while I was from a small provincial town, and the most intense musical experiences I had faced were in singing competitions in Auckland. I felt that Kit and his composer colleagues could teach me a lot not only about music but about life itself – after all he was two years older than me. The Cambridge Music Schools have long been a formative institution for New Zealand’s musicians, a unique chance for young artists to try themselves out in cooperation and competition with their peers in an environment totally and idealistically devoted to that task. My first Cambridge school was a heady time, unforgettable, and it brought many learning experiences, not least the chance to work on a new song sequence with its composer, a wise conductor and a devoted orchestra.
We performed ‘Reading Gaol’ late in the week and the excited reception it received was overwhelming. The applause seemed to go on endlessly and my memory of Kit facing the standing ovation with a mixture of pride, modesty and surprise has accompanied me ever since. It was also a bonding moment, so that Kit and I, even when we have our disagreements and temperamental conflicts, remain staunch friends.
A few weeks later, ‘Reading Gaol’ was recorded for broadcasting with the National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) conducted by John Hopkins. Performing with the country’s only professional orchestra under its distinguished conductor was a little intimidating and very satisfying. No doubt Kit, who assisted at rehearsals and listened to the performance in the studio, shared those feelings. The recording can be found online with a bit of assiduity, but I rarely listen to it now. When I do, some of that youthful excitement returns – but the first ‘real’ performance was the one at Cambridge, now recorded only in our minds.
The success of ‘Reading Gaol’ encouraged Kit to write something for me for the Cambridge school of the following year. This ‘something’ was a setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ for chamber group and baritone voice. In my early twenties, I loved Thomas’s verse and thought that this particular poem was as good as a poem could be. It was a thrilling moment when the manuscript arrived, and I immediately sat down at my parents’ piano in Napier to go through it. Sadly, it confused me. I was not musical enough to imagine the quirky sounds of the unconventional chamber group and I found it hard to attach meaning to the vocal line without that blend. I looked forward to exploring the piece with Kit and the other musicians at Cambridge. Unfortunately, with all the commitments that the musicians have at such a school, our rehearsal time was far too short. Some members of the group seemed as insecure as I was, but we stepped out on the stage to perform for our fellow students and teachers, with the composer conducting. I have no clear memory of that performance, but it seems to have been so chaotic that some in the audience were amused. With a grin, the conductor James Robertson stepped up to the stage and asked us to repeat it. Kit and I looked at each other aghast. It had been hard enough getting through once. Could we do it a second time? On the second run through we were all too aware that the piece sounded quite different from the first one. The thunderous applause of the previous year had become a distant memory, and our attempt to repeat that success ended in confusion. There were important lessons for me: you are only as good as your last performance; trying to double a success by doubling its ambition and complexities is not a good idea; talent is good, but hard work is even better; take nothing for granted.
In the mid sixties I went to Vienna for the “overseas experience” that seems so important to young New Zealanders. Now, next to Wellington, Vienna is my second home, but then, in a world that was still distinctly post-war – even though World War II had finished twenty years earlier – I found the environment strange and strained. One aid to settling in was the arrival of Kit, who came to stay with me while waiting for a Swiss visa which would enable him to marry Brigitte. We happily explored some of the city together, even though his happiness was limited by his yearning for Switzerland and his fiancée. Among my memories are the puzzled faces of good citizens as two big lads carried furniture through their streets: Kit was helping me shift house. Of course we shared musical experiences too, such as a performance of György Ligeti’s “Aventures” in the small Schubert-Saal of the Konzerthaus. It must have been one of the first performances of that work. I think it was on the same evening that we heard Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, another first for me. One day – was it Good Friday? – I made Kit sit through a five-hour performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal”, directed and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, which he enjoyed more than he had expected to, especially when resonant gongs awakened him from a short snooze (of course I mean Kit, not Karajan). “There were some splendid sounds,” he said afterwards.
Kit returned to New Zealand with his new wife and in Christchurch, where he taught mathematics at Linwood High School and later music at the Teacher’s training college, they started to bring up their two bright and beautiful children, Philip and Fiona. I stayed on in Europe so that it was not until 1981, when I brought my own European wife on a visit to New Zealand, that Kit and I met up again. On the weekend we spent in Christchurch, Kit and Michael Harlow were taking trainee teachers to the beach to build the city of Babylon with sand and shells. Elfi and I had a day at the beach as well, watching the splendid buildings emerge and listening to the exotic discussions of how they were to be constructed. That evening we attended a performance of a Powell work called – if I remember correctly – “Piece of Four”. Four performers each using four “found instruments” improvised on four rhythmic and melodic structures. It was a lot of fun for performers and listeners. Having re-established contact in this way, and especially after the Powell family’s move back to Switzerland, we were involved in a variety of social and musical contacts in the eighties. Most notably, Kit wrote two works for me – to be performed by me and others. The first of these was “Nelson Songs”, which had its first performance at a conference for “The New Literatures in English” at Laufen in Bavaria. I sang works by Douglas Lilburn and Schubert on that occasion, but it was Kit’s new work that brought the greatest audience response. It was almost as heady and exciting as our first performance of “Reading Gaol” a quarter-century earlier. The work is a setting of poems by Michael Harlow, whose speaking voice can be heard on the accompanying tape, mixed with electronic sounds. We made several performances of the work, in Cologne, Wuppertal, Zurich and Wellington.
The other work Kit wrote for me was “Father’s Telescope”, again using Harlow poems. It, too, was performed in Europe and New Zealand, and the most notable recording used the actor Barry Empson for the spoken text which is in dialogue with the singer. Our friendship has been marked by occasions when I have visited Eglisau and Kit has visited Wellington. We have swum across the Rhine – a fact not believed by my Cologne friends, but in Eglisau the river is by no means so wide. We have watched the birds swarm in the evening, eaten Brigitte’s cuisine and drunk the excellent wine of Eglisau. I have joined Kit in the Michael Fowler Centre to hear “readings” of new works for orchestra. And we have spent happy times with our families and friends in both hemispheres. Long may such exchanges continue, and long may Kit Powell enrich our lives with his colourful personality and his inventive mind!
Nelson Wattie, Wellington, NZ, September 2012