The non-singing seats

In memory of Maxwell Fernie, who, from the church organ, conducted the choir at St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, for forty years until his death in 1999


It was air that gave the grand thing
life. Like a sailboat

or newborn, it was sprung 
to song, drawing us up

the encircling staircase
to its loft

where the choirmaster directed
his forest of pipes.

You should sing as though running down
a grassy slope,

we were told, and here it was
our three sons drifted

gull-like, amidst the rackety cylinders,
and came to know this world

by measures. We were all ears,
aloft, and this way,

mouths firmly shut, we were taught
to sing—Max’s head

a rising sun above
the keyboard

feet as busy upon the pedals
as a pedestrian

taking Allenby Steps
two at a time.

Mid-song, I would lift my children
so high

above my head they became
the tallest people

in the world. And so it was,
we were, and will remain

running down a green slope
towards a town called

Palestrina or Johann Sebastian
or simply an outline

of Wellington airport
embalmed in fog,

planes unable to land
and us, the chosen few

about to lift off.

Gregory O’Brien is a Wellington-based writer and painter. Between 1997 and 2009 he was a curator at City Gallery Wellington, where he worked on exhibitions (with accompanying books) by Ralph Hotere, Rosalie Gascoigne, Laurence Aberhart, John Pule, Fiona Hall, Elizabeth Thomson and others. Recent projects include two major monographs, Euan Macleod – the painter in the painting (Piper Press, Sydney, 2010) and A Micronaut in the Wide World; the imaginative life and times of Graham Percy (Auckland University Press, 2011). O’Brien’s visual works often incorporate texts – his own poetry and that of others. In recent months, he has made a series of 12 etchings with John Pule (printed by Cicada Press, Sydney). He exhibits his work at Bowen Galleries, Wellington, and Jane Sanders Art Agent, Auckland.

O'Brien comments: ‘This poem is dedicated to Maxwell Fernie, the great choirmaster at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. When my sons were very small, I would take them up the narrow staircase at the back of the church and sit silently in the loft as the choir sang their way through the Latin Ordinary of the Mass. The poem takes me back to a golden era when Maxwell Fernie would extemporize on the organ – lengthy, abstracted, dazzling passages of sound. I was hoping that some of his energy and brilliance would permeate my young sons. (I believe that it worked!) Details of the composition of “The non-singing seats” can be found on the Maxwell Fernie Trust website linked below.

‘I made two etchings which incorporated the entire text of “The non-singing seats” and these were the sole exhibits at Peter McLeavey Gallery in March 2009. At the opening, Peter McLeavey recited the poem. Seated, he read magnificently, his left hand upraised in a manner reminiscent of Maxwell Fernie conducting his choir. In Peter’s right hand he held the poem like a musical score.

‘The Waiheke Island-based composer Helen Bowater subsequently set the poem to music, using a spoken voice accompanied by viola and violin. The music is achingly beautiful. Helen’s “The non-singing seats” was premiered at St Mary of the Angels on 25 April 2010—Maxwell Fernie’s 100th birthday. A very happy birthday to you, Max.’

Poem source details >



Listener:  article on Maxwell Fernie and ‘The non-singing seats’
Recent etchings by Gregory O'Brien
New Zealand Book Council author page