How did the commission for Night Parrot come about?

Katie Noonan [Artistic Director of Queensland Music Festival] approached me about writing a piece. I’d met her at various things before but we hadn’t worked together and when she mentioned the night parrot I was quite interested and it wasn’t really until I started looking into it a bit more deeply that I realised it had such a fascinating story to it. The next thing was where we were going to find the text, that’s the tricky part. So we looked around at different poets but there wasn’t much. We thought about David Malouf and had all these ideas but nothing jumped out at me so I said well, I’d done an opera piece for the Victorian Opera a couple of years ago where my dad wrote the lyrics. So I set him to work and he spent hours and weeks in the library researching and came back and said this is a bigger story than I realised and it was great so I enlisted him to write the lyrics.

Jessica Wells. Photo supplied

How is your piece inspired by the parrot?

If you listen to the call of the parrot, it’s a nocturnal bird, it lives in the spinifex grass so it burrows down and comes out at night and flies very low, to go and eat things in different areas. It’s a got tiny little call, three or four calls, with one of them like a frog croak. The croaking is interesting because apparently the Indigenous people called it the frog parrot, the frog bird. So I have included those in the piece but what I’ve really tried to do is to kind of give an atmosphere of the landscape and the sounds that you might hear out there so not all of it is just the call of the bird, but I’ve taken that idea and expanded it and made a kind of landscape style of music. I’ve got lots of contrasting things in there, for example there’s a verse where we talk about how in the 1870s it was very popular in Victorian England to send a coupon off to get yourself a stuffed bird for your parlour so I’ve written a Victoriana section in a posh English accent, so I’ve done a humorous take on what has happened to this bird in history.

Can you give me a sense of the text?

I wanted to tell the story in a plain-speaking kind of way and knowing that my dad kind of writes in a more rhyming couplets sort of style – not all of it is but quite a lot of it is – it’s in that style I guess of Banjo Paterson. I wanted it to have that kind of feel. A lot of the choruses – we call them choruses but they’re not really – we actually have a little couplet that says “this is the story of a little bird…” so each chorus starts off with a little sentence so it’s almost like a narrator, but of course we go into different characters. The Quartet needs to support the voice to tell the story and they have their moments where they have little features but mainly it’s to get that story out, the Quartet is supporting the voice and creating texture and storytelling underneath them.

Is it a song cycle?

Katie wanted a song cycle but I wanted to get more into the story than I could fit with all singing because there’s so much involved. My dad wrote quite a lot of text. We had to tighten it up and chop a bit out but I’ve done a bit of a hybrid thing where there are songs but there are also spoken moments, monologues, which are underscored by the quartet so it’s almost like recitative in some parts as well. It’s a bit operatic. So elements of song, elements of recitative and also spoken word, so a bit of a mix.

Did you write it specifically with soprano Morgan England-Jones in mind? Did you get to collaborate on it much? 

I watched a couple of videos of her singing and we’ve had a couple of emails back and forth ensuring that what I’ve written works for her range and she’s very laidback about the whole thing. I’m just hoping that we pull it off, it’s going to be tricky with some of the timing with just making sure that the music underneath the words fit. But then again I’ve worked a lot in film so it’s adjustable obviously. That will be the tricky part for the Acacia Quartet, who will have the vocal line to read along with so that they know where she is and where to come in and out of various underscored music.

Jessica Wells’ Night Parrot receives its world premiere as part of the Queensland Music Festival on July 17 and 19