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10 June 2009

Living in the country helps focus on the sounds in my head

Elegy in the Country Graveyard - performance in Kangaroo Valley Image: Elegy in the Country Graveyard - performance in Kangaroo Valley  

In January 2000 I moved from Sydney to the small town of Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands. Since 2005, I have composed three pieces involving the voices of local people, the most recent commissioned by my local shire council and written specifically for amateur choirs in the area.

Robertson, which is about two hours drive from both Sydney and Canberra, is 700 metres above sea-level and has the highest annual rainfall in the state. So it is green. Even when technically in drought, as it was quite recently, it was still green compared to everywhere else. If you have seen the film Babe, then you have seen Robertson. Those are our rolling hills that Farmer Hoggett bestrides.

To get to the Robertson graveyard, you have to walk through the Babe set, as it were. You take a dirt track down one very steep hill and up another, passing some collapsed dry-stone walls that were only ever meant to stand for the length of the film shoot. My wife and I often take this walk, because the hills make it good exercise and, at the end of it, the cemetery rewards us with a magnificent view. It was in the cemetery one day that I began to think it might be possible to turn the place into a piece of music. Robertson seems to have that effect on me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first of my pieces in which Robertson features is the orchestral work, Scenes from Bruegel (2006). Since the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder lived in 16th-century Netherlands, this might seem surprising, but Robertson is present in each of its three movements.

In fact I began to imagine this piece in Finland, specifically in the new concert hall in Lahti during the Nordic Music Days in September 2000. On the concert platform, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä was playing, no doubt with its customary skill, artistry and attention to detail, a program of contemporary music from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. But I, beguiled by the gorgeous yellow sheen of the wood-panelled hall and recognising it as the same yellow that forms the backdrop to Bruegel's allegorical painting Children's Games, was imagining the orchestra playing my new piece Scenes from Bruegel (new, in the sense that I'd just thought of it). By the time a fellowship from the Music Board of the Australia Council put me in a position to begin work on the piece (jointly for the New Juilliard Ensemble and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra) I had discovered the Robertson connection.

Each day I walk to the post office, and that involves passing the local primary school. Sometimes, my walk coincides with the lunch break, and one day I was struck by the fact that here, in the schoolyard, was a daily reenactment of Bruegel's Children's Games. It occurred to me that it might be possible to record sounds from the Robertson playground and use them in the piece.

Accordingly, Scenes from Bruegel opens with the Robertson school bell (followed immediately by an on-stage tubular bell) and then the sound of a lot of small children rushing out of their classrooms and into the yard. I also recorded skipping games and chants, including 'We rehearsed every Wednesday afternoon for a couple of months, improving one week, deteriorating the next. ''My Aunty An-na / Plays the pi-yan-na / Twenty-four hours a day'. This is heard at the end of the 'Children's Games' movement, as the orchestral pianist becomes fixated on some never-ending Glassian arpeggios.

If there were to be pre-recorded elements in 'Children's Games', I felt they should also be in the other movements of Scenes from Bruegel. These were 'Hunters in the Snow' and 'The Peasant Wedding Dance'. In the former painting, we see hunters trudging home in the early morning, past bare trees on which there are sitting large black birds (crows or rooks or possibly ravens). It was simple enough to substitute the sounds of large black (and white) birds from Robertson and weave them into the texture of this by-turns violent and elegiac movement.

Robertson School band - Andrew Ford conductingBruegel painted several peasant weddings, and all feature drunken musicians, some with bagpipes. I decided to write a little march for the Robertson school band, a group of eight, nine and ten year-olds who play an assortment of instruments with just enough gusto and just enough disregard for standard tuning to fit the bill. We rehearsed every Wednesday afternoon for a couple of months, improving one week, deteriorating the next. On the day of the recording, I'm not sure we were very much better than at the second rehearsal, but I got what I needed. Six months later in New York, as Joel Sachs conducted the New Juilliard Ensemble, and the strains of the Robertson School Band were gradually added to the mix, a suitably Ivesian cacophony filling Alice Tully Hall, it sounded very much like a peasant wedding to my ears. Just as satisfying was the Lincoln Center playbill which contained the names of the Robertson kids alongside those of the Juilliard players, and the questions afterwards from some audience members about the electronic sounds in the second movement. I think they must have meant the currawongs.

Two other recent works, Elegy in a Country Graveyard (2007) and A Singing Quilt (2008) both progressed from interviews with local people. In the case of Elegy, I recorded memories of elderly people in Robertson itself. They spoke movingly and amusingly about the graveyard, and indeed about death. The sound of their voices is one of the main musical strands in the piece. With funding from the NSW Ministry of the Arts, I was able to work in the ABC studios in Sydney with two of the most experienced sound artists the corporation had to offer, Andrew McLennan and Russell Stapleton.

We recorded instruments, we added birdsong, we added the sound of weather. And then we brought in the Sydney Chamber Choir and brass players from Sydney Conservatorium, asking them, for the most part, simply to listen to the skeleton of the piece to pick out pitches as they heard them and to prolong those notes, humming or playing them very softly until they ran out of breath, then choosing another pitch and starting again. The result was a rich and slowly shifting smear of harmony that ran through the piece, and we recorded it and remixed the sounds, fixing them in radiophonic splendour.

In this form, Elegy in a Country Graveyard was chosen as a finalist in the 2007 Prix Italia. But we also made a version without the choir and brass so that their contributions could be added live. The first live performance of the piece took place in April 2007 at the Kangaroo Valley arts festival, Arts in the Valley. A community choir from Berry, on the NSW south coast, sang and the Southern Highlands Concert Band played.

My most recent Southern Highlands piece was a specific request from Jenny Kena, the Community and Cultural Development Officer at Wingecarribee Shire Council. Would I come up with a project that would both reflect the Southern Highlands and involve as many people as '...I took phrases from the interviews that seemed relatively singable and made them my text.'possible as singers? Again I set off with my tape recorder, this time interviewing people across the whole shire, asking them for their impressions of the place – particularly the look of the place – and then editing their comments into tiny sound bites. If the choir was to be the focus of this piece, then they would need to do more than hum, so I took phrases from the interviews that seemed relatively singable and made them my text.

The big choir was to be made up of members from eight smaller choirs, all of which rehearsed in different towns and on different days. Knowing this in advance was very useful, because it enabled me to compose the 20-minute piece in sections that could be separately rehearsed. Some of the singers were very experienced and read music, some did not. A few had never sung in their lives before. This was also a challenge, because the music had to be challenging enough not to bore the experienced singers and easy enough not to discourage the beginners. I decided that the piece should consist of a series of canons in three, four or six parts – and in one case a double canon – which would be relatively easy to learn and yet also provide a rich series of musical textures. To this basic mix, I added percussion players from Gary France's group DRUMatiX at the Australian National University, playing mostly tuned instruments, including, at the climax of the piece, many sets of hand bells.

So these were the three components: 80 singers, five percussionists and pre-recorded voices. Jenny Kena suggested calling it A Singing Quilt, since it brought together so many voices and stories, turning them into a musical whole. We premiered the piece at Bundanoon Soldiers' Memorial Hall in November 2008. It was quite an occasion. Wingecarribee Shire Council has just released a CD of the performance.

Undoubtedly these three pieces produce a sense of place. They could hardly do otherwise. But the greatest pleasure I have had, as a composer who normally sits on his own filling up sheets of blank manuscript paper and drinking too much tea, is in meeting my neighbours, involving some of them in my work, talking to them about it, playing them the results and (sometimes) hearing their responses.

I suppose I could claim that, by including these people's voices in my music, I have tried to make my pieces more socially relevant or more accessible or more 'Australian'. It would not be true. I think that my time in Robertson and the peace and quiet that come from living in the country have simply helped me focus on the sounds in my head, and these have increasingly come to include the sounds of my environment. But I want to stress that I am not on some sort of crusade. At the time of writing, I have a healthy and slightly intimidating queue of commissions, but there are no plans for another Southern Highlands piece. Perhaps there will be one, perhaps not.

Further links

Andrew Ford - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/ford-andrew)
Andrew Ford (www.andrewford.net.au/)
Download Elegy in a Country Graveyard on the ABC Radio National website

Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and broadcaster, and has won awards in all three capacities, including the prestigious Paul Lowin Prize for his song cycle, Learning to Howl. His music has been played throughout Australia and in more than 40 countries around the world.


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