On a wing & a prayer

Jim Ledger composer Silver SwansDEATH and beauty are often twinned in art through the ages so it’s appropriate a dead bird features in the promo photo for Silver Swans at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

The WA Museum’s taxidermy department had been in the process of stuffing a white swan when the call came through: “It had been run over in Northam [home to Australia’s only white swan colony]: literally brand new for the photo shoot,” composer James Ledger says a little too enthusiastically.

“Up close it’s stunning…it’s fortunate I came up with the title for the show,” the Mt Hawthorn local grins.

An upbeat, cheery bloke, happy to chuckle at the absurdity of posing with a beautiful but very dead swan, his sunny nature seemed at odds with his contemporary chamber compositions, inspired by 17th century poet/composer Orlando Gibbon’s madrigal The Silver Swan and WB Yeats’ poems Leda and the Swan, and The Wild Swans at Coole—all odes to death and dying. In his most famous work, written in 1612, Gibbon perpetuates the myth of swans being mute till just before their death (a la “swan-song”).

“The silver swan who living had no note,

when death approached, unlocked her silent throat

leaning her breast upon the reedy shore

thus sang her first and last, and sang no more

farewell, all joys! O death, come close mine eyes!

More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

Ledger’s reputation as one of Australia’s most in-demand composers was cemented in 2013 with a collaborative tour with pub-rock god Paul Kelly: “We met and something clicked. The legacy of Paul Kelly is in Silver Swans.”

The works are a mix of traditional chamber music and electronics: “I have taken authentic instruments and put them through my computer, so they don’t sound anything like they did,” Ledger says. A hard-edged computer “voice” recites Gibbon’s madrigal over the composer’s music: “it’s very, very creepy,” he warns.

Silver Swans is presented by new music ensemble Etica as part  of the Tura New Music’s Scale Variable series at FAC.

Silver Swans is on at the Fremantle Arts Centre, April 10. Tix from fac.oztix.com.au $35 ($20 conc).

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