NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

New Indigenous music for an old piano

By Dr Scott Davie — In 2020, the ANU School of Music devised an innovative research project aimed at engaging Indigenous composers with an old keyboard instrument, the Henrion piano.

Typically, period instruments are used in music departments and conservatoria for performing compositions from past centuries, yet we saw an opportunity to highlight the instrument’s suitability as a vehicle for new music.

The oldest instrument in the School of Music collection, known as the Keyboard Institute (School of Music, 2022a), was built around 1770. As a marker-date in our catalogue, its potency stands out immediately in the context of Australian history: the year in which Cook navigated the east coast of the continent.

The project was created in collaboration with the School’s Indigenous Convenor, Associate Professor Christopher Sainsbury, with its central aim to ask indigenous musicians to create new works reflecting the juxtaposition of their culture with the 250-year-old colonial relic.

The instrument also has a unique cultural story to tell. Created by Henri Henrion (School of Music, 2022b), about whom little information survives, it was built in Alsace. The territory is situated on the border of France and Germany, and has a fraught history of “ownership”. The instrument’s nameplate conveys this duality, through its mixture of two languages.

Yet the Henrion’s time in Australia has been relatively brief. It was purchased online some 20 years ago by Dr Andrew Nolan, a collector of musical instruments and artefacts. Donated to the School’s collection in 2009, it bears the marks of both age and woodworm infestation, also showing small signs of restoration at various points in its history.

Remarkably, it still plays, albeit with sounds somewhat removed from those of a modern piano. Its timbre is light, with the element of metallic vibrancy audible only in the lowest of its notes. Like other early pianos, its range over bass to treble is shorter than today’s instruments. And instead of a pedal for sustaining sounds, it features four levers operated by the knee: these produce novelty effects as well, “moderations” that at the time did much to further the piano’s early popularity over the more common harpsichord.

As the project came about in the first stage of the COVID pandemic, typical avenues of funding were limited. Yet the Fresh Start Fund, an initiative of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, had been established to address the shortfall of work opportunities in the creative arts. We were successful in securing sufficient money to commission works from four composers, all of whom had associations with the Ngurra-Burria First Nations program for composers.

In formulating this project, forefront in our minds was that the commission touched on sensitive ground. Prior to 1770, traditional inhabitants belonged to a culture that had survived many thousands of years. Yet the date of the piano’s construction clearly signalled the beginning of colonial history, which was to bring trauma, irreversible change, and significant loss of lives and livelihoods.

Ultimately, each of the composers looked upon the project in unique ways. In “The Binary”, Nardi Simpson took a cue from the way the Indigenous voice is frequently converted into statistics, devising an ingenious method for converting alphabetical letters into binary code. From this, chants heard at indigenous rallies, such as “Always Was, Always Will Be” and “Black Lives Matter”, were converted into musical ciphers. These simple lines of melody and rhythm were recorded and layered as multiple tracks, creating a musical product at once abstract and telling.

On the other hand, Tim Gray was inspired by a different notion of history, involving an alcoholic werewolf named Lupe. Imaginatively staged on the set of a gothic Romanian ballroom, the simple waltz belies a more potent message, with short lines of text sung in the recording by the late soprano, Taryn Fiebig. As the composer wrote at the time, Lupe needs “to look at herself, look within, and forgive herself and others” (Gray, 2020).

The grandparents of Elizabeth Sheppard provided the catalyst for her composition, a gentle and attractive work that enjoyed wide airplay at the time. Elizabeth’s grandfather, Gus, was a senior gardener in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s, where the Silky Pear Tree grows. She formed a real connection between this heritage and the history of the instrument, the piano having been a stay in the lives of her family members.

Perhaps the most striking of the musical works, however, was the track “1770” by Rhyan Clapham, a rapper known pseudonymously as Dobby. Astonishingly, Rhyan condensed 250 years of colonial history into five and a half minutes, accompanying himself on the instrument that had endured the same timespan. Noting that it was created in the year Beethoven was born, Rhyan ends his powerful work with perceptive words: “the time is now”.

For some, it perhaps seems controversial to combine the research area of historical keyboard instruments with contemporary music. Yet history can be seen through many lenses, one of which brings to focus the idea that when it was built the Henrion was an expression of its own modernity. In a similar way, the ANU School of Music seeks to build relationships with Indigenous musicians on a different footing, the flagship of which is the Yil Lull Recording Studio, run by and for First Nations people.

Importantly, the project served as a benefit in many ways. For the composers, their music was heard; and through the interactions with those who listened, new tangents of our shared understanding of history were formed. For the School of Music, a renewed focus on the research of the Keyboard Institute generated energy and purpose. A paper on the project was presented at the 2021 Annual Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia, and an article in The Conversation has been read thousands of times (Sainsbury & Davie, 2021). The music was initially featured on a New Waves podcast (ABC, 2020), and has subsequently been published on music streaming services (Apple Music, 2021).

When the audio engineers came to record the works, a decision was required: whether to mask the various rattles and bumps of the instrument’s inner mechanism, or to include them. Ultimately, the decision to choose the latter serves as a token for the future, suggesting that honesty and authenticity are signposts on the pathway to reconciliation.

References

School of Music (2022a). Keyboard Institute. Retrieved from: https://music.cass.anu.edu.au/services/instruments-equipment/keyboard-institute

School of Music (2022b). Henrion. Retrieved from:  https://music.cass.anu.edu.au/instruments/henrion

Gray, T (2020). Ngarra-Burria Piyanna: Indigenous composers make an old piano sing (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/read-and-watch/classic-australia/ngarra-burria-piyanna-2020/13006352

Sainsbury & Davie (2021). Four Indigenous composers and a piano from colonial times – making passionate, layered, honest music together. The Conversation, 22 January 2021. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/four-indigenous-composers-and-a-piano-from-colonial-times-making-passionate-layered-honest-music-together-152080)

ABC (2020). New Music by First Nations composers. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/new-waves/new-music-by-first-nations-composers/12871388

Apple Music (2021). Ngarra-Burria Piyanna: Indigenous Composers Make and Old Piano Sing – EP. Retrieved from: https://music.apple.com/au/album/ngarra-burria-piyanna-indigenous-composers-make-an/1587805632


Dr Scott Davie is known to audiences as a soloist and chamber musician. He has given concerts throughout Australia, Europe, across the United States of America, Mexico, and China. His performances and recordings have been broadcast on both radio and television. Scott is known for various cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with Graeme Murphy and Sydney Dance Company in Grand, and in a 2018 revival of the work with The Australian Ballet. In 2012, he gave the Australian premiere of the original version of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to capacity audiences at the Sydney Opera House, under conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Recent collaborations include a recording of music by Roger Smalley with the late soprano, Taryn Fiebig, for Toccata Classics, and of contemporary Australian music with clarinettist Jason Noble. In 2020, ABC Classic released a lieder album with Taryn Fiebig, while a series of recordings of new music on a piano built c.1770 has been broadcast widely and released on streaming services by the ABC. In addition to performing, Scott is a published author and public speaker, and is currently the Deputy Head of the ANU School of Music.

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