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18 April 2012

Distant Rain and Shaun Tan's 'Tales from Outer Suburbia'

Tim Hansen Image: Tim Hansen  
© Nina Roberts

In 2008, I bought a copy of Australian children's author and illustrator Shaun Tan's latest series of short stories, Tales from Outer Suburbia. I, like many people, had been a fan of Shaun Tan's work for years. The author from Perth has a real gift for bittersweet storytelling, accompanied by bizarre yet comforting illustrations, and his work has rightfully been lauded as powerful, unique, and universal.

Tales from Outer Suburbia was just as awesome as his previous works, but one work in particular struck a real chord with me. Distant Rain poses a hypothetical situation in which the amateur poems that we all write down but never show anyone find their way out into the world. Unseen, they conglomerate in secret and form a ball, which grows larger and larger, before eventually taking up into the air and floating above the city. This beautiful tale asks the reader, 'why are we inclined to be embarrassed by our own creativity?', an issue that I think is particularly relevant in Australia, and one that I personally struggled with for many years in my early days as a composer. Anyway, ever since I read this story I've been determined to create a theatrical performance based on its message.

When I first moved to New York in 2010, I decided that this was the time to do it, and planned to adapt Distant Rain into a fifteen-minute choral work. I contacted Tan's agent and was granted permission to do so, but much like the ball of poetry in the story, the work took on a life of its own, and now, almost two years after I first started work on this project, the piece has developed into an hour-long chamber opera for four voices.

The final piece features four narrator-type 'everyman' characters, who are both part of the world of the opera and separate from it. The piece is broken into six parts of various lengths and styles. Part I, 'Have you…' sets the backdrop against which the core question is posed - what happens to all the poetry that people write that they never show anyone? The texture is unsettled and shifts constantly, a device I intended to evoke the sensation of hundreds of millions of people around the world busily composing poems that they'll never show another soul.

Part II, 'Suburbia', is a lilting sea shanty, which is appropriate as the four narrators climb onto a boat and sail into the heart of the city. In part III, 'Rare Occasions', the roar of the city slams into life, but amidst the noise and chaos the narrators bring our attention down to a tiny, secret place where something amazing takes place.

Part IV, 'Unknown to Science', describes the growth of the ball, from two tiny scraps of paper coming together right up to the formation of the enormous ball of poetry, climaxing in the ball taking flight above the city. It floats weightlessly in Part V, 'Driftwood', and in Part VI, 'One Morning', the narrators describe the joyful confusion in the city the morning after the poetry ball has formed and is discovered.

The imagery in Tan's original work is so powerful that it seemed a crime not to extend the work out into a longer piece, and it has certainly been one of the most satisfying projects I've ever worked on. I'm thrilled to announce that on May 14, Distant Rain will have a 'stools and stands' premiere at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. Even more exciting, the work will be led by the amazing Toby Twining and accompanied by brilliant pianist David Broome. The concert is completely free, and if you're in town, I would love to see you there.

AMC resources

All event details - AMC Calendar (14 May at 8pm, Province Playhouse, NY)
Tim Hansen - AMC profile
'Capturing colour - the Red Tree' - an article on Resonate about a collaboration between Shaun Tan, Michael Yezerski, Richard Tognetti, the Gondwana Voices and the ACO (14 July 2008)

Further links

Shaun Tan - homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

Timothy Hansen is a composer, music director, and youth-arts tutor who has been engaged by a diverse range of companies and individuals to create new works for theatre and music. He is currently based in New York.


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