“I think she’s a very important writer for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that she was a really strong feminist woman in a time that wasn’t the norm,” the singer tells InDaily.
Noonan’s curiosity about Wright, who died in 2000, was first piqued when she walked past the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.
Her admiration grew as she read more of Wright’s poetry, stories and letters, becoming the catalyst for a project that has seen her collaborate with top Australian composers to put 10 poems to music in a song cycle.
It was recorded in London with Britain’s Brodsky Quartet, with whom Noonan will perform at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide on May 1 as part of a national tour.
“Two of the main themes that run through her work and life are a fierce passion and advocacy for protection of the Australian environment, and I am a greenie from way back … and the desire for a true and meaningful recognition between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians,” Noonan says.
“It was striking to me that these themes that she was writing about half a century ago are still far from resolved and, if anything, are probably worse …
“So from beyond the grave, posthumously, her words are still so pertinent to our society and our identity.”
Noonan describes the song cycle as “very honest and stark, but beautiful”.
The nine Australian composers she commissioned for the project were Carl Vine, Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Tognetti, Iain Grandage, Andrew Ford, David Hirschfelder, Paul Grabowsky, Paul Dean and John Rodgers. She also composed her own piece of music for the poem The Surfer.
The resulting album was named With Love and Fury, the words with which Wright signed off letters later in her life and also the title of a posthumously published collection of her verse.
“It really just captures your imagination in so many ways,” Noonan says.
Noonan came across The Surfer after she was asked to perform at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Marine Conservation Society, of which Wright was a founding member. She decided to research the poet’s writing about the ocean, and learned that author Tim Winton had put The Surfer on the opening page of his memoir, Island Home.
“It was such a beautiful, visceral gorgeous piece about the primal, peaceful relationship between people and the ocean,” Noonan says.
Most of the With Love and Fury composers selected their own Wright poems, with others including Night After Bushfire, Metho Drinker and After the Visitors.
“Overall it’s a very succinct group of poems that is very Australian, uniquely Australian, and talks about things that aren’t particularly easy to talk about, but then comes full circle with very gentle moments,” Noonan says.
She says the entire project has had a feeling of serendipity about it; the collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet came about after she met the members at a Queensland music festival three years ago.
Noonan was already very familiar with the music of the string quartet, which has performed more than 3000 concerts since it formed in 1972. In fact, she says she had dreamed of singing with them ever since she heard them performing with Elvis Costello on the album The Juliet Letters, and soon after with one of her musical idols, Bjork.
“They revolutionised what a string quartet and voice could do, for me.
“I’m all about blurring the boundaries of genre … that album [The Juliet Letters] is a stellar record that a classical person could listen to and a pop-punk person could listen to and they would all come to agreement that it’s a kick-arse record.
“It’s a magical thing when they play.”
While the first half of her live show with the quartet will comprise music from With Love and Fury, the second half will see a change of pace, with a dedication to three Australian composers (Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Ford and Robert Davidson), plus what Noonan describes as “some of the fun pieces” from the Brodskys’ Bjork and Costello catalogue.
There will be one Adelaide performance only of The Brodsky Quartet with Katie Noonan, on May 1 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.