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The music of archival track work

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: Jon Rose, Ghan Tracks

Eugene Ughetti, Claire Edwardes, Ghan Tracks Eugene Ughetti, Claire Edwardes, Ghan Tracks
photo Heidrum Löhr
The Old Ghan, the train and the 3,000km of track on which it once ran, is almost mythical. It symbolises the Red Centre which Australia’s white colonists thought to harness and control. Its narrow-gauge tracks were first laid in 1878 and completed in 1929, the full track to Darwin only completed in 2004.

The train’s delivery of goods and passengers between Port August and Alice Springs (a seven day trip at best) fell foul of both the Wet and the Dry, the track regularly drowned in sand and/or water. In the late 1940s, there was a standard joke about when the train might arrive: this month, next month or December. Afghan cameleers not only distributed goods east and west of the track, but also stepped in when the train got bogged.

The train and its journey is a metaphor for white Australia’s long history of struggle to cross borders, join isolated towns and pretend Australians are ‘one people’ with a shared goal—to produce, to provide, to survive and to conquer. Jon Rose’s Ghan Tracks includes footage taken by Rose and Mark Patterson of the huffing, muscle-bound contemporary Pichi Richi Railway (the only part of the Afghan Express still operating) and the Old Ghan rusting in retirement, against archival footage of her heyday when she was a ‘slow silver ribbon’ with polished interior finishes and plush dining-cars.

Rose—an artist who has staged his work on, along or across boundaries such as fences dissecting the Strzelecki Desert, the USA-Mexico border and the Separation Fence in the Israeli Occupied Territories—excavates the romance, the struggles and the ironies of this mythology in a sound/performance/installation work involving seven musicians, a lighting artist, a sound technician and himself—a white-haired, hyper-charged piston engine driving the work through transitions by waving pieces of numbered, coloured paper at his orchestra.

Along with clarinet, tympanum, sousaphone, piccolo and corrugated iron, the ensemble also includes a rain machine harnessed by pedal-power and a canvas draped like pastry over a turning pin, which is wound like an oversized meat-mincer to create the sound of wind. Several times, Jennifer Torrence shovels gravel into a cement mixer, walks behind, turns the mixer, and then tips it out into the pit again. The steady dryness of this action, the brittle grind of the sound and the measure of Torrence’s footsteps is enthralling. This above all else serves as a synecdoche of the desert, of the hopes that people kept pinning on ‘good prospects’ and full crops (which all failed) north of the Goyder line, representing the gap between expansionist dreams and the moisture desperately longed for but which never returned. This dry truth is also echoed in the gap in tuning between the equal- and just-tempered vibraphones, to my eye matched also by the footage of coiffed women with slender fingers pointing to a dream outside the train window that we never get to see. Not quite visible or audible.

What I appreciate most is the delicacy in the use of film, a rhythmic/visual intervention appearing and disappearing in and out of score as do the instruments themselves. There are archival stills of Aboriginal children posed in stiff dresses beside sombre, starched white women, or taken on camel-rides by the Afghans. Another camel carries a pianola strapped to its back; where we might expect romantic keyboard tones, Rose overdubs the camel’s screaming song. A low POV shot, taken from the track itself as the Ghan passes over, is an apt symbol of obsession overrunning reason. Footage of the last run of the Old Ghan, pulling up its own tracks as it passes, like a spider eating its own young, is a sad homage to the folly of its past. As if we too could hoist up our limbs and say goodbye to dreams laid in sand.

Readings from old newspapers performed by Patrick Dickson and Lucy Bell capture the dashed hopes of the early settlers. The only strange element here is the full downlight on them, suggesting human superiority in the telling of this tale while the stage is otherwise discretely lit, spotting the curve of the sousaphone, the bell of the tympanum, the gleaming edge of the vibes.

Rose has been careful to document what the train meant to desert elders. A shot of the engine appearing like a caterpillar around the corner of a fat gravelly mountain is accompanied by a voiceover of Peter Paltharre Wallis telling the story of the black ‘devil dog’ eating up the ground. There follows a beautiful tract of Arrernte language, unmitigated and untranslated, holding its own.

Copious program notes unwind of Rose’s critical politics. Yet Ghan Tracks is a curiously conservative listening experience, its structure built on regular metre (appropriate, perhaps to the rhythmic forces of a train, but certainly not to the Old Ghan’s breakdowns!), albeit full of surprises and textures of which I value the reminder to take heed. The Ghan is less a radical take on the world around us than a reminder of the constancies of the battle between us and the environment, but yes, a cautionary tale (as Rose would have it) on how we may lay tracks into our future.

Ghan Tracks was commissioned by Ensemble Offspring in conjunction with Performance Space and with the support of ABC RN’s Creative Audio Unit.

Performance Space: Jon Rose, Ensemble Offspring, Ghan Tracks, composer, multi-media, texts, conductor Jon Rose, musicians Claire Edwardes, Clayton Thomas, Eugene Ughetti, Jennifer Torrence, Lamorna Nightingale, Jason Noble, Damien Ricketson, Carolyn Johns, actors Lucy Bell, Patrick Dickson, sound Lachlan Vercoe, lighting, AV Aaron Clarke; Carriageworks, Sydney, 7-9 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 43

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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