30 May 2014
Featured video: Andrée Greenwell's The Hanging of Jean Lee
Andrée Greenwell's 'underbelly' song cycle The Hanging of Jean Lee reveals the life and times of Jean Lee, the last woman to be hanged in Australia in 1951. It is adapted from Jordie Albiston's verse history of the same name, published by Black Pepper Press. The videos below, accompanied here by descriptions by the composer, were recorded during the concert version of the work at Arts House, North Melbourne, on 7-8 December 2013. They can also be viewed on on Youtube as a playlist.
The composer writes about her work:
'The premiere production of The Hanging of Jean Lee was at the Studio, Sydney Opera House in 2006, which was also studio-recorded by the ABC Radio National Music and Drama Units in 2007-8. It took me seven years to see this work in Melbourne, the city where Jean Lee was convicted and hanged, for participating in the brutal torture and murder of William Pop Kent, in a robbery gone wrong. The score of The Hanging of Jean Lee updates the exploration of the underclass through a folk-music vernacular, so compellingly established by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in their musical play of 1928, The Threepenny Opera.'
The 2013 production of The Hanging of Jean Lee by Green Room Music was made possible through the support of the Robert Salzer Foundation, Arts Victoria, Arts House through the City of Melbourne, and the New Music Network.
Mug Shot 1
Jordie Albiston based poems in her collection upon three photographs of Jean. I located the original photographs, to be incorporated into the projections. The pictures here come from the police identity photographs of Jean upon her arrest for participating in the murder of William 'Pop' Kent.
Jean's appearance was commented upon in the press, and here two policemen talk about her crime, but interlaced with nudge and wink. I love the jazz feel of this, it is vibrant and dark at the same time.
The band for the project was outstanding - Andrea Keeble on violin; top line jazz musicians Shane Gillard on trumpet with Lachlan Davidson on woodwind; Willy Zygier on guitars (Deborah Conway and Willly Zygier); Harry Cook on piano, with Lucas Taranto and Josh Barber of Gotye on bass and drumkit. Michael Hewes fully mixed the performances live - pulling every piece of gear he could find at Arts House. I have to say I nearly hit the floor when I saw only one FX unit, a twenty-year-old early Yamaha digital unit. Michael's work and patience was fantastic, and with limited resources.
Dear Diary 1934
Don Treble proposed the theory in his book, Jean Lee - the last woman hanged, that Jean was taken out of school and interstate by her mother at the age of 13, due to a teenage pregnancy.
This song is a teen-rage at God, following the birth of this child, and the first poem I wrote for the work. I could hear it quickly from the page and had in mind the raw emotion of Janis Joplin, and Max Sharam invests a lot of energy here. The saxophone solo by Lachlan Davidson in this performance is wonderful.
The Hangman's Handbook
In this song, Jean Lee imagines the hangman visiting her cell, the night before her hanging, in a fantasy-nightmare.
The pace and style is ironic in terms of the terror facing Jean, as is the animated 'Hangman' game, superimposed over various images of hanged women across Western history. I always imagined a singer such as Hugo Race in this role - Hugo has gravitas, a deep voice and great performing presence. He was a founding member of The Bad Seeds with Nick Cave, and founded the cult bands The Wreckery and Plays With Marionettes, and he continues his work as a prolific song writer in Australia and Europe in various music outfits. Hugo's vocal contribution is an important contrast to the central character performed by aria award winning singer Max Sharam - whose inherent wildness and vocal power is evident in these clips.
During the second world war, Jean left her first husband, Ray Brees, and her daughter Jilly, in Sydney.
Jean was desperate to get away from Ray's abuse and dependance, as they lived one step ahead of landlords, with Jean bringing in the cash through a variety of day jobs. The percussive riff is designed to convey her driving desperation. It is one of a series emotionally exhausting songs that are central to this female music theatre role. The male BV's have a black humour, I imagined a perverse version of Kylie Minogue in their lines 'do it again…'
Go West Young Woman
Jean met petty criminal Morris Dias while working as a barmaid at Lennon's Hotel in George St, Brisbane. In the song 'Go West' Morris Dias seduces Jean to a better life than pulling beers behind a bar - as a prostitute to his pimping. They travelled around the country during the war. However, Morrie also abused Jean and pocketed her earnings and she ended up leaving him as well. The song comes from a more abstract poem that reveals Dias's wish for Jean to travel west to Perth with him.
A great challenge in the libretto was to take Albiston's verse history of over fifty poems and transform them into songs that were more dramatic, so there is quite a change from the original here, to duet, with backup vocals that spur on the couple's spree. I wanted the interjecting tom motif in the drums - it reminded me of a lot of post-punk styles that I loved in bands during the 1980s - like the Scientists, slightly 'swamp'. I shot these images on Super 8 some years ago with my husband James Manché in the Northern Territory, for our friend Jane Cole's documentary about the visual artist, Tracey Moffat. The footage turned out to be ideal for the Australian road movie feel I wanted for this song. This is also intercut with Super 8 footage from Megan Simpson's film An Australian Summer. Katerina Stratos, who I have worked with since I went to film school in 1995, digitally processed and animated the maps taken from a variety of atlases, sourced from libraries around the country.
Jean Lee and her first husband Ray Brees were great dancers, and Ray won a trophy for his dancing skill. Jean worked in clerical jobs during the day, then partied and danced at night with Ray.
The male vocal trio who sing to Jean as she goes out to dance as a young woman, is modelled on pre-war jazz and popular vocal styles, in close harmony. Jeff Duff is ideal as the leader for this song. Many of the images of the 1930-1940s swing dance era come from the collection of Mike Sutcliffe, and were rephotographed by John Jansen-Moore. Sadly, Mike has passed since the image research for the first production at the Studio, Sydney Opera House.
Bobby and Jean
It appears that Jean made life choices that saw her predominantly in the company of men, and this is something I emphasised in the casting, surrounding her with men on stage - in the cast and ensemble.
I love the projected footage here, which I sourced from the National Film and Sound archives, of gambling, gaming and racing. It shows a largely male camaraderie in these types of recreation, from the depression through to the mid-twentieth century in Australia. The images resound the theme of a woman who either chose, or found herself surrounded by men - in crime, the media reportage of her life, and the judicial system of the day.
The setting of Jean's falling in love with criminal Robert David Clayton is a rapturous, cheeky tango.
Mug Shot 2
The photographs of Jean Lee in prison, so much changed from the early photo I obtained from her family, inspired this chilling poem, evocatively delivered by Hugo Race as the Warden in this episode.
I had in mind a slow post-punk version of beat poetry in the setting, which is a structured improvisation around set musical motifs. Albiston used a number of school rhymes in this work, and here she imagined a vicious schoolyard chant, which contributed to the public debate in the work.
The musicians gradually join in to 'stomp' with the male trio.
I had in mind the song 'Scope J' by Scott Walker, recorded by Ute Lemper, when I commenced the piano introduction for this song.
I am pleased with the irony between the lyrical intensity of the music, and the clinical list of prison rules of the day, which is beautifully sung by Simon Maiden, Hugo Race and Jeff Duff. Janet Merewether and I travelled to Pentridge prior to its renovation to urban accommodation, to take the photos for this sequence. That visit was disturbing, with years-old blood and excrement smeared on the walls of the tiny miserable cells. I recall Janet had to step outside to the prison exercise yard for some relief from the oppressive feeling of the building.
Dear Diary 1951
In contrast to the poems that have documentary basis, Albiston brilliantly imagines Jean's inner conflict in poems that variously rail at her god. Immediately, I heard neo-blues roots styles as I imagined the transformations of these poems to song.
The lyrics did not require many changes from the original writing. This song is Jean's last in the work, she rails at her god across the verse:
'God is pressing down on me … God is pushing down on me … God is hurling angels down …' - fantastic images and words to sing, in what essentially functions as a tragic aria near the end of the work.
Andrée Greenwell, who celebrates her 50th birthday in June 2014, is about to embark on a new work Gothic, funded through a project fellowship from the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. This work is slated for concerts in Sydney and Newcastle, in June, 2015. Gothic will be a themed concert work, exploring ideas of 'gothic' across history through images, words and music. Greenwell will be working with the award-winning short film maker and animator Lucinda Schreiber. Musicians involved in this project include the improvising string quartet the NOISE, music producer and electric guitarist David Trumpmanis (Sarah Blasko, You Am I), and Greenwell herself performing vocals. Literary sources - some of the surprises are not yet ready to be revealed - will include contemporary contributions by Australian writers Hilary Bell and Alison Croggon. Greenwell is a resident composer at Trinity Grammar School in Summer Hill, and teaches song writing at the University of Newcastle. Her doctoral exegesis that discusses this work, together with other compositions she has set to texts by Jordie Albiston is available online.
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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