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The Birds Began to Sing by Dorothy Buchanan


Dorothy Buchanan is a name that sits with lovers of fine classical music in a similar way to the way that CK Stead sits with lovers of fine literature. Such is the gravitas of the composer of some of the finest arrangements for voices and for orchestral. Her writing is filled with a depth of breadth of knowledge and harmony that had seen her recognised by her peers across a range of categories and complete remarkable collaborative pieces with writers such as Witi Ihimaera and Margaret Mahy.


As with memoirs of this variety, there is a strong emphasis on the origins of her family, and her love of music. She tells the narrative with a strong sense of self and controlled story telling style.


For musicians there is a wonderfully rich exploration into her writing process and an understanding for how to use the music to create soundscapes and aural experiences for the audience. The emphasis still remains, however, on the ability to capture the imagination in the melody component with the harmony cascading through the score.


The writing of the piece is the stand out. Buchanan uses musical terms throughout the piece to explain events and ideas in her life and in her relationships. While that seems a natural crossover for a composer, if gives the reader an often new and fresh perspective of some seemingly traditional or standard descriptions of things such as relationships with parents, or schooling.


The trajectory of her journey is interesting and the way she incorporates her children into the story of her successes. As a composer she is able to juggle things with remarkable tenaciousness and inventiveness.


The philanthropic work that she has gone on to both be a major part of, or indeed form, is a real highlight of the book. The importance of giving back sits as a foundational component in her endeavours. Most notably is her work with schools and the way she is able to incorporate her slightly unconventional style of writing into both her own work, and to inspire others with the joy that comes with creating music and experiences outside the usual expectations of music being ringfenced by only what young people hear on the radio.


Overall, diverting from the expected high brow expectation of the world of classical music, Buchanan presents a highly readable and enjoyable memoir that is about people. Yes, music is an important glue throughout, but more than that, it is about how we use creative outlets to cope with normal life. Dorothy Buchanan is as remarkable of a writer as she is of a composer. A real joy to read.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

Cuba Press