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24 October 2019

2019 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address - In Answer to Your Question

Deborah Cheetham AO delivering her speech in Melbourne Image: Deborah Cheetham AO delivering her speech in Melbourne  

Deborah Cheetham AO delivered the 2019 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address in Melbourne on 22 October. See also the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address subpage for further information and previous addresses.

It is a great honour to be here with you this evening in this beautiful venue. I've loved this venue since the first pylon went into the ground, and it's a great honour to be excepting a role on the board of the MRC - this was announced just last week. This is the 21st annual Peggy Glanville Hicks Address. When I stand on this country I know I have the ancestors and elders of the Boon Wurrung, and their very close neighbours the Wurundjeri, to thank for the strength that I feel - the strength that I can draw upon. For 70,000 years or more the Kulin nations have sung and danced and painted their culture on this land. This land has a long memory.

When the Old Police Hospital, which is now one of the admin buildings of the University of Melbourne, when that was first built, the language of the Boon Wurrung could still be heard, here, on this land. It's worth remembering that connection.

In all the world - the entire world - Australia alone can lay claim to the longest continuing cultures. We live each day drawing energy from a land which has been nurtured by its traditional owners for more than 2,000 generations. And although we celebrate this more today than in any other time since our shared history began, there is little doubt in my mind that there is still a great deal of progress to be made.

In preparing for this evening, I started to think about the many public addresses I have given during my career. A decade ago I spoke about the lack of opportunity for Indigenous opera singers, the need for new lyrics for our national anthem, and of the luxury of failure - an experience at the time not often afforded to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. If you failed, either personally or publicly, you failed on behalf of every Aboriginal person. Sadly, this equation did not operate in the reverse. A success made you out-of-the-ordinary, and perhaps that was so, on occasion. However most of the time I found myself to be exercising a kind of life practice that was not merely the result of education or nurturing but part of my DNA and it extends me to this very day well beyond the hybrid of humanity you see before you.

But as I thought about those many public addresses, it wasn't surprising that a common theme has remained throughout the 30 years of my career in the art sector, and that is the power and necessity of music and the role it plays in shaping and sustaining communities. Music is my earliest memory. For me, it's my way of knowing the world and making sense of everything in it.

You know, I say, that it's a common theme, the power and necessity of music. I was talking with members of the AMC, in particular John [Davis], and I wanted to acknowledge you and the work of the AMC, and Genevieve [Lacey], the chair of our board, the board that I'm proud to serve on, and I was talking about the kinds of addresses that I have given. I used to always write my speeches, I was taught well, in high school, that you wrote those speeches down, and you collated them, and kept them, and I have, for a very long time. But there became a point in my life where I had to stop writing those speeches down. Because, on the way to an event, something would happen that I simply could not ignore. That I simply needed to respond to. And it happened this evening.

I've been away over the weekend, performing in Brisbane, but on the way here I was listening to one of the afternoon news programs, and I heard a horrendous story of how music can be used for the basest of activities. That was a group of high school boys, foolish enough to wear their blazers proudly, degrading women in song. It served as a reminder, to me, that it can go either way, this power of music, and we have to, as a community, find a way to harness it so that it shapes our society, the kind of Australia we live in, the kind of Australia we'd like our children to live in, the kind of Australia that those children don't really understand at all, but they need to. If you haven't heard that news story, go online. It is pretty disturbing. But we have to be grown-up, and we have to hear the disturbing stories, and we need to deal with them, and we need to hold our communities, and our parents, and our principals, and our staff, and wherever that ugliness comes from, we need to hold it to account. The leadership that allows for that kind of behaviour - where, on a public tram, boys take licence to degrade women in song.

Because I think, whenever I have the opportunity to address an audience such as this, or whether it's my children's choir, Dhungala Children's Choir - if I'm speaking to them - I think, what is the purpose of this, for what do we strive in our lives, why do we build? For what purpose do we strive in this life if not to gain the deepest possible knowledge and understanding of ourselves. Everything strives to that single purpose, to me. The longest practice of knowing is through the arts. Music, dance, art, the spoken narrative, this is how human kind has traditionally made sense of its existence. It is our way of knowing. For Indigenous Australians this is how all knowledge was acquired and passed on. Longer here than anywhere else in the world. What a celebration that should be, as a nation. To quote one of Dhungala Children's Choir's songs: 'A song is not merely a song.' It can be a map to our identity, it can help us find the way home. A song is not merely song.

What are the implications, for our society, when access to arts education and participation in the arts are diminished? What is the agenda of governments that seek to limit arts funding or direct it in such a way that certain critical voices are silenced? As an arts community we must ask ourselves what is to be our response?

After more than 30 years as an arts educator and performing artist - I started life as a high school music teacher, I reckon if you've done that for long enough you can pretty much count on being able to do anything, because you have to. In all that time and a decade at the helm of Short Black Opera - we celebrate 10 years today, and my team is in the house, all two and a half of us [presents company manager Toni Lalich and project manager Jessica Hitchcock in the audience] - really, I can tell you, that it is actually getting harder, not easier, to maintain the unbroken thread of cultural expression that makes Australia unique in the world.

Indigenous artists and organisations and cultural content are in a constant battle against the threat of exploitation and misinterpretation. Since the process of colonisation began in Australia the arts have suffered a prolonged dislocation from their traditional role at the centre of society - I would see us returned to that role. This dislocation results in yet another way in which Indigenous Australians suffer disadvantage - as our way of knowing is devalued, our access to it reduced and control over our own cultural knowledge is usurped. It is worth remembering that at the same time the Brandis cuts shamefully weakened our industry, pitting artists against one another and forcing us to compete for ever dwindling resources - funding previously set aside for Indigenous-led organisations was made available to anyone and everyone.

Unfortunately this has led to many examples of cultural theft and profiteering. I'm glad to say that there are many fine partnerships which have also developed in that time. But it is alarming, the amount of cultural theft I'm still seeing at the moment, in our community. In speaking out about it, I'm hopefully providing a learning opportunity for the people who need to hear it. I know we will be streamed tonight, I know this will be published, which is why I wrote it down. It is a learning opportunity. I'm not in the habit of closing doors. It's not in my nature. I don't think it takes us where we want to go.

Indigenous artists have to compete with non-Indigenous organisations for the support needed to tell their own stories. Over the past few years I have seen an alarming increase in the number of very loose invitations from non-Indigenous organisations who, upon receiving funding for an Indigenous project then set about to locate the necessary Indigenous performers to make it viable. These invitations sometimes arrive in my inbox very late in the process of the project and are really nothing more than a thinly veiled after thought of compliance. I've got a real problem with that word, compliance, as some of you may know. So many people are treating it like a destination. At best, it's a departure point, and not always, and we cannot treat compliance as the destination, the end point.

This practice of the afterthought of inviting the Indigenous person to their own culture is not and has never been an acceptable practice but it is going on today, and I need you to call it out when you see it. This situation is without doubt the result of our nation's failure to deal with both historical and contemporary dispossession and the exploitation of Indigenous knowledge and cultural practice. We have arrived at this state and are pinned there by a society which is increasingly deprived of the broadest possible artistic engagement. It is deliberate. At the same time our nation's leaders do very little to promote the level of emotional intelligence and maturity which Australia so desperately needs. Sadly we find ourselves heading into the third decade of the 21st century as a materially wealthy nation, undermined by attitudes of arrogance and entitlement resulting in an increasingly impoverished spirit. If you needed evidence of that, you only needed to be somewhere near that tram, packed full St Kevin's Year 10 boys on their way to something.

We have seen an increase of commercial considerations forcing and, in some cases enabling, flagship companies to produce an ever-diminishing range of works, very few of which could be considered ground-breaking. There are exceptions, of course. I've been privileged to be part of them and I've seen others. But the vital task of ensuring diversity and growth is often left to the small-to-medium sector. As the Artistic Director of one such small organisation I can tell you that the battle to exist is constant and the only thing that keeps Short Black Opera going is the knowledge that we have absolutely no other choice. Without Short Black Opera there is no Indigenous opera in Australia. This is not just what I do, a stepping stone to somewhere else, it is who I am. For myself and the members of my company, we have a duty of care to the broader Australian community. But as well, for the Aboriginal members of our team, we have a specific cultural responsibility that has been passed down to us by our ancestors.

It is absolutely critical for emerging Indigenous artists to have the opportunity to see Indigenous leadership at the highest possible level in all arts organisations, especially those which seek to produce and present Indigenous content. To the philanthropic community and to arts funding bodies who are committed to supporting the vitality and authenticity of Indigenous cultures, I recommend that you ask each of the following four questions before supporting non-Indigenous artists and organisations who seek to profit from Indigenous cultural knowledge - particularly where children and young adults are concerned.

1. How many Indigenous people does the organisation employ at an executive level? I'm not talking about the person who gets the coffees. (Actually, I'm the person who gets the coffees at Short Black Opera, so forget that example.)
2. How many Indigenous people are on the creative team and what is their level of authority in the decision-making process? Make sure you see evidence of these people - they can be spoken about and not actually yet engaged for the task.
3. How many Indigenous people are on the BOARD of the organisation you intend to support?
4. What is the ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous support staff particularly when children are involved?

These are some of the questions Short Black Opera has begun to ask in earnest over the last few years. Whilst there are very few organisations who would currently pass muster we just have to work towards raising the standard.

Tonight I offer this challenge to our industry our arts community: to accept, promote and take these standards of Indigenous engagement even further. It will not be a simple task - is anything that we do simple? - but it is necessary for the process of collaboration to become respectful, more nuanced and thereby sustainable.

As a 21st-century urban woman who is Yorta Yorta by birth, stolen generation by government policy, soprano by a whole lot of hard work and diligence and composer by necessity, throughout my career I have constantly been called upon to explain myself and justify my place in the world of classical music. It has been a hard road and acceptance is not guaranteed. I thought long and hard of sharing this example with you, but as evidence of this fact, very recently, I returned to my dressing room after giving a performance, only to find a message on my dressing-room table of racial and gender-specific hatred left for me to find. As artists we rely on the area backstage to be a safe place in which we can prepare ourselves for the ultimate act of gift-giving, which is performance. To have had that space violated was a breathtaking reminder that we have a such long way to go as a nation and as an arts community before our female artists, and in particular those of colour, can feel safe, included and empowered. Someone had the courage to do that to me. I have a children's choir - how do I keep them safe from them? I have young artists that I mentor - how do I keep them safe?

Earlier this year when the volume was finally turned up on the conversation of violence towards women in the world of opera and in opera plots themselves I found myself taking stock of my long love affair with the art form which began when I first encountered the incomparable Joan Sutherland on the 19th of February 1979 at a performance in the Sydney Opera House. For two decades my love of opera was fuelled by the kind of access you can only dream of today. I could have 15 dollars and see four operas and still have change left for a Cornetto. There were seasons of varied repertoire with high-quality production and local talent. That was typical of our flagship company under the leadership of Bonynge and Oxenbould in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

Many questions have been raised about the content of the stories in the repertoire we see year after year in opera. I believe the best examples of this complex and very beautiful art form serve to reveal and amplify our humanity. The death of a female character on stage must be an absolute tragedy - not merely an inevitable and strangely fulfilling experience. There can be no compromise. In my opera Pecan Summer the trauma, suffered by the female characters comes directly from the lived experience of my own Aboriginal mother, grandmother and myself. Yes there is violence - but this is reality. The violence is not celebrated. It is exposed. In that case, it is a part of our nation's history.

But there's a danger in opera. When we export violence to an exotic location or distant time, we run the risk of distancing ourselves from the truth of violence in our own time and in our own lives. It is the responsibility of producers and directors to find a way to remain faithful to the composer and the librettist's wishes, while exposing the humanity of the situation.

As most of you would know I did not begin my public life as a composer. For most of my career I have been best-known for my work as a soprano although, as a student of music, I began my formal training as an instrumentalist, majoring in piano and flute. My role as a composer developed relatively late in life and basically through necessity. I had experienced, during the first 20 years of my career, after graduating from the Sydney Con, a classical music industry where Indigenous voices were kept out, were kept silent, or were simply reinterpreted by only non-Indigenous composers. As years passed, and I continued to be overlooked by major companies as a performer, I realised that things would not change for the next generation of Indigenous singers unless I created a space in which they could safely develop their skills and express themselves onstage. A decade ago this lead to the creation of Short Black Opera.

I have spent the last 20 years developing my compositional voice and, during that time, I have specialised in coupling the beauty and diversity of our Indigenous languages with the power and beauty and intensity of classical music. This began with Dali Mana Gamarada written for the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, followed by Pecan Summer - which I'm happy to announce will celebrate its 10th anniversary here with two performances in the Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Hall in October 2020, and Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace entirely in the languages of the Gunditjmara peoples, thanks to the skill and the dedication of language custodian Vicki Couzens and linguist Travers Eira.

We've just come back from Brisbane premiere on Sunday, following on from the success of both the oncountry premiere last year and the symphonic premiere with the MSO in June this year. In 2020 we are off to Perth to perform this work with WASO. There are opportunities and there are good people to work with, but we need to grow more good people, and we need to arrest the development of the exploitation of Indigenious arts and the exclusion of Indigenous artists from their own stories, by helping people to understand that you have nothing to lose in collaboration, and maybe the collaboration starts at the point where you art the Indigenous person, what they want to do. They may just have a better idea than you. It's possible. Or maybe you come up with something together that's altogether different - but this is what we need to do.

I have some fantastic partnerships in this town - Melbourne it's such a great town. The Australian Tapestry Workshop, Orchestra Victoria, Plexus Ensemble, Rubiks Collective, the Consort of Melbourne - there are some fantastic ensembles, and people I work with here, who have dedicated themselves to building that relationship, that personal relationship, and going on a journey from perhaps not knowing very much to knowing, and then, more vitally, a step towards understanding.

I want to talk about one project in particular. My experience in setting Indigenous languages led to a commission from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to compose the music for an Acknowledgement to Country. This piece of music will be played before each and every concert given by the MSO. For this project I had the great privilege of working with no fewer than eleven ancient languages from around the state of Victoria, including the language of my late grandmother, Yorta Yorta woman Frances McGee. I pay my deepest respects to all the elders and ancestors who are represented in these songs of acknowledgement and to the language custodians of this essential part of our nation's identity. The language that is embedded in this land still. I am so proud of MSO for initiating this is a landmark project and affording me the opportunity to make this contribution to the ongoing quest of understanding our belonging in this land.

I have called the work Long Time Living Here. It's dedicated to the First Nations People, but it's also encouragement to all Australians to find a way to enter into that stream of continuous being. It was a steep learning curve for the MSO, lots and lots of bumps along the way. Some time between now and the end of the year, Jessica Hitchcock will record all eleven languages, and those recordings will be gifted back to the custodians, who were so generous in giving us the language to use for the project. Eleven different Indigenous languages from Victoria. That project will be copied by many people, many organisations, and I'm sure MSO will be glad of that.

As performers, each and every time we step in front of an audience, whether they be seated in a magnificent venue such as this or in the local school hall, we are in the business of arts education. We have a duty of care to our young artists, whoever they are. Because they are working hard to develop their identity in a country which still struggles to rise above its long-running identity crisis. The further we move away from the arts being in that central role in society, the deeper that crisis comes. We know that many Australians are yet to realise the true depth and beauty of our Indigenous cultures and it is holding us back. Many Australians do not know that they are a long way from taking the journey from not knowing to knowing, and from knowing to understanding. This is where the arts and in particular music, has a critical role to play - in conveying the truth of our shared belonging on this land. A song is not just a song.

And in this quest, undiluted cultural authority is paramount. I say this as someone who has taken that journey. I'm stolen generation. I didn't have the privilege of growing up in my Aboriginal community. It was my song that led me home though. Just like Australia, when I started out I didn't really know who I was at all. There was so much of my identity yet to be uncovered, to be known and eventually understood.

Music has afforded me the opportunity to develop the understanding of who I am and how I fit in to this world. Just as I have made my own journey from not knowing to knowing and from knowing to understanding, I would ask the same of our nation. And I would see it shaped and nurtured by an emotionally mature, respectful arts community who have the courage and determination to remain faithful in the service of music, dance, art and narrative.

This year, as the Peggy Glanville Hicks address celebrates its coming of age, the 21st address, I challenge you to embrace your arts practice in the same way Indigenous Australians have, longer here than anywhere else on the planet, as an essential way of knowing the world and giving meaning to everything in it.

Thank you.

> Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address - further information an previous addresses


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