Juliet Palmer: A composer with a fierce political conscience

By William Dart

Composer Juliet Palmer's Vermillion Songs is premiered by tenor Simon O'Neill in NZTrio's Flare concert this month.
Composer Juliet Palmer's Vermillion Songs is premiered by tenor Simon O'Neill in NZTrio's Flare concert this month.

Juliet Palmer emerged in the late 1980s, writing music that combined her talents as a clarinettist and classical composer with more radical skills gained from intermedia studies at Elam School of Fine Arts.

She looks back at those early years as "following my instincts and curiosities," a philosophy that has served her well in a thriving international career. Palmer is the latest composer to be commissioned by NZTrio; her Vermillion Songs is premiered by tenor Simon O'Neill in the group's Flare concert this month.

Returning regularly to New Zealand, she is still drawn to a homeland that gave her what she describes as a can-do attitude.

"It's a cliché, I know, but if you want to do something here, then you just do it," Palmer says. "It's a great skill for an independent artist to have."

And perhaps it is one that has played a part in her and her husband, James Rolfe, managing to live and work in Toronto as freelance composers, which would be difficult to do elsewhere in the world.

Canada has been a hospitable environment for the last 18 years.

"Justin Trudeau's government is committed to doubling the arts budget over the next five years," she says. "And Canadians don't ditch culture with impunity as they do in the States and New Zealand, always excepting our golden years under Helen Clark."

Palmer is an artist with a fierce political conscience. A conservationist grandfather means much of her music connects with water and calls for outdoor performances. Her latest a cappella opera, Sweat, goes into the claustrophobic clothing factories of the Third World to expose what the Village Voices recently described as "the misogyny and environmental degradation of the global garment industry."

Not surprisingly, Palmer is astonished some younger composers seem unconcerned with the world around them.

"I just don't turn myself off," she laughs. "We need to connect with people. How can one live in these times and not be enraged?"

However, next week's Vermillion Songs puts overt politics aside in its seven settings of Emily Dickinson poems chosen, says Palmer, for their interior awareness of the self and the physicality of the body.

"With Dickinson, fragility and the fundamental states of life, death and even sanity are very much balanced on a hair."

Palmer confesses she is a woman in love with words and the cryptic truths of poetry. One of her recent scores was based on verses by Canadian Michael Ondaatje but, without using a singer, inflections of his words became starting points for the melodic and rhythmic aspects of the music.

"Sometimes I was influenced by the actual shape of the poem on the page," she explains, a technique also used in Vermillion Songs. "I do things like that in order to surprise myself and generate material that I hadn't intended."

Vermillion Songs is remarkably sparse, catching the beauty of the human body by echoing the pulsating internal soundscapes that you might hear in an ultrasound. Palmer has no time for "complications for the sake of complexity.

"I like to hone things down to the simplest version possible. I just want clarity so that nothing distracts from the heart of what is going on."

• Meanwhile, this weekend, the elegance and charm of the great courts of 18thcentury Europe are brought to life by international violinist Rachael Beesley, who joins NZ Barok in a concert series celebrating little-known musical gems from the galant age of music. Saturday at St Luke's Church at 7.30pm or Sunday at 2pm.

What: NZTrio, Loft Series, Concert #3 Flare
Where & when: Q Theatre Loft, Sunday, November 13 and Tuesday November, 15.

- NZ Herald

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