Exhibition 3: Poems of Rewi Alley

Poems of Rewi Alley

Read by John Britton
Musical settings by Warren Burt

Dedication – 12 tone et.

The Family Supper – 23 tone et. 

Profit Plus Poison – 18 tone et. 

The Way Ahead for Youth – 21 tone et.

The First Eighty Years – 12 tone et.

Composers’ notes:

The New Zealand born poet Rewi Alley was born on the 2nd of December 1897 in the small town of Springfield, on the South Island of New Zealand. He was named after a legendary Maori chief of great courage, Rewi Maniapoto. He died 90 years later on Dec 27, 1987, in Beijing, the capital of the country in which he had spent the last 60 years of his life. His life is one of the most amazing of the 20th century, encompassing several careers, and enough adventure and dedication to fill several more normal lifetimes. Over his 90 years, he worked as a soldier, an educator, a scholar, a peace activist, an industrial reformer, a farmer and a writer, among other things. After leaving New Zealand to fight in the First World War, he returned home, and spent six hard years unsuccessfully trying to establish a farm in the Taranaki district of the North Island. Then, in 1927, out of curiosity, he visited China, and stayed there for the next 60 years. In China, he first worked as a fireman, then as a safety inspector for factories. This work brought him into contact with the desperate conditions of Chinese workers, and he began to work for the betterment of their conditions. In the mid 1930s, he founded the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, a workers controlled industrial organization, who made sure that all their factories could be broken down into small units and moved at a moments notice. This portability, and their morale, symbolized by their slogan Gung Ho (work together), made a decisive difference in China’s ability to survive the Japanese onslaught in World War II. During the war, Alley also got involved in education, founding a school that combined industrial and academic work in equal measure, and doing it all on a small, local scale. His work was inspirational to such educational reformers as Ivan Illich. After the war, with some misgivings, Alley supported the Communist government of Mao Zedong and Chou En-Lai – they seemed to him the best option for China to develop as a self-sufficient nation – and throughout the 50s and 60s, worked tirelessly in the international arena to increase understanding between China and the rest of the world. He and his family – his two adopted sons and their children – luckily survived the Cultural Revolution, mainly through the support and intervention of the Premiere, Chou En-Lai, an old friend from the 30s and 40s, and in his last decades, he was honoured in both China and New Zealand for a lifetime of labor in the service of the working people of China.

In the 1930s, Alley began translating Chinese poetry, and shortly thereafter, began writing poetry himself, sometimes basing his English language poetry on Chinese models, and sometimes simply writing discursive, narrative poems. From the mid 1940s until the late 1970s, he produced a number of volumes of poetry. Some of his poems were quite lyrical observations of Chinese village life, while others were angry, forceful polemics, where he scathingly condemned political conditions he disapproved of. Although he allied himself with the Chinese Communist Party from the 1950s on, Alley was nobody’s puppet, and his political poetry, often quite Brechtian, always retains his own idealistic voice. One would say, using the language of the time, that although the Party would claim that the people and the party were one, if push came to shove (and it often did), Alley would side with the people every time.

I had heard of Rewi Alley through my New Zealand composer friends, Philip Dadson and Jack Body, both of whom had done extended musical compositions about him. But my first real contact with his work came in March 2000, when on a trip through New Zealand I stopped at the Rewi Alley memorial in Springfield. I was impressed by what I saw, and heard. By pressing a button, you could hear a recording of an actor reading a part of one of Alley’s early poems. I liked what I heard, made a recording of it, and then used that recording in a small piece that I played later that week in a concert at Canterbury University in Christchurch. Later, in Wellington, with the help of another composer colleague, Alan Wells, I found several volumes of his poetry in a used book shop. Reading these, I was stunned. I immediately took a liking to his poetry, warts and all. Further searches uncovered more volumes of his poetry, and eventually I selected a sequence of 19 poems, ranging from his earliest efforts in the mid-40s, and his lyrical peasant poems of the 50s, through his sternly angry political works of the 60s, and his gently didactic works of the 70s. I wanted my selection to function as a kind of biography, or biographical sampling of Alley’s life, showing both his absolutely contemporary (and right on) desires for a better world, and also his occasional political misjudgements. His condemnation of the Gang of Four, for example, was written well after they fell from power. Although he may have felt this way during their rule, prudence (in the form of a desire for survival) dictated that these thoughts were kept very private until after they were gone. In this sense, Alley may be compared to another 20th century artist who both publicly supported and privately opposed his own Communist government, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Some of Alley’s poetry has aged very well, and some has not. But I wanted to include a wide spectrum of his work, in order to present a portrait of as many sides of the man as possible. In making musical settings of his poems, I didn’t want to prettify them, nor did I want them to be sung. It seemed to me that they were best heard with a speaking voice, which could articulate the emotions inherent in them. The English-Australian actor John Britton provided me with better readings than I could have ever hoped for, bringing these poems to life in ways that continue to delight me. I took the recordings of his readings, and processed them through a computer program called AudioMulch, made by the Melbourne composer Ross Bencina. AudioMulch contains a device called a comb filter, which enables you to create ringing chords, which follow both the rhythm and the pitches inherent in the speaking voice. Further, you can change these chords in performance, creating progressions of sounds that will follow the incoming voice, creating a kind of ghost harmony that envelops and hangs behind the voice, making a musical accompaniment that seems particularly apt for speech. My settings of the 19 poems progress from elegaic, and traditionally tonal, through to more dark, dissonant and angry microtonal musical worlds before finally returning, at the end, to the placid world of the beginning. I hope that the listener is aware of the harmonies I chose to accompany the poems, and the interplay between the text and my musical choices. I would like to thank Arts Victoria, which funded my work on these poems, Alan Wells and Jack Body for their information about Rewi Alley, and above all, John Britton, for his readings, without which these poem settings would not exist.

The tunings used. Every tuning has particular intervals which have certain emotional connotations. These connotations vary from individual to individual. There is no universal language of tuning and emotion. As a composer, all I can do is trust my own ear, and feelings. The accompaniment of each of the poems in this cycle uses a different equal tempered tuning. These tunings suggested to me certain emotional moods that I felt were relevant to a specific poem. Here is a list of the tunings used in each individual poem. The abbreviation “et” stands for “equal temperament”, the system of dividing an octave into intervals of equal size, which is only one of an infinite number of systems of tuning which exist.  

Created and recorded in October and November 2003 in Coburg, Victoria, Australia, by John Britton and Warren Burt, with funding from Arts Victoria.

All sounds and texts copyright © 2006 by Warren Burt

Rewi Poems CD

Released on CD by Sonic Gallery in 2006 with support from the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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