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11 March 2009

The Song Company: Kalkadunga Man

William Barton Image: William Barton  
© Allan Chawner

Review by L. Mathison

A deep, resonant rumbling comes from somewhere indistinguishable. The light illuminates the vast Australian desert, and sound of singing washes over the earth… Well, over the stage anyway. I'm reporting from The Song Company's packed Sydney concert in their opening concert series for 2009, Kalkadunga Man, after several hugely successful performances in regional NSW.

In July 2008, didjeridu virtuoso William Barton revisited his childhood home - the land of the Kalkadunga people around Mt. Isa, Queensland - with acclaimed photographer Allan Chawner. The result was this amazing, sonic and visual collaboration with The Song Company, combining classical, modern Australian and Aboriginal music with the visceral sounds of the didjeridu and vibrant projected images of the Kalkadunga lands.

The performance featured songs in the Kalkadoon language by Barton and The Song Company, and music by Australian composers Ross Edwards, Dan Walker, Sarah Hopkins and Rosalind Page, united by a focus on nature, the constellations and Indigenous culture. Two works by Bernard de Cluny (14th century) and Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474) were interesting additions; their themes (the constellations and the mightiness of the universe) fitting in with the Australian works.

The evocative rumblings of the offstage didjeridu were joined by The Song Company for the first work, Dufay's Conditor Alme Siderum, while the constellations of the Australian sky floated by on the screen above: fleeting images of the moon, the stars and the shadows of the trees. Artistic Director Roland Peelman coaxed some remarkable dynamics and smooth singing from the ensemble, while discreetly moving about to play the clapsticks or xylophone.

Ross Edwards's Southern Cross Chants, featuring classical, scientific and Aboriginal names of the constellations, were equally impressive. Highlights were the mysterious 'Scorpious', where the singer's hissing and use of clapsticks were perfectly matched by the close-up shots of a campfire. 'Proxima' was stunningly beautiful, its stillness complemented by evocative images of the vast Australian sky.

The style of the second half was slightly more playful and equally enjoyable, consisting of several shorter works. It opened with William Barton on solo didjeridu with offstage voices in Edwards's Dawn Mantras, originally written for the 2000 millennium celebrations in Sydney. Here, the images blossomed from the muted shadows of evening into the harsh, vibrant oranges, reds and blues that are so distinctly of the Australian Outback. Dan Walker's composition Out There was upbeat and loose and Barton's 'didjeridu lesson', that followed, (involving some dingo howling and magpie squawking from the audience) was informative, interesting and very funny.

The stories and Aboriginal songs were a highlight of the second half. Barton's singing was moving and evocative, and his husky voice suited the works well. In Birds, each singer imitated a different bird to Barton's improvised playing. The Song Company took a more accompanying role in some of these works (at times using tree branches as props) and they also performed in the Kalkadoon language. The title song Kalkadunga Yurdu (Kalkadunga Man), was one of the most moving of these.

The words to Kurrartapu (Magpie) were based on a story told by Kalkadoon speaker Lardie Moonlight in 1967, the last native speaker of this language. The final song, Rosalind Page's Pirrki-Pirrki (Bloodwood), was also based on a recorded dialogue between Lardie and Mick Moonlight. This upbeat and lively piece required some more audience participation and several encores!

The variety of languages and musical styles in this concert was wonderful, demonstrating the significance of Indigenous culture to the Australian psyche, while linking it to music from a wide range of times and places. Chawner's vivid images worked perfectly on the screen behind; floating serenely through the constellations or zipping purposefully through the desert sands.

The popularity of Kalkadunga Man has been such that it has just toured to Melbourne and will also be taken to Perth later this year.

Event details

Further links

Ross Edwards (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=436)
Sarah Hopkins (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=3395)
Rosalind Page (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=3439)
The Song Company (www.songcompany.com.au)
William Barton (www.williambarton.com.au/)

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