The COVID pandemic hasn't been easy for anyone but for some, the experience was worse than for others. Millions died of it, of course. Others suffered multiple awful consequences that fell short of that. Sunny Kim, the Korean-born, Melbourne-based musician, was one of those. Performers were some of the first whose workplaces were closed down: audiences are packed into confined spaces, at risk of the highly contagious disease and what they are there for is hardly considered an essential service.
Kim got a double whammy. Not only was her profession struck hard, her father became very ill during the lockdowns. She just managed to find a flight to Korea, her homeland, and was stuck for two weeks in hotel quarantine, before Australia closed down completely. She saw him briefly, though he was already immobilised by then, but had to return to Melbourne for work. She was distressed not to be there for her father. And when he died, she was unable to return to support her family.
"I knew a lot of creative people in the community I belong to in Melbourne had similar stories”, she says from Korea, where she is leading a tour of her Melbourne University music students. "And I really needed to get together with them and talk through stuff, to find ways to heal. And what better ways are there to heal than in sharing stories and playing music together?"
The music that came out of it — a powerful piece for instruments and voice called MotherTongue, MotherLand — was made by Kim, Aviva Endean, Gelareh Pour and Mindy Meng Wang, all of whom were born overseas, or whose mothers were. It is a powerful, experimental, and mournful piece, vocal and instrumental, that explores all four women's musical heritages and their mothers' deepest emotional experiences.
MotherTongue, MotherLand is one of eight commissions, by a project called Finding Our Voice, that came directly out of the pandemic lockdowns. Co-founder and artistic director Genevieve Lacey is one of three people who came together to keep a buzz of creativity alive in the contemporary Australian music world during the lockdowns.
"It started a really long time ago”, she explains. Lacey is a recorder player with a long and strong presence on the Australian "art" music scene: that inadequate phrase that takes in "classical" music from the early renaissance to modernism, through jazz and more, right up to the present day. Not pop, in other words. "We’d had ongoing conversations with all sorts of colleagues about the fact that Australia has an extraordinary community of contemporary music makers who are doing things that are not only distinctive and radical, but just plain brilliant, often recognised around the world, but often not known at all at home."
Then, at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic struck. Concert halls closed, chamber music venues, jazz clubs, pub venues, outdoor stages, stadiums, anything with a space that lit up for patrons sitting close together, especially indoors, was forced to close. Freelance artists often struggle to make a living, but suddenly their work ceased altogether.
What Lacey describes as "this desire amongst the community of practitioners and peers to more broadly tell stories and share the work of contemporary Australian music" suddenly had a bigger purpose. People in all musical forms needed work and they realised that they were in it together. Lacey, with executive producers Martel Ollerenshaw, leader of an international arts company called Arts & Parts that promotes boundary-pushing work, and specialist music consultant Paul Mason, started the project together.
They approached UKARIA, a music venue beautifully placed in the Adelaide Hills, and asked them to be the lead partner. UKARIA was set up by Ulrike Klein, the German-born founder of the biodynamic skin care company Jurlique, who is devoted to both horticulture and music. She stepped aside from the company in 2004, set up Ngeringa Arts in 2009, eventually building the environmentally sustainable UKARIA Cultural Centre, purpose-built for chamber music, in 2015.
"It’s still a relatively new venue”, Lacey says. "And it's a radical model in that it takes no government funding. They're phenomenal." The trio hunted for funding, which they received from a government investment fund, a series of partner venues, festivals, and presenters (UKARIA included), and a handful of philanthropists, and began discussing artists to commission.
"When we were trying to frame it, we talked about this being a new model for a music festival, or a hybrid festival”, Lacey continues. So, rather than everything happening on one stage, or multiple stages on one site, over a very short period of time, it would unfold over a much larger period of time and right across Australia. "People could work to rhythms that suited their type of work as well as the context that we were trying to create for it. It could only have come out of that moment in time, I think, which allowed us to think differently about how we make things, how we present things, who those things are for."
They approached musicians and boiled it down to eight commissions of small ensembles across the country. The works that resulted straddle a variety of genres and cultures. All are exciting and push boundaries in brilliant directions. They have been performed in different venues across the state capitals, and one in regional Australia, at Bundanon.
The opportunity allowed Sunny Kim to gather her colleagues together at Mount Hotham in Victoria's high country for five days of workshopping. They began by talking. They talked about loss, about motherhood, about their own mothers and their homeland, and the intense longing that raised for those who had left behind their birthplaces, with their own languages and cultures as the backdrop to daily lives. They interviewed their mothers, some of them in their mother tongue, including Mandarin, Farsi and Korean, which the daughters translated into English. The women with Finnish and Dutch backgrounds skipped the translation step because they spoke English with their mothers as a matter of course.
They listened intently to the interviews — absorbing rather than interrogating — then discussed the issues the interviews raised. When they came together to compose, the result was a disquieting yet riveting 53-minute piece for instruments, song and spoken voice that seamlessly amalgamates the background and personal experience of each.
Lacey doesn't believe there is an identifiable Australian sound in contemporary music. But she does point out that between living on the continent with the oldest living culture and myriad more recently arrived cultures within our society, our creative melting pot is overflowing.
"Most people's influences are more diverse now than they've ever been, in terms of the sounds that we all have access to”, she says. "So, our ears, our sensibilities and our imaginations are constantly being stimulated. That means people who are creating new sound can draw on endless influences and that means really interesting things are emerging here."
One of the most fascinating aspects of this project is how it draws together this profusion of influences not just across the project but within the works. Sunny Kim's work is one. Another is a collaboration between Perth-born composer Nigel Westlake; Israeli-born singer-songwriter Lior, who moved to Sydney when he was 10; and Yorta Yorta/Dja Dja Wurrung woman, former Tiddas band member and now academic, Echuca-born Lou Bennett. Called Ngapa William Cooper, the work is an extension of Westlake and Lior's original collaboration, a song cycle called Compassion.
The piece, Ngapa William Cooper, is a transcendent illustration of compassion at work. Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man who lived from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, an Aboriginal activist who helped form the Australian Aborigines' League and other rights bodies. His compassion spread beyond our borders to universal rights. Horrified by Kristallnacht in 1938, and by the pathetic protest the Australia Government raised against it, he crossed Melbourne on foot with fellow members of the League to deliver a letter to the German Consulate condemning the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany”. The Consulate wouldn't receive them, but the gesture went down in history.
Ngapa William Cooper was premiered at UKARIA during the Adelaide Festival in March 2023 and began with Bennett, a descendent of William Cooper, and Lior delivering spine-chilling calls to ancestors in Hebrew and Yorta Yorta language, standing face to face across the stage, before being joined by the Australian String Quartet, piano, double bass, and percussion performing Westlake's striking score. The final words, sung by Lior and Bennett soaring together again, were: “At the end of my days I want to know I spoke up when I saw wrong.”
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of interest in the work and the group has performances coming up with Melbourne Symphony, Adelaide Symphony, and Sydney Symphony. "We have two weeks of performing Cooper next year”, Westlake says.
Westlake was rehearsing with the Australian Youth Orchestra more recently and invited Lior and Bennett to talk to them about the context of the work. "And Lou, of course, is a brilliant academic and a wonderful speaker”, he says. "She had them absolutely transfixed with her explanation of cultural protocols, the history of the people and the trauma that they were subjected to. The young people were completely and utterly transfixed. And I suspect that, for many of them, it was a very steep learning curve. I think it will affect their lives profoundly in the future.”
Another work, Ephemeral Echoes, comes out of yet another tradition via other transnational journeys. Linda May Han Oh was just as immobilised by the COVID lockdowns as anyone. The Malaysian-born, Perth-raised, jazz bassist and composer, moved to New York in 2007, where she released her first album and eventually earned her master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. She is an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music and this year she was awarded Best Jazz Instrumental Album at the Grammys. She still lives in New York, with her husband, the Cuban-American pianist Fabian Almazan.
The piece she wrote for Finding Our Voice is a collaboration with percussionists Steve Richter, Iain Robbie, and Genevieve Wilkins; Fabian Almazan on piano and effects; Ben Vanderwal on drums; Oh herself on double bass and vocals; and evocative lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. It concerns the transience of all things. Like the other two works described here, it is spine-tingling and awe-inspiring and global in its scope.
"Music is many things”, says Oh, by phone from Boston. "It can be a source of healing, entertainment and provocation. And as someone who improvises, that puts it at a whole other level of interaction, a really exciting form of communicating in which you don't know what's going to happen next. So, you really have to work together with the other musicians. You have to be aware of the space you're taking in relation to everyone else. You always have to be aware of where you're situated and what you're contributing to the bigger picture. For me, music reflects life."
Despite her background, Oh has embraced the tradition that America gave to the world. "Jazz is essentially Black American music, formed from the history of slavery through the blues tradition and other music in New Orleans, and from there it grew", she points out. The ensemble is a larger group than the quartets Oh usually works with, and some who are used to wider practices. Three of them are classically trained. "I was really writing for them”, she says. "People coming from classical training, allowing them the space to improvise knowing what they were capable of."
Like Lacey, Oh doesn't hear an identifiable Australian sound in the world. But she does think our geographical location is important. "I think Australia, being essentially isolated from the rest of the world, lends itself to having some very interesting voices that have to carve out their own space."
Westlake does hear something special, if not that elusive Australian sound. "Well, I do see an absolute explosion at the moment. I mean, there are so many people wanting to write music and so many clever minds applying their intellect to the process. And there's the new wave of indigenous composers. People like William Barton [who has also been part of Finding our Voice]. That's something that I've seen in the last eight years or so. It's very exciting.”