On Reflection: a Concert for Peter Sculthorpe


Originally posted at Australian Cultural Fund:

Ruthless Jabiru will perform a unique realisation of Peter Sculthorpe’s final unfinished work in an historic London event one year on from his passing.

Although our 2012 commission Postcards from Jabiru never saw completion, Sculthorpe’s ideas for an intended collection of miniatures leave us with three snapshots of issues at the heart of Kakadu.

We will present these sketches against a programme for string orchestra by Kaija Saariaho, Liza Lim, Eugene Birman and John Luther Adams exploring the depth of Sculthorpe’s palette and his quiet engagement as a cultural Activist in this major…

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Sculthorpe’s last ‘Postcards’ to get a hearing in London

Originally posted at Limelight Magazine:

Ex-pats Kelly Lovelady and Ruthless Jabiru plan to play one of the composer’s final commissions.

It’s just over a year since the passing of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, yet it seems that the man whose music inspired so many still has a few surprises up his sleeve. Aussie conductor and founder of the ex-pat ensemble Ruthless Jabiru, Kelly Lovelady, commissioned Sculthorpe back in 2012 and, although the work was never completed, she now hopes to raise the funds to allow what did make it to the page to be heard.

“I can’t remember exactly how my friendship with Peter started but I think I’d decided to write and say hello when I was performing some of his flute music in the 1990s,” says Lovelady. “I’d also read his book Sun Music around that time and his idea of the Pacific…

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Answers on a postcard

Originally posted at Kelly Lovelady:

Last month the first anniversary of Peter Sculthorpe’s passing quietly slipped by. Some of you may remember back in 2012 when Peter accepted my commission to write a collection of miniatures for my chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru. Although Postcards from Jabiru was never completed, Peter’s sketches for the piece still leave us with something rich – his own impression of where we should go from here.

Peter spoke to me years ago of the gentle jabiru and its mesmeric leggy gait but through this project I think he wanted me to see the duality of Jabiru – as equally a pin in the map, a land, a people, a place from which postcards are sent – and a conversation starter about open pit uranium mining within Kakadu…

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Everyone was a bird

Originally posted at Inside Story:

It’s no surprise that Messiaen was a prisoner of war when he first made use of birdsong, writes Andrew Ford.

Earlier this year I composed a song cycle for baritone and orchestra that includes words from a letter by the nineteenth-century West Australian botanist, Georgiana Molloy, telling of the drowning of her infant son. For obvious reasons I have been thinking about it again these past few days.

Setting a poem to music is one thing, setting somebody’s letter is another. In this case the diction is rather formal. Georgiana is writing to a man in England she has never met, a collector of plants to whom she sends specimens. She tells him of her child’s drowning in order to explain her tardiness, apologising for presuming on the professional nature of their correspondence. Yet perhaps the fact that she is writing to a stranger enables her to…

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Ruthless Jabiru commission shortlisted for 2014 Lithuanian music awards

Ruthless Jabiru’s recent commission Sandhi Prakash by Egidija Medekšaitė has been shortlisted for the 2014 awards of the Lithuanian Composers’ Union and Lithuanian Music Information Centre in both Composer of the Year and Performance of the Year categories. A live recording of the premiere from our programme The Past is now on Soundcloud:

Lovelady in London: Swinging her baton to a different tune

Originally posted at Limelight Magazine:

A tireless musical ambassador abroad explains why the Aussie way still works for her.

My first sight of Kelly Lovelady is during a rehearsal for a concert at St John’s Smith Square.  A great deal of frenzied preparation is going on around her, but Kelly’s musical focus is unaffected. In five-inch Cuban heels she sways her baton conducting with knees bouncing to the beat. It is an unusual style but orchestras know precisely where they are and what she wants. There is clarity in her unique brand of physicality and you can tell that musicians feel both safe and inspired under her direction. She is also wonderfully sensitive to any soloists and demonstrates her skill as a great accompanist.

I grab some time with Kelly after rehearsals over a quick drink. Even under pressure she is open and enthusiastic. This particular evening she has been hired to conduct at a…

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Kelly Lovelady on peace, reappropriation and new music for string orchestra

Originally posted at The Sampler:

Kelly Lovelady“Peace and I are strangers grown.” This is the grave line from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas which begins Ruthless Jabiru’s homage to Australian poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal; a programme exploring Colonial race relations for the inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts this weekend in London.

I will be conducting Ruthless Jabiru in a collection of new music for string orchestra inspired by Oodgeroo’s poem The Past. The poem has been set by Australian composer Andrew Ford combined with excerpts from James Cook’s diaries on encountering the Aboriginal people. For me, one of the most interesting things about this programme is the conflict with the traditional understanding of what we deem to be either old or new when it comes to music. In the context of the First Settlers discovering an unmapped continent, the music we usually think of as old: Byrd…

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The Past, the accidental present and the future

The Ukrainian composer, Valentyn Silvestrov, once suggested that his music is not new but rather ‘an echo of what already exists’. To some extent, all newly composed pieces are informed by the past, by drawing upon techniques, styles and traditions. However, what Silvestrov is suggesting is subtly different – his music is not simply informed by the past but emerges from it.

It is this reflection upon what ‘the past’ means and represents that lies at the heart of Ruthless Jabiru’s appearance at the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts. For an artist or composer with a postmodern approach, ‘the past’ is to be treated as something passive, a palette from which to draw materials and manipulate them freely. In this concert though, the past is approached as something active, complex and relevant. It is not engaged with as a historical sequence of events, to borrow Theodor Adorno’s words, but as underlying threads and traditions. Where these composers refer to ‘the past’, they do so with an awareness of the semantic overtones of the references they make.

Through a distinctive combination of British and Australian contemporary music, the orchestra and countertenor, Russell Harcourt, will take the listener on ‘an evocative journey’ back into the corners of Australia’s past. While concert programmes often have an underlying theme, those exploring heritage and history can become inadvertently dominated by sentimentality and nostalgia. For Kelly Lovelady and Ruthless Jabiru, their response to this situation is to pose questions through music and to encounter different, contrasting parts of that heritage. It would be impossible to fully capture Australia’s past in a single concert, therefore the most potent picture of the country’s heritage is perhaps one that poses questions about the very concept of a national heritage.

The concert also honours the Aboriginal poet and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (previously Kath Walker), and responds to her poem, The Past. The opening lines of the poem eloquently capture the concert’s own thematic thread:

‘Let no one say the past is dead
The past is all about us and within.’

Subtle variations in the poem’s rhythm create shifting patterns of emphasis that underpin Oodgeroo’s description of her dream of the past – ‘in easy chair before electric heater’ – and give a strong sense of musicality. However, with the knowledge that she is an Aboriginal activist, one could make assumptions about it being a ‘Political’ poem. Perhaps more accurately, it should be described as a ‘political’ poem, without capitalisation. Woven into her lines are an attitude towards, and reverence for, the past. Where sentimentality develops – ‘the tall surrounding trees that stir in the wind; making their own music’ – it is not a scene that has simply been forgotten and nostalgically recalled, but has been in some way ‘forsaken’. The scenes of campfires are juxtaposed with the ‘deep chair and electric radiator’, so that the latter feel like almost an unnatural departure. In doing so, she gently highlights the subtler, potentially more insidious, aspects of cultural loss that are overlooked by overarching historical theses.

The Australian composer, Andrew Ford, takes up Oodgeroo’s poem as the text for his piece, also entitled The Past, and which provides a focal point to the evening’s concert. However, he brings in another text, excerpts from James Cook’s diaries, where Cook describes his contact with the First Australians. By bringing these texts together, the concepts of Australian heritage and the past are brought to the fore. Ruthless Jabiru’s director, Kelly Lovelady, describes this combination vividly as ‘an electric composite’, where the worlds of music and literature can be bridged.

Oodgeroo’s poem also gives an intriguing sense of the past as something almost spatial, rather than simply chronological. By referring to ‘This little now, this accidental present’, which stands in contrast to her dream of the past, she subtly critiques our perception of time. Chris Williams explores this notion of dreams offering a form of gateway to the past in his piece, Altjiranga Mitjina. The title, taken from the Arrernte language spoken in and around Alice Springs, roughly translates as ‘the timeless dimension of dreams’. The interweaving of the lyrical and meditative in Williams’s piece gives that sense of pressing into a place where we leave the chronological and temporal behind.

Elsewhere in her poem, Oodgeroo talks about the past as something irretrievable and unreachable but with a sense of it leaving a powerful residue, which may be literal or metaphorical. Rather than be explicit, she evokes this quality enigmatically in the following lines:

‘Soft cries of the night coming to us, there
Where we are one with all Old Nature’s lives
Known and unknown…’

This quality resonates with another piece on the programme, Tansy Davies’s Residuum, composed in 2005 for the Orchestra of the Swan. In Residuum, Davies’s recalls Dowland’s Galliard to Lachrymae but from a distance. In her programme note for the piece, we get this sense of the past as a vivid place, both known and unknown, and being invoked in the present. She writes:

‘Ghost hunters often talk about finding residual energy in old buildings; past events are replayed in the present as a result of energy being retained by the building. ‘Residuum’ is an imaginary replay the residual energy of Dowland’s ‘Galliard to Lachrymae’, heard like an echo of ancient music in a modern time.’

What seems to connect Oodgeroo and Davies is this sense of the past having an impulse, an energy, which although diminished, continues to resonate in(to) the present. The Dowland material acts as a form of ‘musical metaphor’, a fragment that has been transported and embedded into a new sonic landscape but never abandons its origin. For a listener, the Dowland material has become both known and unknown simultaneously as it carries the semantic overtones of its origin while being recast with new meanings.

What is intriguing about the concert as a whole is that while its theme is ‘the past,’ it powerfully addresses the future. Oodgeroo’s activism could be seen as something separate from her poetry, with a division between the political and active, and the passive and reflective. However, in the context of Ford’s piece, and as the inspiration behind Ruthless Jabiru’s concert, such a distinction is hard to make about Oodgeroo Noonuccal. It is perhaps interesting to approach her poem, and maybe some of the concert’s music, as a form of activism. It is not that they campaign vigorously for a legislative change but through their structures invite new kinds of relationship to the past. By creating a musical space where nostalgia, memory and politics interact, powerful questions are posed about our own heritage and by extension, our decisions regarding the future. However, to address those questions, we perhaps need to listen to the past first.

Ruthless Jabiru will perform at Kings College London for the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts on 31 May. Booking for the event is now open at the festival website.