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Songs for the birds: Composer Gareth Farr and poet Bill Manhire's collaboration

Of the four birds, only the tūī has a robust population. Photo/Getty Images

The words and music in a new collaboration are inspired by the sounds of New Zealand's native birds.

Composer Gareth Farr and poet Bill Manhire aren’t exactly birds of a feather but they are flocking together. Manhire is quietly ironic, reticent and somewhat enigmatic, choosing his words carefully; Farr, a former percussionist and occasional drag queen, is excitable, flamboyant and voluble. Yet their recent joint project to create songs for New Zealand baritone Julien Van Mellaerts has been, in Farr’s words, “a real collaboration”.

It began on a Wellington street. London-based Van Mellaerts had asked Farr for some songs about New Zealand birds to include in a tour programme for Chamber Music New Zealand. Manhire was already the composer’s choice of poet. When they met by chance, Farr seized the opportunity. “It was very ‘Wellington’,” he says. “I asked for some bird songs and Bill said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The four songs of Ornithological Anecdotes will be premiered at Wellington’s ecosanctuary Zealandia before Van Mellaerts and pianist James Baillieu take the tunes on tour.

The choice of birds was shared; Manhire rejected the inclusion of the kiwi as “spectacularly boring” and picked the endangered banded dotterel and the “rescued” takahē. Farr chose the huia, intrigued that the name of the extinct bird means “where are you?”, and the tūī, the only bird of the four with a robust population.

The poems and musical settings capture four very different avian characters. Manhire knows the tiny, courageous dotterel from holidays at Ōpoutere, where there is a protected breeding ground on the sandspit.

Bill Manhire. Photo/Grant Maiden/Supplied

“Because they’re so little, just balls of sand, really, all they can do is lead you away from the nest,” he says. “I’ve got the singer talking to the dotterel – ‘little pepperpot, little run-a-lot’ – and the bird trying to lure the singer away – ‘follow me, follow me, this way please’ – even pretending, as they do, to have a broken wing to make itself appear vulnerable.”

Farr has given the poem what he describes as a “delicate, atmospheric piano part”, and as the opening song and the only one in which the singer ‘speaks’, Manhire sees it as “luring the singer into the world of the birds”. 

The second song, Takahē, is in marked contrast. “It’s a slightly off dance beat, in five [beats to a bar],” says Farr. “‘I’m takahē, I eat all day… I’m bad ballet’. It’s very rhythmic and synchronised.”

Manhire’s poems for this and the following two songs reflect his creative interest in riddles. “If you take the titles off,” he explains, “that’s a standard riddle form, [the birds] describing themselves, emphasising their own paradoxical qualities.”

Manhire has enjoyed “discovering little facts – the huia was said to be the first bird to sing in the dawn chorus and its song was supposed to indicate rain, so it begins, ‘I was the first of the birds to sing, I sang to signal rain.’ Huia also provided Farr with the “beautiful, romantic slow movement” the set needed. “Julien can be lyrical in this one, and I’ve pushed up to high notes in the top of his range.”

Gareth Farr. Photo/Supplied
When Farr was a teenager discovering sound sources for new music, he transcribed the tūī calls in Deep Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound while holidaying at his grandparents’ bach. “The wonderful thing about tūī is that they have their own language and it’s region-specific.” Last year, he visited Punga Cove, a few bays away, and he remembers thinking, “My god! They’re still singing the same song. So, I put it in the last movement, Tūī.

“It’s a real finale, and funny: Bill’s written very clever, witty, rhyming stanzas (‘I’m swaying on the flax/just rehearsing my syntax’), and I put the bird calls all around the poem, letting the words be themselves. The tūī calls are incredibly fast and high, right up the top of the piano.”

A few years ago, Farr set poems by Australian poet Les Murray to music at the request of the vocal group The Song Company. Meeting the poet at the premiere, he was taken aback when a gruff Murray declared, “When a composer sets a poet’s work to music, someone has to win.” “And it’s usually the composer,” Farr adds now, “because it’s the composer’s gig.”

For his part, Manhire is pleased that Ornithological Anecdotes has instead been a shared process. “If you’re writing words for someone else to set, you’re not too possessive of them – they become theirs as well as yours.”

Julien Van Mellaerts and James Baillieu’s Songs of Travel, Festival of Colour, Cromwell and Wanaka, April 2 and 3 and eight more dates nationwide. 

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.