Birds of a Feather by Myles McGuire
Composer Jessica Wells on what drew her to the mysterious tale of the night parrot.
The history of the night parrot is characterised by absence. Thought extinct for almost a century it is considered an extremely secretive species, a grounded, yellow-green enigma. Since 1972 there have been very few confirmed sightings, and though it has been reported in each Australian state, birdwatchers consider a glimpse the event of a lifetime.
So wherein lies the appeal to a composer? To create the musical syntax for a creature heard by almost no one, an incredibly rare bird unheard of by most people, seems less an exercise in composition than in silence. For Jessica Wells, this was key to the development of The Night Parrot, a world-first performance commissioned for Queensland Music Festival.
“Finding the text was going to be difficult,” Wells says, “I decided that the best source of text would be my father, Jeffrey Wells, who had collaborated with me on the Victorian Opera piece ‘Melbourne – Greed’ and had written lyrics about Melbourne mob boss John Wren, which turned out to be a great success on stage. Being a retired journalist and novelist, my father spent a lot of time researching the history of the night parrot and concocting a fantastic ballad-style poem that takes the audience on a journey into a landscape that is quintessentially outback Queensland and expresses the human endeavour that had almost destroyed and has now saved this little bird.”
The Australian psyche is often drawn to the landscape, in its immense and humbling ambiguity. So much of our art is informed by its character, the vast silences and absences that punctuate this incredible canvas. For this reason the landscape is as much a texture of the performance as the birdsong; the long, rustling spinifex and dry earth in which the night parrot makes its home. Likewise, it’s why Wells hopes the message imparted to audience is a conservationist one.
“As a nation we have to do what we can to preserve what we have,” Wells says, “And if this song cycle helps to bring this message to an audience through an entertaining story about a tiny bird, then I will be very happy it has a deeper meaning embedded in it.”
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