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28 March 2014

Ern Malley Songs - the legend lives on

Sidney Nolan's portrait of Ern Malley as featured in the cover of the new collection. Image: Sidney Nolan's portrait of Ern Malley as featured in the cover of the new collection.  

Johanna Selleck writes about the newly published Ern Malley Songs - a collection of music by 24 composers inspired by the legendary, fictional character of poet Ernest Lalor Malley. Dedicated to composer Peter Tahourdin and edited by Selleck, Ern Malley Songs is now available through Melbourne University's Lyrebird Press.

Ern Malley and his collected poems, The Darkening Ecliptic, have become part of Australian legend. Composition students at the University of Melbourne have had the opportunity to delve into the legend since 1988, when the head of composition, Brenton Broadstock, required students to set some of the Ern Malley poems to music. The project continued under the current head of composition, Stuart Greenbaum. Every year, students at the faculty were required to set selected poems from The Darkening Ecliptic for voice (solo or accompanied) as a compulsory composition project.

The newly released volume of Ern Malley Songs, compiled and edited by Johanna Selleck and published in December 2013 by Lyrebird Press, contains twenty-four songs, eight of which are student pieces and sixteen commissioned especially for this publication. All are composed by past and present students and staff of the University. The resultant collection covers the complete Ern Malley opus of sixteen poems and demonstrates the inspiration that present-day artists continue to draw from the poems of Ernest Lalor Malley.

The story of Ern Malley begins in 1940, with the launch of the Angry Penguins magazine by Max Harris - a young, rebellious student at the University of Adelaide. It quickly became known as a radical, modernist, and provocative platform for writers and artists. In late 1943, in order to discredit Harris and the Angry Penguins and the modernist movement generally, two traditionalist poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted a brilliant hoax by creating the fictitious characters of Ernest Lalor Malley and his sister Ethel.

As they told the story, Ernest had suffered a premature death from Graves' Disease at the age of 25. Amongst his possessions, Ethel had discovered a series of poems entitled The Darkening Ecliptic, and, claiming to have no knowledge of poetry herself, she sent them to Max Harris requesting his expert opinion. Harris proclaimed the poems to be a work of genius and the complete sixteen poems were published in 1944 in the autumn edition of the Angry Penguins.

The hoax was revealed soon after. McAuley and Stewart claimed that the poems were the result of a single afternoon's work using a process of spontaneous and partly random techniques of free association. Their creation was, they believed, an accurate imitation of modernist poetry, and highlighted what they saw as the movement's inherent pretentiousness and absurdity. However, for many artists who have since found inspiration in the Ern Malley story, the hoax poetry is thought to be of greater literary merit than McAuley's and Stewarts's own deliberately crafted and 'legitimate' poetry.

Ern Malley Songs is a valuable resource for performers of contemporary vocal music and Ern Malley fans alike. The composers represented in the volume are: Katy Abbott, Lorenzo Alvaro, Andrew Batterham, Brenton Broadstock, Barry Conyngham, Mark Elliott, Stuart Greenbaum, Elliott Gyger, David Howell, Raelene Howell, Annie Hsieh, William Hughes, Stephen Ingham, Linda Kouvaras, Christine McCombe, Sonoko Nishio, Andrián Pertout, Kevin Purcell, Johanna Selleck, Timothy Shawcross, Peter Tahourdin, Antonio Tenace, Adrian Vincent, and Julian Yu.

Further links

Ern Malley Songs - book details on AMC Online.
Ern Malley Songs - Lyrebird Press
Ern Malley - Wikipedia


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