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20 July 2020

Return to Sender

Katy Abbott Image: Katy Abbott  
© Nicholas Purcell Photography

How does a composer go about setting to music private letters, let alone intimate letters of sympathy and encouragement that, notoriously, never reached their intended recipients? Katy Abbott's new work Hidden thoughts II - Return to Sender takes its texts from the messages that Australians sent to asylum seekers in detention in the early 2000s and were later returned to Australia, undelivered. Abbott talks about her new work in this Q & A interview - see also podcast recording of the Lowin Song Cycle Prize-winning Hidden thoughts I.

Hidden thoughts II will be premiered on Thursday 23 July in a concert presented by the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall by the Flinders Quartet, with soloists Dimity Shepherd (mezzo-soprano) and Richard Piper (narrator).

Q Hidden thoughts II is based on letters sent by Australians to asylum seekers in detention - these letters were later returned unopened. How did you gain access to them and what did you find, reading them?

A I had the idea, for quite some time, of using these words that had been 'hidden' from the intended recipients, but it took me a while to ask Julian Burnside for access to them. He replied quickly - and simply said yes. The letters themselves were like a tiny window into the lives and homes of people. I found people to be generous-spirited in the tone, length and thoughtfulness of their writing - and also in the pictures and cards that were included. I found people introduced themselves by describing where they lived and who shared their family, or by telling stories, which on first glance might seem mundane or not important, but on a second look shows a heightened sense of their audience (the person in detention) and how they might best relate to them. On the whole, they were delightful letters.

Q The fact that these messages of hope never reached their recipients makes it a sad story. Is it? And how does a composer approach such a serious idea? Is this a work that evokes pessimism, or optimism, or both?

A The story is sad but the contents of the letters are anything but. I found it upsetting to be opening, and then reading, the letters, as it would have been wonderful for the seekers of asylum to have received a letter addressed directly to them. The letters contained all manner of communication, evoking warmth and care, delightful stories and words of hope, but also outrage and descriptions of activisim.

I chose to approach the structure of the work in much the same way the letters themselves were constructed - a greeting, followed by the author of the letter, and feelings of shame about the government, stories, anecdotes, thoughts of hope and, finally, a sign off. My approach to the intention of the work was to highlight the range of styles of letters, give an insight into the letter-writer, zone in on sentiments that were delightful, wry, or heart-warming, as well as a more zoom-out approach where the words of the letters were placed next to each other to produce what I'm calling a 'global' Australian voice. I worked with writer and 'word-weaver' extraordinare, Maureen Johnson, to collate the words for these movements.

Q You've included an element of audience participation in the work - this brings to focus our changed performance contexts imposed upon us by the pandemic. How will this aspect of your work be realised in the virtual performance? Could this unintended element also be seen as a symbol of the isolation of the asylum seekers in detention?

A Yes, the audience are invited in the final movement to sing with the narrator TO the asylum seekers. Although the letters are being aired through the work, the audience may also, if they wish, contribute by singing an easy, repeated melody to the words 'We welcome you here'. It is my hope that someone who is in detention or has been in detention hears the general public singing in this way. Now that the audience are singing at home rather than in a group at a performance, the sense of isolation is amplified and I am curious to have audience feedback about their experience singing as part of the performance, but from home (hopefully in PJs and with a glass of wine).

At the moment, it's possible the performing artists might need to wear masks. Although I feel for them to be performing whilst not have access to a full breath, some might argue it is a metaphor for the emotional breath that people lack in detention, and also the lockdown we find ourselves here in Melbourne this week. My feeling is more a sense of it rather than a specific thought I can articulate today, but it makes me catch my breath at the idea of the performers onstage in masks (excluding singer and narrator). Let's see.

[Update 21 July: As I write this we are in rehearsals and the members of the quartet, together with the narrator, will sing the audience line. We hope those watching will join in. The idea of untrained singers on stage and at home is an act of vulnerability and becomes significant in the narrative of the work.]

Q Are there musical connections between this work and Hidden Thoughts 1?

A This work and Hidden Thoughts 1 are standalone works but the musical similarities include using the audience, duration (60 minutes) and exploring a variety of soundworlds in order to best highlight the text in a way I hope the audience can best hear it. Both works, although they have different instrumentation, use the instrumentalists without hierarchy - each one having both solo and accompanying roles and each one also needing to rely on the other in order to facilitate the best outcome for the piece. I love writing chamber music for this reason.

Q One of the musicians involved saw the string quartet as just the right vehicle for this project - do you agree, and why is that? What kind of music have you composed for the quartet in this work?

A Both the homogenous sound of the string quartet, together with the huge array of colours and textures available for composers, is certainly one of the reasons for using the string quartet. I've also thought of the quartet, and the humans in the quartet, asking them to speak and breathe (there are instructions in the score for 'audible breath in' and 'metaphorical breath out' where the player breathes in, but plays out). Also, working with an established quartet such as Flinders Quartet, there is a distinct sense of working with a single instrument, as well as with four artists. Their level of nuance and capability for expressing the dots on the page is extraordinary.

Q Words are obviously of utmost importance in this work, and you also have a narrator on board - both impose certain restrictions on the composer. Do you find these kinds of strict guidelines useful, or challenging, and to what extent are you able to realise your own artistic vision?

A I feel writing for voice and/or narrator works to my musical strengths. I absolutely LOVED writing for this combination and found new ways to muddle through tricky problems. I'd much prefer to set text that is not traditionally prose - it seems to suit my style of vocal writing and dramatic pacing. These two things are quite intricately entwined in my work. This is one area of music-making I feel comfortable with, and which makes me feel alive, and I hope it allows the audience to experience the words, and to imagine the person who wrote them, as well imagining how they might have been received by the asylum seeker in detention.

> Katy Abbott: AMC profile

> Event details 23 July at 7pm AEST (streaming concert - buy tickets)

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