The All-Leunig Song Almanac



Michael Leunig.

You know, the cartoon artist and comically philosophical poet?

Yeah, that Leunig.

His work is at the basis of the Song Company’s touring performance in which 12 budding Australian and New Zealand composers have created music based on one of his cartoons or poems. There’s one for every month to celebrate the end of the year and the parting of artistic director of 25 years Roland Peelman.

New music is written by composers including Alice Chance, Drew Crawford, Gareth Farr, James Wade, Kate Moore, Kate Neal, Katy Abbott, Lachlan Skipworth, Lyle Chan, Mark Viggiani, Robert Davidson and Ruth McCall. Lachlan and Ruth share their experience writing music for this crazy project.


Ruth McCall, composer
Ruth McCall, composer

Ruth McCall studied music at the University of Adelaide and has performed for primary school students as part of Musica Viva in Schools. She was the Sydney Children’s Choir’s 2011 composer-in-residence and has toured across 17 countries with the Song Company. Ruth based her composition on the character of a duck which pops up in Leunig’s cartoons and drawings.

When was the first time you saw a Leunig cartoon?

I grew up reading Leunig cartoons in the newspaper.

How do you go about composing a work based on a picture, anyway?

Instead of a specific cartoon or picture, I decided to focus on Leunig’s duck character which often appears in his works. So I am hoping no-one else had that idea too. So that I don’t have to kill them.

So tell us – aesthetically, how did you work to capture the character or spirit of the drawing? 

First of all, I quack quack quack, then I considered Michael’s views on quack quack quack quack quack, then I focussed on quack quack (quack).

Have you done anything like this before?

I have previously set another Leunig poem to music for choir and piano called ‘Love is Born’.

What was the process like for you?

I used to sing full time with the Song Company, so I know that there is a lot of potential for detail and individuality with this type of ensemble.

Did you get to meet or work with Leunig at all?

I met him once in an art gallery in Adelaide years ago and was shocked by how much hair he had. It would be like owning a cat which sits on your head. I wrote to him to ask permission to use some of his texts and he kindly passed on my greetings to the duck. So I’m pretty sure it’s real.



Lachlan Skipworth, composer
Lachlan Skipworth, composer

Perth composer Lauchlan Skipworth’s musical contribution depicts the plight of the character in Leunig’s ‘Inner Man’, exploring the “emotional turmoil” such as sadness and anger through three texts. Some text heard at the end of the work alongside Latin texts chosen by the composer to enhance the impact. For the music itself, Skipworth aimed to capture the darkness of ‘Inner Man’ and draws on the composer’s knowledge of traditional Japanese music.

When was the first time you saw a Leunig cartoon?

To me, the existence of Leunig cartoons seems timeless. Ever since I began reading newspapers, I have enjoyed his quirky yet poignant takes on current issues.

How do you go about composing a work based on a poem?

I look for musical material that captures the emotional intent of the poem, and resonates somewhat with the sounds of the poem itself. This is a very subjective process, and I generally allow a lot of time to ‘live’ with the poem before I finally decide on the area in which I choose to compose. I then expand upon this material to bring a sense of narrative to the music whilst ensuring the words are given enough space to communicate the text in parallel with my musical shapes.

Aesthetically, how did you work to capture the character or spirit of the poem?

I often choose very short poems that feature a concentrated theme or message, and in this case the short prayer of Leunig’s is only a few lines long. The emotional weight of this text and of the character in the ‘Inner Man’ image resonated with my unease at the current circumstances of the world, political, humanitarian, artistic, and the climate. I carried this idea with me for some months and waited for particular musical motifs and harmonies to arrive that I felt resonated with my feelings towards the poem and image. In crafting these into the final piece, I decided to augment Leunig’s text with two Latin texts which allowed me further scope to explore and magnify the emotional impact of the subject matter. Leunig’s text the appears towards the end as a light of hope.

Have you done anything like this before?

I was a very lucky participant in MODART in 2009 – a young composer program run in conjunction with the Song Company – and Roland’s guidance has left a resounding mark upon my composing ever since. In that case, I also set a short text, a proverb by the Japanese calligrapher Mitsuo Aida. Writing for the Song Company is a very specialised pursuit, but on both occasions has proven to be very fruitful.


See the Song Company’s production in Newcastle, Wollongong, and Canberra this week. Tickets and further info from


Images supplied.

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