Azimuth: a Dream Fulfilled
[ Issue 40 ]

Azimuth delights Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes Azimuth

Azimuth: a Dream Fulfilled

Bet Briggs here relates how her Azimuth poems came into being.  The painting, the music, the words.
 

Looking and listening, seeing the painting, hearing the music became the pattern of working, accompanied by the ache of loss. Yet that feeling, as time passed, was a motivating force generating repair and renewal.

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Azimuth: a Dream Fulfilled — Bet Briggs

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In 1990 Clare Hansson, renowned Australian jazz pianist, completed her composition Azimuth, a twelve-part suite for piano, double bass, percussion, reeds and voice. In May that year at its world premiere performance in the Queensland Art Gallery Azimuth was released on cassette.

Thirteen years later in June 2003, at Brisbane Jazz Club, Clare in concert with local musicians, including her four colleagues in the original ensemble, celebrated the re-release of Azimuth on CD: a dream fulfilled for all involved.

At the heart of this creative project is collaboration of the most joyful kind: that of people labouring together to achieve and share with others something beautiful, pleasurable and life-affirming.

In a time so inharmonious as now, when “things fall apart” and “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”, Azimuth is a gift most needed and welcome, a joy that inspirits.

There’s a story behind Azimuth and as a late collaborator, honoured and delighted to have become involved, I would like to share it in celebration.

Azimuth began with a painting. That I knew from Clare early in 1990. It began also with a dream – Clare’s dream. I learned about that in detail, recently. While talking with Clare by phone about the June concert and the launch of the CD, she told me of her long-held dream of sitting at a grand piano and improvising to a painting. My eager questioning then prompted further revelations about her collaboration with painter Irene Amos. In 1988 at the time of Expo 88 in Brisbane, Clare first saw Amos’s painting-in-progress (then called Relationships) in the basement of the Queensland Art Gallery. Amos was painter-in-residence, working towards a Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong.

Clare watched her one day at work on the huge canvas (6’ x 20’/188 cms x 604 cms), bringing extraordinary patterns and lines and swirls of colour together in evocative relationships. Clare’s immediate response was: “It’s a revelation!” Amos thereupon adopted that as the title. Clare in turn revealed her dream and Amos, enthusiastic about it urged her to follow it and so the collaboration between composer and artist was begun.

Throughout 1989 Clare worked on her composition, completed it in early 1990, formed her five-piece ensemble and on 16 April, Easter Monday, rehearsed the music. Nine days later on Anzac Day the suite was recorded on tape at the University of Queensland and in May at the Art Gallery Azimuth was launched on its journey to the public.

I wasn’t there but I can picture the scene: on stage the Azimuth Ensemble: Clare at the grand piano, Philip Hansson on double bass, Bob Watson on drums and percussion, Sue Wighton, vocals and Jim Mackenzie on flute, clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones, on display the finished painting, Revelation, and in attendance the painter, Dr Irene Amos. (I’ve learned since she was the first woman and Queenslander to be awarded the Doctorate in Creative Arts).

So where do I, the wordsmith, come into this story? As an actual collaborator not until late 1990. But as I’ve said I was already aware earlier that year of the project-in-progress. In a letter Clare wrote on 13 February, 1990 to my husband John and me she said: “Today I am writing some music, with a painting as inspiration. I will use your dancing as inspiration, John, and dedicate a piece to you.”

Her letter arrived too late for John to learn this. He had died on February 14, St Valentine’s Day. He would have been touched, I’m sure, to be honoured by Clare in that way.

After his death I kept in contact with Clare, mostly by letter, but also when she came to Sydney for some musical engagements in May, June and August 1990. According to my record of those visits she was here on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 May. We didn’t meet, but Clare phoned me on the Tuesday and we had as I noted “a lovely conversation” – no other comment. Yet I know, as I did then but couldn’t express it, that it would have been lovely and more. For me it was hearing an understanding, wise and compassionate voice giving me support and strength. Fresh from the premier performance of Azimuth Clare talked enthusiastically about it. That was, I think, the first time I heard the name Azimuth.

We didn’t meet in June, but in August I attended one of the two lunch-time gigs she had at the Gateway Building at the Quayside.

During one or the other of our two encounters, either the May phone call or the August meeting, Clare surprised me totally when she asked me would I write some poetry for Azimuth that could be incorporated in a future performance.

I’m not sure what my immediate response was. Lost for words, probably. I do remember the rush of mixed feelings. I certainly felt honoured to be asked, but scared, too, wondering if I could do it.

But her request stirred a dream of my own: I’d always been attracted to the link between words and music and wanted to write lyrics for songs and once, in a wilder flight of fancy, even a libretto for a musical or an opera. So, prompted by that old dream, perhaps, too, in need of a challenge and of being involved in something positive, I eventually said yes.

Getting started wasn’t without hesitation. Clare had given me the Azimuth cassette and a poster of Revelation. First I spread the poster (36 cms x 68 cms) on the table where I worked, and put the cassette in the player. I looked at the images of patterns and colours, listened to the sound patterns and rhythms and was overwhelmed by them. Yet inspiration wasn’t instantly forthcoming. I had a technical problem, too: being neither an astronomer nor geologist I needed to check a few terms: “Azimuth”, for instance, and “Azoic” and “lapus lazuli”. My indispensable tool, a good dictionary, supplied the answers. From another source some statements on colours were especially stimulating, e.g. this one from Louis Denz’s Dynamic Dissonance:

Red being the most corporeal of colours, best expresses the Greek concept of immediateness – bodily presence;

and Milton’s beautiful line from Paradise Lost:

Celestial rosy red, love’s proper hue.;

and one which makes a wonderful connection between colour and sound from John Berger’s Toward Reality:

It is comparatively easy to achieve a certain unity in a picture by allowing one colour to dominate by muting all the colours. Matisse did neither. He clashed his colours together like cymbals and the effect was like a lullaby.

Looking and listening, seeing the painting, hearing the music became the pattern of working, accompanied by the ache of loss. Yet that feeling, as time passed, was a motivating force generating repair and renewal.

Just when the creative energy began flowing freely and on course I can’t be sure. But one evening very late while I was listening to the music I looked at the poster I’d taped on the wall near the table where I was writing. It wasn’t working for me there. So I took it down, and, with no space to spread it on my cluttered table, I placed it on the floor. Standing above it, looking down at it, made all the difference. I felt I was flying, one minute a passenger in a plane soaring over a vast landscape of intricate and infinite variety, next a bird hovering above a desert or a forest in flames or a countryside in a blaze of autumn. Seeing the painting from that aerial perspective inspired me to write Revelation on Canvas, in my original version a poem in six parts. As for the music, the more I listened the more it took me over, as music always does. I let it, hearing the melodies and harmonies, feeling the rhythms of sound patterns, absorbing them, letting them flow through me. As the sounds flowed I listened alone and in stillness and I tried to make Azimuth a part of me.

Clare’s haunting, meditative and lyrical melodies, Breathe Through Ivory, That Faint Face and Azimuth overwhelmed me. I heard in them a thematic link and tonal mood which resonated with my own; and I couldn’t resist the rhythmic variation, the beat, the swing, the slow and the fast, the rhythm of life, the dance of it all. And below me was Revelation, that blaze of colour dancing before my eyes, that red becoming the colour of the dance. So I wrote Hymn to Dance in response and as an in memoriam for John the dancer in red shoes.

Early in May 1991 Clare wrote to say she would be at Soup Plus for gigs on 19 and 23 June, adding: “If your poem falls into shape, Bet, we have a performance of Azimuth at Noosa on 26th May and one at Gold Coast on 21st September. For either it would be great to include a reading.”

Tortoise that I am, I couldn’t get my rough creation into shape for May. By mid-June, however, I had the final draft of not one but seven poems under the collective title Poems for Azimuth in this order: Revelation on Canvas (in 6 parts), Hymn to Dance, The Azimuth Suite (in 3 parts), Nocturne (after hearing Breathe Through Ivory), Elegy (after hearing That Faint Face), Harmony of Contrasts and Words. This was the text I gave to Clare on Wednesday, June 19, 1991 at Soup Plus. She expressed her delight with the poetry in her letter in mid-July and added she would be “using some readings at our Gold Coast Gallery session, 21st September”.

In May this year Clare told me of her hope to put Azimuth on CD. A wonderful move I said. Then surprising me again she said she was hoping to include a booklet of some of the poems. She asked for a copy of them. Having just moved apartments she hadn’t access to her files.

Happy to oblige I quickly despatched a copy of my original typescript with details of six of the poems which had already appeared in print individually in Bikwil in 1999, 2001 and 2002.

In early June Clare confirmed that she was going ahead with the CD project adding “The graphic designer is clever and I’m sending copies of your poems and copies of the ones printed in Bikwil”. When I next spoke with Clare after the June concert she said it was a resounding success. A couple of days later I received her joyful account of it in A View From the Grand Piano (later published in the Brisbane Jazz Club Newsletter), with the Azimuth CD and a letter in which she said with enthusiasm that was contagious:

I’m sure you’ll hear a bright new sparkle in the CD.

It was a HUGE thing to engineer and was surrounded with so much love, yours included. I hope you are delighted with the presentation.

Indeed I am. It looks most attractive. Part of Revelation graces the cover on both the CD and liner notes. The latter describes with admirable clarity and in praise the history of the project and the collaborators and features six of the Poems for Azimuth from the Bikwil versions. Seeing the six together in print and in the order that clever designer has arranged them – so right in this context – I’m delighted and honoured again.

As for the sounds of that music, yes it sparkles, it rejoices, and in its freshness and vitality, innocence and wonder endure.

The dancer in red shoes is honoured, too. John would have loved it and danced to it and I’d have danced beside him. We’d have done our own thing but that made us all the more together.

Azimuth fulfills even more than a dream, it shines as proof of the enduring spirit of loving co-operation.

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