Nelson Songs

1985 11 minutes
Baritone and tape
Text Michael Harlow
 Zurich, Switzerland
 Laufen, Germany
 Wellington, New Zealand
Kit, Michael, Nelson & Elfi Wattie in Laufen, Bavaria, at the 1986 Commonwealth Literature Conference where Nelson sang this song cycle which was written for him.
Kit, Michael, Nelson & Elfi Wattie in Laufen, Bavaria, at the 1986 Commonwealth Literature Conference where Nelson sang this song cycle which was written for him.

The texts are taken from Michael Harlow’s book: “Vlaminck’s Tie” published 1985 by the University of Auckland Printing Services

Did you?

Through a Judas-hole the size of a coin, a small room; curled inside an envelope of light, a man; inside this man there are voices, there is even why the cup he drinks from fills with dark. Always, the radio is loud; the music the same, the band marching right over the horizon. If you listen, you will hear the same question three times a day tattoo his body—the dark blue words of electric shock. If you listen inside that body, a map of the world, you will know how to survive the night, why your shadow walks on a broken stick, and why each day he wakes as you will inside the question, did you did you did you?

Michael Harlow
Nelson Songs (Song 1)
Nelson Wattie Baritone
Missing the mark

On the high-wire one foot in front of the other he weaves his act together. On point in air, he juggles space; jongleur without words, his weight a fine line on the sun's rim. When we look to mark his fall, we feel for the earth under us, blow ghost-rings into the air; perfect accomplices we wait under a high cradle of wind for that dark wish to stop twitching in our hands.

Michael Harlow
Nelson Songs (Song 2)
Nelson Wattie (Baritone)
How it is, is

I have torn my trousers, the bees are angry In their nests birds are stunned by a high hand of wind All night I stay awake in a pair of borrowed silk pyjamas

Like wasps beating air over a jampot, tomorrow we will quarrel over a fair share of the morning Anger thumbs us darkly

Ten years inside a night-coloured fuck is no magic; tomorrow we will discover that not even simple etiquette will do.

We turn mirrors to the wall, we look under the bed for broken flowers; with tidy care for immaculate news, we swear the earth is part of the solar system.

Michael Harlow
Nelson Songs (Song 3)
Nelson Wattie (Baritone)

REVIEW – of events at the 1986 Commonwealth Literature Conference, Laufen, Germany

One of the corollaries of that New Zealand behaviour pattern suggested by the description “the fly-away people” is the habit of gathering together in out-of-the-way places — and not always to discuss matters such as Rugby (when is a tour not a tour?) ANZUS pacts (when is a nuclear ship not a nuclear ship?) or Keri Hulme's Booker Prize (when is a novel not a novel?).
The recent IXth German Conference on Commonwealth Literature, Film and Theatre, held in Laufen in mid-June, was just such an occasion marked by three “fly-away people” coming together to produce a work and performance which might well have prompted the question:- “when is a celebration not a celebration?” Well, one answer could be: when the event is unheralded, not decked out with waving flags or nationalist slogans, when the Kiwi klaxon is not brandished and tooted, yet nevertheless a specifically and distinctively New Zealand voice and presentation speak directly to a mixed audience.
A welcome addition to the proceedings of the Conference was the introduction of a performance component: firstly the theatre presentation Ko Maui, a panoply of Maori myths and legends created and directed by John Hudson and Chris Balme; and secondly the first performance of a new work from the composer Kit Powell, formerly of Christchurch and now living in Zurich, to words by Michael Harlow, currently the Katherine Mansfield Fellow at Menton. The third expatriate element was provided by the baritone, Nelson Wattie, now living in Cologne, for whom the work was written, who had earlier given a sensitive and forceful performance of Douglas Lilburn s Elegy from 1951.
The place is a short song-cycle for baritone and prepared tape, using as its text three poems from Harlow‘s recent collection Vlaminck's Tie: Did You?, Missing the Mark and How it is, is. Powell has previously set Harlow's words and it is clear from the piece and from both men's response to questions from the floor after the performance, that they have an excellent personal and a professional rapport, with no real suggestion of the “territorial imperative” demands that often beset the relationship between composers and poets.
Moreover, while Harlow has a refreshingly relaxed attitude to the “appropriation” of his words, their shuffling round and fragmentation by the composer, his flexibility is due in some part to Powell‘s understanding of the texts and his ability to find a musical equivalent or contrast to the shifts in style and tone of Harlow's poetry.
Perhaps the single most noteworthy aspect of the work at first hearing is its accessibility – attributable primarily to the work's wit and clarity of form. That both were so evident was due in no small measure to Nelson Wattie's persuasive account of the piece. It is not an easy work to sing, demanding from the performer two sets of ears and an inbuilt metronome: but Wattie coped well with its demands ––variable and alternating pitches, decisions as to duration and tempi which are sometimes left to the performer, and the alternation of the singing/ Sprechgesang voice with taped voice –– with ease and skill.
If there was one element missing, it was that emphasised by Powell and Harlow in the lively discussion following the performance: the fact that it is ideally a music-theatre piece, which needs to be performed from memory by a singer who will physicalise some of the musical and textual elements. And having seen Powell himself, a deceptively laconic and unpretentious commentator on his own music, suddenly illustrate elements in the score with engaging forcefulness and real theatrical flair, one might do a lot worse than ask him to perform it himself. It is, at all events, a work that deserves to be heard again, for its idiom, though modern and experimental, is far from abstruse or rebarbative.

Michael Morley Laufen, Germany 1986

Michael Harlow, Michael Morley, Lauris Edmond & Kit Powell in Laufen, Bavaria, at the 1986 Commonwealth Literature Conference
Michael Harlow, Michael Morley, Lauris Edmond & Kit Powell in Laufen, Bavaria, at the 1986 Commonwealth Literature Conference