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.

Stay Ruthless

As one could imagine, moving to London, England for three months after growing up in Boise, Idaho seemed a bit daunting. Not only was I being thrown into classes and daily life in the heart of the city, I was taking on an Internship that I knew nothing about until the very last minute. However, the stars must have been aligned. I was introduced to Kelly, Ruthless Jabiru’s Artistic Director, through a mutual connection at the beautiful Southbank Centre and so began our work together through the FIE Internship Programme.

A little known fact about Kelly: she is an independent coffee shop connoisseur. Unfortunately, I didn’t share her expert knowledge navigating the city and ended up sending SOS messages every time I got lost on the way to meetings! Each work day we met at one of her hidden gems for coffee and conversation about ideas, plans, and research. Kelly set tasks that allowed me to learn through a combination of research and experience and I was able to put forward my own ideas for new ways to expand the orchestra’s brand. My tasks included everything from making spreadsheets and emailing contacts to researching crowdfunding platforms and laughing out loud at their promotional videos. Kelly also set up some external meetings for me. I was introduced to staff from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic, as well as sitting in on some company meetings. Being both passionate about the music industry and an avid Lord of the Rings and Star Wars fan, these were amazing opportunites!

I am so grateful for my time with Ruthless Jabiru, and the opportunity to take an inside look at the orchestra and watch it grow. Although I’ve now had to return to the United States, I wish Kelly and the players nothing but the best and am excited to watch the orchestra’s success from afar. Stay ruthless!

Maralinga: an untold story

Only 8 years after the world recoiled in horror at the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the British government commenced 12 years of atomic testing in the beautiful desert country of outback South Australia.

For over 12 years 1953-1965 – twice as long as World War Two – 12 large atomic bombs and over 600 so called “minor tests” contaminated the South Australian lands of the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Spinifex people.

The Australian Prime Minister granted permission for the tests without even consulting cabinet. Tapping in to the deep set fear and disregard for the vast interior of Australia and allowing an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality to justify the toxic bombing of Australian citizens, most of Australia didn’t even know it was going on and still don’t.

The stories from Emu Field and Maralinga border on the absurd – leaflets written in English dropped from planes to warn nomadic indigenous people the tests were coming, Australian service men topless in shorts playing cricket on the testing fields while the Brits and American wore protective clothing, a pregnant indigenous woman found camped in a crater who lost her baby…..

What is perhaps most confronting of all is that this history is still largely unknown in Australia. Maralinga has been immortalised by our folk hero musician Paul Kelly, there was a royal commission into the tests in 1984/5, servicemen are still campaigning for compensation and huge tracts of the desert will be uninhabitable for ever more – and yet somehow it is still a hidden part of Australia’s history.

In the early 2000s I became aware of an inspiring campaign led by the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – the Senior Women of Coober Pedy – against a proposed nuclear waste dump in South Australia. These women remembered the bombs from the 1950s and they didn’t want that poison on their country – they initiated the inspiring and victorious Irati Wanti – The Poison, Leave It campaign and prevented that waste dump.

Hearing their stories from Emu Field and Maralinga I was inspired to learn more about the story, and together with Scott Rankin and Trevor Jamieson established the Big hART Ngapartji Ngapartji project.

Ngapartji Ngapartji was based on Arrernte country in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) from early 2005 to mid 2010. Ngapartji Ngapartji had many layers involving language learning, teaching and maintenance, community development, crime prevention, cross cultural collaboration, and creating new literacy training models as well as film, art, policy and theatre making.

The stage production explored Trevor’s family’s experience with the atomic tests – many of them were moved west off their country in cattle trucks before the tests took place. This dislocation – becoming refugees in their own country – and its impact across subsequent generations was told beautifully in this award winning play.

As well as the touring theatre productions the project produced a documentary film for ABC TV in 2010, Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, which followed Trevor and the team taking the play back to country in Ernabella community, South Australia. For many people this was the first time they had talked publicly about the bombs – as Anangu culture reveres the deceased with silence – and many of the stories had not been passed down to younger generations. Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji can be watched in full online.

It remains clear that the stories of Maralinga still need to be shared and acknowledged, and plays, music and storytelling play a critical role in drawing attention to Australia’s atomic history and shameful indifference to the desert and its people.

Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.

Visualising Maralinga’s legacy

It is the nature of bombs to be indiscriminate. Howard Zinn

We arrived at Maralinga late afternoon on the 9th of November 2011. It was nearly a full moon. The caretaker came and let us in through the gates. We followed his truck along the old Maralinga road, turned left at the junction and into the remnants of the Maralinga village, once host to over 10,000 servicemen over eleven years.

Travelling to Maralinga for the first time after hearing so much about the effects the British nuclear blasts had on Indigenous people and Australian and British personnel, I didn’t really know what to expect. I think I imagined I would find some sort of overwhelming obvious physical evidence of the blasts, but what finally appeared for me was a space full of so much remnant history and memory.

Between 1952 and 1963, the British government tested twelve atomic bombs and hundreds of smaller ‘minor trials’ at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia and on Monte Bello Island, off the Coast of Western Australia. The reason for this is that after the end of WWII, Britain, Australia’s ‘mother country’, was losing power and was eager to become part of the global nuclear arms race. Australia of course complied readily, with the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies pushing it through without even consulting the cabinet.

I first started working on mixed media projects around uranium mining and the legacy of the nuclear era in Australia in 2005 as an eager, newly enraged 19 year old. I travelled aboard a bus destined for uranium mines and indigenous lands that had been dispossessed through the process of nuclear developments in the South Australian outback. The group, Friends of the Earth Melbourne, had been organising ‘Radioactive Exposure Tours’ since the 1980s to take people from the cities and towns to see the true impact of the nuclear industry on indigenous communities lives’ and the land in Australia.

We heard from a number of Aboriginal elders who had been fighting long and hard against the ongoing uranium developments and damage that had been done to their land and their communities, and we were given permission to camp out in prohibited zones the semi-arid landscapes where these fights had been going on. Coming back into the city after a trip like this was a wake up call to the physical and mental distance that we had from what was going on ‘out there’ and this revelation took me on a journey to create a few different bodies of photographic, audio and video work over seven years focusing on the impact of this industry on people and the land.

The first project I undertook was called Inhabited; life size portraits and audio stories of indigenous and non-indigenous people resisting the nuclear industry in Australia, as well as survivors and veterans of the Maralinga and Emu Field atomic tests. This project, completed in 2006 has been touring around Australia as an educational tool and exhibition since then.

The next body of work was Operation Buffalo, photographs of Maralinga village and atomic testing sites that was exhibited in Federation Square, Melbourne in 2012. I also made a short film with editor Anthony Kelly called Maralinga Pieces which contains in situ footage from the Maralinga atomic test sites as well as stories of Aboriginal elders who experienced the fallout, alongside those of Australian atomic veterans who helped set up and execute those fateful and deadly tests.

Working on projects around the legacy of these atomic tests in Australia has gotten under my skin; there is still no way that we can truly understand the emotional, physical and psychological scars that have been embedded on indigenous people, the land and nuclear veterans who were never told the truth, who have lost many of their sacred sites and homelands, and who have to fight continuously to protect their land and culture. These projects can only offer glimpses into these stories and histories, and hope to promote greater understanding, awareness and interest in these issues.

Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.