Bell Birds

A little background…

The Bell Birds Suite for string quartet is inspired by Henry Kendall’s poem Bell Birds, first published in 1869, in a book of collected poems entitled Leaves from Australian Forests. Each movement of the work is loosely programmed around the five stanzas of Kendall’s poem, and although the work itself contains compositional elements that mimic Australian birdsong (Bell Birds, Golden Whip Birds, Djidi Djidi or Willy Wagtails, Currawongs and Bar shouldered doves) the intention of the piece is that this is the poet’s experience of the bush, an emotional and profound expression of their love for the Australian bush and its animals. The focus of the piece is the expression of the rich melodies that underpin the poet’s feelings portrayed in the text. It has a loosely symmetrical structure, with themes recapitulated or inverted in movements 1 and 5, 2 and 4, and the central movement being a big romantic love theme as the poet expresses their desire to “loiter for love in these cool wildernesses”. A tiny snippet of this theme appears at the conclusion of the 5th movement, one in which the poet expresses their longing for the past as a balm against their world weariness.

I had wanted to write a string quartet for some time, and after experimenting with some extended string techniques and bird calls in my opera Beyond the Wall, I was interested in particularly trying to write something that evoked the birds of Australia. I grew up in the Hills in Perth and have just recently moved back there after living in the city, and in Sydney and London for spells of time. A piece dedicated to Australian flora and fauna appealed to me as I have always been struck at how profoundly homesick I became for these things (the sounds of the birds, the trees, the smells of the earth, the gums, the flowers) when I lived away. Australian animals are so raucous and audacious, and although I love seeing the world, it really was true for me that Australia was always a place I called home, one that I missed terribly.

One of a composer’s greatest modern challenges (especially one who is music drama based) is negotiating rights to text with authors, or finding work that is in the public domain. I often write my own text, but absolutely relish the opportunity to collaborate with other writers, and although this has sometimes been a fraught experience, the majority of the time it has been very enjoyable process. The poem Bell Birds I discovered quite by accident when searching through Australian literature, and I loved it instantly as it reminded me of the kind of poem my Grandmother would have known and loved. My grandmother was a beautiful letter writer and correspondent, and loved poetry. I was lucky enough to receive her copy of Henry Lawson’s collected prose works as a gift after one of our visits, and classic Australian poetry always reminds me of her. My mother subsequently told me that she had been required to learn Bell Birds for recitation at school, along with Dorothea MacKellar’s I love a sunburnt country, so I was delighted to learn that perhaps lots of people of certain generations in Australia know this poem well!

My Grandma lived in Blaxland in the Blue Mountains for many years, and I have very fond memories of visiting both my grandparents in Blaxland—both as a child and when I was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium in the early Noughties. The train journey from Central to Blaxland is a lovely one, especially as you cross the Nepean and start up the mountain. All of a sudden my student cares would melt away and I’d gaze out the window and relish the scenery, secretly wishing I lived there instead of my tiny bedsit in Potts Point. Grandma always made a beautiful sit down lunch, and I’d listen to them talk and tell them my singing plans and travel goals. She’d sneak something extra into by bag for my train ride home, and I’d arrive back in Sydney feeling much refreshed and ready to get back into the fray. Grandma and Grandad would often drive me around the mountains on my visits, up to Katoomba and the Three Sisters. They also took me on a special trip past Bell, where we got out of the car so I could hear the Bell Birds. I’d like to think of this piece as my expression of love for Australia, and how lucky I feel to be a part of this place. It’s also got a lot of my love for my grandparents in there, and as I composed these movements, I was constantly drawn back to those moments in the Blue Mountains, mixed with the love for the scenery and wildlife around my new home here in WA.

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