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.

The past is all around us

The first thing that attracted me to Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem ‘The Past’ was its quality. It is so beautifully written that certain lines seem to sing on the page. ‘This little now, this accidental present’ is a wonderfully well-sprung pentameter. Shakespeare would have been proud of it.

Oodgeroo, then still known as Kath Walker, wrote her poem in 1970 to mark the bicentenary of Lieutenant James Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay. The point of view is that of an Aboriginal woman in modern suburbia, dozing in an arm chair in front of a radiator and dreaming of the millennia that preceded white Australia (‘this accidental present’) and which, by implication, will continue once the Europeans leave (‘Now is so small a part of time . . .’). As she writes towards the end of the poem:

Deep chair and electric radiator
Are but since yesterday,
But a thousand thousand campfires in the forest
Are in my blood.

Oodgeroo’s poem encouraged me to read more about Cook and, in particular, to read his ship’s log from that first voyage. I suppose I expected colonial insensitivity, but that is not what I found. On the contrary and even from a modern standpoint, Cook, like Arthur Phillip after him, strikes me as a rather enlightened man, genuinely interested in the people to whose land he had come. His main error was in expecting that the indigenous people of Australia would be equally keen to meet him and his crew and accept their gifts, so his attempts to communicate were always doomed.

I wondered if I could make a piece out of these two points of view. It wasn’t only that Oodgeroo’s poem was, in a sense, the perfect response to Cook, but also, from a musical point of view, that the two texts complemented each other. Oodgeroo’s ‘The Past’ is gentle and elegiac in tone; Cook’s writing, in contrast, is busy – he and his crew seem to be perpetually rushing around doing things. So I figured if I could make the two texts intersect each other, this would allow me to swing back and forth between lyricism for Oodgeroo and a more vigorous music for Cook (with hornpipe rhythms never far away).

The string orchestra is supplemented by an obbligato flute, the player doubling on bosun’s call. I researched this quite carefully, and the signals that are composed into the piece always relate in some way to the text that is being sung. Since most people have no idea what the signals mean, any more than I did before reading up on the matter, it seems unnecessary to point the meanings out (in any case I never intended to lace my score with whistling leitmotifs). So any sailors hearing the piece will immediately discover a layer of meaning that is there just for them.

Because this piece was initially conceived not only for counter-tenor voice, but also for a ‘period’ orchestra more used to playing Handel and Vivaldi, I elected not to update Cook’s words but to retain both his diction and his spelling – the more 18th-century, the better. The effect of this was unintended but ultimately quite striking, because it is Oodgeroo – this representative of an ancient people – who is our contemporary with all her talk of electric radiators, while James Cook evidently comes from another world. This is especially telling when Cook writes of his difficulty understanding ‘the natives’:

I orderd the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speake to them but this was of little purpose for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said. We then threw them some nails, beads &ca . . .

When I began work on this piece in late 1996 it seemed to me that its main interest lay in these contrasting voices presented by a single singer, and also the way in which the voices spoke in time – historical time and musical time. In 1996 reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians was starting to happen, if slowly, and my music was a small reflection of that. It never once crossed my mind that I was composing a political piece, let alone a politically sensitive one. However, by the time I finished it the following year, Australia had a new government, John Howard was the prime minister, and he had already given the opening address to a reconciliation convention in which he had spoken (and indeed shouted) about the positive aspects of white settlement, while many of the delegates stood and turned their backs on him. Suddenly my unperformed piece was a hot potato. For whatever reason, the group for whom it had been commissioned now decided it would not be programmed. It was finally premiered twelve years later by Russell Harcourt with the Camerata of St John’s during the 2009 Australian Festival of Chamber Music, where I was composer-in-residence.

Because of those circumstances that came to surround the piece, I can no longer think of it as entirely apolitical, and in truth I suppose it never was. Besides cross-cutting the two texts, I took one further liberty with them and that was to draw a refrain from each set of words, phrases that recur throughout the piece. They are, I’m afraid, rather melancholy refrains, namely Oodgeroo’s opening lines, ‘Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all around us . . .’, and Cook’s complaint, ‘We never were able to form any connections with them’.

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.

Ruthless Jabiru: The Past at the Australia Cultural Fund

Ruthless Jabiru’s forthcoming project The Past is now registered with the Australia Cultural Fund, allowing supporters to make tax-deductible donations towards the orchestra’s work. Support is welcome at any level by lodging a donation either online or by cheque, nominating Ruthless Jabiru as the preferred recipient. The Australia Cultural Fund, a subsidiary of Creative Partnerships Australia, has been assisting arts practitioners and bringing tax benefits to donors since 2003, with 100% of donations raised benefiting the registered artists.

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.

Demand attention

Urban portraits by Melbourne artist Adnate will be the face of Ruthless Jabiru’s homage to Oodgeroo Noonuccal at the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts this month in London, an echo of Oodgeroo’s line ‘the past is all around us’. Paying tribute to local indigenous communities has been a theme of his street art for many years and it is with pleasure that we welcome Adnate to the project.

Earlier this year Adnate was commissioned to paint a 23-metre high portrait of an Indigenous boy from the northern suburbs in Melbourne’s city centre. The gaze of the boy is looking directly towards Birrarung Marr, an important Aboriginal site, with the intention to connect the two locations. “Melbourne is a significant site for Indigenous culture and history, particularly the CBD,” he says. “A 23-metre high portrait is a great way to represent and empower.”

Adnate’s solo gallery show Beyond the Lands opened last week at Metro Callery in Melbourne and will run until early June. He is described as having transcended his origins as a graffiti artist, combining close studies of his subjects with skills learned on the street using aerosol and acrylic paints.

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.

Coalface installation to debut at Bimblebox: art-science-nature

Ruthless Jabiru’s recordings for the Bimblebox Art Project Coalface are to debut at the official opening of Bimblebox: art-science-nature this week in Brisbane. Ruthless Jabiru performed text scores representing the calls of two of the 153 bird species under threat by mining: the black-necked stork also known as the jabiru, and the Australian bustard or bush turkey. The clips will be used within an installation soundtrack with contributions from musicians around the world in support of the Bimblebox Nature Refuge.