The following was published in the New Zealand Quarterly LANDFALL 120 December 1976
Interview with composer Kit Powell
Interviewed by J. A. Moreau
J.A.M. What led you to write Stone Poem with its unusual combination of traditional instruments and ‘untraditional’ stones?
K.P. I was commissioned by APRA to write a piece for one of the Christchurch Sonic Circus's concerts. A number of groups of musicians available for these concerts were mentioned, among them the Ilam Wind Ensemble. I thought I would like to write something for double wind (i.e. two wind quintets), so my first thoughts were just for this wind group. During this ‘first-thoughts’ time the Powell family visited the Harlow family at the farm they live on in South Canterbury. We went for a walk together one afternoon and on the way home Michael invented a game that said: ‘one may only walk on stones.’ We all played it very seriously, throwing bridges of stones across difficult terrain, and pole vaulting from one stony area to another. The stones became so important to us during that hour that we decided we had lived a stone poem. We went on to conceive of a whole stone culture. We would run a course in which students filmed living stone poems, built stone sculpture, stone mobiles, stone pictures, wrote stories and poems about stones, and naturally, made stone music. From that time on the wind piece and the stone music became one.
J.A.M. Were there any technical problems with the stones?
K.P. Oh, yes. Apart from the problem of glueing them to strings, we were to discover a big difference between stones which ring and those that don't. And sadly there are more that don't, but we became very attached to those that do. We were constantly searching for good stones; Michael in the farm river-bed and I on my way to and from work. A. colleague of my wife who must have recognized me fossicking near Sunnyside asked her: does your husband often pick up stones near the mental hospital?
J.A.M. Did you conceive of the stone curtain as a primarily sound convenience?
K.P. No, we thought it would look good; and the side lighting enhanced this too. There were a number of stones in the curtain which had no ring, but we left them there because of their visual impact.
J.A.M. Why did you give each of the wind players a copy of the full score instead of writing parts for each instrument?
K.P. I did in fact try to write parts but I found it ridiculously difficult to do well enough. You see, I had deliberately used a seconds time scale with lines to show approximate duration of notes (rather than the traditional minims and crotchets) so that there would be no feeling of beat. I had also hoped that if a player felt a note needed to last a little longer (or shorter), then he could let this happen. This would mean, though, that the other players would need to have a copy of the other parts as well to make the necessary adjustments to be able to come in at the right time. I actually wrote one part with a reduction of the other nine parts plus stone parts on it, but it took me over three hours to write and I didn't have 30 hours to spend writing such parts for the double quintet, and besides the end result wasn't as clear as a reduced version of the full score.
J.A.M. What place, if any, does ‘chance’ have in Stone Poem?
K.P. As I have already mentioned, I had hoped that durational elements could have been varied according to the whim of the players, but to be able to feel comfortable doing this the group would have needed many hours more rehearsal time than was available. There were moments where pitch is shown only approximately (I write tiny note heads) and the players play what lies under their fingers. There is another use of chance in the fast middle section. Here it is a compositional device rather than a performance variable. Each instrument has a rhythmic unit of 6, 7, 11 or 13 bars of I. Because each of these rhythmic units contains several bars of rests, and because the units are always being repeated out of phase, as it were with one another, the rest bars are allowing ‘different arrangements of the remaining timbres to emerge from the texture in an ever-changing and unpredictable way. A particular example may make this clear. There is a bar here where the rests in the clarinet, horn, and bassoon parts have coincided, leaving the oboe and flute playing alone. In the next bar there are no rests and so all 5 timbres are heard combined, and in the next, the flute and oboe have rests so we hear the combination: clarinet, horn and bassoon, and so on.
J.A.M. Do you, in fact, see a musical text (as Erik Satie did) as being influenced by calligraphy as an allied art form? Is there some kind of suggestion that visual notation influences the psychology of musicianship . . . ?
K.P. Perhaps if I explain the way I work I can answer both these questions. I usually start by drawing a rough outline of what I hear in a simple graphic notation. In the case of Stone Poem, where the final version is still in graphic notation, the composition process is one of improving on successive graphic versions of the piece. When I wrote the ‘final version’ (and indeed this has always happened to me when writing out a fair copy of my own work) the whole texture seemed to come much clearer to me to the extent that I had to repair parts that appeared only then as needing repair. So although clarity is uppermost in my mind when I write such a score, I do also enjoy the look of a well written score and this visual aesthetic puts me in a receptive frame of mind for the music it represents. I have always believed players respond similarly. An experimental work can be very daunting to a player looking at his part for the first time. I have always (i.e. after a few early ‘debacles’) taken this player-psychology very seriously. The player needs to feel secure even before he makes the first sound. One way of giving him security is by presenting him with a clear and beautiful part that will make him want to realise the music behind it to the best of his ability. Sadly, I didn't achieve this objective as well as I had hoped with Stone Poem. Having decided to give all the players copies of the full score, it had to be reduced to a size they could manage on their stands and the reduction process blurred some of the original score's clarity.
J.A.M. Could you comment on the role played by ‘improvisation’ in the score—from both the stone-poetry and instrumental side?
K.P. I see considerable scope for improvisation in Stone Poem, especially in the stone and spoken parts, but also in the wind parts. I encouraged the wind players to take liberties, especially with the durational elements of the score, but with the time we had available for rehearsal they were unhappy to risk this—wisely I think. The score contains a communication system where at key points in the piece one player will Q-in other players. For this to work well the group would have to know the work and each other very well, but one would need months of rehearsal time for this. It was quite different with the voice and stone parts, though. Michael and I seemed to work well together, and we often met and improvised with the stones, so that by the performance we were playing a rehearsed improvisation. The words emerged in these early improvisation sessions. We tried and rejected chanting and reading literal stone poems, but finally settled on the words for stone in English, German, Italian and Greek plus fragmentations of these.
J.A.M. Have you been influenced by any particular styles?
K.P. There is a tone row which I suppose means Schönberg, but I can't really hear any Schonberg in the piece. The 7/8 metre group as it is in 3 + 2 + 2 quavers is Bartok, but all the other elements are very un-Bartokish. More significant is my interest recently in Japanese music, in particular Shakuhachi music. This Japanese flute is capable of a wide dynamic range, notes start with beautiful breathy attacks, and then often glissando over a whole tone. Also Japanese music does not have harmony in the western sense, the textures are very sparse and when instruments do sound together, the resulting harmonic effect seems accidental and unimportant. No doubt this is a fairly naive view of Japanese music, but it is important in that it was the view that shaped my thinking during the writing of Stone Poem.