Conversations with Ghosts | Paul Kelly and ANAMJames Ledger, Genevieve Lacey and Paul Kelly. Photo - Pia Johnson

Proving himself an indisputable master of his craft, Paul Kelly enchants young and old alike in his aptly titled 'Conversations with Ghosts'. Backed by the unmeasurably talented musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music, Genevieve Lacey's recorders and under James Ledger's careful conduction, dedication and characteristically haunting song composition bring the words of long passed poets to life. The song cycle is born of a collaboration of two years planning and of Kelly's thirst for words beyond his own. Bluebottle's sparse lighting thin beams that shift and flicker with the pulse of the music are an intelligent choice, directing audience attention in their movement to highlight players. Against the plumes of smoke employed, the mood set is the kind of unending ethereality hinted at in Kelly's songs.

Sampling of electronic sounds, prerecorded whines and lows appear throughout the night, most notably providing an introduction that interweaves artifice and piano for the first song – 'The Lake of Innisfree'. With ANAM musicians on strings, brass, wind and harp, his distinctive and emotive vocals seek a new truth in the stories told by old poets. As always, light and tragedy are carefully balanced in Kelly's selection of dissonant chords and simple delivery. The score is a delicate work of art, meticulously creating the lush velvety underscore to the mystery of a darkly-delivered 'Bound to Follow' and Emily Dickinson's 'One Need Not Be A Chamber To Be Haunted', to creating a shimmering, shifting soundscape of discordant scrapings and scattered blown notes in Les Murray's 'Once In A Lifetime, Snow'. Kelly's passion for Kenneth Slessor's raw eulogy to a friend, 'Five Bells', shines through as a masterpiece of the night.

While miking issues lead to a tendency for the string players to overshadow what could also be easily delivered as a guitar-and-vocals piece, in their gentler moments throughout the song, the unyielding, coolly eyed heartache is paramount. A nod must be paid to Lacey, who possesses the rare ability to transform and play with the sound of the recorder – she evokes the cries of a bird at one point, and at others injects an aged warmth and wondering into her solos. Harpist Jessica Fotinos is similarly enchanting, playing with poise and bringing precision and depth to the angelic tones she coaxes from the harp, which allows her the ability to stand alongside Kelly's carefully strummed chords.

For all intents and purposes, there is no need for further colour to the sparse backdrop, the simplicity of a characteristically haunting score. It is the stories here that are explored, old motifs in both literature and music drawn back upon as a reminder of the tales of our undoings, of human passion and hope, and similarly, human sorrow. Listening to Kelly speak alone between peaces and his passion for uncovering and examining the message in words is clear. His humility is humbling in itself, his lyricism a thing of beauty as he describes the ANAM musicians as the 'flora and fauna' of our day and age of music. There is a kind of hope in his words for us not to lose sight of how music and words were used once – and in his demonstration, there is no doubt that thought will be taken on board.

Conversations With Ghosts

Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank Blvd, Southbank
Dates: Friday 12 October & Saturday 13 October, 2012
Tickets: $80 Full/Snr $55 Conc.
Bookings: | 03 9699 3333

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