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30 January 2018

Still Night: Music in Poetry

Andrea Keller Image: Andrea Keller  
© Natasha Blankfield

Andrea Keller writes about her song cycle Still Night: Music in Poetry - a meditation on sentiments of death, grief and loss. The 60-minute cycle incorporates words from tenth-century Japanese poems through to Keats, Whitman, Yeats, Proust, Teasdale and contemporary Australian poetry. The album is now available from Bandcamp, Keller's website and Jazzhead - you can view details and listen to samples on the AMC website.

I've always been somewhat fascinated by death. Coming from a small migrant family, whose tree is peppered with premature passings, I imagined us rare, and lucky, survivors.

My sole experience of death during my childhood was when my maternal grandmother passed away suddenly and painlessly in, what was then, Czechoslovakia. Having had no connection with her except through photographs, my greatest sadness came from the fact that she was soon to have arrived in Australia to spend six weeks with us, sharing my room, and becoming a physical presence in our lives. With no memories of her, my grief centered on the loss of the hopes I had, the saddening realisation that I would never have memories of her.

Growing up in high-rise flats in Sydney, our only pets included the occasional budgie (that usually escaped off the balcony to a better life), and a group of hermit crabs that we raced on the coffee table on Saturday nights (I don't recall their parting).

Then, in my mid-twenties, my father died. We had begun to reconnect, after the birth of my first child, when he took his own life. The way in which he passed, the untimeliness, made losing him an even bigger blow. His death was the first of what's become a small handful of experiences that I wouldn't wish for anyone but that I know many of us share.

After Erik's passing, I observed that people rarely spoke of him. I found this confusing, awkward, and deeply saddening. Death, for the living, is enormously complex. We are earnest in our intentions to behave respectfully and sensitively, but our silence leaves those most affected to move through their grief alone.

On tour, in the European summer of 2007, I visited the cemetery in Copenhagen, Denmark. To my amazement, it was a glorious park, thriving with beauty and life! There were picnic groups, study groups, tourists admiring the gardens, and locals paying their respects. This impression stood out in stark contrast to my own experience of death in Anglo-Australian culture, highlighting the fact that cultural treatment of death, grief and loss varies tremendously across the globe.

After my husband and I lost our unborn child in 2011, I was again hit with a lack of support and communication from many of the people in my community. I felt a profound sense of abandonment and isolation. Did people believe my grief was contagious? As a result of this period, I became hyper-aware of other cultural responses to death, grief, and loss. I yearned to communicate and express my feelings, not in words, but through music - a most pliable, vivid, discrete, personal, infinite, and ubiquitous language.

Working with drummer Allan Browne for 16 years cultivated my appreciation for poetry. (That and the fact that the literary genre is fantastically practical for a book buff with three children, who has little time or energy for novels at this stage of lifeā€¦) It was not uncommon for Allan to recite poetry whilst the band interpreted his words through free improvisation, during his regular Monday night gigs at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club in Melbourne. Al introduced me to e. e. cummings, Marcel Proust and many more. I had already begun germinating the idea for Still Night: Music in Poetry, when Allan passed away in June 2015.

Scouring the world of poetry, creating a long, then a short, and an even shorter list of appropriate poems for Still Night, took twice as long as actually composing and arranging all the music, assembling the ensemble, preparing the song cycle to be performance ready, and recording it. I searched for poems that focus on themes of death, grief, and loss, that represent different mindsets - dark, optimistic, angry, courageous, that embody a sense of openness - un-suffocated by literality, possessing a sense of intrigue and mystery, varied in length, and coming from an array of poets in terms of origins - place, time, and gender. A crucial test was, when I read them, could I hear music - not explicitly, but an ingress into a sound world?

As a creative artist in Australia, I often ruminate on the purpose of my music. This is natural and necessary, but one can be plagued with severe doubt in a society whose majority doesn't appear to value art or ascribe importance to the contributions of its artists. Through my research for Still Night, I discovered a sentence that articulated my aspirations perfectly, 'meditating on a beautiful expression of sadness can help to provide a thoroughly uplifting sense of consolation'1. This rings true in the responses to Still Night. My deepest gratitude to all who have experienced the music with me, together we are not alone.

Still Night: Music in Poetry album was recorded on 14 December 2016, and released on 30 November 2017. Composed and orchestrated for jazz quintet (including male & female voice) the songs of Still Night feature Vince Jones (voice), Gian Slater (voice), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & bass clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), and Andrea Keller (piano). The composition and development was supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, and the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts respectively.


1 White, R. (1999). [Liner notes]. In In Darkness Let Me Dwell [CD]. Germany: ECM Records.

AMC resources

Andrea Keller - AMC profile

Read also: 'Portraits from the Keller family album' - interview on Resonate by Roger Mitchell (11 September 2013)


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