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8 min read

"Startling and refreshing"
Writer May Ngo on Finding Our Voice

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

Linda May Han Oh

Image courtesy: Rod Long

Written by
May Ngo
Published on
24 Aug 2023

The scale and ambition of Finding Our Voice’s stated aim to create a “national portrait in sound” is both startling and refreshing.  Commissioning eight accomplished Australian composers to develop new works, the project culminated in live performances around Australia in venues such as Perth Concert Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, The Substation, UKARIA, Bundanon and the Sydney Opera House; as well as filmed content showcasing the stories behind the sounds with artists interviews and educational packs that engage with the themes of the works.  Mirrored in the diversity of the projects are the artists selected – from First Nations Australians to settler Australians both more recent and long-standing, and from composers to musicians to lighting and sound designers – it really does feel as if the aim of the project is to represent the cultural richness of the creative community in Australia.

A key running motif across some of the pieces is the creation of specific kinds of spaces through sound.  For example, didgeridoo player and composer William Barton’s piece Connection uses a palette of sound to create a sonic painting that evokes the Australian outback; in the distinct rumble of the didgeridoo we can envision a thunderstorm and the different hues of sky.  The piece explores the legacy of landscape not only through the didgeridoo, but also in its connections with the other artists on the project and their instruments such as trumpet and drums.  Similarly, in Nightfalls, Mark Atkins of Yamatji heritage evokes country in another way, through oral storytelling in his collaboration with violinist, composer and performer Erkki Veltheim.  Bringing music and story together, Nightfalls is staged as a gathering around a campfire, featuring poems and stories set to music that are inspired by Australia’s natural landscape.  The piece Ngapa William Cooper also tells a story, that of Aboriginal activist William Cooper who helped form the Australian Aborigines' League as well as being the founder of NAIDOC week.  Following the escalation of anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany, William Cooper led a delegation on 6 December 1938 of the Australian Aborigines' League in a 10-kilometre walk across Melbourne to deliver a formal petition condemning the persecution of the Jewish people to the German Consulate.  A collaboration between singer-songwriter Lior, orchestral composer Nigel Westlake, and Yorta Yorta/Dja Dja Wurrung woman Lou Bennett who is a singer, composer and language activist, as well as featuring the Australian String Quartet, the piece combines different complex elements to tell a little-known story that is very much part of our historical landscape. 

DarkQuiet by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, and lighting designer Jenny Hector, similarly arises out of landscape – this time from a rural property in Bundanon.  In this piece, they have built what they term “attunement spaces”, where the audience is immersed in darkness and quiet so they can better attune to the natural environment around them.  The piece is concerned with how our attention is often absorbed by spectacle and overstimulation, distracting us from the bigger questions that we should be asking especially around the environment and climate change – most notably, the nature of sound and light pollution.  Part of the DarkQuiet experience is an immersion in these attunement spaces overnight.  In realigning how we encounter sound and light through small, dark, quiet spaces, our attention and therefore way of being in the world is transformed. 

Another way that some of the works grapple differently with the notion of space is through movement and migration. Many of the Finding Our Voice artists are migrants to Australia, or have been migrants elsewhere to countries like the UK or US, or in the case of bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh – both.  Originally born in Malaysia and having grown up in Boorloo in Western Australia, Oh now lives in New York City.  And it is perhaps this unique perspective, that of being doubly diasporic, that provides the basis for her work Ephemeral Echoes.  Utilising percussive improvisations, the piece evokes ephemeral belongings and homelands, returning to Western Australia but reflecting her experience of migrations by bringing along with her musicians from other parts of the world.  Different movements reflect the transience of early motherhood – two movements are about her newborn son, another reflects the transience of nature through exploring the beauty of the Aurora Borealis, and still another movement grapples with the transience of objects, of the obsolescence designed in products and its impact on the environment.

The act of improvisation itself is transient and ephemeral and is an apt method for echoing the impermanence of belonging, migration and motherhood.  MotherTongue, MotherLand by Sunny Kim explores intergenerational trauma, our relationships with mother tongues (language) and mother lands (country), and the experience of mothering itself.  A vocalist, improviser and composer originally from Korea who is now based in Melbourne, Kim, in collaboration with other artists from different migrant backgrounds, utilises a variety of methods in MotherTongue, MotherLand including improvisation, a deep sharing of stories and interviews with the artists’ mothers about their migration experiences – experiences that were often traumatic.  The result is a multi-faceted piece that uses traditional instruments from the artists’ motherlands, recording of their mothers speaking in their mother tongues and the voices of the artists themselves. 

Ngapa William Cooper. Image courtesy: Adam Forte / Adelaide Festival

Despite the transience inherent in these migration experiences, we definitely get a strong sense of connection in this piece – connection across the generations, across cultures and languages, across geographical migrations.  Movement and migration then, in the coming and going, seems to provide rich perspectives for art.  And in our current times, there is another added layer of connection – both MotherTongue, MotherLand and Ephemeral Echoes were created during COVID.  Indeed, most of the projects in Finding Our Voice started before the pandemic, came to fruition through it, and continued on afterwards, with the artists often creating a support system out of collaborating with other performers during lockdown.

COVID was a time that both fractured and brought Australian society together, as it did across the world.  The pandemic exposed the fault lines in health inequalities in Australia, impacting most of all First Nations people and those living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, including linguistically and culturally diverse communities, and rural and remote Australia.  Therefore, it is unsurprising that themes of connection, collaboration and coming together mark the works in Finding Our Voice, as most of the artists, like the rest of the community, grappled with the experience of isolation.

Relatedly, if there is one thing that links all the eight works despite their diversity, it is the thread of flux and change.  Utilising improvisation within structures, dynamic sounds, creating moments that are fleeting – these works all reflect the ways in which connections can be transient, but also that we can continually come back to them.  In Lisa Illean’s arcing, stilling, bending, gathering, contemplative, elemental and fragmented sounds are created out of strings, piano and electronics; giving us an impressionistic and dynamic picture of moments in time.  Similarly, in Matthias Schack-Arnott’s piece Tethering, technology is programmed to create music through the use of robots that translate sound into vibration, as well as the use of percussive strikers, lights and speakers. The result is an unpredictability of sound, mirroring perhaps the unpredictability of technology; creating a situation where the artist is in dialogue with his “instrument" rather than having a mastery over it.  Industrial, machinic rumblings and low hums, a thrumming energy that at times turns propulsive; Tethering constructs its own unpredictable world.

So, movement, change and flux – if Finding Our Voice aims to paint a national portrait of Australia in sound, then these elements seem to be an important part of Australian identity and the experience of being “Australian".  Inherent is a sense of restlessness in how we define ourselves. Finding Our Voice.  Finding. It means we are still searching, have not found yet … which feels appropriate.  Which makes sense, because we as a nation are still struggling to come to terms with our violent founding and the continued effects of that legacy, not only in the past but also in the present.  Perhaps belonging in Australia has to be like this, always unsettled and uprooted, because the waves of migration that make up our multicultural country was and is built on land that was never ceded.

This year Australia is preparing for an Australian Indigenous Voice referendum that will ask voters to approve an alteration to the Australian Constitution to create a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.  There are also many First Nations people who argue that this is not enough, and that only a treaty which involves both parties coming together as equals to decide on legally binding responsibilities is the way forward in giving First Nations people real change and power.  The concept of Australia and who belongs can and should be contested and stretched, especially towards one that includes true sovereignty for First Nations Australians.  Finding Our Voice, in its musical portrait of a country that is both rooted and expansive, paints a picture of Australia that is as vast as our landscape, not only in sound, but also in our cultural and political imaginations. 


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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