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.

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