The Judith Wright Project

To commemorate ten years since the passing of Australian Poet Judith Wright, Chris was asked to compose a setting of her words. The resulting work ‘of silence into silence’ was premiered by Brad Gill and Nicole Thompson at the Judith Wright Project in 2010. At the same concert Chris was delighted to conduct the world premiere of Brad Gill’s complex song cycle ‘Patterns’

‘Rainforest’ by Brad Gill, Conducted by Chris Williams

Read Chris’s article from the Judith Wright Program on words and music

Text and Music – A Few Thoughts

Finding the right text is, for me, a revelatory moment. While it invariably provokes a long period of thought, reflection, study, and exploration, like all good revelations it happens in an instant. There is a sudden moment of connection. It tends to spark a broader interest in the poet, the context and the intellectual depth of the words, but there is still something that is immediate. Like much of the creative process it is very difficult to say exactly what this is, or to predict when it will happen, but there are some aspects that seem common to me in these kinds of moments.

Firstly the text must have something substantial to say. While it will often express something you wished you could have yourself, but in words you didn’t have, it is also possible, perhaps more exciting when it offers something unexpected.

When a text surprises you not only with its expression but with its idea, its perspective, this is a truly exciting moment.

Setting text to music is as much about sharing and prolonging this first experience, that revelatory moment, with other people as it is about composition itself. In fact, the composition, for me, then becomes a process of how best to provide this kind of revelation to an audience. How best to illuminate what it was that attracted you to the text. This is crucial, and leads to my next point. Not any text with a wonderful expression or point of view will lend itself to setting. There needs to be something you can add with music be it a particular emphasis or just an intrinsic mood that will be enhanced by setting.

Sometimes a text will be so dense or textural to begin with that adding music seems an unnecessary imposition. Nigel Butterley, in his lecture “Words into Music,” points to a very good example of this, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Despite his exquisite and remarkable natural cadence that could, I think, be exploited musically, there is so much music already in the words that a composer approaching such a text needs to be extremely careful not to impede or impose on the text.

The best settings capture the essence of the words, but create something that is beyond the realm of the words and the music. What is extraordinary is when either aspect can transcend itself because of the established relationship; when a single word or note can be missed without losing the impact of the new creation which is not entirely music and not entirely text, but is the complex and exquisite confluence of both.)

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