A while back John Kinsella, poet extraordinaire, sent me a bunch of his recent poems. He’d become excited by the penillion – this is an ancient Welsh verse-form consisting of short stanzas of four lines each, where each line has just four syllables. He was asking if I’d like to use any of these poems as material for a collaboration. John said that he thought that the ancient penillions used to be performed to the accompaniment of a harp, and that might give me a starting point.
It was a fascinating suggestion, and if I was rather slow off the mark it was only because I was getting drawn more and more deeply into the very different linguistic world of Yves Bonnefoy, working on my flute piece Plus avant que l’étoile. Eventually I emerged from that back into the light of day, enough that I could begin to look again at John’s poems and search for a musical response. The one I’ve gone for is called Penillion of Tuning the Harpsichord, and the poem was inspired by watching and listening to Dan Tidhar tune a harpsichord at Churchill College, Cambridge, in preparation for a performance of Mattheson’s Suite no 12.
I considered both harp, for its ancient Welsh connotations, and harpsichord, because of the subject of the poem, but in the end rejected both (the harpsichord because it would be too literal). I wrote a very simple, almost minimalist piece for solo guitar, thus exploring a sound-world not too distant from both harp and harpsichord, but using an instrument that can be brought into all sorts of different venues and situations without bringing a heavy aura of ‘classical music’ and all that tends to go with it. The poem is spoken over the music, leaving spaces between the stanzas while the music continues. If all goes well, the first performance will be given at the University of Western Australia on 23 August, at a Symposium on John’s work.