Smoke Encrypted Whispers

Steve Moffatt
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Fine Australian poems in lovingly crafted music settings.

Indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson first became aware of segregation when, as a young boy standing on the “steamy Bjelke-Petersen plateau”, he saw the black and white smoke rising from Brisbane below – black from the blue-collar battlers in their fibros and white from the white-collar class with their European cars and “chez nouveau” fireplaces.

The metaphor permeates the 23 short poems Smoke Encrypted Whispers, which won him the Book of the Year award and Kenneth Slessor Prise for Poetry in 2005. The beautifully crafted miniatures evoke childhood memories, fear of the dark, unforgettable descriptions of places like Tigerland and Boundary Street – named to mark the Brisbane curfew zone for Aborigines in his grandparents’ time – and visits from uncles who taught him traditional ways. Watson also gives some fascinating insights into his writing process as well as musing on visits to Berlin and a Maori marae in Wellington.

Brevity is the soul of wit for Watson, and also for the Queensland-based Southern Cross Soloists led by clarinettist Paul Dean, who commissioned 23 Brisbane composers to write two-minute pieces to respond to the poems.

The result is stunningly good. At the heart of this handsomely produced 80-minute album are five songs featuring the group’s lyric soprano Margaret Schindler. With contributions from William Barton, Richard Mills, Tom Adeney and so many others, the music is varied and various, but it all hangs together surprisingly well. Veteran actor Ron Haddrick breathes life into stanzas which move the listener – Watson’s description of his Grandpop whose gift was silence, for instance – as well as amuse and entertain.

The SCS (Tania Frazer, oboe, Peter Luff, horn, Kevin Power, piano, David Mitchell, bassoon, Schindler and Dean) are magnificent and this...recording is one to be treasured.