The Unusual Silence

1 October, Waiapu Anglican Cathedral, Napier
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

Despite the passing years, the lengthening shadow of the First World War brings, if anything, an even keener determination to explore and understand the enormity of the event: a consuming tragedy that in its scale of human cost and sheer pointlessness has no equal in the collective memory of New Zealanders.

The concert The Unusual Silence . . . “songs of remembrance, tragedy and the strength of the human spirit” by the celebrated Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir takes its title from the eponymous work by New Zealand composer Victoria Kelly, who is also a former Iona College student.

That four-part work was commissioned to commemorate the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day in Toronto in November, and was given its world premiere at the Auckland War memorial Museum on September 30.

In Napier it formed the pivot of a programme of choral pieces by New Zealand and other composers, curated by Opera NZ director Stuart Maunder and inspired by the museum’s war artefacts, including letters home from Kiwi soldiers.

In the varied and imaginative programme were popular songs ‘Keep the home fires burning’, ‘Oh! It’s a lovely war’ and Jerome Kern’s ‘They didn’t believe me’  along with David Hamilton’s searing ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ (with solo Last Post by Robbie Caygill), Eric Whitacre’s exquisite, hushed paean to youthful innocence ‘A boy and a girl’, and  Jenny McLeod’s sombre 1984 epic ‘Dirge for Doomsday’.

There was also Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi’s ‘Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae’ which fused Karelian folk song with Latin plainchant, Canadian Stephen Chatman’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ and ‘Remember’ (the latter performed by Cantare),  Healy Willan’s  1917 ‘How they so softly rest’, and Samuel Barber’s ‘To be sung on the water’.

Jenny Mcleod’s charming ‘There’s a time to live’ from her 2008 song cycle ‘Childhood’ closed the evening,  performed in memory of Peter Godfrey “the father of NZ choral music”, who died on September 28.

Voices were, as one would expect, superb in their precision and balance, and Kelly’s insightful centrepiece stole the show. Its title was well chosen:  Apart from the technical inability to record the sound of the war, the secrets and censorship, and the ear-destroying artillery barrages, and, as Kelly points out, the “genetic silence” of a lost generation of young men and their children unborn, the key contributor to the legacy of silence was the impossibility of relating the incomprehensible to those back home. How could one, in all decency, have told the unspeakable truth?

The composer succeeds in conveying something of the ineffable using the clever device of juxtaposing the prosaic with the words of the Kiwi the soldiers themselves.

In ‘The Census’, foreboding excerpts from a bill calling for compulsory registration of all men between the ages of 17 and 60 is paired with a letter from the front “Did you ever wonder what it was like to face a German machine gun. . . ”

‘The Frightful Monotony’ uses lines from famous pacifist Ormond Burton’s The Silent Division, his account of New Zealanders at war.

‘The Glorious Sunset’ combines a letter to his wife from Henry Thomas Norton of the Otago Infantry regiment, with menacing passages from the military order issued the day before for the engagement in which Norton was slain.

The final part, ‘The Unburied’, was inspired by a photograph of soldiers trudging into the distance in the Flanders wasteland. It combines the official telegram sent to the newly widowed Mrs Norton with a poem by an anonymous Kiwi soldier known as “EM”, in which high above the wreckage on the ground he hears music in the beating wings of migrating birds.  It is achingly sad, yet it is reassuring that the human spirit strives for a transcendent beauty to unshackle it from the most unimaginable of horrors.

The Unusual Silence is a hauntingly attractive work, the only regret being that one could not hear it all over again. Hopefully it will gain the wide currency it deserves.


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