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8 min read

How music can give voice to the human spirit.
By Fiona Talkington

Composer Lisa Illean discusses her compositional process with the Finding Our Voice team.

Linda May Han Oh

Image courtesy: CoreyJames/Perth Festival

Written by
Fiona Talkington
Published on
20 Aug 2023

“Voice is an uncanny instrument.  Up it rises out of the body like fire and smoke, but from where: the lungs, the chest, the stomach, the larynx, the mouth, the mind?”  Musician and writer David Toop’s searching question reaches into the deep mystery of voice, a compelling mystery which inhabits us all.

“We breathe and we voice – the first two activities of our life”, 2 writes voice coach Christina Shewell, in a powerful reminder that after our birth journey we add our own sounds to all those that have echoed around the world over so many, many years.  And I’m reminded of the words of Orpingalik, a Netsilik Inuit Elder: “Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.” 3

It’s a grey, rainy day in the UK, and I’m sitting in the house where I grew up.  I’m sitting and listening intently.  Somewhere within these walls are my own childhood voices, the learning-to-talk voices, the teenage tantrums, the tears and the laughter.  This house contains the voiceprint of my life, the voiceprints of my family and all those who have lived here before me, and the distant sound-memories of those who built the house, brick upon brick.

From the other side of the world another voice reaches out to me: “We become the whisper of the wind through the trees”, says William Barton, renowned Australian didgeridoo player, composer and collaborator whose own gentle voice seems to carry never-ending whispers of other lives, other eras.

Barton is one of the eight musicians who have been commissioned to write and perform music for Finding Our Voice, a project which artistic director Genevieve Lacey describes as a “national portrait in sound”.  It’s a coming together of artistic creations and performances which tap into the Australian musicians’ own journeys into their heritage and which celebrates their own outstanding contributions to Australia’s vibrant artistic scene.  Alongside this it's a strong, deep breath that connects us around the world wherever we are.

Throughout the different projects we are connected to thoughts about the fragility of life, transience, migration, the braveness of motherhood, the vitality of storytelling, landscape, our environment, language, communication, dislocation, pain, violence and healing.  I’m reminded of Russell Sherman who summed up the nature of creative response so well when he reflected, “sound is the ether which sustains and infuses the universe”. 4

In Finding Our Voice Lacey has crafted something wondrous and beautiful, showing how genre-defying music can give voice to the human spirit, how it inspires artists to expand their creative palettes. She’s shown us the importance of place in that creative process from a night under the stars, to famous concert halls. There are string quartets, guitars, pianos, electronic devices and techniques, didgeridoos reaching back in tradition and forward as the voices of now, the earthy beauty of Persian kamancheh and gaychak, strings bowed with off-road tunings, repurposed objects, and of course the human voice.

William Barton. Image courtesy: Ken Leanfore / Sydney Opera House

Our early sounds at birth are eventually shaped into language.  William Barton puts this so elegantly when he talks about his connection to his own heritage and learning the didgeridoo from his uncles and elders of the Waanyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people.  He learned, he says, a language “birthed into the streaming rivers that flow ... the language of the earth passed from generation to generation”.  To listen to the haunting opening of his piece Connection is to feel a deep honouring of  his own ancestors whose connection he shares with us in such a personal way.

Australian researchers, passionate about connecting with our heritage tell us, “everyone has ancestors who are indigenous to somewhere, and we all have the capacity to meaningfully engage with our places”.5

Lisa Illean, in her piece arcing, stilling, bending, gathering invites performers and audiences to listen deeply.  I’m struck by how the music becomes a dance between sonorities beckoned from ancient traditions and techniques of experimental electronics.  Lacey describes the music as embracing “atmosphere and a different sense of time”.  Illean talks about how she composes by “sitting with the sound”; I picture her listening, waiting for it to speak and crafting her quietly focussed tapestries of strings, piano, guitar and ethereal electronics like the “ghost of a string quartet”.  And somewhere in there too is Illean’s early memories of the journey of her great-grandmother’s mandolin with its “seemingly ancient sounds” and the instrument’s own journey from Germany to Australia.

There’s a compelling invitation to deep listen in DarkQuiet, a sound and light installation by Madeleine Flynn, Jenny Hector and Tim Humphrey who have created a nocturnal experience to draw us into a space where we can reflect on the complexity and fragility of the world.  Each of the eight new commissions has a set of outstanding education resources, designed for schools, but are actually so inspiring I want to dive into each one.  “Do you have an ‘attunement space’ where you can block out human-made sounds and surround yourself with sounds of nature only?” this one asks.  This is already the best use I have ever made of a cardboard box.

“The best moments happen around the fire late at night under the stars.”  Mark Atkins has a mesmerising voice, he’s a storyteller, a poet, singer-songwriter, digeridoo virtuoso who honours and celebrates his Yamatji and Irish/Australian heritage through his contemporary practice.  In Nightfalls “time stands still as I stare into the burning coals”, he murmurs, while Finnish-born Australian Erkki Veltheim’s violin whispers sounds of nocturnal Nature creating a sense of how storytelling can “bring us home”.

One of the storytellers I turn to again and again is Nadine Wildheart.6  Seeking to know more about her Dutch/Polish heritage she asks an Elder where stories come from.  He points to the horizon and tells her that the past is in front of us, and the future is behind.  We don’t know what is going to come but we must find a still place and feel the presence of the ancestors, that is how we know what is true.

For another of the projects’ composers, Sunny Kim, storytelling is important too.  “Telling stories can make us stronger”, she says, “more resilient, they make us wiser and we can become braver together, to be our authentic selves, and hold our memories in a way that empowers us.”  Kim, vocalist, improviser and composer, has gathered a group of musicians together for her piece MotherTongue, MotherLand, a poetic response to motherhood seeking connections to people, cultures and places, reflecting on migration, longing, belonging, joy and pain.  “To mother”, says Kim, “is to be a revolutionary and to be brave.” The process, begun during lockdowns when many were stranded, isolated from family, dislocated, has had powerful effects on the group of musicians emotionally and in broadening their own creativity.  The music is thoughtful, reflective, traditional instruments finding different ways of expression, music that is “balm for our times”, says Lacey yet is also “restless and exploratory”.

Sunny Kim. Image courtesy: Mikki Gomez / Sydney Opera House

There’s something of that restlessness too in Linda May Han Oh’s piece Ephemeral Echoes, inspired by the transient nature of things, like the flickering of a firefly, to objects which are planned to become obsolete, like light bulbs. Oh grew up in Boorloo, Western Australia, then, as a jazz bassist, was drawn to New York, returning for Finding Our Voice to the Perth Festival, to work with fellow improvisers, creating music for them and audiences to reflect on our world, and the footprints we leave as human beings, comparing commercial transience with the fleeting glimpse of the Aurora Borealis she saw in Iceland.

For Matthias Schack-Arnott objects and materials are repurposed and recycled in his piece Tethering.  He describes it as an idea which was both visual and sonic.  His background and training as a classical percussionist makes him look at the sound potential of any object, wondering what new lives objects might have, how he might read them on a symbolic level.  He describes his performance as being in a space populated by “quivering threads of sound” bringing an energy all of their own “chattering in playful relationships, visceral, chatty and fun”.  His vision and his music feels so connected to the world, to the environment and to heritage and a burning vision for the future.

“Stories are life and stories are life-giving”– I return to the words of storyteller Nadine Wildheart as I live through the immensely powerful piece Ngapa William Cooper.  Created by singer-songwriter Lior and composer Nigel Westlake with singer-songwriter Lou Bennett, this is an extraordinary tribute to the Aboriginal activist William Cooper whose many achievements included leading a delegation of First Nations Australians to the German Consulate in Melbourne in 1938 in protest at the escalation of anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany.

Together with an ensemble of strings the voices recount the pain and the scars of generations: “we do our bit to put it on the map for indigenous history, for Jewish history, for Australian history” they say.  The lyrics are powerful: Lior sings about a “wave of darkness”.  Approaching Lou Bennett, they were unaware that she had her own bloodline to William Cooper, and she translated some of the English lyrics to her own Yorta Yorta language.  “Song”, she says, “is the platform of language rematriation”, it’s bringing something home though the woman’s line.

Nadine Wildheart is convinced of the healing powers of storytelling: when we heal ourselves, she believes, we heal seven generations back and we heal seven generations forward.  Finding Our Voice is not just about honouring and being inspired by heritage and tradition, and not just about creating new music and new ways of artistic expression, it, as a project, and each individual piece and creative response, is in some way a healing. “What happens when we don’t listen to stories?” she asks, when we don’t listen to the ancient wisdom.

The researchers in Becoming a Family with Place, quoted earlier, believe that “we need reminding over and over again to acknowledge living lands, living waters and traditional knowledge holders where we all live and work demonstrates our ethics and values and helps us remember there are layers of cultural, historic and contemporary meanings in our landscapes”.  Finding Our Voice seems to me such an important step in that vital reminder.

“Voice is, for us humans”, writes American philosopher Don Ihde, “a very central phenomenon.  It bears our language without which we would perceive differently.  Yet … voice may also be a perspective, a metaphor, by which we understand part of the world itself.”

Finding Our Voice has moved me in unexpected ways and brought me a deeper connection to myself. 

For artistic director Genevieve Lacey it’s a true powerful celebration of what Australian artists have to offer: “Being alongside these artists as they’ve dreamt and made these works, witnessing the challenges they’ve set themselves, sitting in audiences as the commissions have been experienced for the first time, hearing each of the composers and collaborators speak about what drives them, how they hear, think and create, has been an intense experience for all of us working on this project.

In many ways, the team who created and worked on this epic were testing a theory that the musical voices of contemporary Australia are remarkable, and to be treasured.  We’re now more convinced than ever that this is true.  We couldn’t be prouder of what what’s been created, and thanks to the beautiful documentation from our filmmaker and recording engineer, as well as the wonderfully imaginative education materials, we can now share and celebrate these voices far and wide.”

Fiona Talkington is a UK based music broadcaster on BBC Radio 3, writer and curator.


1 David Toop, A voice, uncanny instrument (David Toop Blog, UK, 2015)

2 Christina Shewell, Voice Work: art and science in changing voices, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK (2009), p 4.

John Luther Adams, The Place Where You Go To Listen (1997), from The Book of Music and Nature, ed. David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, USA (2001)

Russell Sherman, from Piano Pieces (1996), from The Book of Music and Nature, ed. David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, USA (2001)

Sandra Wooltorton, Anne Poelina, Len Collard, Pierre Horwitz, Sandra Harben, David Palmer, Becoming Family with Place, Resurgence & Ecologist Issue 322 Sep/Oct 2020, Devon, UK (2020)

Nadine Wildheart, Storytelling, Ancient Wisdom and the Human Family, (Ted Talk, 2017)

Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, State University of New York Press, New York USA (2007) p 189.

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Additional Artist Information and Resources

In the not-too-distant-future, Finding Our Voice will be able to be experienced digitally, and we will create and share experiences, skills and resources online with diverse audiences and communities. Performance footage, interviews, commentary, insights into creative processes will sit alongside educational resources and activities stimulating participation — deepening musical engagement and equipping people to express their own creativity.

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and create, and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Low view of Australian Outback landscape with red dirt texture heavily feature and dry grassy hill in the distant background