Smoke Encrypted Whispers
Poetry by Samuel Wagan Watson
Ron Haddrick (reader)
The Southern Cross Soloists
Rec. February 2011 at Studio 420, Ferry Road, Brisbane, Australia (music); March 2012 at Trackdown Scoring Stage, Moore Park, Sydney, Australia (readings)
Full texts of poems included in booklet
MELBA RECORDINGS MR301140 [79:57]
This enterprising disc was originally released back in 2013. It documents a project originally conceived for the ‘Music and Words’ series, presented by the Southern Cross Soloists at the State Library of Queensland during 2008 and showcases Smoke Encrypted Whispers, a remarkable cycle of short poems by the Brisbane-based bard Samuel Wagan Watson (b. 1972). We are told in the lavish booklet that the poet is of Aboriginal (specifically Munanjali and Birri Gubba), German, Scottish and Irish descent and having been born in the city, has spent most of his subsequent life in and around it. Wagan Watson’s background strongly suggests writing and activism would be his destiny: his great-grandfather was sold as a slave and was among the first to be liberated from the Aboriginal Protection Act having saved up to recruit a sympathetic lawyer, whilst many decades later his father was an outspoken activist at the University of Queensland. Both his father and sister have written novels. The 23 poems that constitute Smoke Encrypted Whispers inevitably address issues of identity and belonging, depict vignettes from Wagan Watson’s local and global experience (both real and imagined) and more specifically reflect on aspects of history and life around the Boundary Street (the clue is in its name) area of the West End of Brisbane many of which allude to states of division, conflict and persecution elsewhere on the planet.
Whilst the music on this disc is central to this review it must be said that having always regarded poetry as something which is better heard than read in silence, I have found that the actual sound of Wagan Watson’s work truly brings it to vibrant life, not least in its reading here. The narrator is the revered Australian actor (and former first-class cricketer) Ron Haddrick who passed away early in 2020 at the venerable age of 90. One immediately striking phenomenon is the fact that these poems, the products of a youngish man in his thirties, really seem to gain in impact in their delivery by a much older voice; the poet’s relative youth proves to be no disbar to his insight, perception and deep humanity, qualities for which Haddrick was clearly renowned and certainly epitomised here. The poems are remarkably economical; Wagan Watson’s pared-down language is almost Webernian in its brevity and directness. Consequently Paul Dean’s original decision to commission individual miniatures (each tailored to one specific ‘number’) from 23 composers with strong Brisbane connections has been triumphantly vindicated. This 80 minute disc constitutes a profoundly thought-provoking and satisfying ‘event’ (I baulk at using the word ‘entertainment’).
Turning to the music itself, several pieces are effectively ‘songs’, settings of the poems in toto or in part. This ensures that each of the performers in the excellent Southern Cross Soloists (four wind, piano and a lyric soprano) take their turn in the spotlight. The soprano Margaret Schindler has an agreeably smoky voice which neatly characterises the ghostly spirits which simultaneously terrorise and fascinate the child in scared of the dark; the experienced Richard Mills’ setting at times gets close to the style of the Britten/Auden Cabaret Songs. Schindler similarly captures the jazzy hints in Stephen Cronin’s bleaker setting of lines from the down-to-earth apocalypse of cribb island, a setting which the booklet reveals is actually a compendium of 36 microscopic musical events.
Even darker is capalaba, one of many poems here that evoke ghosts, though those that exist in this one seem far from benign. This poem is significant as the accompanying instrumental miniature, I Dream of Sacred, I am My Dream is a dirge by the only indigenous composer featured, William Barton, perhaps better-known as Peter Sculthorpe’s go-to didjeridu master. The stark, simple piece for piano and wind seems to completely embody the sense of unease and dislocation that inhabits Wagan Watson’s cycle as a whole. Its starkness seems all the more vivid given the light-hearted reminiscence of rip which follows, and Ralph Hultgren’s playful treatment of elements of that text.
Needless to say, in a miscellany involving 23 composers there are a dizzying variety of styles and techniques on display; some of them (Toby Wren, Louise Denson, Marianne Schoelm for example) have backgrounds in jazz and other popular forms which are never obvious from their contributions here and a testament to their versatility. Denson’s offering, a vocalise (for the poem fisherman islands) is especially memorable. At the other end of the scale, a more bracing modernism can be detected in the offering by Damian Barbeler (paper trails to midnight) which turns out to be a marvellously apt commentary on Wagan Watson’s words.
As far as the music on this disc is concerned, it reveals Brisbane, known to
many of us only for all night cricket commentaries and the unforgettably named Vulture Street End at the Gabba, to be a hotbed of musical activity. I have only cherry-picked a handful of examples, but readers may rest assured that all these little pieces work superbly in their pre-determined contexts. The Southern Cross Soloists cope magnificently with the abruptly changing styles and instrumental requirements. The Melba recording is appropriately warm and intimate, and Ron Haddrick’s readings, added to the mix a year later have been incorporated seamlessly. The presentation is enhanced by an exceptional booklet, which provides detailed analyses of each poem and piece, the full texts of Wagan Watson’s poems as well as potted biographies of each of the 23 composers (at least three of whom have sadly passed away since the disc was recorded). The whole package provides a most moving and enriching experience.
Odd numbered tracks represent the reading of the poem, even numbered ones the linked miniature by the composer identified)
1-2 smoke signals (Robert DAVIDSON b 1965) [3:26]
3-4 tigerland (Paul DEAN b 1966) [2:56]
5-6 scared of the dark (Richard MILLS b 1949) [2:55]
7-8 wecker road (Toby WREN) [4:16]
9-10 cribb island (Stephen CRONIN b 1960) [3:16]
11-12 capalaba (I Dream of Sacred, I am My Dream William BARTON b 1981) [3:35]
13-14 rip (Ralph HULTGREN b 1953) [3:24]
15-16 smoke water (Mary MAGEAU 1934-2020) [3:38]
17-18 author’s notes #1 (Stephen STANFIELD 1966-2011) [3:22]
19-20 darkroom (Peter RANKINE) [3:00]
21-22 fisherman islands (Louise DENSON) [3:19]
23-24 paper trails to midnight (Damian BARBELER b 1972) [2:23]
25-26 author’s notes #2 (Composer’s Notes: an interlude Sean O’BOYLE b 1963) [3:53]
27-28 ghosts of boundary street (Song of City Ghosts Lisa CHENEY b 1987) [4:59]
29-30 dog tired tune (John GILFEDDER 1925-2015) [3:15]
31-32 when I crossed the ditch . . . (Tom ADENEY) [3:57]
33-34 author’s notes #3 (One Stanza Freeman McGRATH b 1977) [3:41]
35-36 the dust company (Marianne SCHOLEM) [3:07]
37-38 from boundary street, west end, to the berlin wall, east germany (every shade of grey Peter CLARK) [4:57]
39-40 snapshots (Betty BEATH b 1932) [3:00]
41-42 aunty grey smoke (Old Tribal Woman Michael KNOPF b 1955) [3:44]
43-44 author's notes – conclusion (dreamtime Stephen LEEK b 1959) [3:15]
45-46 revolver (Gerard BROPHY b 1953) [3:31]
Southern Cross Soloists: Paul Dean (clarinet); Tania Fraser (oboe); Margaret Schindler (lyric soprano); Peter Luff (horn), Kevin Power (piano), David Mitchell (bassoon)