Adelaide Festival’s journeys into musical time

It is with a nod to the late physicist Stephen Hawking that Ukaria Cultural Centre presents one of its most ambitious chamber music offerings to date when Festival time comes around in March.

Entitled A Brief History of Time: Chamber Landscapes and curated by recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey, there’s nothing brief but everything cosmological about its thinking. Encompassing 10 concerts over four days, it assembles a roll-call of musicians from around Australia and from overseas who lie at the very forefront of chamber music.

It attempts, no less, to chart a journey from the dawn of musical time to the present.

Grand plans are not new at Ukaria. This is the third time the venue has presented the Adelaide Festival’s Chamber Landscapes program, and of course it has its own annual Ukaria 24 festival-type event – the first of which Lacey devised in 2016 and remarkably explored the 24-hour cycle through music. With A Brief History of Time, though, she journeys back to the earliest of ‘early music’, and opens our eyes and ears to the full mystery of what this entails. There’s even a music-filled sunset walk to the summit ridgetop overlooking Ukaria concert hall. Harpist Marshall McGuire, singer-songwriters Emily Wurramara and Yirrmal Marika, and experimental violin improviser Erkki Veltheim will be dotted along the way.

Erkki Veltheim

Lacey has been involved in early music ever since she began the recorder at the age of five, and she loves music of the Baroque and earlier periods dating back to the 12th-century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen. However, she says this stretch of time totally pales into insignificance when one contemplates the cultural legacy of Indigenous Australians, whose songs span eons of human history.

“Our notion of time is so short by comparison,” Lacey says. “The difference is mind-bending when we think about it.

“We might think of Hildegard’s music, ‘Wow isn’t that so old, here’s an amazing opportunity to step back in time’. It feels rather like standing beside an ancient, centuries’ old building and contemplating its age. But it’s like a breath when compared with Indigenous traditions.”

Lacey says this got her thinking.

“An idea can float in the back of one’s head for a long time. For me it was what would happen if we explore combining these two musical traditions? So, I decided to ask some of my colleagues to try out the possibilities, and see if it worked to set the two next to each other. The idea was to see what conversations might flow from it.”

In fact, Lacey has a long experience of performing with Indigenous musicians going back a decade. It started with Black Arm Band, the Aboriginal contemporary music theatre company that gave us Dirtsong at the 2014 Adelaide Festival. She was improvising with them on that occasion, as she has been doing for many years now. In 2010, she wrote a score for a bio-play on Indigenous water colourist Albert Namatjira. Staged by arts and social change company Big hART, it played in 2012 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Playing with Black Arm Band, says Lacey, was “an extraordinary introduction into playing with contemporary Indigenous musicians”, and participating in Namatjira was “an incredible window into connecting their cultural history”.

“As you go further down the classical music tradition things can narrow, so, for me, these experiences were a great way to remember that a lot of music-making is actually about serving community.

“A multitude of voices can be circulating in one’s head saying ‘I can’t do that’, and ‘I’m not trained to do that sort of thing’. But the answer is to just go ahead. For me, it turned out to be terrifying and liberating to be able to say instead ‘Use your skills to do this’.”

In A Brief History of Time, Lacey is inviting Arnhem Land brothers, singer Daniel Ngukurr Boy Wilfred and yidaki player David Yipininy Wilfred, and Wergaia singer Alice Skye from Melbourne, along with the aforementioned Emily Wurramara and Yirrmal Marika, who likewise hail from far northern Australia. Together they perform traditional Yolngu chant, contemporary song, and arrangements by Veltheim and Amanda Keller.

Emily Wurramara (Photo: Hannah Bronte)

It will be a case of expect the unexpected as two musical worlds combine. Side by side will be Italian viola da gamba Paolo Pandolfo, Trio Mediæval from Norway (of ECM fame), versatile violinist Thomas Gould from the UK, Keller, McGuire and Lacey herself – just to mention several of the 20-plus musicians who are involved and have never before collaborated. Richard Tognetti is another in this audaciously impressive cast – one’s eyes quickly start to water.

“Our hope is that by bringing ancient chants, taking contemporary Indigenous songs, and working with these brilliant musicians, we will land in unknown and beautiful places. It is very risky, but they are all incredible musicians. Paolo and his stellar continuo band will also have lots of space to do their thing presenting older, quirkier treasures from the early music world.

“A lot of our music will come out of the conversations we have. I love that plucked halo of sound from Paolo’s band, and above it will be lovely Indigenous song. I really want to see this. Some of it will grow out of skeletal notation, but the idea of just being given a chord progression is normal for these musicians. Improvisation is not scary for any of them.”

For audiences, the intention is that this will be an immersive experience. Ten concerts are a big ask, but Lacey fervently hopes people will step wholly into the journey.

“I believe audiences are brave,” she says. “Often the problem is that programmers give audiences music that they already know. I love programs that give you scope. So, I pay tribute to the Adelaide Festival and Ukaria for something that deviates from that, for supporting something entirely new.”

Hills residents keep getting lucky with Ukaria, and it leaves Plains dwellers with only two things to do: look on with envy or jump in the car.

A Brief History of Time: Chamber Landscapes
Adelaide Festival
Ukaria Cultural Centre
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11
adelaidefestival.com.au

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