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Small Holes in the Silence

Small Holes in the Silence

Meehan | Chisholm | Griffin

 
 
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Norman Meehan interviewed by Eva Radich HERE
 
 
"Something ... stunningly beautiful is over at Rattle Records, Small Holes in the Silence ... is one of the most gorgeous records ..." – HP Hamilton, Blog Spot
 

description

 

Norman Meehan (piano)
Hannah Griffin (voice)
Hayden Chisholm (saxophone)

 

Following the popular and critically acclaimed Buddhist Rain and Making Baby Float, Norman Meehan and Hannah Griffin teamed up with saxophonist Hayden Chisholm for this third instalment in their New Zealand poetry series. The relaxed serendipitous style of Norman and Hannah fits Hayden like a glove. A musician of remarkably understated confidence and sensitivity, Hayden's wonderfully nuanced phrases float effortlessly around the restrained sensitivity of Norman and Hannah.

This is music born of years of dedication to craft and commitment to musical integrity. As Norman and Hannah proved with their previous releases, and as Bill Manhire points out in his perceptive liner notes, it takes great skill and humility to ensure that the original poetry can freely speak when it would be easy to overwhelm it with music. Instead, these three fine musicians have created a framework in which sound and text enjoy a harmonious artistic partnership.

"I had mixed feelings when Norman first got in touch about setting my poems. Didn’t they have music already? But I liked what he did with them enormously – I felt that he had somehow found new cadences and melodies in the words that were as true as anything I felt was there originally. And I loved Hannah’s voice." – Bill Manhire

 
"There I was last week going through a few stray CDs and I found one of the Norman Meehan/Hannah Griffin albums where they've turned Bill Manhire's poems into songs. I was lucky enough to write the liner notes for one of their projects, so thrilled was I when I saw them perform these pieces live. So I was looking back through that, and listening again to the magic they summon and I was hoping that it wouldn't be long before this magical pairing serves up new music from old poems. Well, Meehan and Griffin (along with Hayden Chisholm) have created Small Holes In The Silence which features a few more Manhire poems, but also works from Hone Tuwhare, James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell, David Mitchell and Eileen Duggan. It's an amazing album - the Meehan/Griffin partnership has created some wonderful treatments already but this is the one I think - the must-hear/must-have offering. Chisholm's playing is a crucial part of the puzzle here, the missing piece previously." - Simon Sweetman, Stuff.co.nz
 

credits

 

RAT-D061 (October, 2015)
This album was made with support from Victoria University of Wellington

Produced by Norman Meehan and Steve Garden 
Engineered by Thomas Voyce
Mixed and mastered by Steve Garden
Design by Carolyn van Hoeve of UnkleFranc
Printing by Dave Trotter of Studio Q, Auckland

01  High Country Weather (1:57)
02  Rain (2:24)
03  Erewhon (5:04)
04  Ballad of the Hurting Girl (4:32)
05  Blue Rain (2:59)
06  Death of a Poet (3:39)
07  Dreams, Yellow Lions (4:51)
08  Words and Roses (4:14)
09  Warehouse Curtains (6:31)
10  Frost (7:12)
11  To Elespie, Ian & their Holy Whanau (1:49)
12  Yellow Room (4:59)

 

All compositions © 2015 by Norman Meehan

Norman Meehan acknowledges:
Robert Hoskins, Bill Manhire, Fergus Barrowman, and Dugal McKinnon, who all offered useful advice at just the right time. The New Zealand School of Music provided a good recording venue and a fabulous piano. Thanks to Mark McGann, Belinda Behle, and Barrie Macdonald for facilitating this project. Fergus and the team at VUP for assistance with type setting and permissions. Bill, for the new poems, and for his ongoing support. Keith Hill, Hannah Cornwell, Richard Caigou, Lance Philip (who recorded drums for Never No More, a song that didn’t make it onto this album, but which is lurking in the vaults with intent), Nick Tipping, Frank Carlberg, Colin Hemmingsen, Anne Noble, Richard Nunns, Sue Prescott. Adam Levy, for bringing David Mitchell’s work to my attention. Thomas and Steve, for making this album sound so lovely. George Mason, for beckoning to me from the field beyond notions of right and wrong. Hayden, for the beauty he offered to this music. Hannah, for bringing some magic. And for bringing soup, too. Suzi, Hazel, Roma.

Hannah Griffin acknowledges:
Pam Griffin - my constant supporter, artist and music lover. You are always in my memories, Mum.

 

This music is dedicated to Pam Griffin, and to our friend Tony Whincup … and a fine rain begins to fall.

 

 

 

liner notes

 
Good music will let words get away with anything. ‘I take comfort,’ Philip Larkin once wrote, ‘from the fact that what is too silly to be said can be sung.’
 
So all of us poets ought to feel safe when the composers approach, humming a little, clutching their staves and semi-quavers. Surely they can only make us better?
 
We shouldn’t feel too secure. The problem is that music is dangerously powerful – as Sir Michael Tippett has put it: music eats up words. This is fine when the words are banal – as they tend to be in Tippett’s own libretti – but is more troubling when a good poem has to cope with the stretchings and speedings-up and dodgy onomatopoeic effects that some composers resort to.
 
Poetry started as song, of course. Sappho was one of the earliest singer-songwriters. But these days the best poems live their full lives on the page. The poets have already set them to music. And many of the most remarkable poems come with their own dazzling sound effects. It’s hard to see what a composer can do – except get in the way – when confronted with the sonic richness of, say, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’.
 
It helps when a lyric text is slight and insufficient, like the words of my own ‘Ballad of the Hurting Girl’, which need Norman Meehan’s haunting melody and Hannah Griffin’s glorious voice to have real presence in the world. A safer bet than Thomas or Hopkins might be someone like Emily Dickinson, whose riddling, iambic quatrains can be delivered in church as contrarian hymns or – same difference? – croaked aloud to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’.
 
What I like most about Norman Meehan’s settings on this album is that words and music are equal participants, and that the final effect feels both surprising and inevitable. The music doesn’t overpower the words; but neither does it defer to them. Maybe this has something to do with the jazz background that Norman and Hannah share. The collaborative give-and-take of live performance means that hierarchies are missing; nothing is prescribed, and no single element is given preference.
 
There is recklessness as well as courage involved in setting well-known poems to music. At least two of these poems – Baxter’s ‘High Country Weather’ and Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Rain’ – are among New Zealand’s most loved texts. Some years ago ‘Rain’ was voted New Zealand’s favourite poem, narrowly beating Denis Glover’s ‘The Magpies’ for the honour. I love the fact that Norman’s settings enhance these poems – they don’t, to borrow a phrase from Damien Wilkins, put ‘music on top of music’.
 
Several other poems here are less well known yet equally interesting. I think my favourite is ‘Yellow Room’. David Mitchell wrote the poem in London, where his wife worked as a part-time waitress in the Café Lebanon on Finchley Road. (‘He’d sit and watch the world go by,’ she has written, ‘smoking French cigarettes and drinking black Turkish coffee.’) In the original text, everything impends. The musical setting captures the steady, relentless force that sits inside boredom; while the fact that the words are sung by a woman shifts the poem around in ways that make me understand its reach and range more fully. Here as in other songs on the album, I am very happy that Hannah, while she does lovely things with pace and texture, also wants us to hear the words. We don’t need subtitles to know what’s going on.
 
As for Hayden Chisholm’s sax solos, I feel I should disapprove on behalf of wordsmiths everywhere. The words are entirely missing! But that fluid sound also seems to be a crucial part of what is going on. It knows about the stuff beneath semantics. It lifts and slips and slides, prefiguring and predicting, working with an alphabet that is both before words and beyond them.
 
Bill Manhire, 2015
 

 

poems

 

Alone we are born
      And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
      Over snow-mountain shine.
 
Upon the upland road
      Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
      Your heart of anger.
 
James K. Baxter
Reprinted from Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1979) with permission of the James K. Baxter Trust
 

I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence
rain
 
If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
and shut
 
And I
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind
 
the something
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
the ground
 
the steady
drum-roll sound
you make
when the wind drops
 
But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see
you
 
you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me
rain
 
Hone Tuwhare
Reprinted from Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Works (Godwit Press, Random House NZ, 2011) with permission of the Estate of Hone Tuwhare
 

 
Evening shadow, precipice
Lonely pine beyond the bridge
there are people that I miss
there are people that I miss
 
They were here and then were gone
they were here and then were gone
they were here and then were gone
I guess they've gone to Erewhon
 
Oh one did things she shouldn't
And one did things she should
One was lost to heartache
I think she's gone for good
 
One was lost to silence
One was lost to song
and one was lost believing
that everything had gone
 
I lost my good companions
and chose to carry on
I rowed across the river
beyond the passing storm
 
They're making love in Erewhon
but it's love without a sound
no one comes from nowhere
and no one comes around
 
Well I followed up the river
Those pathways through the mist
I would follow you through every song
through all the silences
 
You were here, then you were gone
You were here, then you were gone
You were here, then you were gone
I think I'm lost in Erewhon
 
Evening shadow, precipice
Lonely pine beyond the bridge
there are people that I miss
there are people that I miss
there are people that I miss
there are people that I miss
 
Bill Manhire
Copyright © Bill Manhire 2015
 

 
She walked into the garden
she walked in secrecy
she waited in her body
by the apple tree 
 
There is a light inside the stone
And light upon the tree
The stars send down their messages
so helplessly
 
And she has gone inside the stone
And she has gone inside the tree
And every night she cries forlorn
and oh her voice is hurting me
 
For she has found the prison-house
and she has found the factory
and she has found where quiet men
corrupt our liberty
 
I wish the world were apple
with apples on the tree
I wish we might go walking
beneath the apple tree
 
There is a light inside the stone
And light upon the tree
The stars send down their messages
to helpless men like me
 
And she has gone inside the stone
And she has gone inside the tree
And every night she cries forlorn
and oh her voice is hurting me
 
I wish the world were apple
with apples on the tree
I wish we might go walking
beneath the apple tree
 
Bill Manhire
Copyright © Bill Manhire 2015
 

 
Blue rain from a clear sky.
Our world a cube of sunlight —
but to the south
the violet admonition
of thunder.
 
Innocent as flowers
your eyes with their thick lashes
open in green surprise.
 
What have we to fear?
Frost and a sharp wind
reproach us,
and a tall sky pelts the roof
with blue flowers.
 
You and I in bed, my love,
heads leaning together,
merry as thieves
eating stolen honey —
what have we to fear
but a borrowed world
collapsing all about us
in blue ruins?
 
Alistair Campbell
Copyright © the Estate of Alistair Campbell; reprinted with permission
 

 
i.m. Charles Causley
 
Between the Tamar and the tarmac,
Beneath a tangled sky,
I saw the Cornish poet
Walking by.
 
He went where wind and water
Will not be overthrown,
Where light and water meet
Boscastle stone.
 
It was a day in deep November
When the cold came.
The cold sky squandered
Inside his brain.
 
Who knocks at Cyprus Well?
Who knocks again, again?
‘I think it is the visitor
We must not name.’
 
Oh men who fish are fishing
And men of tin are gone
Yet men will walk on Bodmin
And hear his song.
 
The great world makes its changes
And yet remains the same;
And poets’ verses will unwind
The tangle in the brain.
 
Bill Manhire
Reprinted with permission from Lifted (Victoria University Press, 2005)
 

 
When I was young
I used to dream of girls
and mountains.
 
Now it is water I dream of,
placid among trees, or lifting
casually on a shore
 
where yellow lions come out
in the early morning
and stare out to sea.
 
Alistair Campbell
Copyright © the Estate of Alistair Campbell; reprinted with permission
 

 
I never imagined so rare a night
would make me dream of roses —
the gentle rain,
the words falling irresistibly
as arrows in flight,
sometimes singly,
sometimes in a shower,
far too many for me to catch,
and each a flower
without match.
 
In what other life did you wear them
so that they smelt of you?
We knew each other well,
these words and I,
from having sung of you everywhere
under your spell.
 
I followed them to the source
somewhere north of your heart —
or was it more to the south?
It matters only that they came,
from whichever direction,
still warm from your mouth.
 
Dear heart, I had forgotten everything
I learnt that love disposes,
until last night they came again
in a dream
with the gentle rain,
smelling of you and roses.
 
Alistair Campbell
Copyright © the Estate of Alistair Campbell; reprinted with permission
 

 
The bride sleeps in the old shoe warehouse
The husband sleeps above the sea
And they will never meet again
And they will never meet again
And they will never meet again
Inside our poetry
 
I might consult the silent doctor
I might consult the empty sky
But they will never speak again
No they will never speak again
No they will never speak again
They haven’t got the time
 
Oh the angel and the devil
Are there inside the bruise
They talk all day of good and evil
They like my new tattoos
 
They talk all day of good and evil
They talk and grow confused
They talk all day of good and evil
They talk all day of good and evil
They talk all day of good and evil
They’re asking me to choose
 
Take me where there is no weather
Take me where there is no sky
Teach me how to laugh a little
Teach me how to cry
 
Oedipus went to the crossroads
Oedipus knelt down and cried
Sigmund Freud was waiting for him
Sigmund Freud was waiting for him
Sigmund Freud was waiting for him
He would not be denied.
 
I miss my father and my mother
I miss my brother by my side
I miss the shoulder of my lover
I miss the shoulder of my lover
I miss the shoulder of my lover
I need a place to hide
 
Take me where there is no weather
Take me where there is no sky
Teach me how to laugh a little
Teach me how to cry
 
The bride sleeps in the old shoe warehouse
The husband sleeps above the sea
And they will never meet again
And they will never meet again
And they will never meet again
Inside our poetry
 
Bill Manhire
Reprinted with permission from The Victims of Lightning (Victoria University Press, 2010)
 

[UNTITLED]
 
Mysterious as stone or flint,
The birth of this destructive spark,
Whose inward growth has power to print
Strange suns upon the natural dark.
 
Oh break the walls of sense apart
And let the spirit fugitive
The light engendered of itself
Is not a life by which to live.
 
Eileen Duggan
Reprinted with permission from Selected Poems (Victoria University Press, 1994)
 
FROST
 
On my bare self fell the frost,
First as a dew;
Then each drop set silver
And rimed through.
 
Though the sod freeze into stone
Deep waits the vine,
Saving her sap alive
For the bine.
 
Let my heart strike deeper still.
No cold above,
Not even polar frost,
Should bite love.
 
Eileen Duggan
Reprinted with permission from Selected Poems (Victoria University Press, 1994)
 

 
On life’s eternal river
we float on . . . and
on, forever—like
a stream of light
enhancing our under-
standing of human love,
and life! Kia ora!
 
Hone Tuwhare
Reprinted from Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Works (Godwit Press, Random House NZ, 2011) with permission of the Estate of Hone Tuwhare
 

 
he is sitting in the café lebanon
& his legs are crossed beneath th balls
& th traffic in the street is slow . . .
&
he is waiting, while he is sitting in th café lebanon
fr something GREAT to happen . . .
&
her face, in th mirror on th wall
reflects her boredom . . .
&
his face, is in th mirror, too
looking ‘deep’
 
but all he’s thinking is :
‘that waitress is asleep’
&
there comes a curious palpitation in th traffic
& th green bus goes by. there it goes!
                              (it has gone)
&
his balls ache
while he is sitting in th café lebanon
waiting fr something GREAT to happen
(his balls are waiting, too)
yet
he cannot bring himself to uncross his legs—
his balls . . .
&
he is smoking
while he is sitting in th café lebanon
waiting fr something GREAT to happen
. . .
now
outside th traffic has jammed up; stopped
completely
&
his cigarette burns down; goes out
&
she scratches her wrist; absent minded
glazed eyes gone yellow with winter
&
now, she is scratching with th other hand
& outside th bus driver cuts his idling engine
&
they are still
                              sitting in the
café lebanon
waiting for something GREAT to happen
&
that seems to be all—
o yeah.
&
 
A FINE RAIN BEGINS T’FALL.
 
David Mitchell

Reprinted from Steal Away Boy: Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 2007) with permission of the Estate of David Mitchell
 

 

reviews

 

Norman Meehan’s framing of Bill Manhire poems – taking them from the page to the stage with the assistance of the pure-voiced Hannah Griffin – resulted in a winning project across the Buddhist Rain and Making Baby Float albums, across the multimedia project, These Rough Notes and now they tackle the work of not just Manhire on Small Holes In The Silence, saxophonist Hayden Chisholm picking up where Colin Hemmingsen had previously offered reeds.
 
As Manhire says in the liners for this new project, “I felt that he [Meehan] had somehow found new cadences and melodies in the words that were as true as anything I felt was there originally. And I loved Hannah’s voice”. That is it. That’s the case with this new project that includes the words of Hone Tuwhare (the title poem/song), James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell, Eileen Duggan, David Mitchell and another handful of Manhire’s poems. That offsets any “mixed feelings” around the words having enough “music already”.
 
The charm and grace of this partnership between Meehan and Griffin is that Norman works well in creating space, in shaping songs around the words, giving breathing room and allowing the poems their original intention: that is to be allowed to (still) say what they want to say. And Hannah can, seemingly, sing anything. And everything. But, crucially, she never sings everything, only ever the thing that’s required. And it’s so natural – effortless, gorgeous. She sings these words as if she is – in these moments – the storyteller but also always aware she’s the conduit, the vessel guiding the words.
 
In this new trio Chisholm offers his own form of poetry as his saxophone dances in the spaces Griffin and Meehan leave, in particular his introductory waft that announces Eileen Duggan’s Frost gives a Celtic air to the reading, his opening for Alistair Campbell’s Dreams, Yellow Lines gives a poetry to Meehan’s piano when it enters, between the two they set up ‘a song’ where there might only have been sparse words with any other treatment.
 
The weight and (sometimes) wordiness of Baxter’s world has made him tricky to approach in this context – despite some (often futile) attempts. But High Country Weather is both the correct choice and treatment, it announces our three musical voices, turn by turn, first Chisolm as if providing birdsong, then Griffin and Meehan enter, half a footstep apart. It’s delicate, calm, and the type of stripped back arrangement that either arrived instantly as if by divine inspiration, or took the longest time (despite the piece’s brief run) to carve into place. It sets up the album – it is the opening statement.
 
Tuwhare’s Rain is a more obvious sing-song, or at least a more overt lyric and it’s treated here as jazz balladry, a near torch-ballad, the result a perfect tribute to one of New Zealand’s best known, best loved poems; the result a song all of its own also.
 
The musical partnership of Griffin and Meehan has been a thrill to meehanobserve, to hear, to feel part of – that’s how warm and inviting this is for the listener – it’s both a soft-gloves treatment in reframing these words and a musical statement all of its own. Small Holes In The Silence is exquisite and all three musical voices here shine. That they shine so boldly onto the words, reflecting them, is a reminder of how soulful and selfless this project is; how its aim is not to be clever with music but to show how clever these words are, to allow them a new setting, a new life in some sense.
 
Simon Sweetman, Off the tracks