Kathy Evans August 25, 2012
Tony Gould with VCASS quartet: (relating to their instrument) Kailen Cresp-oboe, Camille Stevenson-Mentiplay-cello, Marlane Bennie-violin, Angus Radley-double bass. Photo: John Tsiavis
THE poet Dylan Thomas once described himself as first a Welshman, second a drunkard, and third a lover of the human race, especially women.
It's a neat summary that rings true for pianist and composer Tony Gould, who has collaborated with Melbourne Theatre Company actor John Stanton on a musical version of Thomas' famous radio play, Under Milk Wood. After studying the script, he has come to the conclusion that the play could not possibly have been written ''unless you were under the influence''.
''I think alcohol played a very big part in the writing of it; it must have, to get that stream of consciousness,'' Gould says. ''I've read quite a bit about his life and it strikes me that he was rarely sober.''
Gould, though, was very much sober when he composed the music to accompany Stanton's narration, drawing on his Celtic heritage to envisage the verdant landscape of Thomas' native land. He was also influenced by memories of growing up in Albert Park, when on Friday nights a family friend would whip out his wooden flute and play infectious jigs. While Welsh music traditionally draws heavily on the harp, Gould's work is orchestrated mainly for piano, strings, percussion and woodwind, performed by students from the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School as part of its
35th-anniversary celebratory concert.
Under Milk Wood is a day in the life of a small Welsh town called Llareggub (to be read backwards for full Dylan affect). Through the voice of a narrator and a cacophony of lilting voices tripping lightly over their r's, it takes the audience through a rolling dreamscape of its odd inhabitants: Captain Cat, the blind sea captain; his dead lover Rosie Probart; murderous Mr Pugh, who dreams of getting rid of his wife; Evans the Death; and Mrs Organ-Morgan, tortured by her husband's constant obsession with music.
There is no plot, no development, just a kaleidoscopic shift between one character and the next as the play slips and slides through the chaos of the day. What makes it so listenable - and catapulted Thomas to much-delayed fame - is the rich buttery language, the assortment of sounds and words crazily juxtaposed for pyrotechnic effect to invoke universal themes of jealousy, sadness, longing and loss.
''I think it's one of the greatest literary works of the Western world,'' Gould says. ''The more I read it, the more I think that; the language is so musical.'' He says, though, it wasn't easy to write a score for it. ''I find composition incredibly difficult. There are so many options, and ultimately you have to make a decision about what you want to do.''
Gould was reluctant when Stanton first approached him to write the music. With his deep, sonorous voice, reminiscent of the late Richard Burton, who narrated it for the BBC in 1954, Gould felt that Stanton didn't need the embellishment of an orchestra. But he gave in and the 20-minute piece was initially performed with the Queensland Philharmonic in 1997.
Stanton came up with the idea after hearing a recording of an American jazz pianist interspersed with the Burton narrations. He adapted the script by removing most of the characters apart from Captain Cat and Rosie Probart and sticking to the narrated part, leaving the musicians to evoke the mood.
Under Milk Wood was first staged in the US in 1953, with Thomas finishing the script moments before it was to be performed. Six months later he was dead.
''It was almost like he was channelling something,'' Stanton muses. ''A lot of his poetry requires interpretation and is written in a way that suggests he had a thesaurus planted nearby but this has a flow, a feeling; a love-hatred with the people of Wales.''
He was indeed ambivalent about his homeland, famously declaring Wales as ''the land of my fathers and my father can keep it''. How do teenage musicians raised in cosmopolitan Melbourne interpret the madness of a tiny town? Cellist and soloist Camille Stevenson-Mentiplay, 18, studied the play in her literature class and was bowled over by it but admits, ''There's a lot to take in. Sometimes with poets, it's hard to get where they are coming from.''
Under Milk Wood tops the bill at the Recital Centre event, which also features award-winning soloists, choirs, ensembles and dancers performing works by Weber, Edwards, Walker and Schonberg.
■Under Milk Wood is on Friday, September 14, at 7.30pm at the Melbourne Recital Centre.