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10 June 2009

A story of a place

Cataract Gorge, Launceston Image: Cataract Gorge, Launceston  
© Karlin Love

I’d been in town for two hours, newly landed from the USA, barely awake, probably cradling a cup of tea. My hosts’ nine-year-old came home from school and asked, 'Have you been to the Gorge yet?'

Cataract Gorge, a short walk from the CBD, is Launceston’s iconic natural feature, although I didn’t know it then. Walking paths from easy to challenging, swimming pool, chairlift, restaurant, kiosk, peacocks, botanic gardens, rock-climbing, tour boats, suspension bridge, scenic lookouts… all based in a stunning natural rock gorge with the South Esk river flowing through – sometimes placid (and tidal at the mouth). When in flood, there’s too much water for rafting or kayaking. Foam floats into the estuary. The locals turn out in droves to see their river in its full power and glory, outnumbering by hundreds the bussed-in tourists.

No, I hadn’t been to the Gorge. I didn’t even know it existed.

A few years later, the city council did up the former gatekeepers’ cottage at the mouth of the Gorge for artist residencies. I was part of a small committee that organised a series of residencies for national and international poets, painters, composers and choreographers who stayed in the spartan cottage overlooking the mouth of the river. I visited them for readings and jam sessions, friendly cups of tea on the veranda.

Moving forward a few more years… I was encouraged to do my own residency. I drew up a plan for three fortnights in different seasons, over the course of a year, when I would try to leave my other work to use the cottage as a studio and immerse myself in this local icon.

The cottage overlooks Kings Bridge and overhangs the northern pathway to the First Basin. It’s not a place I had lingered in before, and it proved to be absolutely fascinating. Users and uses are many: adolescent boys jumping off the bridge, rowing crews training, wedding parties being photographed, grandparents with prams, rock climbers, artists sketching from the cliffs opposite, walking commuters, joggers, bike riders and dog walkers. The Gorge is a contemporary sacred site. Rites of passage are performed here.

During my time there, I wrote duets for guitar with other instruments: clarinet, flute and Tibetan singing bowl. I had recently finished several pieces for concert band and a thesis on orchestration. I was hungry for the intimacy of the duet.

Inspired by Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness and river imagery of washing away pain, sin, hurt, and guilt, I embarked on a study of forgiveness, reading everything I could get my hands on, and discovered depth I’d had no idea of: that forgiveness enables the offended party to go on; that not forgiving traps the victim; that we can have wholeness and reconciliation through genuinely facing the crime, the hurt, the outrage and then intentionally and intelligently choosing ways to live afterwards; that we shouldn’t always forget, but live with appropriate caution; that non-forgiveness rules out the possibility of the whole community or nation or world working to its potential.

And it hit home, deep and personal. I had a lot to face.

The music spawned during the residency reflects stages and ways of dealing with offence and forgiveness: avoiding the issue, not worrying about this one, rage and grief, going deep and coming to terms with all the implications. The many moods of the river helped me abstract and find forms for musical reflections on the issues.

It was also very local. My friends came to visit and try drafts of the pieces or eat lunch on the veranda. I recognised people on their walks, at the pool or the kiosk.

Eventually it all came together as a concert held at the Queen Victoria Museum, in the gallery with Graeme Base’s Waterhole exhibition. The music was interspersed with excerpts from my reading, perspectives on the journey of forgiveness, reflections upon my time at the Gorge, and stories and information on water issues in the developing world. The proceeds went to Oxfam and TEAR for water projects. It was one of the truest things I’ve done.

Finding a story in a place: residencies

I’ve had two residencies in Tasmania: one at Cataract Gorge and an earlier one at the Eddystone Point Lightstation in the far northeast. Both facilitated major turning points in my music.cataract gorge cottage

Prior to the Eddystone residency most of my composition was influenced by my teaching: opening windows to new ways of making and organising sounds. Any works that were connected to ‘place’ were tourist pieces: looking at a new place as an outsider, not expecting to stay.

When I applied for the residency, I was looking to change that, to write music that contained more musical power and emotion – to express, more than educate. I wanted to see if the incessant rhythm of the sea would influence my composition, and once I was there I spent hours recording. The ocean has always been a centring force for me. I grew up on an island on the other side of it. So in that sense Eddystone wasn’t new – it was another side to a place that had always been in me.

Even there, on the edge of wilderness, it was obvious that humans were part of the environment, part of the place, and had been for a long time. Aboriginal middens are the oldest signposts to being in the place, followed by European lighthouse builders, fishermen and tourists, activists and volunteers. I was drawn to learning about humans in the place as well as naming the shells and flowers, and watching birds, dolphins and fish. And the exploration and experience took me to issues and other stories that I worked with in the pieces that came out of the residency.

A local place grounding a big story

A sense of place provides a big story to fit into or respond to. Sometimes it is enough to create art in order to better know the place. Often, though, bigger issues arise. They may be issues of the place, the local environment, or local people. Or they may be more general issues that are illuminated by, yet transcend, the place.

I have my personal collection of ongoing big stories I carry with me to all places: faith (and doubt), family, world citizen, place in the natural world. There are many things I care about that don’t easily show in counterpoint or instrumentation. There are big issues I can’t truly process in music.

Composing, however, is one of the ways I work with them. Writing a substantial piece of music requires a period of obsession. These are issues I’ve been willing to be obsessed with. On the other hand, within the piece, musical sense must still dominate. The place and the story contribute inspiration for some of the elements but they don’t define the piece. I want it to make sense without the story.

William Oates said something to the effect of, ‘We can’t all be aboriginal but we can all be indigenous’. ‘Indigenous’ here means to belong to the land and be a caretaker of it.

Residencies make it easier to ground my work in place and nurture my indigenous-ness. Creating works that reflect upon issues of a place sharpen my sensitivity to its issues and make me a better caretaker.

The better future I hope for involves living lighter materially but richer culturally. Somehow that means locally, which may be tricky as one’s music gets more specialised and appeals to a specialised audience. I think we can develop those audiences where we are, to some extent, if they are our people, and if we are telling stories of our place.

There are other, non-geographical ways of being community such as the internet, of course. There is much richness there and keeping our eyes and ears open and our work out there is essential.

My current project is a work for the next National Australian Society for Music Education conference to be held in Launceston in July. It is a concert band piece which reflects upon one aspect of life in a regional city: being able to see the stars. I’m watching the sky more, the lights and movement patterns of cars, planes, bikes, birds, and clouds. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy – we are always part of something bigger.

I hope my music will encourage people to take time, reflect and notice what is around them: place, social structures, environment. And if it helps them notice the places I was moved by that’s even better.

Works that reflect a place and ‘big story’:

Whitewater‘Gannets Flight’ (On Power - solo electric guitar and symphonic wind ensemble, 1999 - 3rd movement) will always be about the power of the ocean and the Creator for me. I don’t know that it matters if it is that for anyone else. But that’s what the piece is for me. It is other things too, such as a tribute to my favourite electric guitarists, particularly Carlos Santana and Al Dimeola. It is influenced by the character and strengths of members of the University of Tasmania Community Wind Orchestra at the time it was written. It is an exploration of the diminished scale as recommended by Ken Benshoof, a former teacher, and an act of gratitude.

Flow (clarinet trio and djembe or bass clarinet case, 1999) and Ebb (clarinet trio and 5 Tibetan singing bowls, 1999) contrast surf and tide pools, youth and aging, explicit and hidden energy.

Whitewater (clarinet and guitar, 2002) will always be about the brown, racing, foam-laced river in gentle (raft-able) flood between the high dolerite columns of Cataract Gorge.

Tears (electric guitar and Tibetan singing bowl) begins to explore grief and the watery links between the human and the river – human grief for wrongs received or committed; environmental grief for abuse of the land and its inhabitants.

Torrent (bass clarinet and guitar 2002-06) is about a downpour of rain, but more about the torrent of rage over a deep childhood hurt that had been buried until I was immersed in concurrent reflection on water and forgiveness, thanks to the residency.

Blackwater I (alto flute and guitar, 2002) considers deep pools within the flowing river: the unseen life within, the richness of the darkness below. The journey toward forgiveness is a deep and internal one, often plumbing well below the visible and conscious surface.

Blackwater II (alto flute and guitar, 2002-06) celebrates the energy welling up from the depths, darker and stronger than that of Whitewater, but still good. Good, but not necessarily nice. The journey toward forgiveness is good, but painful. It does not come cheaply.

Which place for my story?

I am an immigrant, from another hemisphere, another temperate maritime climate. I embrace all of the places I’ve lived and worked. They are places that have entered my life and in some way I entered theirs.

I grew up in a town that you left. The people who stayed were of Dutch farmer stock. Navy families moved all the time. Like other school teachers’ kids, I also moved on. University in Seattle, summer work in Alaska, first real job in Atlanta, back to Seattle for more university.

When I left Seattle, I felt new music in the U.S. was very urban. Australian music seemed so different, influenced by different rhythms, more open, less competitive, less urgent. I liked that for a while, then I missed the energy of the U.S., the self-assurance (a.k.a. arrogance). I ignored ‘art music’ and immersed myself in jazz and then various world musics. My musical influences come from many places, places I have and haven’t been myself.

I didn’t come to Australia to start a new life. I came to try out a job I couldn’t have gotten in the U.S. for two years, maybe three.

But we stayed. And became citizens. I left the job, and we still stayed. We stayed in Launceston, Tasmania, in particular. Why? Community: friends, family, a little bit of land that feeds us, proximity to great walking and beaches.

In Launceston place is a significant issue. I believe all artists have had to think about why they are here. Did they choose to stay? Or choose to come here instead of somewhere else? Did they choose to accept what circumstances gave them? There are some who assume that if you are here you aren’t good enough to work somewhere else. That is unfortunate if it stifles ambition and experimentation.

I like the multifaceted role of a musician in this community. I perform on several instruments, teach, write, organise, program adventurous works. Yet I often hate it because it’s so hard to preserve the time required to go deep and write big pieces. Sometimes I wish there were more expert performers available or concert organisers looking for innovative content!

But I love the good people I‘ve been privileged to work with who have supported directions I might not have been able to pursue in a big city: the University and Community Music Program, Garry Greenwood & The Chordwainers leather ensemble. Working with Garry while he was with us, and the Chordwainers has been the richest experience, and will no doubt hold me here for a good while. As a distinctive Tasmanian ensemble we wrestle with issues of inspiration, location and improvisation… but that’s another article.


Love, K. 2003, Chordwaining: Making music that brings leather to life' Sounds Australian no. 62, 2003, pp. 28-30.
Love, K. 1992, 'Reflections of a Split Personality' contemporary music presentation and audience education, Sounds Australian no. 36,  Summer 1992-93, p. 17.
Oates, W. 2005, Talk given at the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Canberra.
Smedes, L. 1996, The Art of Forgiving, Ballantine, New York.
Tutu, D. 1999, No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday, New York.

Further links

Karlin Love - AMC (http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/love-karlin-greenstreet)

Karlin Love is a composer, performer and educator based in Launceston, Tasmania.  Currently she is working on a saxophone concerto for Jabra Latham and will be Composer-in-residence for the ASME XVII National Conference in July.


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