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Music & politics of migration

Chris Reid: Zephyr Quartet and Motez, Arrivals


Arrivals, Zephyr Quartet Arrivals, Zephyr Quartet
photo Peter Tea

History and politics are generally subjects of written discourse, sometimes of cinema and theatre. Adelaide’s Zephyr Quartet has taken the extraordinary step of analysing Australia’s immigrant history though music, presenting their concert Arrivals—subtitled “Music exploring notions of migration to Australia by boat”—in the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide. The museum is housed in a 19th century warehouse in the historical port, a precinct that celebrates and tells much about the colonisation of South Australia and the aspirations of the colonists.

Dominating the museum’s main hall is the 18-metre ketch Active II, a full-scale replica of the original, which was built in 1873 and in use until 1959, a boat typical of the kind used extensively for carrying cargo and passengers around South Australian waters in that era. For the concert, the audience is seated in narrow rows along the walkway between the ketch and museum display cabinets. Some are seated on the deck, observing the concert through the rigging. Surrounded by maritime history, South Australia is at the front of our minds as we listen.

The concert opens with Zephyr Artistic Director Hilary Kleinig’s Great White Bird (2016), in which her gentle cello introduction gives way to a seagull-like sound voiced in the violins. Kleinig based the simple, repetitive tune on an anthropologist’s 1928 Edison cylinder recording of a song sung by a Wirangu woman from the Eyre Peninsula, acknowledging the Indigenous people who witnessed the arrival of the colonists by sailing ship and who thought the ship was a giant white bird. Next is Kate Moore’s Broken Rosary, a short work inspired by a story concerning her grandmother’s rosary which she links to her family’s immigration from the Netherlands. Here the cello is the primary voice work, its swaying sound suggesting a child’s swing. These two works introduce us to people on both sides of the story of colonisation and immigration—those displaced by it and those whose lives are improved by it.

Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet No 2 (2009) is a magnificent piece of writing that makes the utmost technical demands of the quartet, Zephyr responding admirably. The ensemble playing is excellent, bringing out all the dramatic and emotional power in a work which is a tribute to Czech composer Pavel Haas who died in Auschwitz in 1944. In the program note, Stanhope indicates that the work references old Europe, the origin of the string quartet and much else in Australian culture. Zephyr’s inclusion of Stanhope’s work gives the concert great musical depth as well as another significant political dimension.

The program then takes a leap in a different musical direction with second violinist Emily Tulloch’s transcription for string quartet and tape of Vola Colomba (Fly, Dove) by Carlo Concina. This romantic song was the winning entry in the 1952 San Remo Festival and was evidently much loved by Italian immigrants to Australia longing for the old country. Tulloch blends into this transcription the voice-over from an Australian Government film about Australia that was shown on ships bearing immigrants (sometimes known then as “new arrivals”). In her program note, Tulloch invites us to compare Australian government immigration policies then and now. Both musically enchanting and deeply thought-provoking, Tulloch’s work recalls a significant piece of Australian history and highlights contemporary attitudes towards immigrants and refugees.

Another conceptual leap takes us to psychologist Jason Thomas’ Mulysa (2016), a response by the composer to his time working with staff in the Regional Processing Centres on Manus Island and Nauru. This is powerfully emotive music, evoking the monotony and despair of camp life. Carefully positioned to follow Thomas’ work is Kleinig’s For those who’ve come across the seas (2014), for smart-phone choir and quartet, first premiered in 2014 as part of Zephyr’s Music for Strings and iThings concert. That concert foregrounded the use of new technologies and engaged the audience directly as participants through the use of their phones as instruments. Kleinig’s For those… invites the audience to participate in the performance by using their smart-phones to play into the hall pre-recorded elements of the music. No longer passive observers, they are actively enjoined in the work’s critique of the refugee crisis as a humanitarian issue. Recontextualised in this concert, Kleinig’s approach also raises the question of why a country that was built on immigration now refuses asylum seekers.

For the final work, the composer Motez, whose father arrived by boat from Iran in 2000, joins Zephyr for Beginnings, an upbeat joint composition that blends his electronics with the quartet’s strings, leaving the audience with a feeling of optimism.

Zephyr’s program note for Arrivals opens with the statement, “Australia is very much a nation of ‘boat people’, past and present,” and the concert is intended to celebrate the contribution migrants have made as well as draw our attention to the difficulties experienced both by Indigenous peoples and those attempting to travel here. Once again Zephyr has taken musical performance in new directions, creating a musical exposition on the politics of colonisation and migration and the crucial issue of asylum. Zephyr has shown how a concert can be developed around a significant and complex political theme, selecting music that relates to that theme and demonstrating how central it is to the conduct of debates on matters of national and international significance.

Arrivals has also been staged at the Western Australian Maritime Museum with the support of Tura New Music.


Zephyr Quartet and Motez, Arrivals, South Australian Maritime Museum, Port Adelaide, 17-20 Nov

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2017 pg.

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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