First performance by Belinda Montgomery (soprano), Margery Smith (soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Daryl Pratt (percussion) and Marshall McGuire (harp); Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney, 9 March 2003
In 2004, Andrew Ford’s song cycle Learning to Howl won both the prestigious Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prize and the Australian Music Centre & APRA AMCOS Classical Music Award for the Best Composition by an Australian composer.
Learning to Howl was commissioned in 2000 with funds from the Music Board of the Australia Council and composed, specifically for the soprano Jane Edwards, the following year.
Having produced so much music for male voices, particularly for the tenor Gerald English, I felt that my first piece in 15 years for a female voice needed texts by women. The key to the piece was reading a splendid short novel by the American author Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994). Near the opening, the narrator describes how, as a child, she ‘wanted to make chords’ with her voice ‘to splinter her voice into harmonies’, how she ‘wanted to howl and fly and break apart’. Reading these words I knew I had the beginning of the piece and the rest followed, since the image of the child suggested a journey into adulthood and old age – a Frauenliebe und -leben for our times, if that isn’t too presumptuous. Nearly all the other words are by women and they include the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in several fragments dotted throughout the piece), Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, an anonymous woman from the collection of Finnish folk poetry known as the Kanteletar, Queen Elizabeth I, Emily Brontë, Ann Timoney Jenkin and Elizabeth Smart. There are also words by two men, the 8th-century Chinese writer Wang Wei and the pianist, composer and sometime poet, Ian Munro.
Learning to Howl was first performed by Belinda Montgomery (deputising at short notice for an indisposed Jane Edwards), Margery Smith, Marshall McGuire and Daryl Pratt at the Eugene Goossens Hall in Sydney in March 2003.
Ford's tender touch is evident in both his choice of texts and his uncluttered scoring - never a note too many . . . Ford's perspicacious selection of poetry is matched by his ingrained respect for the natural rhythms of the English language.
Elizabeth Silsbury, Music Forum
Learning to Howl is rightly on the A-List of Australian music. . . The poems that make up the song cycle vary from Sappho through the work of Queen Elizabeth I to Ann Timoney Jenkin and Elizabeth Smart. With his flair and careful choices, Ford created a series of imaginative atmospheres for soprano, saxophone, clarinets, harp and percussion.
Joel Crotty, The Age
The title [Learning to Howl] comes from a passage in the novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by American author Lorrie Moore, in which the narrator describes how as a child she "wanted to make chords" with her voice, how she "wanted to howl". Starting with this image, Ford builds a picture of a life journey from childhood to old age. The rest of the lyrics are taken from disparate sources, including a Finnish folk song, an Emily Dickinson lyric, and a Christina Rossetti love poem. Such variety of textual material risks making the cycle disjointed, but the recurrence of fragments from Sappho provides a loose structure. The music is quite typical of Ford's compositional style, which tends to look forward and back at the same time.
Martin Ball, The Australian